A program of self-awareness and self formation
Mathew Vattamattam cmf.
“Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well” Mt. 6.33
One of the most beautiful aspect of formation is the joy and pain of the discovery of the self and the attainment of interior freedom. This is a progressive process of self possession and self donation which is central to our consecration to Jesus and commitment to his mission. We cannot give to another what we do not possess. Our religious consecration becomes more meaningful in the measure that we progressively have possession of the mystery of our own self and surrender it in willing obedience to the Spirit of God working in us.
The living of evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience is intrinsically connected to the interior freedom of the person professing it. No one is unconsciously programmed to live consecrated life. But we are endowed with the capacity and possibility of self-transcendence which makes the free and conscious choice of the evangelical counsels meaningful and worth living. It is both a gift of grace and a conscious and intentional achievement of the receiver.
You must have begun a heightened search to know yourself and your identity, during your adolescent phase of life. Your attraction to religious life is probably part of your search to know yourself and to find your mission in life. Your formation process is designed to support you in this interior journey to know yourself, to listen to God’s call and to respond generously and thereby to become more and more authentic in your life.
This paper is a modest effort to present a series of articles to aid you in this interior journey through simple practical tools taken from eastern wisdom and western psychological research. You will benefit in the measure that you have a desire to know yourself and are willing to invest yourself in following the many exercises suggested here. This is not a substitute for the spiritual and psychological guides of your life. In addition, the process is more effective when you have a serious and committed prayer life. Hence I suggest that you take all that is happening in you during this process to the Lord in prayer
An exercise of introspection
Choose a relaxed posture (sitting or lying down) and enjoy your normal breathing. Bring your body to a very relaxed state. Look at your whole life as it is at this stage of your life and ask yourself, “At this moment in my life, what is it that I am most grateful for? What is it that I am most unhappy or worried about? Would I choose to be the same person and choose the same vocation, if I were to be born again? Do I find myself moving in the direction of realizing my life as a person, as a Christian and as a religious?”
Write down your responses in your journal. Stay with what you genuinely feel within you and make a prayer of acceptance and thanks.
If you have done the exercise seriously, you have noticed that it is not easy to answer questions about the meaning of your life and its realization. But it is worth asking this question to yourself. Many religious who entered the consecrated life with lofty ideals and aspirations ended up
becoming bitter, unhappy and uninspiring. After years of investing time and energy into the consecrated life, some judged that it was not worth the trouble taken and left their religious communities. A few returned after some wandering through the puzzle of life.
Some of those who set out along the journey of the consecrated life evolved beautifully and enhanced life in the society. Thousands of them lived lives worth being told and retold and the Church has officially declared many of them saints.
What is the secret of their beauty and liveliness? How did they unlock the complex mystery of their human life and mission which they accomplished so beautifully? Invariably all of them had a rich interior life and a deep capacity to be present to themselves and to the mystery of God. Even in their weaknesses they were powerful. They too were burning with many desires and passions that were purified and raised to a higher level of living.
Do you believe that you are a unique mystery of goodness and love to be unveiled in your life time? Are you in touch with what it means to be you and your yearning to become what you are called to be in life?
It would be a tragedy to go through life without ever having a glimpse of what life was for after all!
Moments of Awakening
People who stand out differently in their life often record moments of intense awakening that opened their eyes to see new and deeper realities of life and their meaning. Often expressions such as conversion, discovery, illumination, awakening, regeneration, revelation, transformation, realization etc. are used to explain such experience. These transitional experiences may happen suddenly or gradually with lasting or temporary effects in one’s life.
St. Claret recalls his awakening as a young student of textile designing, “The warmth of piety and devotion reawakened in me. I opened my eyes and recognized the dangers to soul and body that I had been passing through” (Aut. 70). We notice in Claret’s life a deep sensibility to the movements of his inner soul ever since this awakening happened. Claret’s inspiring life was a progressive openness to spiritual insights and their integration into his life through concrete and practical means.
Growth in human and spiritual maturity entails a progressive change in the levels of consciousness. What is highly valued at one level of consciousness may be seen as worth nothing at another level of consciousness. For example, wealth and comfort may be sought after with passion at one level and one may give up all very easily at another level. Integration of moments of awakening and insight into one’s daily life is the core of self-formation. It requires a heightened capacity of awareness.
The key to the world of our internal treasure is awareness. Awareness takes us to self knowledge and God experience. God experience is your presence to the ultimate ground of your being. Self-awareness is your presence to the realities within yourself. The quality of awareness depends of the capacity of this unrestricted presence to yourself, to others and to God without judging, reasoning or distorting. Self-awareness allows you to understand why you feel what you feel and why you behave as you behave. It is this understanding that can help you to change what you want to change and accept graciously what you cannot change. The more you know yourself, the better you own your vocation and the better you live it. When you know who you are and what you want out of life, you are in a better position to guide your resources to reach your goal.
Working Very Hard
A young man approached an old monk in meditation and asked earnestly, “I am devoted to become enlightened like you. How long will it take me to master it.” The monk’s reply was casual, “Ten years”. Impatiently, the student answered, “But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?” The teacher thought for a moment and said, “20 years.”
The principal protagonist in this adventurous journey is you yourself because you are constantly present all through your life journey. You are the one who is closer to yourself and constantly with yourself. You live in your skin the whole day, all through the seasons for all the years of your life. You know yourself more than any other human being. The Other stable presence all through your life is God in whom you live, move and have your being. Awareness of the presence of God in your life awakens your spiritual life.
You have within you all the tools required for your journey towards greater self-awareness and self-transcendence. You can not take care of your vocation and create yourself anew without taking personal responsibility for who and where you are right now. Awareness of what is going in you and awareness of your goal of life are the two points between which your life drama unfolds itself. The journey begins with self-awareness which leads to progressive self-acceptance, self-esteem and self-creation. Much of your formation is to assist in this awakening of yourself.
Nothing beautiful is achieved without paying a price. So also your journey into your inner sanctuary will cost you patience, perseverance and the pain of owning up to the responsibility for your weaknesses. It is a process of tearing down and building up. How willing are you to venture along this path of greater awareness?
How willing is your willing?
An old monk was meditating by a river when a young man interrupted him. “Master, I wish to become your disciple,” said the man. “Why?” replied the hermit. The young man thought for a moment. “Because I want to find God.”
The master jumped up, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dragged him into the river, and plunged his head under water. After holding him there for a minute, with him kicking and struggling to free himself, the master finally pulled him up out of the river. The young man coughed up water and gasped to get his breath. When he eventually quieted down, the master spoke. “Tell me, what did you want most of all when you were under water.”
”Air!” answered the man.
”Very well,” said the master. “Go home and come back to me when you want God as much as you just wanted air.”
2. Awareness of our faculties that leads to self-transcendence
When you were born, you were not aware of yourself, nor of the world in which you were born in. You must have had an undifferentiated consciousness, being one with your mother. But gradually you began to open up to the world of people and things in the measure that you began to have a differentiated consciousness, an “I” different from your mum and others. This process of differentiation took place through the personal contact that your mum, dad and others had with you. You began to name things in order to distinguish one from the other. You became familiar with people and things through the retention of memory and the subsequent recognition of them. Your journey as a fertilized egg towards what you are today has been a marvellous growth of knowing and relating with the world of people and things around you.
In this journey you have sometimes misjudged situations, collected hurts from your relationships and acquired self-defeating approaches towards the realities outside you. In short, your capacity to learn and grow through the various encounters in life may be handicapped or limited. . If you know the very process of knowing that enables you to have greater awareness of yourself, others and the world, you are better equipped to apply its rules to avoid misinterpretation of events and gain objective understanding of them. It can lead you to responsible action that springs from awareness and protect yourself from short-sighted impulsive reactions.
If you want to make your resources work in favour of your integral growth and freedom, you have to know these gifts and their operations. Humans have a natural inclination to know what is true and good, to appropriate the good perceived and to commit oneself to meaningful goals. There are four levels in this process: senses, intelligence, critical judgement and decision and action. Each level moves you beyond yourself by means of those questions that naturally arise in you in each of these levels. Think of an accident scene to distinguish the four levels.
- At the level of senses, data is given to your consciousness (Question: What?). You hear the terrible noise of an explosion and a loud cry along a lonely road. You stop to look. You have the question “what?” in your mind. You go there to get a better look.
- At the level of intelligence, we connect the data to meaningful hypothesis (Question: What, when, why and how?). You see the damaged front of the car, people bleeding and crying in agony. Many thoughts cross your mind… maybe it was an act of terrorism, break failure… who are these people? They seem to be foreigners or tourists… Whether they are in need of help… etc.
- At the level of critical judgement, we test the hypothesis against the data to form judgements of truth and value. ( Question: Is it really true? Is it truly good?). As you try to make sense of what happened and what is to be done, you affirm that the situation is critical and you need to do something to help the people in the accident.
- At the level of decision and action, we decide and act by use of the will. (What shall I do?). You deliberate various courses of action… may be to call ambulance, call out to people for help, help the victims to stop bleeding and do first aid. You shout out for help, rush for emergency help and then call for an ambulance. Maybe you decide to speed away to save yourselves if you interpret the loud sound and cry for help as part of a shootout and judge it to be true.
Your limitations at each of these levels can undermine a meaningful understanding, judgement and action with regard to the situation. For example, you may interpret the silence of a companion as his resentment to you on a day you performed a program for the community, but actually he was worried about some sad news he had received from home.
Now we shall look into each of the levels more closely.
2.1 Sense experience that provides you with data for knowledge.
You have both external senses and internal senses that provide data for your consciousness.
- External senses: They open your doors to what is outside of you through the mediation of your senses.
- Your eyes see what is outside in colours or black and white; in two or three dimensions; at a distance or close up; as clear or vague, as a whole or in details.
- Your ears hear loud or soft, far or near, melodious of rough; different kinds of sounds.
- Your skin feels touch as soft or hard, rough or smooth, feathery, watery, weighty or light
- You experience taste: as sweet, bitter, sour…. Various other tastes
- Your olfactory senses smell different odours.
Have you been consciously in touch with these wonderful gifts of life?
Take a walk around your room or in the courtyard and see all that you can see. Just observe and see what you see without any judgement. Colours, dimensions, details.
Close your eyes and hear all the sounds available to your hearing from far and near. Just listen.
Feel the touch of your cloths on your skin, your weight on the chair… walk with the feel of your feet on the ground, movement of your limbs as you walk. Just experience it.
Feel the tongue in mouth and move around. Feel the taste of saliva.
Try to be aware of the smell of different things close to you.. clothing, things, flowers etc.
Be fully present to your senses and spend a few moments in a prayer of acceptance and gratitude.
Take a fruit or a sweet (orange, apple, mango etc.) and use all your senses to experience the event of seeing it, hear the sound of opening it, feel the touch, smell and taste and with a sense of gratitude consume it slowly with awareness.
Remain a few minutes in gratitude.
Both exercises may look simple and even silly. But if you do it with awareness you will see a new world opening up to you. The core of the event is that you know that you are experiencing it. The subject of the experience is you, and you are aware of yourself experiencing the workings of your senses. You not only enjoy the fruit or the sweet, you enjoy your enjoyment.
Cultivate the habit of observing what is around you and within you.
The master does it with awareness
A young business man wanted to learn the art of maintaining calmness. He thought it would enhance his business as well as his health. He met a sage who allowed him to stay with him for a few days. At the end of a week, the young man got so bored and complained to another in the Ashram, “I don’t see anything special about your master. He does the very things I do. He eats, talks, prays”. “Yes you do”, replied the Ashramite, “ but there is a difference. The master does everything with awareness”.
It is also important to be aware of the limitations of the senses. You can be deceived by them. Your senses may have provided only partial data. What you see or hear is conditioned by the functioning of your sense organs. For example, a food that is very delicious to you may be repulsive to another. We can be conditioned by past sense experiences and perceptions in the reception of new data. Here is an example of visual illusion.
Here is an example of visual illusion.
Steadily fix your gaze on the light bulb for 30 seconds. Try not to avert your gaze. Then turn your gaze to the white area on the right of the bulb…..do it.
You should see a glowing light bulb! Why? What do you learn from this exercise?
The background of a thing or an event influences the perception of it. Here is an exercise where you are visually deceived by the background of the circles in the foreground.
Look intently at the centre of the circle and move your head back and forth towards the circle. Do you see the inner circle rotating?
Is the circle curved? You are mistaken. It is a perfect circle. Your eyes can deceive you at times!
- 1)Your Internal senses:
They provide data for awareness from what is stored in the mind through the faculties of
memory, intuition and imagination
You have memory of past events and past feelings. You are the owner of a big memory bank where you have deposited the vast wealth of your past experiences!
Intuitions: You have convictions that you have collected from your experiences. In many life situations you have a gut feelings as to how to proceed.
Imagination: you have the capacity to create the world with the images available in your memory bank. For example, you can visualize your barren backyard as a wonderful vegetable garden and work towards creating it.
Sit or lie down and relax. Close your eyes. Just observe your breathing calmly. It will relax you. Bring to your mind your childhood… Remember the details that you can imagine.. the shape of the house, surroundings, inside rooms.. and the different people at home and the emotions that come to you as you remember..
Then become aware of your present condition… the room that you are in, posture, those who surround you, your physical state….
Now imagine your future in 5 years, 10 years. Imagine yourself as a missionary in your preferred ministry… the way you might appear, behave and the people’s response to you.
Next imagine yourself flying in the sky with two powerful wings…
.. then like a fish swimming in the depth of the sea.
Now imagine yourself in a far mission which you longed to be.. may be in China, in Ghana…
Become aware of the faculties that you used.. your memory, imagination.
Remain a few minutes in gratitude.
You have gone to the past, the present, the future, to the heights, the depths, to far and near… all without moving from your place. You see, changes in the world began in the mind. What is not conceived in the mind cannot be created.
But you can be obsessed with certain fantasies and imaginations that can disrupt your peace. The more you try to push it away, the stronger it may become.
The above exercises show that there are many factors that affect the capacity of observation and consequently reduce the quantity of data available to the consciousness. What is not observed cannot become part of your conscious processing. Poor eye sight, slow hearing, dim light conditions, poor memory etc. can impose limitations in the acquisition of data. In the same way internal influences also affect our perception of data. For example, a depressive state may induce poor attention to positive aspects of life. Paranoid persons observe things in minute details and give neurotic meaning to them. Your memory can betray what you honestly affirm about an event. For example, you vividly remember that you had given your key to a friend before leaving your house, while it was actually dropped in your letter box. In the past you had at times entrusted your key to your friend. Your memory of it got confused with the present event.
You can improve your skills of observation by practice. Hence learn to be alert. “He who has eyes, let him see”.
After ten years of apprenticeship, Tenno, a young man, achieved the rank of Zen teacher. One rainy day, he went to visit the famous master Nan-in. When he walked in, the master greeted him with a question, “Did you leave your wooden clogs and umbrella on the porch?”
2.2. Intelligence: Adding understanding to the data of consciousness
When data is present to your consciousness, your intelligence comes into play to make sense out of it. You find their connections to what is familiar to you in the past (memory). You try to name it and understand it. Your mind has questions: What, When, Where, How and Why. When something is present to the consciousness, we seek to understand it and form hypothesis as to what it is and why it is. This hypothesis could be realistic and helpful or very subjective and self defeating.
For example, a student noticed that the formator did not call him for a meeting in which all others were present. He tries to understand by connecting other relevant data and form the hypothesis that he was probably absent at the time the information was given. A similar case may make another to form a hypothesis that the formator does not like him because he comes from another cultural group.
We do make hundreds of hypotheses and form our own world view to make sense out of all the data that bombards us every day. Hypothesis is not reality. It is your working model for understanding what is happening. Actually, all of us live in a “constructed” reality.