I have always chafed against discipline and routine. I’m a creative; forcing order works against my nature – right? To be true to my God-given creative gifts, I have to be free and unrestricted – right? Embracing my creative spirit requires flexibility and spontaneity – right?
So I thought, for most of my life.
I’ve changed my mind. In fact, if I could go back and tell my younger self a few things, somewhere at the top of the list would be Respect discipline. Build habits. It won’t hurt you.
I see a spiritual director every four to six weeks; it’s an interesting process that always brings up something new. A few months ago I shared that I had some issues with getting to sleep several times a week. The lights go out and my brain begins to cycle and churn, spin and sputter. Allison asked about my evening routine, and I acknowledged that I try to avoid screen time in the hour before bed, stay away from caffeine, yada yada yada. But she was more interested in what I did do, rather than what I did not.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Evening prayers; a spiritual practice. Anything like that?”
Well, I can say that I do, indeed, have a practice. A routine. When I’m ready for bed, this is what I’ve done for most of my life: I get in bed and I read until I’m sleepy. I always have two or three books on the nightstand, along with the latest issue of TIME magazine. When I turn out the light, I open the Fresh Air podcast and let the voice of Terry Gross make me drowsy.
I might say a quick Thank you God for the day, but the evening has never been a time I’ve considered as ripe for spiritual development. It’s all news and novels and hoping I’ll be able to snooze.
As I shared this with my spiritual director – a safe space in which I have discovered I can be completely honest, vulnerable and transparent – I listened to myself, and I asked, I wonder what is this about? And as the words tumbled out, a realization came upon me, a bright moment of illumination:
I avoid reflecting on the day. I seek out words and stories and noise – whatever I can find – to push away the thoughts of the day.
I don’t want to evaluate the day.
Because I have been consistently, constantly afraid that I will fail that evaluation.
Suddenly, it became clear: The to-do list that never ends; relationships that need attention; incomplete tasks at home and at work. For someone with perfectionist tendencies and control issues, the thought of taking a hard, honest look at the day is too disruptive to handle before bed. Who wants to lie down surrounded by all the reasons you’re not good enough?
This light bulb moment was huge for me. Just opening up headspace to consider that in spite of all the reading and all the listening, no amount of words could quell the primal fear in my brain that whispered
You’re not good enough you’re not doing this right see – we told you? You failed, again and again and again and again and again you’ll never get this right
I will tell you that I’ve dealt with this Not Enough scandal already – and I have, and I’ve mostly beaten it down – but old habits die hard, don’t they? The realization that I was still crippled by this undercurrent of failure disturbed me. Yet all it took was cracking the door open to some truth. Freedom and knowledge arrived in short order, through two distinct methods.
First came a short teaching and understanding of The Daily Examen; this was in my first course in spiritual direction, and it appeared at exactly the right time. I was open to finding a new way to adopt spiritual practices, pursue sleep, and – most importantly – aware that I needed to continue to work on issues of insecurity and inadequacy (like it or not). Seeing an evening routine as an important part of a spiritual practice helped me understand that this was something essential.
During the class discussion a gentleman from Georgia made a comment, as he processed his own challenges with a routine reflection on the day. “Ah’ve hearda this b’fore, but all day lahng Ah got it beat inna muh head that Ah’m uh filthy sinner. Whayh would Ah wanna think ’bout all that again when Ah’m jest trynna get tuh sleep?”
I loved what this guy drawled – it resonated for many of us. But the Examen changes the focus to its rightful place; you start with God, rather than your failures. Where was he present during the day? How did you seen him work? Where might you have missed him?
This structure made all the difference; my evenings have become peaceful, focused – and welcoming of sleep.
I wish I had learned this thirty years ago.
The other bit of knowledge that has radically altered my life came from the wisdom of my eldest daughter. “Do your GLADS, Mom!” she says. So I do.
What are you Grateful for today? What did you Learn? What did you Accomplish? What happened today that Delighted you? How did you practice Self Care today?
I weave these questions throughout the practice of the Examen in a way that is natural, honest and true. And in every case, I find a smile on my face at some point, as I reflect on the day within a context that allows for the presence of more than my own striving.
I wish I had learned this thirty years ago.
The truth is, I probably did learn it. But I was too stubborn or proud to put it into practice. Now, I do.
Now, I sleep. And I’ve grown. And I’m grateful.