The Soul Care Series: Heart-Centred Goal Setting

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I have had to take a break for the last 2-3 weeks as my health took a turn for the worse (those of you who listen to Alessia’s Divine Comedy will know already I barely managed to keep that afloat with some delays). I guess, in a way, it made this next topic in the Soul Care series more timely, since we are talking about the new coaching buzzword for planning. 

You might be wondering what’s the link with wellness, so I guess I should first explain what is meant by heart-centred goal setting. You might have heard of Daniella LaPorte and her best-selling book “The Desire Map”. Heart-Centred goal setting is an evolution of that: it’s about making decisions and plans that come from the desires of our hearts and it’s linked to wellness because a lot of undue stress in our lives comes from chasing things that won’t make us happy and having goals that are pushed on us from the outside world. 

On a superficial level, what she says is not bad. In fact, she takes some concepts of the Catholic tradition and twists them into a generalised New Age paradigm that talks of a “connection with the Divine” (that has no name, and so no identity and so, I’d say, no being). She talks about discernment as a form of “divinely infused knowledge of how things truly are”, as opposed to our own interpretation of them, which is what discernment is in the Ignitian tradition, except that she strips it of its true spiritual depth. 

I know Christians of other denominations who are fans of LaPorte, because her language blurs the line between our Christian understanding of concepts and the New Age views she actually holds, so I wanted to explore what this concept looks like within the Catholic tradition instead. One reason for it is that sometimes we can be stuck in a trap of over-discerning because of the delicate intricacies of such a deeply spiritual matter. You might say it’s playing semantic, but it’s so that we may shift our mindset just enough to resolve the impasse. LaPorte, in an article on Vista Magazine, distilled the process into 3 simple steps: visualise, start small and write it down. Choosing small goals and writing them down is pretty uncontroversial, so I’d like to focus on the first one only.

Visualising 

Visualising, in my opinion, gets an unfair bad rep because of the common link people make between it and manifesting, if they don’t downright make them out to be synonymous. In fact, Ignatian spirituality is deeply visual, and we are using our holy imagination to enter into contemplation. The same principle applies if we are using it to imagine ourselves in a Bible story or prayerfully evaluate the impact of a decision we are discerning so that we can figure out our way forward, which is both part of the Spiritual Exercises and what is known as visualising in the secular realm. You create a scene in your mind that is as detailed as possible and pay attention to the emotions that arise in response. Contrary to popular belief, God does not want you to be miserable, what marks a saint is that even in the direst of circumstances they are joyful.

If you have a path that gives you peace and joy, even if there is another one that you feel is somewhat holier, the one that is meant for you is very likely the first one, and you’ll become as holy as you are meant to be following it even if it’s being a producer at the BBC instead of becoming a priest or something. It’s a fictional example, don’t read too much into it. We are told that God gives us the desires of our hearts when we delight in Him (Psalm 37:4): we only need to listen to His quiet voice over the noise of the world, it’s not just fancy words from modern coaches promoting a self-centred worldview to say “the answer we seek is in ourselves”. We are, after all, temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), make your decisions accordingly.

Manifesting 

So, I have already said people seem to confuse these two ideas, or at least see visualising in a negative way because a lot of people who use it as a technique and call it that are also fond of this bizarre idea. Manifesting is the idea that if you experience what you want you will attract it from “the Universe” because good energy attracts good energy. You use a similar technique to visualising, that’s true, but there is a difference even before we get to the philosophical error of placing a created thing in the place of the Creator, on which I have more to say. 

Visualising is about thinking through things in a way that connects to our intuition, which is God-given, and the things at the bottom of the many layers we add to the way we make decisions because of what’s around us. It’s about stripping bare to see more clearly. You can, and you should, pray to the Holy Spirit for that level of vision, so that we can find God’s wishes for our life and align ourselves to them, and of course, we have Scriptures to match things against so we can evaluate if they truly are from God. Manifesting is about choosing what we want and then sort of praying for it. Some of you might wince at the use of the word prayer, or even be offended, but it’s an accurate description. In the Bible, we have examples of people praying to idols, like for example 1 Kings 18:20-40 when Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to get their “god” to start the fire over their burnt offering as he would ask of the God of Israel, who started a fire on wet wood.

Just because an idol is not there to hear your prayers, it doesn’t make the utterances of the idolaters not prayers. It is in this sense that manifesting is a form of prayer. These people who buy into this wrong worldview of the Law of Attraction may not call it prayer, (or even may not be aware that prayer is what they are doing), but it is prayer nonetheless. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines prayer as raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC 2559). Of course they are not praying to God, but the whole edifice collapses if you don’t see “The Universe” as a sort of deity. In fact, the words used to describe “The Universe” by manifestation guru Gabby Bernstein are a lot similar to those we use to speak about God.

In her Dos and Don’ts of manifesting, she talks about how “The Universe” has a better plan for us than what we come up with in the manifesting. She also talks about how we shouldn’t expect things to fall in our lap as we ask for them, and she even gives people a prayer to let go and trust that would sound really familiar if we swapped “Universe” for God, as it should be: ““Thank you, God and guide of the highest truth and compassion. I am ready to feel free. I welcome a newfound faith”. Then she cautions us not to try to make it happen (a tale as old as time) and to practice what she calls the “Spiritually Aligned Action Method”, which makes you a co-creator (one word we use to talk about our participation in God’s kingdom)What comes next in the article sounded exactly like many talks I have heard about discernment: question your whys to make sure they are based in service and not your ego, and inspired by the Holy Spirit and not your ego. She tells us to cultivate joy in our lives, like St Paul in his epistles, and she tells us to make manifesting a part of our daily life, which is the most basic advice on prayer.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like there are grounds for copyright infringement here. She is making a fortune out of a distorted version of the wisdom of the faith that is built around the idea that “The Universe” and the divine are one and the same, when God created the universe and all that is in it (it’s a form of Pantheism). And this idea is so insidious a lot of the wellness sector embraced it, and manifesting your wellbeing has become a thing. Of course, I am not suggesting actual prayer for healing is not beneficial, but prayer has a fundamental difference with this that goes beyond the fact that you are asking for something of a Being that actually has the power to grant it. Prayer is more than asking for things.

Prayer

The Catechism continues its definition of prayer in 2560-2565. Prayer is a gift of God, a covenant and communion. In these 3 capacities, prayer makes up a relationship with God (2558). A relationship means a state of being connected and implies knowing the other. Why anyone offered such a gift as a personal God would exchange it for an impersonal universe that dishes out energies is beyond my comprehension. I don’t care if anyone thinks this is controversial. Furthermore, this relationship is not any relationship, it’s a covenant. As it was stressed to me and my husband by a kind Oratorian priest, it’s a relationship of commitment that makes you bound to the other, and you stick to it no matter what. In the history of humanity, we were the ones who broke the covenant while God was faithful throughout. 

Life in the New Covenant, that is Christianity, goes a step further. By virtue of our baptism, our prayer is in communion with the life of the Trinity. We have the gift of this intimate connection with the divine, which is most visible to us in the Sacraments (CCC 1115-1118). In this sense, then, of course manifesting is not prayer and it’s something that Catholics must avoid engaging with. Praying with boldness for something that we have discerned to come to fruition is not the same thing because the Catholic way, as I’ve just pointed out, rests on a completely different conception of God and how we relate to Him (and, on a basic level, we pray to a higher being than ourselves, while “The Universe” is not one).

Now, I have used examples from people who are quite obvious in what they are doing, but manifesting is so common it can be found in more subtle ways and I’ve seen it prop up in content for entrepreneurs from people who had been talking about God a week prior. I hope this essay provides a starting point for evaluating what’s put out in the coaching industry since openly Catholic Coaching is not a thing. We have spiritual direction covering the most important aspect of our life, but then we are mostly left to our own personal prayer and the advice of trusted friends to work out everything else, and it’s easy to look beyond them to find more pertinent advice (no judgement there, sometimes common sense cannot match actual expertise) and be served a reheated heresy. 

My favourites
Goal Setting with Lara Casey. I’ve used it since 2017 (setting the 2018 goals) and I have found the process really fruitful. She is a Christian so the process is built around the spiritual life, but it can be adapted for non-believers. I loved not having to adapt a secular thing for once.
Own your Life by Sally Clarkson. I’ve read it last year at the same time as the 2020 goal setting. Sally Clarkson is, for me, an accidental spiritual mother. This book was like a series of coaching sessions, with questions to ponder.
An Ignatian Framework for Making a Decision. Pretty self, explanatory, it’s 11 steps for the discernment of a decision.
The Litany of Trust by the Sisters of Life. A helpful addition to step 10 of the Ignatian framework, but also to your prayer life in general. I don’t think heart-centred planning can be a thing without a trusting heart that rests in God. 
Lastly, a prayer for surrender: St Ignatius’ own one; Novena of Surrender to the Will of God; and a Healing Prayer of Surrender if for you, like me, surrender comes hard.

Rooted in the Word
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’.  (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’

John 4:7-10 (NRSVACE)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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