Napping and Other Such Spiritual Disciplines

In my personal season of harried new motherhood and this corporate season of Lent, I’ve struggled to find spiritual practices that work – that are honoring to such realities as an infant waking up an hour earlier than I had hoped and yet responsive to the Lenten invitation to slow down, recognize my pitiful human condition, and receive God’s life.

I would have liked to dedicate an hour each morning to silence and prayer, or commit to prepare food for the homeless once a week, or retreat for a weekend to our favorite monastery. Instead, God has been challenging me through some less conventional disciplines – like napping, sleeping in, and sitting on the couch.

Me and baby Oliver on day 1 of his life, already practicing the spiritual discipline of napping.

Me and baby Oliver on day 1 of his life, already practicing the spiritual discipline of napping.

The sad truth is that I find these things hard to do. It’s easier for me to work myself into a foaming-at-the-mouth to-do-list-checking frenzy than to drop everything when the opportunity actually opens up before me and rest. It’s actually physically hard, if not impossible, at times. My eyes will pop open in the morning an hour before the baby usually wakes up and I’ll think, “Oh good! What can I get done?” By the time the twenty things I could do have run through my head, my pulse has accelerated and that drowsy, “I could go back to sleep” feeling has disappeared. My body is tense and I can find no comfortable positions in bed. It takes all I can muster at these times to resist the never-ending call to do more and instead will my breathing to slow, matching it to that of my sleeping husband’s beside me.

It is an embarrassing plight in which I find myself – to find it mentally and physically difficult to rest and sleep. In this way, these activities serve me well as spiritual disciplines. They require me to recognize my humanity and succumb to the blessed groggy truth that the world goes on spinning without me, that the Lord sustains all of life and will sustain mine, even If I don’t get around to cleaning the floor this week (or maybe even this year). To rest, I often have to quiet the monkeys in my mind in the same way I do to pray. I have to tune my mind into my breath, my heart beat, and my heavy bones. I have to surrender to the present.

My other favorite new spiritual discipline is sitting on the couch holding the baby while he sleeps. Usually I’ll put him down to nap on his own, but every once in a while, especially when the monkeys in my head have eaten too many sugar cookies and have invited their friends over to play, I remain seated on the couch, letting my baby be my spiritual director. Drink in my tender new life, he beckons me with his translucent, veined eyelids. Quiet your mind by counting my tiny toes. Come taste, see, smell my fuzzy head, and know in your body that gave birth to mine the utter goodness of the Lord.

 

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Creativity and the Let Down Reflex

If you haven’t been able to tell already, I like to think in metaphor. My pregnant body is a gold-mine of metaphors these days. Here’s the latest.

While I haven’t experienced it myself yet, I’ve been doing a bit of reading on breast feeding. I came across this phenomenon called the “let down reflex,” which is basically what happens when a nursing woman’s body senses her baby is hungry and ready to eat. In an amazing loop of intuitive, embodied communication, a woman’s breasts “let down” milk as the baby is sucking.

The interesting thing is, while this action is reflexive and natural, it can also be inhibited if a woman has anxieties about breast feeding.

Breastfeeding2If a woman is so worried that she cannot produce milk or enough of it for her child, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her baby may suck, but the milk doesn’t come. Another interesting aspect of breast-milk production is that it is not continuous. Milk is made as the baby is eating. There may be some leftover from a previous feeding, but mostly it is made at the same time it is being consumed. Demand dictates supply.

As I think about trusting my body and trusting that I have the inner resources to bear, deliver, and nourish a child, it strikes me that the let down reflex is an apt illustration of all creative processes.

When we create, we are in a sense “giving birth” to something within us, something that we hope and trust will nourish and give life to the world. We were made to create, because we were made in the image of a creative, life-giving God. Yet, our creative flow can be inhibited by fear – fear that we are not capable, fear that we don’t have what it takes, fear that if we use up this round of creative juices there will be nothing left.

But, like the let down reflex, it’s is only when we are giving of ourselves and releasing our gifts into the world that we have more to give. If we try to “store up” our creativity, it gets blocked, and we run dry. Our fear and anxieties short-circuit something that is part of our very nature. As a writer, sometimes I get writers’ block just thinking about the enormous amount of commitment and grit it takes to write a book. A musician may stop composing after releasing a ground-breaking album, for fear that what comes after will never be as good again.

Also, like the let down reflex, creativity does not reside in the mind. A new mother can’t just will her breasts to give milk, just as an artist can’t just will herself to paint a masterpiece. Creativity (and mothering) resides somewhere in between trusting and being, in a place of embodied understanding that this is who you are and what you are meant for. Both require a simple trust that what you have to give (even if you don’t quite know what it is) will come, when the time is ripe.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love gave an excellent TED talk on relating to your creative genius. Listen here