Self-Donation is not Self-Mutilation: The Spiritual Practice of Attention to Others
Self-donation and attention to others
Self-donation is the spiritual practice of attention to others. It does not refer to any sort of self-mutilation or injury but rather to the self-control and self-knowledge that allows one person to be attentive to another person.
Attention to others can be extremely difficult. Giving up time for others can feel stressful. There are two things that strike me about these two possibilities. In my own experience I am often in the presence of another person and cannot give him or her my full attention for even 5 minutes! Secondly, my stress is often due to my creating a stressful lifestyle. If I procrastinate with doing stressful but important tasks, then I am jumpy. I have clever avoidance behaviors when faced with things at work such as updating the database (which I dislike) or writing Thank You notes (which are absolutely necessary and can quickly become a huge mountain). I have to do an Examen (an important Ignatian spiritual practice for me) every day in order to commit to a schedule for the day. I decide what time I need to go to bed that night. I set up what I want or need to accomplish that day. I work my way back to where I am in the day. I decide if I will exercise. If I do not do this I get into really negative schedules. I have a background which makes me anxious, so I have to avoid avoiding!
“Avoid avoiding” and “focus” as spiritual practices?
What has this got to do with being attentive to others? When I allow myself to avoid things I do not like or to procrastinate, I am more anxious or depressed. When I feel that way I cannot be at peace. When I feel this way I do not focus on people. I am restless. If I keep referring myself to God or Jesus (in the Examen, for example) knowing that with God’s help I am keeping my commitment, I feel pleased with life and myself. I get the things done in a day that I need to do. I do both uncomfortable and fun tasks. I get enough sleep. I do the Tai Chi, stretching or core strengthening I need that day. I eat the right things — even the Kale and Collard Greens I need for my liver and to keep my blood sugar down for my “prevent diabetes” regime. I read a few pages from each book I want to finish. I also have time now to go to an older friend’s apartment and give her a massage that she needs. I don’t feel deprived and we enjoy the time together. I hone my acupressure skills and she feels better.
A second thing I have learned is that I often do not really attend to others even when I have the time. I have a habit of letting my mind jump around, trying to think of something clever or even attention-getting to say. I also feel the need to fix another’s situation. But, the more mature part of me just wants to affirm others. I do not have to impress them. Maybe a natural sacrifice would be to listen and support others, not have an opinion? I think others often just want someone to really listen.
Discernment in everyday experiences
Authentic self-donation or self-giving does not have to harm me. I can discern if I would enjoy it. I also can tell if I am over-scheduled and creating anxiety for myself. I can ask God in prayer to show me what he dreams for me. He may want me to buy a greeting card for someone and send it off or maybe he prefers I just draw a squiggle on a piece of paper and say I love you and I am praying for you and mail that. I feel called to give people quality attention when I am with them. For me that is a key spiritual practice.
It also can be a contemplative experience in the Ignatian sense of the term. I have discovered lately that when I am in some conversations, part of my mind can have a simultaneous conversation with God. I have said to God in abbreviated ways things such as: “Should I say ….. to her?” and I get an answer. I receive very brief images from God or feelings related to the person. Those words, images or feelings are easy to interpret and help me attend to the other and not to focus on me. I feel very loved by God when I am willing to be there for the other. It is about surrender to being loving. It is a gift to the other and a gift to me.