Getting your head right

March 20, 2023 in News

You know the feeling: you have a really bad day, everything goes wrong, you feel frustrated and angry, react badly, and can’t understand what’s the matter. The idea of taking time out or examining your thoughts and desires seems like the most futile thing and God seems far away… sound familiar? It’s a place many of us end up in and would like to find a solution to. With some effort and a technique from the 16th Century there is a way through that helps to get to the bottom of what’s going on and brings God into it.

This experience of being brought to a bad place is what Ignatius Loyola would call desolation; it’s maybe not immediately obvious but it is a move away from God into a kind of imbalance with a high chance of making poor decisions. Ignatius discovered that the simple act of reflection on our inner life of moods and feelings can be helpful in identifying desolation and moving out of it. He realised that certain thoughts and ideas, even if apparently worthy and idealistic, could sometimes bring him to a bad place. Conversely, spotting the negative dynamic going on allowed him to examine them and replace them with healthier ones. For example, while in Barcelona, spending long hours in contemplation left him exhausted for studying the next day. Noticing the aftereffects and making a decision to spending a more reasonable amount of time in prayer solved this problem.

Being human means that we swim continually in a flow of consciousness, like a river it is always moving and throwing up new ideas, thoughts and an ‘inner conversation’. It is so pervasive and present to us that we can’t really see it and often take it for granted. We never think to look at it closely, especially in terms of spirituality or God; it seems too obvious. It is much easier to focus on external things, to engage with others and keep busy, often with a deliberate avoiding of silence or pause in order not to listen to the inner voice or dialogue. Hence God is always thought to be ‘out there somewhere’ but rarely ‘in here’. Hence the contemporary preoccupation with noise, activity and busyness; anything to keep distracted. Similarly, the abhorrence of being alone or not having anything to do; being quiet, praying or ‘retreating’ can be very threatening. Often there is a fear of having to listen to what is going on inside, afraid of what might emerge or of having to face oneself.

St Ignatius Loyola is often thought of as the first psychologist in his attention to the inner world of thoughts and feelings. Not only was he willing to look within but he found a great source of wisdom and direction there. Forced to face himself because of immobilisation through a serious injury, he gradually uncovered that certain thoughts and feelings were life giving and from God and others were the opposite. One persistent ‘desolating thought’ concerned the adoption of his new pilgrim lifestyle, throwing up obstacles and doubts about his ability to sustain it over a lifetime. He was able to recognise it for what it was, a deceptive and undermining temptation, and reject it completely. He was freed from the tyranny of safety and false desires to live an extraordinary life.

From this experience Ignatius developed a simple process of reflection or looking back on the day to see where the pivotal points were and the changes or mood. Called the Examen, it literally means an examination of consciousness; of thoughts and feelings, desires and pressures that operate inside of us and have a huge influence. He realised the value of awareness, being able to stand outside ourselves and look at our inner world. It can be thought of as creating a ‘gap’ between ourselves and our feelings. This is crucial obviously, the basic self-awareness and knowledge that allows us to moderate our emotions and not be a victim of temporary feelings. Rather, notice what is going on, what the pulls, pressures or compulsions are, and try to make a freer decision.

The purpose of prayer or reflection is to come aware of this inner voice and self-talk, to take a step back from being in the stream and see where the stream is bringing me especially in terms of its effects or results. This is the work of discernment, sorting out what is operating within me and rising above it to make better decisions. For example, grief can have a considerable influence on a person and really leak out in their relationships if they are not careful. Being aware of it allows them to manage it better. To be unaware is to let chaos have free reign without checking or noticing.

Obviously, we need to filter and examine our thoughts, weigh them carefully and figure out if they are genuine (from God) or not. One of the key ways we unmask false thoughts is reflection and learning to listen to our own inner voice. This has traditionally been called conscience but more accurately could be called awareness or consciousness. There is an inner sense or ‘nose’ that we can develop for deciding which voice to listen to.

There is a palpable sense of unease, ‘wrongness’ and negativity that accompanies the ‘bad’ voice, and equally a sense of rightness, ease and life that accompanies the ‘good voice’. What can be helpful here is building in a filter for the aftereffects of experiences or thoughts. It is like looking back on an experience as if I was watching through the eyes of a wise and compassionate person and seeing clearly what was good or deceptive and unhelpful. It is a skill that can be practiced. It is the path toward consolation.

Click here for Brendan’s article on the Examen (‘examination of consciousness’) ».