by Michael Plank
In our gym, we use the Level Method Map of Athletic Progression – it’s a tremendous tool to help our members chart a path to lifelong general fitness. It shows us our strengths, it shows us where we could use some more work, and it gives us a path to follow so that we can get where we want to go. We spent all of 2020 also developing a Map of Spiritual Progression. The aim is the same: a tool to show us our strengths, where we can use some more work, and that lays out a path to follow so that we can get where we want to go. Our vision is to improve the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health of our area, and this is one way we’re working on tackling that last piece of the puzzle. (More on this to come this year)
One of the first categories we look at developing is stillness. Cultivating stillness is a skill, and it’s way underrated.
Cultures, religions, and traditions around the world, for all of history, have had different strategies for cultivating stillness: Sabbath, meditation, walkabouts, silent retreats, and many others are all different roads leading to the same place. What stillness is has every bit as much to do with intention as with logistics. (So, for example, sitting still and quiet, by yourself, scrolling on your phone, probably is not cultivating stillness).
We live in a world in which attention is arguably the most valuable resource, which means things are clamoring for our attention 100% of the time. Cultivating stillness means making space away from all that noise. And what happens in that space can be literally life-changing.
I started my own journey of cultivating stillness when I was asked the last time when I took a full 60 seconds with no phone, no distractions, no self-development exercises, no trying to sleep, but just sitting and letting my mind wander in stillness. 60 seconds. I had no answer.
And so I started cultivating stillness in my life. My strategy came from a mindset coach and business mentor named Colm O’Reilly.
I started with 2 minutes. I went into a room by myself, closed the door, set a 2 minute timer, put my phone out of sight, and just looked out the window.
At first, that 2 minutes was almost completely consumed with remembering all the things I had forgotten to do that day. But that’s good. I would have forgotten them otherwise. After awhile (weeks), sometimes in the space of that 2 minutes, I’d get some minor insight (if I switch my Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, I can get an extra family dinner in each week). After a little longer, I started to notice it would help me detach when I let problems spin me up so that I got bogged down in the weeds. And after longer still, I began to notice more of a sense of lightness in my life.
And just to be clear, all I’m talking about here is stillness. For me, it’s not prayer, it’s not reading, it’s not even meditation (though it might be one of those things for you). It’s just sitting and looking out the window. It’s a practice, and like any practice, I wasn’t good at it when I started (I’m still very much a novice). And like any practice, I have good days and bad days as I slowly improve my skills.
The benefits of creating space for stillness are well-documented and abundant. But it can be difficult to start, and so here’s one way you might begin…
Step 1: Make time to stop and take 5 deep breaths (no screens or music)
Step 2: On another day, take time to stop and take 10 deep breaths (no screens or music)
Step 3: While sitting or walking, take 10 deep breaths once each week for a month
Step 4: While sitting or walking, take 20 deep breaths once each week for a month
Step 5: Sit still with no distractions for 3 minutes once each week for a month
Step 6: Build in duration and frequency from there.
A lot of the good things we want in life – things like meaning, gratitude, peace, clarity, calm – get drowned out easily by all the noise around us when they’re first taking root. Stillness is a powerful way for us to water that garden and let them grow to become a part of our lives the way we want them to be.
by Michael Plank
Most of you know we run a class at our gym called WAYS (With All Your Strength). That class is awesome. It mixes the Workout of the Day with some worship elements in a body, mind, spirit experience. Our vision at UPCF is to measurably improve the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health of our tri-county area. In other words, we want to make people’s lives better in every arena. This year in our WAYS class we’ve started assessing and charting spiritual development along with physical development (You’ll be hearing a lot more about that this year).
One of the first categories we look at is engagement with Scripture. We talk mostly about the Bible, because that’s our primary context, but reading and/or listening to a Holy Text is central to lots of traditions. It grounds you, it connects you with tradition, it teaches you how to live, and it builds a shared experience between you and others. BUT, it can be super overwhelming. Those texts were usually written centuries ago. They usually aren’t written in ways that are as easy to read as we’re used to. And they usually were written from a different context to people living in a different world than we are today. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a rich experience!
So if reading or listening to Scripture is something you want to tackle, here are a few tips I’ve found to be super helpful (note: much of this is specific to the Bible, but I hope some can be helpful with other texts).
Way back, a long time ago, only clergy were allowed to read the Bible. Then came the printing press and the Reformation and the Second Vatican Council, and all kinds of things to make Scripture more accessible to people who didn’t spend years in seminary. But a lot of us are still pretty intimidated by the idea of cracking it open in Genesis and reading right through to the end. But you don’t have to be. Just…
1. Find a version that you like.
The “thees” and “thous” really only show up in a few versions. If they’re too clunky for you, find a more modern, easy-to-read version. There are dozens and dozens. The Common English Bible is especially user friendly.
2. Don’t worry if you don’t understand it all.
Have you heard of the Midrash? Or the Talmud? Tens of thousands of pages, put together over centuries, of very smart people trying to figure out just exactly what the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) means. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been aware of it, how many times you’ve read it, or if you’ve never opened a Bible before, I guarantee you will find things in it you don’t understand. But it’s ok, because…
3. It’s never been easier to get the backstory
Confused by what you come across? Google “What does Genesis 6 mean?” You’ll find all kinds of commentary on cultural context, historical context, literary context, traditional interpretations, modern interpretations, and even sermons talking through all that stuff and why it might matter for everyday life.
4. It’s not as big a commitment as you think
There are any number of plans on how to read the Bible through over the course of a year, including ones that e-mail the passage to you for the day, or autoload it when you open your browser. Almost none of them have you read for more than 10–15 minutes a day. That’s less time than you spend on facebook.
5. You don’t know what is (and isn’t) in the Bible until you read it
The Bible is old. So is art, so is church, so is people talking about church. It maybe shouldn’t be hard to believe that popular knowledge of the Bible is like the most convoluted game of Telephone ever. Did you know there are demigods in the Bible? Or that phrases like “the apple of my eye” come from the Bible? Or that virtually everything Jesus said was either a quote or allusion to the Old Testament Scriptures (like Great Commandment #1 and Great Commandment #2)? Or that if you failed to share all your resources with the community in the early church you risked death?
And just as importantly, there’s a bunch of stuff we think is in the Bible that isn’t. “God helps those who help themselves” (actually said by Algernon Sidney). “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” (said all over, but not in the Bible). Same goes for the Seven Deadly Sins, the idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and a whole host of other things. But you never know until you read it.
6. The Bible has great and terrible things in it…
…And is frankly, both completely bonkers and breathtakingly beautiful. There are verses that will make you angry, verses that will make you cry, verses that will fill you with hope, and verses that will inspire you to be a better person. There’s a reason the Bible is the most popular book in human history.
Don’t be afraid to read it. If 15th-century peasants could do it, so can you.