My recent days at the monastery allowed me some time to revisit a method of prayer that I have been using for years.
It began when I was in college, inundated with overwhelming academic pressure and newly discovered distractions, leaving me in a vortex of spinning thoughts. A fraternity brother and I went to a Transcendental Meditation Center newly opened in Atlanta in order to learn how to meditate. This was following a time in which the Beatles traveled to India to study with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who was teaching a method of meditation using a mantra ( a prayer word). After an interview with an instructor, we were given our mantra, a two-syllable word, that we would use to focus on our breathing, in and out, to assist us in taming the “monkey mind? of distraction. It did help me to focus and gave me a coping mechanism to enable me to calm my mind.
Soon thereafter, I discovered the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia. The Trappists, namely Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and Basil Pennington, were bringing forward a method of contemplative prayer which they named Centering Prayer. I was most fortunate to befriend a monk, Father Tom Francis, who had been trained in teaching this method and he kindly gave me a series of sessions to train me on how to employ this practice. It involved meditating for twenty minutes twice a day, using a prayer word of your own choosing that would help you to center. The method reminded me of TM although there are distinctions.
Centering Prayer has been my main way of pausing, of praying, to regularly stop in the busyness of the day, to allow me to shift out of my mental activity that whirs with analytic thought. This strategic pause allows me to engage the right hemisphere of my brain that is intuitive and sees connections in my world. Both functions, the analytical, slicing and dicing the world into the smallest parts in order to understand it better (the left hemisphere), and the integrative, wholistic, intuitive function of the right hemisphere, are important. But as psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist points out, our Western culture is dominated by the scientific, analytical function. My meditation times give me that gift of taking a “pause for the cause”. My aim has been for a balance, a proper Anglican “via media”, but the culture tends to get the best of me at times. My time away at the monastery reminded me of that deficiency and called me to be more disciplined and intentional in my practice.
Through the years, I have continued to study contemplative prayer within my own Christian tradition. I have appreciated the expansive work of Episcopal priest, Cynthia Bourgeault, on Centering Prayer. She studied extensively with Thomas Keating and has put her own mark on the tradition, emphasizing the self-emptying, kenotic way of being in the world. I also took a number of classes at Drepung Loseling in Atlanta, a Tibetan Buddhist center in their uniquely pragmatic methods of increasing compassion towards one’s neighbor. And I have followed Jon Cabot-Zinn’s scientific research on mindfulness, specifically its use for stress reduction for medical professionals.
Most recently, I have studied with Shirzad Chamine who has written a popular book, Positive Intelligence, that focuses on methods to calm our ego’s frantic activity to control our lives. Using a method that promotes “mental fitness”, he offers methods that engage sensory prompts that frees us from the cognitive saboteurs that entrap us in a cage of obsession.
All of these methods have similar goals and means by which to settle your distracted mind. The basic process is that of sitting comfortably. Some recommend shutting your eyes, other methods prefer a soft gaze forward. I am pragmatic: do whatever works best for you.
Take three deep breaths, inhaling through your nose, adding a bit by opening your mouth at the end of inhalation. Hold briefly, then exhale, mouth open. You are slowing your rhythm, filling your lungs with oxygen. Then, breathe mindfully, paying attention to your breathing, with a natural inhalation, followed by a normal exhale of the breath. You are focusing on your breath, and/or your two-syllable word that frees your mind from the chatter and clutter of thoughts. If you are new to the practice, be prepared to encounter stray thoughts entering your mind. Without judgment, with patience, return to your focus on your breath or your chosen mantra, or both. Again, experiment as to what works best for you.
If you are beginning, you might start with 5-10 minutes per session, ideally one in the morning, one in the evening. The standard in most practices is 20 minutes, but that may seem like an eternity when you are in your early meditation practice. Again, pragmatism is not a bad way to start: Do what works for you. The main thing is to be committed to the Pause, in order to quiet the ego mind and liberate the free presence which offers integration.
There are many books that will take you deeper into your practice. And, there are apps on your phone that will prompt you and time your meditation. There is actually a Centering Prayer app available. But the main thing is to just do it…PAUSE. It will provide you with a center for your Self that is a beneficial addition in this world filled with distraction. Blessings.
2 thoughts on “Pause”
Both practical and understandable.
Thanks, Kevin. I am diving into a bit more robust tine of prayer.