Lately, it seems like everywhere I go I see or hear the word mindfulness. The explosion of brain science around this topic has been hard to miss. Reported health benefits like reduced anxiety and depression as well as increased attention, creativity, and self-awareness are definitely enticing. Further, with all these findings, we are now encouraged to practice mindfulness through our eating, our parenting, our work life, our relationships and on and on. So, what is mindfulness really? I was left asking this question; more specifically, my curiosity was centered around mindfulness meditation as a contemplative practice. I wondered, “How does this practice compare to my current contemplative prayer practices?” and “Could I already be experiencing these reported health benefits or at least be well on my way?”
Mindfulness meditation is a simple practice that involves paying attention to the present moment through focusing on the breath or a mantra. When the mind wanders away, you are instructed to gently bring your attention back to the breath. Some commonly held goals of mindfulness meditation include: less suffering, greater fulfillment, deeper self-knowing, and behavior change. This practice encourages stillness, slowing down, silence, and present-centered, non-judgmental awareness. Interestingly, these elements happen to be found within almost all practices in the contemplative tradition, and, within the Christian contemplative tradition, the practice of centering prayer comes front and center.
Now, I am by no means a long-time practitioner of centering prayer and I have to admit I am a far cry from a star student of the practice. However, within in the few years I have been practicing, I have noticed openings and awarenesses within and around me that are hard to wrap words around. A basic definition of centering prayer is: a prayer method that consists of gently releasing our attention from our thoughts in order to rest in open attentiveness to the presence of God. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who can be credited with bringing centering prayer into contemporary life, says, “God’s first language is silence, the rest is poor translation.” Centering prayer requires that you invite and become comfortable with silence – a quieting of both the external distractions and our internal conversation. The goal then of this prayer is to shed our false self – our chattering mind – and grow our awareness of the presence and action of God within and around so that our experience and relationship with God is deepened.
While you may have noticed similarities in the descriptions of mindfulness meditation and centering prayer, there is a subtle, but key, difference. As a secular practice, mindfulness meditation requires focused attention with the hopes to acquire a desired state of being. Whereas, centering prayer releases attention with hopes to cultivate a deeper connection or relationship with the Divine. The key distinction is the goal or intention of each practice.
So often we think of our spiritual life as a static possession, something to be acquired through information and techniques. However, Robert Mullholland, in his book Invitation to a Journey, reminds us that spirituality is a journey, “a dynamic and ever-developing growth toward wholeness in the image of God.” The spiritual life is not yet another item for me to consume and master so that I might attain the desired benefits. It is a journey of deepening responsiveness to God, a letting go – self-emptying – process that ushers us into a deeper, fuller, truer way of embodying the One in whose image we are created.
So, now that I know what mindfulness meditation is and how it compares to my contemplative prayer practices, does my practice of centering prayer bring me the scientifically confirmed neurological benefits found within the practice of mindfulness meditation? The answer is likely yes; however, I must continually ask myself, “What is the intention behind my spiritual practice?” “Am I on a journey toward self-emptying or am I looking to consume and control?”
Where you do you find the intention behind your spiritual practice lies?