I was thankful to get to take a little bit of time off last Sunday and during the week leading up to it. I really needed to just get away for a bit and recharge. And one of the ways I ended up recharging was by attending a retreat all last weekend up at the St. Benedict Center. It was a retreat centered on a practice called “BioSpiritual Focusing.” And I hadn’t planned to preach about it this weekend – but then I read these texts, and even as somewhat harsh as they are, they are rich with all these themes of waiting and of being awake and attentive, and it really started to resonate with what I experienced at this retreat.
You’re probably wondering: “Biospiritual focusing – what the heck is that??” And that was actually my initial reaction too, when I saw it advertised in St. Ben’s newsletter. But then I read the description and realized that it was actually something I was exposed to a little bit in seminary.
Broadly speaking, the idea of biospiritual focusing is that there is wisdom held in our bodies. As western people of faith – especially as Lutherans – we have a tendency to be theologians only from the neck up, as they say. For us, faith is usually more about what we believe than about how we live it out. But Christianity is actually deeply incarnational; it’s a deeply embodied religion. Especially around this time of year, as we draw closer to Advent and Christmas, it’s all about celebrating God in the flesh. So the purpose of biospiritual focusing is to help us to experience God in our flesh, in our own bodies.
The focusing practice itself is actually pretty simple. It starts by allowing yourself to grow quiet, inside and out – closing your eyes, if it helps. Then you work on noticing whatever sensations you might experiencing in your body – pain or tightness, or whatever – and ask yourself, “What is taking up space inside of me right now?” What feelings or pains or sensations are most prominent in my body right now? You identify whichever one of these feelings is strongest and then you, well, focus on it. Without trying to analyze it or to make sense of it or to make it go away, you just sit with that feeling and let yourself feel it fully. And eventually, you invite this feeling – or sensation or pain or whatever – to tell you more. You let it connect to memories or images or other feelings and embrace whatever comes. And at the end, you sit with your body as a loving presence and give thanks for whatever it has revealed to you.
It’s a pretty simple process. But I’ll admit that I kind of struggled with it. I’m a person who likes words; I like to think my way through things. And as a fat person, I’ve been taught pretty much my whole life to treat my body like an enemy, so I tend to have a hard time connecting with my body in a deep, meaningful way. I imagine many of you can also relate to this feeling of disconnection from your own bodies. And I’m also a person who likes to be in control, who likes to do things well and at her own pace.
But focusing is something that simply can’t be forced. You can’t think your way into it or trick yourself into it. It’s kind of like falling asleep – or sneezing – it’s something you can’t just make yourself do. It’s something you have to allow to happen. Focusing, like falling asleep, requires patience and gentleness and surrender. You have to wait for it.
And if you can muster the patience to sit with that feeling and allow it to tell you its story – in whatever time it takes to do that – that’s when really cool things can start to happen. That’s when you can start to experience grace and liberation and the presence of God – within your own body. It took me a while to get there – a fairly long while to get there – but I sat for a long time with a feeling of tightness and constriction that I kept feeling in my back and chest. I felt frustrated by this stubborn block of tension that wouldn’t go away and wouldn’t talk to me – until I started really listening to it and it finally opened up to me. I realized that the feeling I was feeling wasn’t my body resisting me; it was my body protecting me. And in an instant, with that shift in understanding, my feelings suddenly transformed from frustration and anger to an overwhelming sense of gratitude and love. It was an incredible moment of insight and grace and liberation that was well worth waiting for.
For me, this whole experience resonates strongly with our readings for this morning – especially with our second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Paul and the disciples are waiting eagerly for the coming day of the Lord. And Paul rightly tells the Thessalonians that there’s no way to know when this day is coming – he says “[it] will come like a thief in the night.” They have no control over when this day comes; instead, they are called to keep awake and to watch and wait with hope for the Lord to come. They have to wait for it.
And it’s more than just waiting; there’s an attentive quality to this waiting. Paul writes, “let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.” (This is not necessarily sober in the sense of not drinking alcohol, but rather sober in the sense of having an unclouded mind.) It’s a lot easier to wait for something when you’re not really paying that much attention. That’s why “a watched pot never boils,” as the proverb goes. And we spend an awful lot of our lives kind of checked out and not all there. We’re often disconnected from what’s happening in our own bodies and disconnected from what God is up to in the world. Especially in a year like this, when there’s been so much pain and discomfort and division, it’s just easier to be asleep, easier to be just about anything but sober and vigilant.
But, despite this, we are being called to pay attention. We are called to pay attention to the times and the seasons, and to wait and watch with faith, love, and the hope of salvation. Again, it’s similar to biospiritual focusing. With focusing, it’s not enough just to be still and quiet – heck, I am still and quiet when I’m wasting time playing games on my phone or sound asleep. Instead, focusing is about paying deliberate attention to what’s happening in our bodies, and sitting with it attentively and patiently as it unfolds.
And as I reflect on this experience of being attentive to my own body through focusing and waiting for it to speak to me, it draws me into deeper questions. How can we be awake and attentive not only to our own individual bodies, but also awake and attentive to what is happening in the whole body of Christ? How can we as a body grow quiet and notice where there is pain or tension or discomfort in the body of Christ? How can we acknowledge that pain and make space for it? How can we sit with that pain with patience and empathy and allow it to tell us its story?
It’s not an easy thing to do. We are so disconnected and divided from one another, even within the body of Christ. We are fractured along these lines of political ideology and race and urban vs rural and other deeply held identities. And I can’t help but wonder if at least part of the reason we have such a hard time talking or listening to each other across these deep divisions between us is that we are afraid of what we might hear if we do. Perhaps we are afraid of hearing the deep pain of the people we have divided ourselves from for so long.
And that is scary. It is scary enough to try to face the pain and trauma we carry in our own bodies, and to allow ourselves to sit with it patiently. It is even more scary to think about trying to hold space within ourselves for someone else’s pain.
But just as I wonder how we can bring ourselves to sit with that pain and truly hear what it has to tell us, I also can’t help but wonder: What experiences of grace and liberation might be waiting for us on the other side of that pain? In focusing, you don’t encounter grace by trying to go around the pain or by trying to ignore the pain or make it go away. Grace is only found by moving through the pain. I wonder how God might be inviting us to let go into our bodies and to let go into the body of Christ, to allow ourselves to move through all that pain and discomfort to experience liberation and grace anew.
The practice of focusing encourages us to cultivate an attitude of attentiveness and patience – just as our readings for today do. God is at work in the world, in our own bodies, and in the body of Christ. Our call is to pay attention, and to wait with hopeful expectation for God to act. We know that “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And so we wait. And we keep awake.