MINDFULNESS as CHRISTIAN CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER
A Potted History
This word ‘Mindfulness’ has become well known since the 1960s as part of Buddhist practice; and recently even better known with medical research into how “meditation” and/or “mindfulness” can have a very beneficial effect on the human mind, without any religious overtones to it at all.
The actual practice which is very familiar in Buddhism of every tradition—Theravada, Zen, Chan, Tibetan practice etc.—has been used prayerfully in the ancient Christian churches (Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic) linked with faith in Jesus as the Son of God, since the early centuries. It is almost always linked with “meditation”. It was probably learned first from wandering holy men (Buddhist and Hindu) and adapted and “baptised” as it were, to make it a Christian practice too, by Christian monks & nuns from the time of the desert fathers and mothers.
It was widespread until the spread of the monastic movement after St Benedict, (d. circa555) when ‘Lectio Divina’ became popular as a way of listening and responding to the Word of God. It is another form of contemplative prayer, based on personal listening to God. In the Orthodox tradition mindfulness was linked with the Jesus prayer whose origin is in the NT.: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” in various shortened forms as well as this full form. Eastern Christians tended to use beads as well, just as Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims do. This was long before what became known as “the rosary” in the Western Church. The shortest form of the Jesus prayer was simply the name of Jesus or “Jesus, Mercy” with each in-breath and out-breath. Whatever the method, it was an attempt to “pray always” as St Paul encourages us. See the book “The Way of the Pilgrim” for this Orthodox approach to praying always.
The medieval mystics in the Western Christian (mainly RC) tradition also spoke of praying “simply” and recommended a very short phrase or one word with the breath. Best known people/books are “The Cloud of Unknowing” by an anonymous 14th century English mystic, and various places in the writings of people like Meister Eckhart, St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich and others. A 14/15th century Carmelite friar, Br Lawrence wrote “The Practice of the Presence of God”. This is widely read and used even today in and outside the RC tradition. This practice of invoking or becoming aware of God’s presence in every ordinary action spread throughout the Western Church. The Eastern tradition largely kept to the Jesus Prayer, total silence, and praying with icons. N.B. This is all very “broad brush stroke” in approach. There are volumes about each stage of development. A 17th-cent. Jesuit spiritual teacher, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in his book “Abandonment to Divine Providence” links what is now called ‘mindfulness’ with the RC teaching on God’s loving will for us in every moment. A modern translation of this book is: “The Sacrament of the Present Moment”. (see below)
After the Protestant Reformation there was great suspicion of silent prayer, and much emphasis on reading and listening to the Word, and preaching, thus limiting Lectio Divina to the first 2 parts of the process, Lectio and Meditatio. Prayer became less contemplative and more about words, thoughts and good actions . Even now some Christian denominations fear silent contemplative prayer/mindfulness. (I have even met people who think is it “demonic”.) In the RC tradition, “saying prayers”, including the prayers of the Mass, and after 13th century the Rosary, seemed to be enough for many people.
This contemplative tradition was widely recovered in the 1960s when many people, young and older, looked to the East for a wisdom they could not find in the Western faith practices. Some Christian teachers tried to link the wisdom of East and West e.g. missionaries from the East who themselves re-discovered it. (such people as William Johnston SJ, Anthony de Mello SJ, an Indian, Thomas Green) and many others. In USA it began to be called “Centering Prayer” and was widely publicised and taught in religious congregations to form their members in contemplative prayer. So contemplative prayer became a practice for lay people and “religious” alike.
After Vatican II, in the middle '60s onwards, Catholics were encouraged to dialogue with people of other Faiths. Many people then discovered that what we called by one name, people of other Faiths also practised, under another name. Hence people began to incorporate Buddhist practices that had helped them into their Christian approach to contemplative (Centering) prayer. And that is where we are today. Some Christians of a more conservative trend regard this attitude with suspicion and see the danger of syncretism. It can be a real danger if people are not clear (in heart and mind) about their faith.
Mindfulness and Meditation/Contemplative prayer are almost always linked with ‘the breath’ in all traditions. In Christian terms, the sacredness of the breath goes back to the earliest book of the OT (Gen. Ch 1) and the word ruach in Hebrew. This meant breath, wind, spirit, and referred to the Spirit of God, breathing over the waters of chaos. In the book of Exodus when God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush, he does so by using a name or concept very well known in Hinduism and Buddhism. “YHWH” meant “AM” or “IS”. So Moses has to tell the Egyptians that THE ONE WHO IS has sent him. This name is without any limit, it signifies existence, reality, without bounds or dualism... Buddhists speak of “the Unborn, the Undying, the Unconditioned, the One Reality”. The Hindu term is “Advaita”, meaning non-dual. Christians use the name “God” for this one, limitless Reality, and we have an understanding that it entails a three-fold love-relationship which we call the Trinity. Jews do not want to pronounce the unpronounceable, and in the OT changed YHWH to “Adonai” which is usually translated ‘Lord’ or ‘Lord God’. Muslims call this being Allah. Christians interested in interreligious dialogue with other faiths point out that though we differ in our understanding of the One God, this difference does not alter the Nature of God. As the Hebrew Scriptures say: “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is God; the Lord is ONE”. Muslims and Christians are equally insistent on the Oneness of God. Jews and Muslims cannot, of course, understand or accept any concept of Trinity, or of Jesus as Word of God made man.
For Western Christians, one way of combining Mindfulness, Breath and the Sacred Name is to take the holy name YHWH, and breathe thus: Yah—on the in-breath and Weh—on the out-breath, keeping the lips slightly parted. Being a word without consonants, it cannot be pronounced, only breathed. (Richard Rohr learned this from a Jewish rabbi friend, and teaches this method). For a Christian the significance of this is that we too are one with God. I am not God, but I am not separated from God.
In general, breathing as a practice in prayer came to mean asking the Holy Spirit, breath of God, to fill and use us. The WCCM (Word Community of Christian Meditation: spiritual leader Lawrence Freeman, OSB) recommend using the early Aramaic prayer “Marana tha” (Come, Lord) with each breath, the Spirit/breath being the Spirit of Jesus.
The Sacrament of the Present Moment
Sacrament = an outward, visible, tangible object or event, which symbolises an inner spiritual reality. In this case, being in the present moment by mindfulness, prayer, meditation (call it what you prefer) means you are REALLY in union with God who is the ONE REALITY; and whose name is “I AM”—totally present. Not, I was, or I will be, or I might be, much less the way our mind often goes, e.g. “If only I were ...” or “If only I had not been ...”.
Present Moment: In theological terms of our relationship with God, only the present moment exists. There is no ‘past’ or ‘future’. Even when we centre in the present, it has gone into the past immediately. So the one link to God/Reality, which can ONLY be in the present, is our breath. In our minds we are usually in the past or future. The body and breath can only be in the present, moment by moment. Wonderful ....
The Practice of the Presence of God
So when we develop a regular practice of meditation/mindfulness/recalling oneself to the present moment and the breath, we are in union with God’s will for us at each moment. The phrase “Here I am” (Hebrew: Hinnayne) is all over the Bible from Adam to the Book of Revelation, when God called someone and wanted to “speak” to them. (You can check it out!)
To develop the practice, we ‘just’ need to slow down, pause before each act (it need not be noticeable), breathe with this intention or even the word, “(Here) I am” (Yah-weh) or something similar. In the E Orthodox, it is always the Jesus prayer. It fulfils St Paul’s injunction: “Whatever you do..... do all in the name of Jesus”. And “pray without ceasing”. (See below “Morning Offering” practice.)
Mindfulness and Intercession
One of the ways of combining the practice of mindfulness (etc.) with the Christian desire to intercede for each other is :
1. Move into your meditation/prayer position and become still.
2. Make the intention that this time and prayer is for ... (general or specific intention)
3. Simply carry on with the practice, knowing that you are united with God (I AM) at each moment.
Buddhists of different traditions use mindfulness and “Metta” meditation much as Christians pray “for” people.
In the Theravada tradition in Buddhism, the “metta” practice is what Christians would call intercession or ‘prayer for’ others,. The word metta means “loving kindness”. The practice is:
1. Imagine the person to whom you want to send loving compassion;
2. As you breathe in, imagine and ‘see’ that person’s needs;
3. As you breathe out, “send” loving compassion to that person.
[Note: Part 2 is something like accepting one’s own negativities in mindfulness practice]
Frequently Theravada Buddhists will take a series of people as subject for metta meditation, and do one after the other. A whole period can be spent on this. Christian meditation sessions often end with a brief time of “intercession” of this type.
A. someone I love;
B. someone I am indifferent to;
C. something I dislike;
D. someone who has injured me.
E. end with yourself and your own needs, breathing in loving compassion towards yourself
Some Buddhists recommend starting with yourself to be in the best frame of mind to send compassion to others. In this kind of practice words such as “May I be well, may I
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a very similar practice called Tonglen. It is taught and has been spread in the West by the Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche. See his book: “The Book of Living and Dying.”
It is very similar, but more challenging than Metta meditation. It is not to be undertaken lightly. In the first stage as above, it means that you not only imagine the suffering, needs, etc. of the person/persons, but you actually take them upon yourself with the in-breath, (as you do with your own pain etc. in Mindfulness Practice). Then on the out-breath, you send Love... As I understand it, the practice means believing that our love etc. for the person will help to replace the negative with the positive.
N.B. A health warning!! I think that only a healthy person of some spiritual development and experience should practise and teach the Tonglen meditation practice and then only after asking the Holy Spirit, if this is God’s will and feeling specially called to do so. If one has a spiritual director, one ought to consult about this, when in doubt.Where all this dovetails with Christian prayer is in uniting our prayer practice to Christ whose whole life, suffering and death were for us and for our salvation. I learned a simple practice from my own mother: “offering up” any pain, sorrow or anything negative “in union with Christ on the Cross”, for the world. When I queried this, saying that Jesus died 2,000 years ago, my mother said “There is no time with God”. As a child I did not understand that; now I have a better idea. God is I AM; Jesus is the unique Son of God, one with the Father and the Spirit. So am I one with God through Creation and Baptism ...
The Practice of the "Morning Offering"
This is a very easy practice which simplifies all the above. It used to be taught to RC children. As soon as we wake up in the morning we make the intention that every moment is to be for God, trusting that if we forget in the pressure of work, God does not forget our intention. We can do it with or without words, offering every breath, heartbeat, thought, word, action, suffering. Christians would naturally do this in union with Christ, and we can “offer” it for world peace or individual intentions. An ‘image’ of what this is, would be something like the story of King Midas turning everything to gold, but without the sting in the tail. No one can be harmed by this practice.
Contributed by Sr Lucy Bryant OSB of Turvey Abbey, to whom our thanks.