The Examen: A Resource for Understanding Your Feelings

As we head into another week of adjusting to this new normal, more and more commentary is focused on how to make sense of the dramatic changes we are living through each day. I was struck in the last few days by two different articles addressing the same topic: grief. These pieces gave me needed language to describe what I have been feeling in my own experience, both unconsciously and consciously, in the early days of adjusting to the reality of a global pandemic.

In an article entitled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” the Harvard Business Review interviewed David Kessler, a grief and trauma expert who has worked in hospital systems for a decade. Building on the stages of grief constructed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Kessler provides several important insights for managing our individual and collective grief about COVID-19: 1) name the feeling so you can start controlling it; 2) find balance in the things you’re thinking; 3) come into the present in order to calm yourself; and 4) show compassion because everyone expresses their grief in different ways.  A similar article in the New York Times by Lori Gottlieb captured many of these same insights in the article, “Grieving the Losses of Coronavirus.” A critical point of Kessler’s is that naming emotions helps us move through the ones that hold us back: “When you name it, you feel it, and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”  The naming of temporary feelings as a way to grow into greater freedom from our feelings has a clear connection to the spiritual tradition of the Jesuits, known as Ignatian spirituality, and the practice of the examen. This dynamic and flexible form of reflection is a helpful resource for staying in the present and finding balance.

Image of Georgetown’s Calcagnini Contemplative Retreat Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the 2019 SCS Staff and Faculty Retreat. SCS is helping our community reflect during these times through offering a daily digital meditation.

The examen, or the examen of consciousness, is a structured form of prayerful reflection on daily experiences introduced five centuries ago by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and author of Ignatian spirituality (for more on the examen, see here). Ignatius included the examen in the text of his Spiritual Exercises, a lengthy retreat intended to guide participants to greater depths of spiritual growth and understanding so as to more generously serve others and God. For persons of faith, the examen is a regular opportunity (Ignatius encouraged practice of it twice per day) to reflect on how the experience of daily thoughts and feelings either bring us closer to God (consolation) or farther way from God (desolation). It is through noticing and becoming more aware of these movements of consolation and desolation in our interior lives that we notice patterns and develop the capacity to change our behaviors by doubling down on what brings consolation and working against patterns of desolation.  The examen is not just for Christians or for persons of faith, however, and it can be adapted to secular audiences. For a secular listener, the language of God in the examen might be substituted with “true self” or “transcendent mystery” and the language of consolation/desolation might be understood as “flow,” those experiences that bring us deeper joy and greater energy and vitality. Regardless of how one enters into the examen, the fundamental gift of this 10-15 minute reflective practice is that it helps us become more aware of gratitude in our daily experience, both moments of joy and moments of challenge that can stretch us and make us stronger.

The multiple emotions we are experiencing these days, including grief, might lead to a conclusion that it is better to ignore our many feelings than confront each of them as we experience them. The examen gives us a resource for naming our emotions and realizing that feelings are only temporary and do not last forever. What is especially helpful about the examen is that it can be tailored to particular circumstances or situations of life, like a pandemic. Susan Haarman has demonstrated that flexibility by crafting an examen for the Ignatian Solidarity Network that meets this moment in time: “Examen for Life During COVID-19.” I will present below a modified form of Haarman’s examen:

Enter into the examen by first settling into your space. Become comfortable in your surroundings and remove any distractions if you are able to. Start by noticing your breathing, allowing your minds and bodies to settle into the experience. Take a few minutes to relax and enter into these six steps.

  • 1) Acknowledge how you are feeling at this very moment. Name both the good and the challenging feelings (take 2 minutes).
  • 2) Ask for light and insight as you prepare to review the last 24 hours of your life. Take some time to settle in the presence of God, or of your true self (take 2 minutes).
  • 3) Gently review all of the major experiences of your last 24 hours. In particular, review the most significant experiences when COVID-19 had an impact on your life in the last day (take 2 minutes).
  • 4) Take a few moments to call attention to the most significant experiences of the last day that made you feel more connected to yourself and to others. Take a few moments to call attention to the experiences that made you feel less connected to yourself and others (take 3 minutes).
  • 5) Now go back to the experiences of connection and dis-connection that you reviewed in the prior step and name the emotions that surface for you when you acknowledge the most significant feeling of connection and the most significant feeling of dis-connection (take 3 minutes).
  • 6) Conclude this short examen by reflecting on how this quiet time has prepared you to face the challenges of the next day. How might you maintain more connection with yourself and others? (take 2 minutes).

If the resources of the examen appeal to you, please consider participating in the SCS Daily Digital Meditation offered Monday through Friday at 12 pm EST over Zoom (click here to participate). The final meditation of each week, on Friday, will be a guided examen for 10-15 minutes inviting participants to review their experiences of the past week. Please join us!