Editor’s note: Throughout July, we’re hosting 31 Days with St. Ignatius, a month-long celebration of Ignatian spirituality. In addition to the calendar of Ignatian articles found here, posts on dotMagis this month will explore the Ignatian Year theme, “To see all things new in Christ.”
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a fitness program for our souls. But what is the soul, and how do we even know we have one? We can pinch an arm and realize we have a body by the sensation we feel. We can read something, make sense of what we read, and know we have a mind. But the soul? It’s so—seemingly—unspecific.
The soul is the spiritual part of who we are. Just as exercise and eating right help our physical bodies, and thinking right helps our mental and psychological states, spiritual practices like prayer and meditation help build our awareness of the soul.
All of us have thoughts throughout the day—thoughts of deadlines, our children, a parent’s health, or paying a bill might creep into the act at hand. These just came into my head: I never realized I liked the color yellow. Bees I get, but wasps? What purpose do they serve? I have to clean the dryer vent. What am I going to eat for lunch?
There were others too, but you get the picture.
So, this is what I want you to do. Listen to the voice inside your head right now. Take a moment to listen. Can you hear your thoughts?
Now, take a step back from your thoughts by answering this question: Who inside you is listening to the thoughts you are having? You are, right?
Stay with this for a moment. Pay attention to the part of you that is listening to your thoughts. You have a thought, but that thought isn’t you. There is someone or something that can observe that thought inside you.
Try this: Listen to the sound of someone’s voice or to a song you like. Or look at something in front of you, maybe a coffee cup. Just observe the music. Observe the coffee cup. Thoughts will creep into your head. That’s OK. Observe those thoughts, the music, the coffee cup.
Now, take another step back and observe the one inside you—the one following your thoughts, the music, or the coffee cup. Your soul is the observer. The true you, the you that transcends your body and mind, is your soul.
You are not your thoughts. You are not the voice inside your head.
You are the observer observing your thoughts. Not the fears you feel. Not the problems you have. All those change. The true you does not change. Your body gets older; you might acquire more knowledge; you might make more money or lose a job, but your soul never changes. You are always connected to something greater in all aspects of your life, mind, and body, but your soul has a very special connection to the Eternal. Problems will come and go, and when they do, remind yourself that the real you is the observer who often forgets to be an observer.
How can we cultivate this awareness of the soul? How can we see things anew? Through meditation. Try some of these ideas to help you connect more with the observer that is your soul.
Regularly pay attention to the observer.
Every day when you wake up, meditate for a few moments, paying attention to how you feel and what you might be experiencing. If you see light streaming into your room, observe who is observing the light. If you’re feeling stressed about the day ahead, focus on the observer watching the anxious thoughts that might flood your mind or feeling the tension in your neck or back. Acknowledge that problems don’t affect the observer. Think of the beauty of the moon obscured by clouds. The moon still exists above the clouds regardless of what tries to block that glory. You, your soul, live above your problems.
Use your body.
Many of us have trouble sitting in one place for a long time. For those of us who get antsy, we can meditate while walking to work, exercising, running, or even doing our laundry. While moving our bodies, we can become conscious of our actions. Simply saying, “I am crossing the street,” or, “I am breathing,” or, “I am folding socks,” is enough to help us focus on the present and get us out of our heads.
Experiment with breathing patterns.
If you use a standard four-count meditation method (breathing in and counting 1-2-3-4 and breathing out and counting 1-2-3-4), shake it up a bit. Instead of making your first breath an inhale, make it an exhale and then alternate breaths in and out on the four-count. Why do this? Our brains get used to patterns quickly, which is why most of us don’t remember driving to work if we’ve been using the same route for years. Mixing up patterns occasionally, such as brushing our teeth with our less dominant hand, creates neural pathways that keep our brains healthy and alert. And it helps to make meditation more engaging as well.