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.

Prayer as Crucible by Sarah Coakley

Christian Century, March 2011

Sarah Coakley is an excellent writer, perhaps especially for an academic theologian!  She is clear, concise and somehow very direct: a ‘straight shooter’ we might say.  I always get the impression that whatever ends up on the page has been ruminating in her head for a long time – like a slow cooked roast, ready now to fall off the bone and melt in the mouth.

In this article for Christian Century magazine, she explains how her experience of contemplative prayer has transformed her understanding of theology.  In her first academic post Coakley started a program of transcendental meditation and quickly discovered the power of silence.  She then started a quest to understand what was happening to her in the silence through the wisdom of the Christian tradition in which she was academically trained as well as spirituality formed from childhood.

This is something similar to my own experience: the shock of discovering the transformative power of silence.  Of discovering reams of cognition beyond rationality and in particular the depths of knowledge we hold physically in our body.  Yes, I still feel a little self-conscious when I come out with statements like this: in particular my non-spiritual family members clearly think I’m on drugs!  But once you’ve experienced it there is no turning back.

“I hadn’t been going longer than about two months with this simple discipline of 20 minutes of silence in the morning and early evening when what I can only call a seismic shift of seemingly unspeakable proportions began to afflict me. Whatever was going on here was not only “transcendental” but severely real…
But I must not leave the impression that this adventure in prayer was all anxiety-making, although its initial impact on my sense of self as a young theologian was certainly that. Underneath was an extraordinary sense of spiritual and epistemic expansion —of being taken by the hand into a new world of glorious technicolor, in which all one’s desires were newly magnetized toward God, all beauty sharpened and intensified. Yet simultaneously all poverty, deprivation and injustice were equally and painfully impressed with new force on my consciousness…
Lest this seem like a claim to some special supernatural encounter, I hasten to add that the daily practice of silence itself was usually more like the tedious quotidian discipline of brushing one’s teeth than anything else. It was the effects outside prayer—including, of course, the effects on other normal Christian or academic duties (hearing the Word, participating in the sacraments, attending to students in difficulties, writing lectures and so on)—that were initially hard to quantify and yet palpably transforming of all my previous theological assumptions.  “

Coakley identifies three areas where her experience of silence has transformed her approach to theology.

First, Control and Loss of Control: ‘powers and submissions’.  For a feminist, power is a primary preoccupation, particularly personal power.  Is not this kind of submission to God a dangerous relinquishing of our individuality?  No, because this is prayer: the place where we become our best, most powerful selves.

“submission to God and silence before God—being unlike any other submission or any other silence— was that which empowered one to speak against injustice and abuse and was the ground of true freedom (in God) rather than its suppression.”

Second, Coakley discovered Sex, bodiliness and the Mystery of Desire in prayer.  I have been utterly surprised at the intense physicality of sitting still!  My personal meditation practices have veered more and more towards conscientious embodiment, particularly using breathing to refocus my attention on that abstract ‘space’ within me where my true and whole self encounters God.  This transition into the body, integrated with head and heart, was one I desperately needed to make, and for the first time I understand Jesus’ metaphor of being ‘born again’.  As for my concept of sexuality: it was blown out of the water!  Sarah’s description perfectly matches my own:

“No less disturbing than the loss of noetic control in prayer and all that followed from that was the arousal, intensification and reordering of desire that this praying engendered. Anyone who has spent more than a short time on her or his knees in silence will know of the almost farcical raid that the unconscious makes on us in the sexual arena in such prayer, as if this is a sort of joke that God has up God’s sleeve to ensure that “ourselves, our souls and bodies” are what we present to God and not some pious disembodied version of such. Our capacity as Christians to try to keep sex and God in different boxes is seemingly limitless, but the integrative force of silent prayer simply will not allow this, or not for very long.”

The third change Coakley identifies is particularly relevant to her vocation as philosophical theologian.  Rationality and its expansion: variations on post-foundationism.  In silence, we encounter an expanded experience of cognition.  Knowledge and ‘truth’ take new and varied forms and we realise that empirical knowledge is but one small aspect of the whole.  All I can say is, ‘Amen Sarah, amen!’

“In a period when there has been a remarkable set of attacks on classical foundationalism by both philosophers and theologians, I have again felt myself to be plowing a subtly different course as a result of the prayer perspective I have tried to outline above… My own response to this philosophical and theological crisis is one that seeks to analyze the dark testing of contemplation as precisely an epistemological challenge. In other words, I continue to reject another false modern disjunction—that between spirituality and philosophy. It is not that contemplation affords just another sectarian theological perspective, which one can take or leave as one wills. Rather, its painful and often dark expansion of consciousness, its integration of thought and affect and its ethical sensitizing to what is otherwise neglected (including, of course, the poor “who are always with us”) all demand that one give an account of how philosophy, and science and politics too, cannot ultimately afford to ignore the apprehensions that contemplation invites.”

You can access a copy of the whole article on the Christian Century website:  http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-03/prayer-crucible