40 Day Experiment in Truth with Re-Imagine

The workshop was advertised like this:


A laboratory for personal transformation.

Sponsored by ReIMAGINE

The master invites us to rethink or reimagine our whole lives in light of the Maker’s dream of greater wholeness for our world. This workshop explores the physicality of spiritual formation. If I change what I do in my mind and body or emotions, how will it effect my capacity to flow with the creators energy & love? (what I eat? how I spend my time? The media I consume? How I use my money? Who I spend my time with?) This practical workshop seeks to deal with the disparity we often feel between how we want to live and how we actually live. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness fasting and facing his greatest shadows and temptations. Participants in this workshop will engage in practices aimed at confronting our own shadows and obstacles to the spiritual life through “experiments in truth.”

Wednesdays March 19th through April 30th. 6:30-8:30 p.m.

When I first saw this announced, I emailed right away to say I was interested. Nonetheless, I missed the first meeting of the group. At the last minute, I sent an email saying that while this workshop series was just what I had been looking for last fall, I realized that I had not made enough time in my life to attend this workshop this spring.

I knew that in addition to my ordinarily full life, over the next 40 days I would be traveling away from home for almost two weeks, one at the beginning and one at the end of April, as part of my public ministry. It was not a good time to add more nights away from my family. I knew that I would need to be careful about trying to transform my daily practices too much in a time that was already going to be out of the ordinary. But observing physical practices to sustain my spiritual health and stamina seemed very important. And the idea of participating in this experiment would not let me go. Then I realized that I really wanted to make time

The syllabus looked like this:
March 19: Introduction to spiritual formation and experiments in truth including how Jesus modeled and taught acetic practices and watchfulness.
EXERCISE: Develop and commit to a 40-day “experiment in truth” that addresses 3 key life growth areas with practices of abstinence and engagement.

March 26: Discernment and listening as individual and communal practices.
EXERCISE: Send feedback inventory to 5 trusted friends/ elders.

April 2: Developing your personal growth plan - setting goals for growth in various life dimensions.
EXERCISE: Work through outline for your personal growth plan.

April 9: How to identify and utilize the power of having a spiritual mentor.
EXERCISE: Make initial contact with a potential spiritual mentor or peer mentor.

April 16: Developing your personal rule of life - yearly rhythms, commitments and practices to sustain your spiritual formation.
EXERCISE: Develop a personal rule of life in conjunction with your growth plan.

April 23: Processing the benefits and insights gained through your 40-day “experiments in truth.”
EXERCISE: Complete your personal rule of life in conjunction with your growth plan.

April 30: Final check in and potluck party.

The three areas where I chose to make a difference were:
1. I want to be less anxious about having too many things going on
2. I want to consume fewer unsustainable/unnecessary things
3. I want to be more inclusive in my lovingkindness
In the end, this is what I wrote:
“I commit to:
  • Better sleep hygiene when I am at home – to go to bed at 10:00 every evening and to get up at 6:30 every morning. This is one of the things I know would be good for me but I have not been able to stick to it before. I made myself a chart – kind of like I would use for my kids – to record the times I go to bed and get up, so that I can measure my progress.
  • Exercise as a stress and weight management tool – to walk at least half an hour every day when I am at home, and as often as possible while traveling. I have done this before and benefited greatly, but I have fallen away from the practice over the last few months. The mental health benefits outweigh the physical, but they are connected.
These two practices are connected to sustaining my physical body in order to live up to the spiritually strenuous month I’m expecting. I expect to have less anxiety and more emotional stability if I am getting more regular sleep and exercise.
  • Not buying meat – I wanted to try not eating meat for 30 days, but I’d already bought a ham for Easter dinner, and it seemed a waste not to eat it. We did cook it this weekend, and I froze the rest for later, but if that’s all the meat I eat over the next month, it will still be a step towards more sustainable diet. I also know that I will be a guest in many places over the next month, and I would rather not set this as one of my dietary restrictions on my hosts – although it is common enough among the Quaker circles where I will be traveling. It is also true that my husband is enthusiastic about this practice – he’s been suggesting it for a while now, and is glad I’m considering it.
If I were not traveling, I would like to commit to a new practice – one of seeking out the least attractive visitor to my worship gathering every week and engaging that person in welcoming conversation. One of the things I want to work on over the long term is being more inclusive in my friendships. Over this month, I will just try to lean on the spiritual friends and mentors I already have.”
What did I learn from the experiments? I was right about sleep. Everything in my life is easier, less stressful, and more satisfying when I get enough sleep. My own personal sign that I am not observing a good rhythm is that my alarm clock goes off in the middle of a dream. When I am in a good rhythm, my dream cycle ends naturally when it’s time to get up. The whole day goes better when I wake up more easily.

I was really lax about exercise. I did make an effort to walk a little bit outside every day, even when I was traveling. I think this gave me more balance, a little quiet time to process all the stimulation, and helped me sleep. So I would say that while I didn’t live up to the letter of my goal, I walked more than I would have if I hadn’t made this commitment.

The main thing I learned about abstaining from meat is that it doesn’t matter to me. God is not nudging me to give up meat entirely. I understand the need to eat less and the environmental reasons why average US levels of meat consumption are unsustainable and I know that meat production in the US is fraught with abusive practices, but veganism or vegetarianism is not my calling. What was more interesting was that my scruple about fair trade chocolate grew considerably over the same period. I’m still fallible on that, but I am more and more able to think before I consume chocolate (in all its forms), and to choose some other flavor at the ice cream store, or just go without. What especially works is that more and more I associate the flavor of chocolate with the sweat and fear of slavery. Not nearly so appetizing. What’s hard is when I make that connection half way through something delicious. The next step will be to refuse to buy it for my children.

The second phase of the experiment was to do a personal examen – what is the state of my spiritual journey? This was followed by sending a feedback form to trusted friends to ask them to “affirm my strengths and potential,” “help me become more aware of growth areas,” and “share your wisdom and insight.” I sent the prepared list of questions to seven people and four of them sent it back. One good thing I guess is that they were all generally encouraging and they didn’t point out any glaring faults that I didn’t already know about. And they all basically agreed, which was also confirming/affirming.

The thing they didn’t say, that I secretly fear but am exposing here as an attempt to conquer that fear, is that only people who don’t really know me think I’m good at stuff. That the people who really know me think I’m a flake. Maybe that’s just my family. In many ways, I am gifted but undisciplined. Part of what I have learned over the years is that external structures, even artificial ones like this class or my to-do lists, help me to use what little self-discipline I have to accomplish larger goals.

The third phase was to connect with a potential mentor. I already have a spiritual director, an anchor committee, and some other project-based elders and spiritual friends, so I didn’t seek out anyone new. But I counted my blessings, that’s for sure. I also thought more clearly about the different roles that each of these people plays in my life.

The last exercise, and perhaps the least explained or helpful, was to develop a personal rule of life. We each received a worksheet with a list of points and questions, about “My Lifetime Vision and Purpose”, “Imagination for Making a Life in the Way of Jesus,” with subheadings like obedience/surrender, service & healing, community, simplicity, prayer, creativity, love; “Facing My Personal Shadows,” “Seeking the Maker’s Dream with My Life Energy,” and “My Personal Rule of Life.” I’m tempted to post the whole outline here, but I feel like it’s the proprietary information of Re-Imagine, and I don’t want to just give away what they work so hard to produce. I want to learn how to pose such good questions. Maybe when I finish my plan, I’ll post that.

It was striking how similar the categories, with their associated advices and queries, were to an individual book of Faith and Practice. To what degree do we see our common books of F&P as our rule of life? The core of Re-Imagine is a group that calls itself SEVEN, that has adopted a common rule of life. This is one of the things that attracts me to the group.

Actually, I think this exercise has a lot in common with my Plain manifesto. In fact, I think I should have started by identifying what I already do, rather than starting with “what else do I need to improve?” That is an important question too, but not the right place for me to start. I also wish we had spent more time in the group talking about this and how to do it. I spent quite a bit of time at home (and in the bleachers, on park benches, on my walks) working on this.

One part that was interesting was to think about what are the practices & patterns that I need to keep my momentum at significant life milestones. I had to ask myself, what life milestones do I have left? Here’s what I came up with:
  • menopause
  • children leave home
  • moving to a new home
  • starting/ending a job
  • retirement
  • needing glasses
  • other disability
  • children’s marriages
  • grandchildren born
  • death in the family/my own

  • It’s not really a fun list, other than the grandchildren maybe. I wonder, do you have other events that you celebrate/mourn/mark in your spiritual journeys?

    In the end, it was a good experiment. I learned a lot about myself, and it was a good opportunity to do some reflection and discernment, even if it wasn’t the best time for me to do that. I met a lot of nice and interesting people, but it was a class, not the formation of a new community. I struggle with how to make time to connect with other groups and people while being so involved with my family and Quaker community already.

    I highly recommend any event or class sponsored by Re-Imagine. They do good, thoughtful, fun, and well-organized work. I will write soon about the upcoming Church Basement Roadshow, which is tangentially connected

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    Blogger Markley Morris said...

    I note that the Church Basement Roadshow will be in San Francisco on a Thursday (June 19). I wonder about inviting them to join in our vigil. What do you think?

    5/28/2008 6:14 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    One part that was interesting was to think about what are the practices & patterns that I need to keep my momentum at significant life milestones.

    Robin, this line from your most recent blog caught my attention because I am struggling with loss of "momentum" which I think is related to my brother's recent death. But maybe it is just because I have finished several creative book projects at once and am not free to start on a new one for a few weeks.

    Anyway, one question is whether these life stages call for creation of a new and different momentum, as you call it, especially when one's old habits have had some negative aspects.....

    5/29/2008 12:37 PM  
    Blogger Robin M. said...

    Markley, I don't know if they'd come, but I think it's fine to invite them! You can probably send an email via their website.

    Elizabeth, It is entirely possible that what one needs at a significant milestone is to stop and consider which direction one is going, to consult one's Sacred Compass, so to speak, and to make corrections as necessary. On a long journey, rest is an important part of maintaining a steady momentum, don't you think?

    5/29/2008 2:19 PM  

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