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Art of Confession: Jesuit and Buddhist Approaches to Confession

Call up in your mind a person who has helped you or with whom you feel a deep kinship. Wish them well, send beams of light and good wishes into their lives.
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All major religious traditions honor the power of confession and offer pathways to self understanding, peace of mind and forgiveness. But imbedded in these venerable traditions is something else: the possibility and the encouragement to change our behavior

Acknowledging our wrong-doing -- sin -- is only half the equation. It is like breathing out stale air without taking in the fresh.

In the next two installments of this exclusive HuffPost series, I offer different forms of confession that I write about in my book, "The Art of Confession: Renewing Yourself Through the Practice of Personal Honesty."

In this installment, we'll talk about confession from a Jesuit point of view and then from a Buddhist perspective.

Consolations and Desolations: A Simple Night Prayer

Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, was quite the sinner as a young man. A soldier and a playboy, he seemed to be following a well-trod path until he was injured in battle and forced into a long period of recuperation. Instead of the popular books of adventure, he began to read the biographies of saintly men and women. Something stirred within him. He found himself not only interested, but excited about their lives. The sour aftertaste of his dissolute life and interests faded, replaced by a longing to live heroically another way, in service to others.

Ignatius would eventually become one of history's great spiritual masters, and he asked his followers to spend a few moments each night recalling the moments in which they felt most alive and worthwhile that day -- consolations -- and those in which they felt the opposite, dead inside and worthless -- desolations.

Ignatius did not have the benefit of modern psychoanalytic theory, but it was his experience that God did indeed speak through our deepest feelings and yearnings and that we should listen to them.

You may find it useful to set aside a specific time and place for this practice. Allow your mind to wander through the day that is ending. You don't have to be systematic or complete. Your subconscious holds secrets ready to be revealed. And you may find yourself dwelling on what seemed to be some of the more trivial occurrences of your day.

Here are a few prompts, use as few or as many as you want:

  • What did I do that made me happiest?
  • Where did I feel ashamed of myself?
  • What action would I do over again and how?
  • What habits or tendencies worked for or against me?
  • When did I feel most in alignment with what is best in me?

Stay with the feeling and allow it to lead you inward.

Consider how you may want to avoid or change the circumstances or attitude that caused desolation. See if you can put yourself in a position to experience more consolation.

It's as simple as that.

Metta Bhavana: The Cultivation of Lovingkindness

In our Western approach to examining our lives, we go at it directly: What am I doing wrong? What is bothering me? Where am I failing? The wisdom of the East looks at self-reflection and interior growth in a different and more oblique way and those who have found Buddhist meditation helpful might turn to the practice of Metta Bhavana, or the cultivation of lovingkindness. These guided meditations concentrate not on faults or "sins," but turn the equation around, looking for the positive, the good, the potential, in ourselves and all beings. When a person understands and practices lovingkindness, the usual human tendencies that cripple us -- selfishness, greed, impatience, lust -- no longer have fertile ground within our minds to blossom into acts for which we will later be sorry.

Find a comfortable posture. Take three very deep breaths, then return to breathing normally.

Offer lovingkindness to yourself by saying silently, "May I be safe, may I be healthy, may I be happy, may I live with ease," or any wording that you feel more comfortable with. The idea is to put your mind at rest. Call up in your mind a person who has helped you or with whom you feel a deep kinship. Wish them well, send beams of light and good wishes into their lives: "May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be happy, may you live with ease." If negative feelings mix in with the good thoughts, accept them and allow them to pass away. Bring to mind someone you see often but never think about, like a clerk in a store. Extend those same positive thoughts and good wishes to this person: "May you be safe, be healthy, be happy, live with ease." Reach out, take their hand. In this step, you have moved beyond your self-interest, outside your circle of friends and family.

Now, go further. Imagine someone with whom you are having a problem. This is not an exercise in forgiving or condoning bad behavior. It is simply to enter a life for a few moments and stand with that person in solidarity, two frail human beings, each so different, yet, like all beings, each wanting to be happy. "May you be peaceful, may you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering, may you be happy." Now, expand your awareness to all living beings. Let your mind sweep across oceans, skim over mountain ranges, into the lives of all those who inhabit the earth, the animals, the fish, the birds, microorganisms. Imagine yourself as the sun, radiating out from where you sit, warming each person, animal and place. "May all beings be safe, may all beings be happy, may all beings be healthy, may all beings live with ease."

Sit, rest, and allow your mind to be at peace. Breathe deeply in ... and out. When you are ready, rise up and go about your life. Now, as best you can, bring lovingkindness with you into your day.

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