Within the Exercises, daily instructions include various meditations and contemplations on the nature of the world, of human psychology as Ignatius understood it, and of man's relationship to God through Jesus Christ. The Exercises is divided into "four weeks" of varying lengths with four major themes: sin, the life of Jesus, the Passion of Jesus and the Resurrection of Jesus. During each day of the Exercises, a typical retreatant prays with a particular exercise, as assigned by the director, reviews each prayer, and, following four or five periods of prayer, reports back to the spiritual director of the retreat who helps them to understand what these experiences of prayer might mean to the retreatant. The goal of the Exercises is to reflect upon their experiences and to understand how these same experiences might apply to the retreatant's life.
In Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, God and Satan are presented as active players in the world and in the human psyche. The main aim of the Exercises is the development within the human psyche of "discernment" (discernio), the ability to discern between good and evil spirits. Discernment is achieved in order to act "with the Grace of God". In other words, to act on the spiritual discernment one has had on what is right. This is the context within which, during the exercises one thinks about humility, selflessness for the sake of the religious life, reflection upon natural sin. There is an acknowledgment that the human soul is continually drawn in two directions: both drawn towards Godliness, and at the same time tempted towards baseness. Accordingly the Exercises provide several illustrations of how one might best be able to refrain from satiating one's lower desires and instead how one might find a means to redirect one's energies towards the fulfillment of one's higher purpose in life. It also needs to be understood that at the heart of Ignatian thought "discernment", while on the one hand being an act of mysticism, can also be understood as a method of subjective ethical thought. The Exercises emphasize the role of ones own "discernment" in deciding what is the path to glorify God (the right path). "Discernment" attempts to make a direct connection between the individual exercitant's thought and action and the Grace of God. Discernment is thereby an action which potentially emphasizes the mystical experience of the believer independent of church hierarchical authority. This aspect of the Spiritual Exercises is very much typical of the mystical trend in Catholic thought and practice which both preceded the reformation and lived on within elements of counter-reformation Catholicism (cf. Theresa of Avila; François de Sales; Pierre de Bérulle). It also provides perhaps a spiritual 'raison-d'être' for the kind of progressive Jesuit action which has at times in history brought the Order into conflict with conservatives in the hierarchy.
Beginning in the 1980s, Protestants have had a growing interest in the Spiritual Exercises. There are recent (2006) adaptations that are specific to Protestants that emphasize the exercises as a school of contemplative prayer.
The Exercises are still, today, undertaken in their original form over the full 30 days. Participants in the full Exercises usually spend their days in silence, doing up to 5 hours prayer a day. In the original form each retreatant has a guide to help lead them through the meditations of the Exercises. The Exercises done in this full-time way offers what is probably the most intensive spiritual experience. Most commonly such a retreat is undertaken at a specialist retreat centre. Such Centres are found wherever there are large groups of Catholics. Europe USA -
Besides the 30 day enclosed form of the Exercises many undertake it in its "Exercises in everday or in daily life" (the other name is "19th annotation exercises" based on a remark of St. Ignatius in his book) form which brings the exercitant through the process of the Ignatian Exercises throughout a longer (several month up to a year and a half) period of time, time spent daily with reflection and prayer. This form has its advantages with respect to the enclosed form: it does not require extended stay in a retreat house and the learned methods of discernment can be tried out on the experiences life brings with it.
Spiritual Exercises in both of its main form are popular also among lay people in the Catholic Church all over the world, and lay organizations like the Christian life community place the Exercises at the center of their spirituality. The Exercises usually are undertaken with the help of a trained spiritual guide and can be done individually or in group that meets regularly to discuss how the process is going and various issues. Because of lack of trained guides also the self-guided form of the Exercises is spreading, and even online versions are offered like that one of the Creighton University: Online Retreat or several other ones. See for example "Step by Step Online Retreat" A special form of the Spiritual Exercises done in group form is if the retreat is undertaken by a married couple with or without the help of an external guide.