As I continue my series of posts on the Christian mindfulness practices (you can check out the earlier posts here and here), today I want to talk about my favorite form of meditation–Contemplative Prayer. As with Lectio Divina, contemplative prayer took me a long time to wrap my head around. Every time I read or encountered practitioners of this discipline, they always seem to speak in a foreign language. These Christian mystics would write about knowing God beyond knowing or having indescribable encounters with the divine. To my Western-culture-raised and left-brained thinking, it all sounded like a bunch of hokum.
My breakthrough came as I was studying the effects of meditation on the brain for my doctoral research project. Keep in mind that I am not a neuroscientist, I just find the field fascinating. In simple terms, I read that there are two ways that we humans encounter the world around us–two distinct brain pathways for processing experience. The more common pathway is the default network. This is the experience we have with the running commentary of our brain’s switched on. This running commentary is always yammering about something and never seems to want to quiet down.
The other pathway is that of direct experience. This is the pathway of mindfulness, when the running commentary is turned off and we experience the world around us in real-time. The Body Scan meditation is a good example of this. We are simply focusing on the sensations of our bodies and tuning out everything else.
What does all of this have to do with prayer? Well I came to realize that what the mystics I had trouble understanding were engaging with God through direct experience rather than through their default network. In Contemplative Prayer, they were experiencing the presence of God with their mental commentary turned off (or at least turned down quite a bit). In other words, they were practicing Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
“Be still, and know that I am God.”Psalm 46:10 English Standard Version
Now compare this to how we typically pray to God. Often, we are too busy talking at God, that we never spend time listening, let along resting in the presence of God. There is a time for talking to and asking God for help. There is a time for listening to and hearing God speak through His Word and through the Holy Spirit (lectio divina). Then there is a time for enjoying the presence of God without expectation as two friends. Contemplative prayer is the latter.
So how do we go about contemplative prayer? To be clear, I have not “mastered” this practice, but I am working at it. Most often I will do this to end my time with God after reading scripture or praying through my prayer list. I begin with the Breath Meditation, breathing deeply and focusing on my breath to quiet my inner monologue and running commentary.
Then I will introduce what writers on contemplative prayer call the sacred word. That may sound weird, but don’t worry. This is not a “magic” word. Rather, think of this as a kind of short-hand prayer between you and God. For example, between my wife and I, we have developed a habit of just saying “You” to mean “I love you.” The one word encompasses all that we mean to express about how we feel towards each other. In the same way, choose a short-hand, one word or a simple phrase between you and God that encompasses your prayer and desire to be with Him. The reasoning behind this is because we want to keep the inner monologue quieted so we can focus on God’s presence instead of our words. Whenever our minds start to wander, we return to the sacred word and to our breath in order to focus. Then we rest in God’s presence, knowing He is with us.
Typically I set an alarm with a gentle gong or chime so I am not distracted by the time. Again, I am not an expert. I usually go about nine minutes before my thoughts are too distracting to continue. Once I get to ten-minutes, I will shoot for fifteen and so on. So start yourself at five minutes and build from there. That would be five more minutes of intentionally enjoying the presence of God than you are doing right now. Let me know how it goes for you.