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Becoming a participant in your own life

It’s amazing how we can convince ourselves that we simply don’t have the time to do even the little things that might make our lives demonstrably better. We race through our days feeling too overwhelmed and overscheduled to pray, to pay attention, to pause. If we take a closer look, we’re likely to find we invest a tremendous amount of time — often unconsciously — in the very things that lead to us feeling disconnected and depressed.

This reality became uncomfortably clear to me recently when my eye doctor recommended that I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose for five minutes after using my prescription eye drops each morning. I groaned internally at the prospect of spending five whole minutes on this process. A technician in the same doctor’s office then asked if I was putting hot compresses on my eyes and advised that I spend five minutes doing this while in the shower each day. Cue groan. It’s somewhat comical and more than a little pathetic that I could possibly feel burdened by having to spend 10 minutes a day on practices that will only improve my life and my health. In an age of multi-tasking and mindless media scrolling, we’ve created personal narratives that say we are far busier than we truly are and, in telling ourselves that lie, we rob ourselves of the chance to make the time for practices that can improve our physical health and promise to sooth our souls and calm our minds as well.

I’m enrolled in two training programs, one to become a spiritual director and another to become a meditation teacher. Because you cannot do either of those things without keeping up your own spiritual practice, we are required to spend a minimum of 20 minutes in silent meditation every day, preferably twice a day. There are evenings when I’m scrolling through Facebook, slouched in an easy chair, complaining that I don’t know how I’ll fit in my meditation. I manage to miss the irony, on an almost-daily basis. As the old Nike ad said: Just do it! That slogan became a tag line for everything from sneakers to diets to prayer because it spoke to an age-old problem: acedia, as it was known during the Middle Ages, or what we would call listlessness, boredom, distraction to the point of not being able to get yourself to do what you want or need to do.

One of the reasons I sign up for training upon training — aside from my desire to teach — is because I know I need something to hold me accountable, something that will prompt me to set an alarm, wake up an hour earlier, sit in meditation before the sun comes up or close my eyes on a busy train and just be. When we get out of our own way, the 20 minutes that seemed impossible to manage one day becomes impossible to live without just a few weeks later.

We can look to the monastics for guidance when it comes to the threat of acedia. In her book Acedia & Me, Kathleen Norris writes: “Monastic wisdom insists that when we are most tempted to feel bored, apathetic, and despondent over the meaningless of life when we are on the verge of discovering our true self in relation to God.” That might seem unlikely when we’re unable to get up the gusto to go for a walk or settle down to prayer, but the monks know of what they speak, with daily lives set to the rhythm of prayer and guided by a rule.

Too often our lives are ruled by bad habits and the path of least resistance. It’s time to stop letting life live us and become active participants. To do that we have to make the time — even if it’s only for five minutes at first — to pause, pray, and be present in our own lives. Just do it.

This column first appeared in the Nov. 4, 2021, issue of Catholic New York.

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