As Christmas draws closer, the Christian liturgy chants the ancient “O Antiphons” originating in the 5th Century. They testify to the desires of people down through the ages, and our ongoing human needs based on the different situations we find ourselves in. This one asks for strength and protection, – a strong arm to support us when we ourselves do not feel strong. It’s imagery comes from the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt and the journey across the desert.
There are so many times that we need to take in strength, to remind ourselves of our resources. One of the things which the mind does when we are stressed or depressed is to underestimate our resources and overestimate the threats which we feel. We divert our energies into the defense against threats, fearful that others may disappoint or take advantage of us. These ancient words are a metaphor for what happens in those moments. The Hebrew word for Egypt – Mitzraim – means “a narrow place.” The escape from captivity in Egypt means the escape from the narrow places where we are stuck, to a wider place, a place where we can breathe freely. We can feel trapped in our lives, in different forms of captivity. We can frequently feel as if we are travelling in unfamiliar territory, unchartered waters, and this can overwhelm us. We feel fortunate if we get through a day, or through the night when our fears come to worry us, let alone know where we are going in our lives.
At times like this, we need to keep our focus on words and ideas that give us strength, that link us into to our fearless nature. We can try this simple exercise to increase awareness of the resources we have:
Find a quiet place and sit, gently closing your eyes. Become aware of your normal breathing and the wider sense of your body sitting here. See if you can sense the energy in the core of your body. Notice your breathing, how it is constant and has a strength of its own. Feel the solidity in your posture, the strength in your upright back and shoulders, the dignity in the way you are sitting, the support in the contact with the chair or the floor. Become aware of the way your body functions in getting you around day after day. Consciously focus on your own strength, savouring this awareness, taking it in and drawing it out.
Now, picture in your mind something in nature that feels strong, like a mountain, noticing how massive and unmoving it is. In your mind’s eye, bring the mountain into your own body so that you become the mountain – your head the top, your body the solid base, rooted on the cushion or on the chair. See if you can imagine a sense of uplift, the strong quality of the mountain deep in your own spine. Invite yourself to become like a breathing mountain, unshakeable and still.
Now let that sense of strength sink into you and rest in you. Imagine it and prolong it. Breathe it into your emotions. Feel it in your spine, your head, your chest, the muscles of your face. Let it become part of you, breathing it in deeper and deeper. Gently, let it touch the places in your life where you feel challenged or weak. Keeping the sense of the mountain in your awareness, seeing if you can place the difficulties in relation to that, almost like the clouds that pass over a mountain without affecting the mountain itself. See if you can make the awarenss of strength the present reality, even if just for a moment. If this is too difficult just do it briefly and return to the awareness of the mountain.
Rest in this awareness for five or ten minutes, if it feels right. Make conscious, as best as possible, the strength which is in your body and in your mind. Register it in your bones and in your muscles, your thoughts and your emotions. Continue to breathe gently as you finish the exercise and resume your daily activities.