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Finding a sacred focus

For those with an established religious tradition and belief system, the notion of struggling to find a sacred focus may seem ridiculous. Your beliefs lead you directly to the object of your worship, adoration, and respect. This page is not for you, but of course you may continue on.

Many of us have beliefs that leave us short of full inspiration. You may say yes, I believe in God, but I've never had a really moving or faith-affirming religious experience. My belief is just there, in the same way I accept that Pago Pago is an island in the South Pacific I could visit, even though I've never been there.

You may be a confirmed skeptic or avid nonbeliever. Or you may simply be turned off by traditional religious practice and dogma. You may have found confronting the unknown means you have to face your unconscious assumptions, your denial, your own mortality. Who wants to do that? To what end?

The point is precisely this: to stop running. To face the fact that giving into denial means living in fear. Your life is about not looking, not seeing, not feeling, not living. You will not confront your distorted view of who you really are. Many of us create an existence that is a caricature of busywork and frantic avoidance. This is so unnecessary.

You were born with the ability to experience the sun, the moon, and the ocean within you. Words fail; there is no way to describe the peace that lies at the core of your soul. For now let's call it opening to the sacred.

The potential to undergo the personal transformation that is inherent in the sacred is hard-wired into our nervous systems. No belief is necessary. Yes, for many, a religious system is the key to open the door to begin the journey. Since this process is so hard to do by yourself, a religious system also provides the framework to discuss with your colleagues what you are experiencing, and a way to ask questions. But some religious systems also provide a means to make someone else wrong, to show that they didn't live up to this or that expectation. And, as I discuss elsewhere, religion can be a means of social control.

One could say that in part, a religious or spiritual system is useful to the extent that it helps you to pursue your innermost yearnings, your heart's desire. Think back to the most inspiring experiences you've ever had -- when you were so moved you felt tears of joy well within. Most of us believe that such experiences depend upon someone or something else outside us. I disagree. If you pursue and embrace the experience of being profoundly moved, you will find that it resides within. It is part of your nervous system. It belongs to you. Learning to honor this feeling, this sense about being alive, is one of the most healing undertakings possible.

Almost all of us have stood in awe at the splendor of a gorgeous sunset. For a moment we've been struck silent--speechless--at the majesty of a waterfall cascading slowly down a cliff, glistening in the sunlight, surrounded by the glory of nature. I've stood on the beach transported to another realm, watching the rainbow sky as the setting sun sparkles on prismatic waves.

Many of my patients feel the most honestly themselves during vigorous exercise, during a long game of basketball or tennis or a one-hour run, or while hiking in the wilderness.

My most reliable personal transport has been music. Mozart, Brahms, Bach, and so many more deliver me into a different state of mind, a sense of profound peace and understanding. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Handel's Messiah have similar effects upon many.

If you think about it, life is potentially full of those seemingly rare moments: Love-making over a lazy weekend with someone you care about very much. When over a holiday you can give the Christmas spirit (or its equivalent) to someone else. The moment that your family get-together really feels like family, and you can acknowledge the love and caring you have for each other.

Some people reading these descriptions of peak experiences may become sad and feel overwhelmingly lonely. Why does it seem so hard to come into contact with this sense of love and peace? Why do I ache so wretchedly and feel so unfulfilled?

My reply is you may be looking for fulfillment in the wrong places. No one, no thing can give it to you. But it is the core of who you are. I invite you to honor yourself and the dreams and feelings within.

Imagine for a moment that you have realized no one can give you love or peace or fulfillment. It is simply not possible, and besides you don't need it. You have found the fullness within. You are connected with the source of it.

Being in contact with your source, the endless fountain of peace within you, provides no special privileges with others. No one owes you obeisance. Their lives may not be affected at all. But your knowledge of who you are compels you to behave in a new manner, in consonance with this new sense of self. There is no greater goal.

How can you begin this process? Right now or the next chance you have, I invite you to find a tablet of paper and to write down the things that have moved you to tears of joy. (Skip over other kinds of tears, like sadness, loss, bitterness, rage, or envy.) If you've not cried in joy, record the times you've felt unbelievably peaceful or imagine you might.

Can you find a symbol of this sense of peace? Perhaps you can think of a physical location that when you think of it brings you back into a sense of balance. What object or landmark symbolizes that inner feeling to you?

If you can, find a corner of your living area somewhere that won't be disturbed. Create a sacred space. In other words, pull together and display some objects that have special significance for you, that make you feel quiet and yet moved. They may be objects from nature, religious icons, or anything else that inspires you and reminds you of your purpose. Do not use pictures of your family; this area must be simply for you and no one else. Here are some examples:

Spend time in this place every day. Ideally you'll sit here the same time each day for 15-30 minutes. Use the time to listen to music, to pray or meditate, to write in your journal, or to reflect. Use it to quiet and connect with yourself, to discover what's there. What inspires you? What judgments and barriers arise that interfere with connecting with yourself?

Resist the compulsion to produce something of value. Having nothing, perhaps just a deep silence, is usually more productive. Don't analyze what you find, but sit within it and let it unfold. If you spend all your time thinking, planning, and judging everything, see if you can find moments when all the head talk stills. The most helpful attitude towards yourself is compassion and particularly curiosity about what you find within. One common insight is discovering that most of your negative judgments about yourself are bogus.

The more regularly and routinely you practice stillness and discovery within yourself, the better you will become at it. You'll find it easier to give your inner critic permission to fuss and stew by himself over in the corner of your mind, where he doesn't bother anybody.

Once a week or once a month, go on a mini-retreat with yourself. Walk on a nature trail or in a botanical garden. Drive to scenery you find particularly moving and have a picnic. Go to a church/temple service or prayer meeting where you feel unexpectedly relaxed and accepted. Try out a new spiritual location and see if you like it, remembering that these things don't work out more often than they do.

As your time with yourself deepens with practice, see if you can find ways to bring this evolving peace with yourself into other aspects of your life. Perhaps you can bring a small reminder of your sacred space into your car or to a corner of your desk at work. See if you can expand your spiritual focus in other ways.


Last updated Sun, Nov 1, 2009

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©2011, James Gagné, MD