You know, you do not have to look far to see that mindfulness has become a popular topic. Lots of people are discovering the benefits of what is called mindfulness meditation, sometimes just called mindfulness. Studies indicate the long-term benefits of meditation. In the short term, people who meditate can find they are more relaxed, calmer, sleep better and have better mental health.
The techniques of mindfulness meditation are common to any practice where we are looking to sit and to pray in silence. Religions use such techniques to help people to grow in faith. Many world religions use meditation.
I would suggest though, that what we are striving for in Spend 5 with Jesus is not simply quiet meditation, even though this has many benefits. Rather, the “mechanics” we will discuss are really the equivalent of stretching before exercise. They form a way of getting us ready for the real focus, which is to deepen our relationship with Jesus. At the end of the day, we are seeking to access the power of the grace-filled relationship with Jesus, not simple to engage in more focus, or becoming calmer.
But the techniques used in mindfulness meditation are helpful to the process of prayer. For this reason, I am not critical of those who engage in mindfulness, or mindfulness meditation, but if they stop at the end of mindfulness meditation, I would suggest it is like looking at the cake for desert, getting ready to eat it, but never really enjoying the cake by eating it. At any rate, the purpose of meditation is always to place Jesus as the center.
So let’s get started, here is what I would suggest.
- Find a place to pray. For some, this may be the most difficult task of the process. For example, while I do pray in my room, I find it more conducive for my prayer to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Now for me, it’s just a matter of a short walk to a different spot in the Priory.
You may not be close to a place where you can pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Certainly you can find another spot for prayer. There is value in having a spot for prayer as it helps us to focus. The hope is to find a place where you can be free from distractions and to have some bit of silence. I know that some people have a little space with religious statues or images in their room, kind of like a small shrine.
The place you choose should serve to remind you of the presence of God. Saints like John Baptist de la Salle and Francis de Sales stressed the importance of recognizing that God is always present in our lives.
- Slow down. It is no secret that for many, life is getting busier and busier. It is also no secret that with the many technological devices, 24-hour news cycles, easy access of employees by employers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and the challenges of world events that our minds are active all the time.
And so, the first step is to focus on one’s breathing. I tell my students the goal is to breathe as slowly and as comfortably as they can. Every parent has probably said, and every child has probably heard the phrase “Take a deep breath, calm down.” When we focus on our breathing and slow down, we relax. There is a wonderful video on YouTube of a 6-year-old boy calming his younger brother by encouraging him to breathe calmly. In a world where we are constantly busy and active, we need to “switch gears” by slowing down.
- Use the right “posture.” I am sure many have been told not to slouch. That is not what I mean here when I say use the word posture. Rather, I mean recognizing that just as good athletes use proper technique, meditation too has proper technique. We are much more likely to be successful if we use proper technique in our silent prayer.
So first, find a place to sit. You can use a cushion and sit on the floor, or in a somewhat firm chair. Do you best to sit up straight, but not in a rigid way. Let your hands rest comfortably either on your legs or by your side. If you are sitting in a chair, place your feet flat on the floor, or if sitting on the floor, cross them slightly so that they are comfortable. Avoiding a posture that is more akin to sleep is a good idea. (This is the hardest part for my high school students, probably, at least in my view, is that too often this is the way they have experienced meditation in the past.) The reason it matters that we avoid postures more suited for sleep (like putting our head down on a desk) is that we are more likely to fall asleep. (By the way, this is a sign you are not getting enough sleep, not a sign you are engaging more deeply in meditation.) The bottom line is that you want to be comfortable, but also ready for an encounter, for that is the purpose of our silent prayer.
- Focus. What this means is to seek to become more attentive. How is that done? Generally, it is done in one of two ways. The first is to close our eyes. But some people find this to be anxiety producing action, and so it is just as effective to focus your gaze downward or off in the distance, but not in a way you focus on something else, but rather in a way you free your mind for an encounter. I refer to this as a staring off into space because the idea is to seek to blur out the world for a moment.
- Breathing. I have previously mentioned that breathing slowly and comfortably is important. Most of us probably do not pay much attention to our breathing, but seeking to slow down your breathing, feeling the air pass in and out, feeling your chest inflate and deflate all help us to become more aware of our inner self.
- Don’t fight distractions. Somewhere many people had ingrained deep inside of them that being distracted during prayer was a type of sin. I would suggest otherwise. First, our minds, our brains, are amazing. They can process so much information all while keeping us alive by regulating the functioning of our bodies. In fact, the neurological connections in our brains are so numerous and so complex, some scientists are skeptical we will ever be able to develop artificial intelligence that can do what a human brain can do.
Second, especially at first, the attempt to focus on our breathing, and not on our actions can be taken by our brain as a sign that we are available to think about other things. If we are not accustomed to being able to “sit and do nothing” then not only will our brains switch into hyperdrive with thoughts, but they will be like that annoying little brother that keeps competing for our attention. I find it helpful to keep a little notebook or a piece of paper to jot down something really important I do not want to forget. I find that this simple practice keeps me from being distracted by this same thought over and over again.
Third, and most important, maybe God is trying to communicate with you not in spite of your distracting thoughts, but because of or through your distracting thoughts. I have developed the practice that if a person keeps coming into my mind over and over again, I pray for them. I usually share this with the person I am praying for, and often I discover that they are dealing with a difficult situation of some sort.
Lastly, fighting your distractions means that you are more likely to find they become stronger. Simply acknowledge your distractions and refocus.
At first, these focusing techniques are all you might wish to do. But after a while you will want to focus on asking Jesus to come into your heart, or to deepen your faith. Remember the ultimate goal is to focus on Jesus and to deepen your relationship with him. I will focus in the upcoming days on various ways to bring this “warmup” to prayer.