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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

Breathing, Listening and Walking

What is spirituality?
Christian Spirituality...
What are spiritual disciplines?
Contemplative disciplines
Reflection and Discernment
Prayer and Worship
Moral Action
Course Instructor

Some exercises to help with paying attention...



  • Sit comfortably in your chair; feet on the floor and back against the back of the chair. Rest your arms by your side, either on the armrest of the chair or simply resting open in your lap.
  • Breathe naturally in a relaxed, comfortable manner. When comfortable and relaxed, close your eyes. Sit quietly for a few moments.
  • Be aware of your breathing as the air slowly moves in and out of your lungs. Don’t try to control it, just be aware of it.
  • If your attention begins to wander to other thoughts, simply refocus on your breathing. There is no need to fight the distracting thoughts, simply return your awareness to your breathing. The distracting thoughts will drift away on their own.
  • You may notice that the rate of your breathing changes. You may notice the sensation of the air moving through your nostrils. You may be aware of other bodily sensations. That is fine. Notice them but don’t try to analyze or control them. Gently focus your attention on your breathing and continue with the exercise.

 Continue the exercise for about ten minutes. If you do this exercise with a group, someone should take responsibility for announcing the end of the ten minutes.




Tony Hendra, author and comedian, wanted to enter the Benedictine Abbey near his home as a young man. While his life turned in a different direction during his university years, he always maintained a close relationship with his mentor, Fr. Joe, a monk of the Abbey. Recently, Tony’s autobiography, Fr. Joe, was published and became a best seller. The book is called Fr. Joe because his mentor has always been the peaceful eye in the storm of his life.


As a comedian Tony Hendra was always most comfortable performing prepared material. However, when he was working on the movie Spinal Tap, much of the work was done using improvisation. This was new for him and a frightening experience at first. However, when he actually began to do it, the experience was exhilarating. He could only describe it in terms that he had previously used for spiritual experience. He spoke with other comedians who were highly skilled at improvisation and the advice that they gave him was to enter the experience with no prepared material or expectations. He should simply listen to what is going on with his ears, his heart, and every other part of him. The listening was key. Then he simply needed to react to the experience.


This advice evoked an experience of déjà vu in Tony. As a young man fresh out of high school, he had been set on entering the Abbey as a novice and spent a great deal of time at the Abbey. Fr. Joe would instruct him on the spiritual life and kept reminding him that the key was to listen, to be open and not to allow expectations to color his experience. His mentor was trying to teach Tony the spiritual discipline of paying attention.


The greater part of our neural activity is spent on filtering out stimuli that assault our senses. Our perceptual filters are constructed by past learning that influences our expectations. When the data comes into our brains, the filters try to make sense of it by relating it to past experience. While this is very helpful in getting along with the business of everyday life, instead of constantly struggling with the noise and buzzing chaos that we would experience otherwise, it has the disadvantage of getting us into a rut. We can easily slip into a state of mind where we are unable to perceive anything, unless it is what we expect.


If we are to be open to God’s guidance and direction in our lives, we must learn to listen  to what God tries to tell us. Listening is part of paying attention. Listening makes use of our ears and our heart. Listening helps to turn off the mental and perceptual filters and allows us to see things as they truly are. The following exercise helps us to learn to listen. It is best done with two or more people though an individual may also do the most important elements of it.


·        Have the group spread out in a relatively large room, if they are not outside. They should be seated and relaxed. They can use the breathing exercise to help them quiet down and relax.

·        The participants should close their eyes and simply listen to the sounds that reach reaches their ears. They should gently focus on their sense of hearing and take in every sound in the environment. Sit quietly and in silence until the end of the exercise. Simply focus on the sounds. Don’t try to analyze or conceptualize what is heard.

·        Just listen to the sounds as carefully and as openly as possible. If one’s mind wanders from just listening, gently bring it back to listening. One need only be aware of what is heard, take note of the sounds, note your reaction and feelings. This exercise will continue for about ten minutes.


If the group is indoor, the participants can close with the breathing exercise as they gently turn their attention to the group. The participants should describe what they experienced during the exercise. A common reaction is an initial struggle with focusing on sound but then a bit of exhilaration as the many ambient sounds come to the attention of the participants, sounds normally filtered out from conscious attention. It is common to hear the sounds of traffic, the barking of dogs in the distance, perhaps the drone of an air conditioner or fan, the buzzing of insects, an airplane flying overhead or the stomach rumbling of one of the participants.


Citrus contemplation

The next exercise requires props. There should be a half of a lemon or similar citrus cut into slices or small wedges for each of the participants. The citrus can be put in foam cups or paper bowls. The participants should take one of the citrus containers and to go off alone with the following instructions.


·        Find a comfortable place and sit down. Take a minute or two with the breathing exercise to relax and get focused.

·        Then take one of the citrus pieces in your hand. Focus on the feel of the fruit in your hand. Where is it smooth? Rough? Squeeze the piece of fruit and feel the juice in your fingers. Notice the shape of the fruit using the sense of touch.

·        Smell the fruit. Focus on the smell of the fruit. What is it like? How does it make you feel? What reaction does it prompt in you?

·        What sound does the citrus make when you squeeze the fruit? When you twist it? When you rub your fingers against it? What sound does it make when you bite it? When you drop it in the bowl? Listen to the sound of the citrus; notice its different sounds, even though they may be subtle. Don’t try to analyze or conceptualize, just listen.

·        Take another piece of fruit. Hold it up to the (sun)light and take in the beauty of the light reflecting from it. Notice the shape with your eyes. See the detail of the fruit and skin. Notice the variation in color from one part to another. Do not analyze or conceptualize. Simply take in as much as you can visually about the piece of citrus in your hands.

·        Taste the piece of citrus. Touch it with your tongue and feel the sensation caused in you. Touch your tongue to the peel and to the fruit, notice the different sensations. The different tastes. Take a piece of the fruit and suck on the juice. What is the taste? How does it feel? What reaction does it cause in you?


After ten minutes of the exercise, call the participants should get back together. They should describe what they experienced. They should not try to analyze it. Just report the experience of what different sensations assaulted their senses and what reactions were evoked in them. The goal in the discussion is to help them realize how much there is to be aware of when they attempt to pay attention to an experience, and perhaps to get a feel for consciously paying attention to an experience and taking in the richness of the experience.



Walking Aware

There is one more exercise. However, this exercise is done out of doors. It combines elements of the other exercises. Participants should be dressed comfortably for the weather and wearing walking shoes that will allow them to go on a walk comfortably. The ground covered should not be too difficult but should allow the person to break a sweat and breathe more deeply than with a gentle stroll. This is the kind of walk that your physician would encourage you to take. In choosing the course, keep it reasonable relative to the state of your health. If you are not sure, check with your physician. Once you are ready, begin walking.


  • As you walk be aware of your breathing. Don’t try to control it, just be aware of it. As you walk expand the focus of your awareness to take in as much of the experience as possible. Notice the smell of the air. Notice the feel of the breeze on your skin or the air in your throat and lungs. Notice the tone of your muscles as you walk and the sensation of shifting from one foot and leg to another as you walk. Take in every sound...the birds, cars, gravel beneath your feet, the breeze.
  • Notice everything but don’t focus on any particular sound or sensation to the exclusion of others. Be open, as open as possible to everything that is happening to you as you walk. Notice the color of the trees and flowers, how they bend with the wind. Notice how the sunlight and shadows play with everything. Take in everything. Be aware of everything that you are experiencing in your environment and in your body.
  • If your mind wanders, gently let go of the distraction and refocus on what you are experiencing. Don’t try to understand or analyze what is happening. Just experience it in as much rich detail as possible. Just give yourself to the experience of taking the walk. Continue this for at least fifteen minutes.

 If the weather is nice, it is good to do this exercise several times a week. As you do the exercise try to extend the length of time for the walk but keep fifteen minutes as the absolute minimum. If the weather is bad the exercise can be done in relation to other activities. Try eating breakfast aware or going shopping aware. The idea behind the exercise is to practice awareness (paying attention) While walking is a particularly pleasant way to practice, almost any activity can be used.



Resource List

Finley, James. Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God, A Guide to Contemplation. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.

Weiss, Andrew. Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2004.


Christian Meditation : Experiencing the Presence of God
James Finley

The Beginner's Guide to Contemplative Prayer
James Finley

Beginning Mindfulness: Learning the Way of Awareness
Andrew Weiss

Click here to visit Along the Way, a site of reflections, homilies and stories by the author of this website.

(c)2005. Richard Shewman. All rights reserved. The contents of this website are the intellectual property of the author and may not be reproduced, aside from fair personal use for the purpose of individual study, without the written permission of the author. includes ads on the top of each page as a way to keep expenses down the cost of websits. Most of the time the ads are appropriate to the content of the website, sometimes not. Please be informed that I have no control over the banner ads and that I do not endorse any particular products mentioned there. However, any of the links to placed in the content of the pages are for books with which I am familiar and which I recommend to the reader.