Mindfulness and Prayer – an article in TMA

I was pleased to have this article published in the June edition of The Melbourne Anglican newspaper this week.Chelle 9/5/2013

“Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment non judgmentally.”

~Jon Kabat-Zinn

It is easy for Christians to bemoan the secularization of Western culture, but is the unshackling of spiritual practice from religion always such a bad thing?  Since the 1970s, there have been a number of health professionals exploring the benefits of ancient meditation practices for physical and psychological wellbeing.  I recently took an opportunity to attend a five day mindfulness retreat in the mode of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – an eight week course which is now run in many and varied contexts across the globe – which was an opportunity to explore this question.

The aim of this silent retreat was to maintain five continuous days of mindfulness drawing upon ‘sitting meditation’; walking meditation; mindful eating, drinking, listening and all other -ings involved in living.  As a non-religious meditation tradition it focused on the resources of the body for slowing down the conscious mind and accessing more of the sub- and un-conscious resources of the brain and body.

By focusing on the breath, or some other single point (a candle flame, a mouthful of food, a movement) the ‘thinking’ part of your brain is invited to ‘rest’ and let other parts of your brain’s capacity come to the fore.  By allowing the body to ‘speak’, or perhaps better said, setting aside time to ‘listen’, I became aware of desires and hurts that I’d not realized I’d been carrying, weighing down my body and tiring my mind.

The brain controls more than just limbs and ligaments: it is the command centre for the body’s emotions, instincts, memories and it translates all the information coming into the body from the senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.  Mindfulness is a strategy to move our conscious attention from physical sensations of the body to the feelings more difficult to categorise: a strategy that is acknowledged by the contemplative traditions within all world religions.

When the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating introduces ‘centering prayer’ in his book Open Mind, Open Heart (2002), the first thing he says is that silent prayer is not the same as relaxation.  Prayer is always relational; it is an intentional opening of oneself to the divine, which for Christians is known through the person of Jesus Christ.

 “When we say, ‘Let us pray’, we mean, ‘Let us enter into relationship with God’, or ‘Let us deepen the relationships we have’, or ‘Let us exercise our relationship with God’.”

In meditation I seek to make conscious my deeper, fuller self in relation to the universe, which I can then in turn, convert to prayer.  This is ‘offering your body as a living sacrifice’ at the same time as ‘renewing your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2).

It takes a lot of concentration and a certain amount of determination, to gently lay aside rational (and irrational) thought in order to give room for sensation to arise without judgment.  MBSR instructors will tell you that you need to ‘practice’ mindfulness for at least an hour every day in order to develop the habits that sustain these kind of physical and emotional benefits in everyday life.

This might include a half hour of sitting/lying meditation morning and night, in addition to brief exercises of mindfulness through-out the day: taking the time to notice the process of eating your lunch for example; or pausing at your desk for two minutes to notice what is happening with your posture; or slowing down to wash your hands in the bathroom, noticing the feel of the water on your skin, the movement of the muscles and ligaments in your fingers, the change in sensation from dry to wet to dry hands.

Everyone can benefit from knowing themselves better and stress management is now a health priority for many.  MBSR has been shown to be an effective pain management technique when incorporated into an overall treatment plan for chronic illness; for example, it is proving to be a successful therapy for suffers of fibromyalgia (chronic, undiagnosable pain).  How could the world’s religious object to such great health outcomes, even as they themselves are sidelined by the secularization of mindfulness as a tool for human flourishing?

However, Christians lose something precious if completely buy into the secularization of our spiritual practices.  Christ reveals something beyond the mysterious depths of human wisdom; God is beyond the vast limits of human knowing.  The mindfulness movement is an invitation to recover our own contemplative traditions and practices geared towards the contemporary world.

As a precursor for prayer, mindfulness illustrates that our relationship with God has at least two distinct movements – opening to ourselves and opening towards God – both of which are critical before a further dynamic opening ourselves up to the world.  Taking the time to connect with oneself in such a deep way before turning towards God invites God into the deepest recesses of our hearts, mind, body and soul.  It is consciously choosing to relinquish autonomy and alienation from the divine.

Towards the end of the mindfulness retreat I found myself convinced that every fiber of my being was Love, by no means an unfamiliar concept to me as a student of theology.  However, this was knowledge I discovered held in my flesh, not just the pages of Scripture; and it is knowledge that directs my every move as the brain directs the actions of the body.

Moot @ St. Mary’s Aldermary

There are many stunning church buildings in London – St. Mary’s Aldermary has been one of my favourites. The high, ornate ceiling is painted pure white – like a many tiered bridal gown – and by its simultaneous simplicity and elaborate intricacies draw the human attention upwards.

It is in this setting that I attended a Moot Contemplative Service, that was almost identical in form to the one I attended at Greenbelt. Hence it was an excellent opportunity to learn from the contrasting settings. I found it easy to step into my own familiar and deep inwardness during this communal contemplation whereas the service at Greenbelt was marked with struggle. So what was different?

  1. To get to a Moot Contemplative Service at St. Marys Aldermay you need to commit to getting on the tube from where-ever you are and being there late on a Sunday. So preparation for worship, the commitment to be there, comes hours beforehand if not longer.
  2. I knew what to expect at the service which meant that I was preparing to pray inwardly and deeply long before I arrived.
  3. The service didn’t start until everyone had a chance to have a cuppa and chat, by which time I’d met both of the people involved in leading the liturgy plus 2 or 3 others. So there were relationships in place by the time we started to pray together. (At the Greenbelt service I spoke to no-one until after the service.)
  4. The layout of the church building allows for the space to be structured: there was a place for chatting and a place for praying which actually helped me transition from one to the other.
  5. The space is beautiful. Peaceful. But most importantly, quiet. You cannot get away from the need for a quiet space for silent contemplation.
  6. My final reflection is something for which I do not currently have an explanation so it must be stated as a question: I wonder what is the effect of praying in the same space as where millions of other prayers have been spoken there before? Does a space have a memory? It is not an uncommon assertion or assumption but one that my evangelical heritage would have no part of. As I reflected on this further, my question became: is it that people have prayed here for centuries that makes it special, or is it just that it is old? Could the ancient land in australia have the same impact, not because Christians have worshipped on a particular spot for a thousand years, but simply because it is ancient? Does an old pot from pompei have the same magic? What is it that makes these old church buildings adept at inspiring human spirituality?

In relation to this last, I’ve had two further thoughts that might be relevant.  First, in indigenous Australian culture, not all land is equal!  There is some land which is more sacred than others: special places where the stories are birthed.  It is the land’s connection to the sacred stories that gives them their spiritual power.  Second, in the Old Testament when Israel set aside special places, like Mount Zion, it is not because they are ancient, but rather because God was met there.  Even in the tabernacle, which later became the temple, that is a Holy Place because God has deemed it to be a place of connection with Godself.  This is perhaps the very definition of Holy – something ordinary set aside to signify something extra-ordinary.


Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson

(Harper One; New York, 1986)

I wonder whether one reason theologies in the Enlightenment tradition have struggled to deal with the topic of religious experience is because it is just very difficult to explain, and Enlightenment empiricism is all about explaining data.  Somehow, my friend ‘the painter’ and my friend ‘the story teller’ seem much more equipped than I to communicate something meaningful about the inner life of human beings.  Well, that may be the case, but this post is my attempt at some explanation of my inner spirituality.

Robert Johnson is a Jungian analyst who has written several books on the inner life.  He writes really well, so if you want a book to facilitate personal engagement with psycho-analytic tools for personal-growth I recommend him.  Though I also recommend you don’t get into this without some kind of trusted and skilled, debrief person in place.  In this book Johnson describes the tools of dream analysis and active imagination, tools for waking up the unconscious world of our psyche.  Night dreams are different to active imagination and the process of working with dreams and imagination is different.  The former is m0re reflective, given that one begins to interact with the story only upon it’s conclusion when the dreamer wakes up!  Journalling is key to both strategies as a way to hone insight. 

I’ve never had much memory of my dreams so that’s not been all that helpful to me.  Active imagination however, has been very powerful.  Active imagination as Johnson describes it seems to be parallel to hypnotherapy as it is practised in many clinical psychology settings.  It is an exercise is internal story telling, whilst relaxed and focused within one’s self.  In my experience active imagination has always been a vibrant, 3D movie world!  To prepare I go through a relaxation exercise and put on the 3D glasses, opening my mind to the unfolding story.

Johnson is careful to distinguish between active imagination and fantasy.  In imagination, you do not force the unfolding of the story, you just let it be.  They feel very different.   In my experience fantasy has a shade of the illicit to it, like I am manipulating the characters from behind the scenes.  I’m not an advocate of indulging fantasy! 

Johnson is also careful to distinguish between archetypal voices or persons in the imagination and the personal characters.  An archetypal image is one that is universal – that every human being would have access to in their imagination.  Characters who fulfil social roles are classic archetypes – mother, lover, child, heroine, and so on.  The reason why the Greek gods and goddesses are so often used as symbolic representions of the archetypes is the sense of their eternal existence, and in my internal images, they take on a kind of grandeur and glamour – they are ‘larger than life’.  There are other figures in my imagination which are more ordinary and reflect the particular experience of my life.  They don’t stand for everyone’s experiences – just mine.   It’s not that they are less integral characters to the storyline, they are just not as luminous.  It’s kind of like the difference between a blockbuster moviestar and a character actress from an interesting indi film.  These stories of my inner life are full of drama and dilemmas – they’d actually make pretty good movie scripts!

So right away here, there are at least 2 types of ‘voices’  or articulations of my whole personhood in my inner life, that I am clear are quite distinct.  What has fascinated me on this journey however, is that this kind of unconscious story telling is also very different to the experiences of my prayerful imagination.  Whilst on retreat several months ago, a vivid and vibrant image popped into my head as a picture of my inner ‘place’ of prayer – it’s been a wonderful gift.  Jesus is there.  As is the Father and the Holy Spirit.  So too are all the people who I hold in my heart, and a very distinct version of myself.  It’s a place of conversation and engagement with God – we talk (we hug) and I mull over important decisions and directions there.  As characters in the storyline of my imagination, God feels very different to the images of my self.  There is something independent about God, just as my friends and family remain their own distinct person, no matter how close we feel.  This place of prayer is for me a place of integration.  I am my self.  God is God’s self.  Others are them selves.   (By the way, Johnson advises to be careful about using real people in active imagination – we have no right to impose our choices on other people, even in the privacy of our inner world.)  Prayer imagination is full of scriptural images and indeed that has become for me the litmas test as to whether it is a conversation with God (prayer) or a conversation with my self (active imagination) – prayer images match up with scriptural images and themes.  They also have discernable consequences of blessing – a flow on affect, usually for others as well as myself. 

So, now we’re up to 5 different types of characters that come up for me in imagination – the archetypes, aspects of my semi- and un-conscious self, my whole self, God, and any number of real individuals (when I’m in prayer only, because I reform real people in active imagination, searching for the expression of my self not the other).    But wait, there’s more!  Very occasionally in my 40 years I have heard the distinct voice of God speak directly to me.  That experience was one of something totally beyond me intruding into my inner space, in quite a startling and unsettling way.  Sometimes an insight might startle me – a penny drops and I suddenly ‘know’ something with absolutely clarity. Like a little bubble of fresh air burbed up from the deep. Still feels like I came up with it myself.  The God intrusions feel different. 

That’s 7 different experiences of the inner life.  It’s busy!  It’s often very noisy in my head!!  Compare that then, with the practice of contemplative prayer. 

Christian meditation focuses on the emptying or stilling of the mind, as all meditation does.  However, the emphasis for the Christian is on openness to that which is wholly other.  The mysterious fullness of God which is beyond all human articulation – in words or images.  I often think about it as making space to encounter God, I have to clear things out of the way for God to get in the room!  There is such a luxurious peacefulness about that which, for me, is entirely at odds with my experience of my self.  I do not lose myself when God envelopes me, but I am wrapped up and cajoaled like a newborn baby.   

It’s taken me quite some time to write this post but I persisted because I think it’s really important.  I believe that knowing ourselves to deeper levels is critical for the Church in this time of massive socio-cultural transition.  We will not move beyond factionalism and marginalisation until we can live powerfully from a place of knowing with infinite certainty that we are loved and lovable.

‘Is there a Future for Gender and Theology?’ by Sarah Coakley

(In Criterion 47:1 (2009), 2-11.   Access online  here.)

Call it God, the Universe or the Mystery of Life but I’m not the only one who experiences the wonder of meeting just the right people at just the right time.  All those posts about spirituality, sexuality, psychology, love and marriage … enter Sarah Coakley.  Sarah has a theology chair at Cambridge and writes integrating interests in systematics, postmodern hermeneutics, spirituality, contemplation, mysticism, feminism, anglicanism (she’s a priest), Depth Psychology,  the body and sexuality, biology, ecology, and any other thing I could possibly desire in  reddress theology!   She has a book in the pipeline called The New Asceticism (first promised late 2010, now early 2012 – we should pray for her!)

In this essay Coakley outlines how combining investigations into postmodern gender issues and trinitarian systematic theology forges some important pathways into knowing God.

“It is the very threeness of God… transformatively met in the Spirit, which gives the key to a view of gender that is appropriately founded in bodily practices of prayer…  [Giving rise to] … an understanding of theology in progressive transformation… and one founded not in any secular rationality or theory of selfhood, but in a spiritual practice of paying attention that mysteriously challenges and expands the range of rationality, and simultaneously darkens and breaks one’s hold on previous certainties.”

She addresses three typically postmodern suspicions about the meta-narrative approach of systematic theology, in which she identifies entangled objections about power, knowledge and gender.  The first of these is an onto-theological suspicion that systematics too readily turns theology into idolatry.  The second comes from liberation critiques which identify the tendencies for overarching systems to give refuge to controlling and oppressive uses of power.  Third, French post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory identifies systematic thinking as intrinsically phallocentric.

Coakley suggests that a contemplative approach to systematics is able to address each of these difficulties in it’s capacity to transform (redeem) ‘desire’.  Desire to control for the sake of managing one’s deepest fears, gives way to a Desire to be in free relationship to others.  The refining fire is of course, the “naked longing for God” which the “desiring trinitarian God” implants in us.  It is through contemplative prayer that we most fully encounter the Triune God whom Jesus Christ revealed.  She argues (and I agree) that Human Spiritual Desire is more fundamental than sexual desire, lust for political control, love of money, and so on.  By addressing the human spirit’s desire for the divine (think in Jungian categories here) theology has the capacity to look at those other desires from a different angle.

“The very act of contemplation – repeated, lived, embodied, suffered – is an act that, by grace, and over time, precisely inculcates mental patterns of un-mastery, welcomes the dark realm of the unconscious, opens up a radical attention to the other, and instigates an acute awareness of the messy entanglement of sexual desires and desire for God.”

Sarah Coakley’s writing is so erudite and beautiful that one finds oneself considering really complex and contentious concepts before you even notice you’ve traversed into stormy waters.  It’s worth taking a look at this article for her trinitarian conceptualizations as much as for her theological foundations for the sex debates raging in the Church.   Do yourself a favour… [read the article]