(Growth in the practice of the Awareness Examen)
To reflect on one's own experiences to discover spiritual movements is a developed skill. Spiritual movements are registered in our human, interior reactions made up of feelings, thoughts, emotions, directions, urges. (Consult God's Communication And Our Interior Awareness) To have experience and then to reflect upon it in order to come to some understanding is a very natural human skill. However, in many instances including the skill of discerning one's spiritual movements, specific focuses determine the outcome of this natural reflection process. The examen of consciousness, or the awareness exercise, as some people refer to it, is the instrument to help one recognize and make judgements concerning spiritual movements. It presumes different focuses. Each of the following exercises (seven in all) uses one of these different focuses.
The idea behind these exercises is simple. A person can learn to reflect with focus upon one's own interior experiences by doing each phase for a period of time such as a month or two. Over a longer period of time, such a person will learn the discerning skill. Then she or he will able to use discernment as part of the awareness examen.
Acknowledging the Different Feelings Happening Inside One
In the past period since my last examen I have had many different feelings. Often without even thinking I act out of these feelings. At times I hide them from myself and fail to acknowledge what is really going on. I must take my feeling experiences seriously if I am to become fully human.
a) Place yourself in
the presence of the Caring God.
b) Simply stop and let come to the surface of your consciousness all the feelings of the past period of time since your last examen. Some of these words may help you identify these feelings:
turmoil, acceptance, peace, bitterness, resentful, defensive, angry,
c) Name and own the different feelings that have been going on in your experience. Be as honest with yourself and the Divine Shepherd as you can.
d) Choose one or two of the more dominant feelings and recall the event that has provoked them. Try to identify why you feel as you do.
e) Have a discussion
with Jesus about your feelings. He already knows them. Yet, it is healing
when we actually express them to him. Perhaps you can pray a psalm that
expresses one of these more dominant feelings.
Being in Touch with the Underlying Realities Behind Feelings
Sometimes we experience our feelings one way but when we honestly look at them we discover a reality behind them. This reality may be another feeling, or a value, or an attitude. For example, I may feel 'confused' but when I really consider this feeling of confusion, I may discover a more significant feeling of hostility which surprises me. Then again, when I reflect upon a grateful feeling, I may discover that guilt of not being grateful enough is really operative. A feeling of peace may reveal a sense of accomplishment or negatively, on the other hand, a fear of confronting another. Sometimes feelings, particularly strong reactions, may reveal mistaken attitudes, values, or beliefs. For example, my feeling of confusion may reveal that as a parent, I think I always have to be right.
a) Place yourself in the presence of the Spirit. Pray for enlightenment.
b) Let your real feelings surface and name them as in Phase 1.
c) Choose one or other of the more significant feelings and remain with them for some time. Explore with God what they may further reveal. Keep staying with the feelings as you recall the event that provoked it.
d) Ask the Spirit to help you uncover the real feelings or attitudes below the surface of your experience.
e) Dialogue with God about your discoveries and the Spirit's enlightenment. You might want to look up the psalms or prayers of the Bible that express this underlying reality.
r) In your journal
jot down what you have discovered. Take your leave with an `attitude of
Recognizing the Biological and Psychological Origins of One's Feelings
The roots of our feelings can be understood from various perspectives: biological, psychological, physical, spiritual etc. Most of the time, our feelings do not need any particular perspective for us to read them correctly. Most of the times our feelings are simply human, fitting, interior reactions to a given situation.
However there are moments when it is helpful to understand them from a certain perspective: biological, psychological, physical, spiritual etc.. Growth in the recognition and separation of these contexts is helpful in discernment. Otherwise we might spiritualize falsely what is really going on. "When it waddles like a duck or it quacks like a duck and flies like a duck, call it a duck."
Some people respond to a low air pressure weather system by a feeling of listlessness. ... Others to fatigue by irritability. ... Others to noise by becoming manic. ... Others to menopause by a feeling of uselessness.
To grow in self-knowledge is to know one's own psychological history: the way we grew up, our past scars that influence us now, the ways we have learned to cope with life, our own unresolved adolescence. All through our lives repeatedly we relive these realities in our present feelings and imaginings and in their consequent behaviours. Most people who are not in touch with such inner facts unwittingly live out `dramatic scripts' that have been written into their personalities and experiences from early childhood. For example:
A child of immigrant parents who was frequently called lazy when young may grow up always trying to prove oneself as being worthwhile.
Another person may have learned to play the `good guy' role to cover feelings of inadequacy.
Another person may have learned to clam up in panic whenever confronted
by an unexpected happening or spontaneous response, interpreting these
Reactions Genuinely Human
Many of our interior experiences are simply natural, suitable reactions to given, here and now, situations. They can indicate exactly what is going on in my surroundings and in myself in reaction to the situation. Inasmuch as I am in contact with those `genuine' feelings which are not distorted from a wounded past or some present hidden reaction, I can use them to pick up and understand what is really going on outside me.
For example, a remark at the meeting I have just attended provokes a feeling of uneasiness. I recognize this feeling as a genuine reaction to a dishonest remark. The uneasy feeling is a real indicator of possible dishonesty. Having acknowledged the feeling and recognized the situation it points to, I can begin to judge how to handle the situation. At another time, I find myself feeling tense as I recognize the other's attempt to manipulate me.
Here is the exercise:
a) Place yourself in the presence of God and pray for enlightenment. Relax. Let your real feelings surface and name them.
b) Ask God to help you uncover what is really going on beneath your experiences, using these points:
Is the source biological?
c) Discuss this with Jesus. ... searching with him ways of handling some strong feeling reaction .... imagining yourself in the situation again and asking the Spirit to help understand what was going on .... letting go what needs to be let go ... This process of recognition with God is itself a freeing process and leads to recognition of what is happening when it is happening,
d) Choose a passage from the gospels that somehow corresponds to your experience, For example:
f) Jot down in your
journal what you have discovered.
the Christ Dimension (or Spirit Dimension)
As a Christian I am called to live according to Spirit of Jesus. This presumes that I become as authentic as possible. However, I have many feelings, reactions and experiences which are not in harmony with Jesus' Spirit. If I were to base my responses on these, I might be true to my feelings but hardly Christlike. So I may try to pretend to be Christlike when interacting with others. This, however, is a mask, and leads me into the opposite of what I am seeking: into a sweet superficiality; or into a careful, cautious, controlled and stress-filled breakdown!
However, there are two other possible solutions to my dilemma. The first consists in making a definite choice of one of my many feelings or attitudes from which I can respond to the situation. Any one event in my life may produce many different feelings. In the appearance of an unexpected guest when busy I can experience annoyance, resentment, love, being de-energized, compassion, care, surprise. Some of these seem to be contradictory but they can be present in my heart almost all at the same time. If I take my feelings seriously, and if I am aware of distinguishing the source of these feelings within me (as I have been learning through Phase 3), I quickly can choose which of my feelings will govern my responses to the unexpected guest. They are all authentic feelings. They are all me. But I choose to act out of the ones that are (is) most Christ-like in the here and now situation.
The second possible solution involves the power of Jesus to give me freedom. If on a particular occasion I seem to be dominated by confusion and anger, I wait until I bring my feelings to him. He can transform my interior experience. Anger and confusion can be lifted and become compassion and concern. However I must remember that I may still need to declare my boundaries and simply say, "I'm sorry, I wish I could juggle things around to be with you. But I can't. I'm not able to be with you at this time."
a) Place yourself in the presence of God and pray for enlightenment. Relax. Let your memories of the day's various situations along with their feelings surface.
b) Ask God to help you recognize how and whether you have been responding in harmony with the Spirit of Jesus.
c) Choose one or, at most two, significant moments and if helpful you might use one or other scripture text such as:
e) Spend some time talking over these things with God.
f) Jot down in your
journal what you have discovered.
Recognizing the Different Ways God Shares God's very self in my Life Experiences
All the experiences of my life manifest the presence of our Creating God in some way. God's creation is not just a once, long ago, kind of thing. God is constantly creating and labouring for us in an ongoing way. Attentiveness to this presence is necessary for growth as Christian persons. Such awareness will help one read the signs of the Spirit in our own hearts and in human events around us. The following exercise may help one grow in this:
a) Place yourself in the presence of God and pray for enlightenment. Relax. Let your feeling memories of the past day's significant happenings surface.
b) Choose one or two items and deal with them according to the first four phases: real feelings? ... underlying feelings? ... sources? ... harmony with Jesus' spirit ?
c) Now pay attention to the ways by which God has been present to you today, Some questions may help:
e) Using your journal,
jot down what you have discovered.
Recognizing More Precisely the Spiritual Movements in My Being
The ordinary means God uses to draw us closer and to engage our help for the enterprise of God's reign is connected to both the spontaneous and deeper movements of our hearts.
First of all there are those deeper movements of feeling, affection, longing, desire, intuitions of meaning and purpose that reside in our hearts. These reveal our deeper or truer selves which we often fail to follow because we are preoccupied by those things we are more consciously working through most of our waking hours: such as, meals to prepare, plans to put into action, children to bring to the doctor, someone's birthday to remember, some research we are doing etc.. The deeper movements spiritual writers often refer to as expressions of the `true self'.
A spiritual guide often will encourage a directee to "get out of the head". While this may foster a kind of anti-intellectualism, it is an attempt to encourage directees to open their non-conscious selves to the influence of God. Controlled conscious thinking is very important for many aspects of human living; but it interferes with the movement of spirits in prayer. Confer  and  in the Sp Exs where St Ignatius calls this controlled conscious thinking `private' thoughts.
Second there are those more spontaneous feelings and thoughts that come and go. These flow, as it were, through our being. Often we pay very little attention to this flow of interior reactions made up of images, thoughts, feelings etc. Yet many of these interior reactions are connected to the deeper level of our hearts referred to above. They are also connected to those shadow parts of ourselves where disordered attachments keep us unfree. Hence these reactions are the primary context for discernment of spirits. Using this discernment we can discover and follow those inspirations arising from our truer selves and from God's influences deep in our hearts. Jesus promised that with his Abba and the Spirit, they would come and make their home in us (Jn 14).
Through the different phases or focuses above, we have been growing in the ability to reflect upon our interior experiences with greater understanding. We now add another focus by learning to appreciate these interior reactions as manifestations of the spiritual movements - consolation and desolation.
It will be helpful here to familiarize oneself with the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, Sp Exs [316 - 324]. It is well to note that consolation may not be the same as `a pleasurable experience'. Spiritual consolation can be experienced as dry and arid while at the same time meaningful. Spiritual desolation is experienced in relationship to the perception of God's seeming `absence' but when one is in desolation one is not necessarily `down'. Desolation can be experienced as a kind of manic joyfulness. Nor is consolation to be considered `good' and desolation to be considered `bad'. Spiritual desolation, can be a prelude to consolation once one is able to identify it. It is sometimes a sign that God is drawing near and one is resisting by distancing oneself. Here then is the exercise:
A) Stop ...
Place yourself in the
presence of God and pray for enlightenment. Relax. Let your feeling memories
of the past day's significant happenings surface.
Look ... at the interior experiences that
seem to stand out as being more dominant:
C) Listen ... for what these experiences might mean
1) Listen with common
If in consolation, be grateful and express this to God, and prepare for times of desolation.
Am I experiencing spiritual desolation?
If I am in desolation I should begin to examine myself with God's Spirit waiting patiently until God's presence returns.
The following questions
may help to identity the causes:
If in consolation I should be thankful, acknowledging it as God's gift. If in desolation I should express whatever needs to be expressed: thanksgiving because all is ultimately gift, wonderment when I can't understand, possible sorrow if I have been the cause in any way, asking for help and patience so that my desolation does not influence my daily decisions and responses.
D) Spend time in dialogue with God.
E) Jot down in
your journal what you have discovered.
Using the Format of St. Ignatius with the variety of implied focuses
Begin by relaxing into God's presence. Look over the day asking to see where you need to be thankful. Do not choose what you think you should be thankful for, rather, by merely looking over the day see what comes to the foreground. Allow gratitude to take hold of you.
Ask for Light:
Ask the Holy Spirit to show you what you need to see at this time.
Finding God in all Things:
over the external and internal events of the day with the variety of feelings
and attitudes you spontaneously experienced in reaction or response:
a) What are the real feelings or attitudes underlying this experience?My response in dialogue
Here I ask for what I need (freedom? enlightenment? healing? strength? patience? forgiveness? order? generosity? rest? etc.) and I express what is in my heart.
Sorrow Thanksgiving Praise Intercession Etc...
Looking Toward the Future
What return can I make for all God's goodness to me? (Ps 116:12)