When the deep breath is engaged as a symbol of our intention to reground in the stillness and presence of God, it becomes a practice of prayer.
“We are called to promote a culture of dialogue … to rebuild the fabric of society.”
Few would disagree with Pope Francis’ point that dialogue is sorely needed to address the polarization that we communally face. However, if we think about the last time we were in conversation with someone who holds radically different views than us on issues, such as the merits of vaccination, the economy, or immigration, we know that dialoguing across polarities is notoriously difficult. Dialogue ability, like any other skill, is greatly enhanced by preparation, study, and practice. In this three-part series, we discuss some of the major dialogue tools that are taught among Franciscan, Jesuit, and Mercy institutions that equip us with more skillful ways of responding.
Why do we have these intense reactions to others who see the world differently than we do? When faced with a threatening situation or conversation, a host of rapid biochemical changes in our brains and bodies cause us to feel defensive. The effects on our state of mind include decreased ability for reasoning, problem solving, and logical thinking, and inhibited capacity for listening, understanding, and empathy. When our ability to think and connect with others is literally impaired, that can be a really bad time to open our mouths!
After we notice that our defensive response has been activated, how can we respond in a productive way? Those who are inspired by the Franciscan contemplative tradition often find quiet guidance in these eight short words from Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Obviously, when our full attention is required in the midst of dialogue, returning to that full phrase may not be the most ideal. Rather, we can return to relative stillness and our intention to be mindful of the presence of God that holds us in the midst of a charged encounter by taking a deep inhalation that fills our diaphragm, and then exhaling fully.
When the deep breath is engaged as a symbol of our intention to reground in the stillness and presence of God, it becomes a practice of prayer. If we can become aware of our reactive impulse and remember to take that prayerful breath, we create a little space around our reactive nature, notice other factors that may not have been available in the heat of our initial quick judgment, and can choose to respond more skillfully.
Consider this simple but common domestic example. Judy has taken a new job that demands more of her time, and needs more help with some of the tasks around the house. She has asked her husband, Bill, to take out the trash on Mondays before she arrives home. The following Monday, after a 12-hour workday, Judy is exhausted and arrives home. She sees the trash can in the kitchen is still full. Bill then enters the home, and is face-to-face with Judy. If you imagine yourself in the story from Judy’s point of view, what are you inclined to say? Some of us may want to shout, “I am under so much stress at work! I ask for this one little thing. I can’t believe how much you take me for granted!”
Gratefully, Judy has just attended a Healing Divisions™ dialogue retreat, so she feels the anger as it flashes and notices her racing thoughts. With her training, she is quicker to notice her defensive responses. She recognizes that this moment of strong emotion is an important cue for her to take a couple of deep prayerful breaths with the intention to “be still and know that I am God.”
She now has greater freedom to choose her response, and engages from a place of curiosity and contemplative noticing, “Bill, I notice that the trash in the kitchen is still full. Can you help me understand why it isn’t out yet?” Bill responds, “Bobby had a fall at school. I took him to urgent care and had to wait for three hours, but I know that the trash is important, so I was planning on jumping to that next.”
Over the course of our next three Fridays, we will continue to explore tools for engaging across polarities. If you or your community group feel like this is a capacity you’d like to grow in your life as a spiritual practice for Advent, you are welcome to learn more at Healing Divisions.