Prayer and related topics are tough for progressives and liberals because so much of the traditional language about prayer presupposes a decidedly anthropomorphic G/god with whom the pious converse, and yet if someone claims actually to have heard God speak audibly there may be an immediate psychiatric referral. The psychiatrist who used to do psychiatric evaluations of those applying to be missionaries through the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, now called the Board of International Missions, once told me that one of his major functions was to weed out candidates who believed they heard God audibly telling them that they should devote their lives to mission work in a foreign land.
So, claims of audible responses from God in many, not all, settings raise the question of the claimant’s mental health in general and that person’s perception of reality in particular. God must, therefore, communicate with us non-verbally–broadly through nature and history and more narrowly through scripture, some would say; through other people through whom God chooses to make known God’s will; and through impressions, impulses, and leanings that we interpret as God trying to respond to what we asked in prayer.
If we take the portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels to be both authentic and accurate, then we’d have to believe that Jesus himself, when in prayer, spoke audibly to God. We think immediately of the prayer he prayed that came to be called the Model Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer, and as we get closer to Easter we recall the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God, if there were any way, to spare him the suffering and execution that he knew awaited him if events kept playing out the way had. Either God didn’t hear that prayer or heard it and didn’t answer it or heard it and, “There’s no way to avoid what’s about to happen.”
I often speak audibly to God when I pray. You hear me do so most every Sunday right here in this sanctuary, and when I am praying in private most of what I do is to think my words to God, which isn’t much different than praying aloud to God. I know that God is not Oprah or Dr. Phil or Dr. Ruth or Dr. Freud listening to my words as if a human hearing words spoken; then responding non-verbally in ways that, at least to some degree, I must guess at.
The Apostle Paul said of our prayer efforts: “…the Spirit [meaning God’s Spirit or God’s unseen presence, not a companion D/deity] helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…” (Rom 8:26 NRSV). Those are anyone’s most profound prayers aren’t they? What I feel so deeply that I can’t articulate it or articulate it well enough reflects my core longings and concerns. If God is the Great Spirit or the Great Mystery, how does one commune or communicate with what is utterly unseen and what lacks anthropomorphic qualities altogether?
Meditation and prayer may be one and the same or two quite separate entities. What Paul describes with the words I’ve just read is meditation as prayer. I want to convey something to God, but I know that my words are woefully inadequate. I rely on God to grasp what I desperately want to get across, and Paul says that’s what God does.
There’s also meditation that isn’t prayer. I start with an open heart and an open mind. I have no pressing issue I trust God to pick up on. My mind goes where it will. Now and again, unintended prayer may occur, but meditation can up thoroughly non-spiritual and still be entirely worthwhile.
Mindfulness may be akin to meditation that isn’t prayer, but mindfulness is rarely prayer unless it’s an indirect prayer profoundly giving thanks to God for life. In mindfulness, at which I am a poor practitioner, I concentrate on each breath I take and gently push away thoughts that come into my mind. Mindfulness is about the title of a book dear friends gave me years ago, The Precious Present. I concentrate on my breathing–each act of inhaling, each act of exhaling. That’s why I said it could be an indirect prayer of giving thanks for life; to the way some people think, God is Life or the Life Force. No requests are made of God, and there is no sense of opening up for God to take hold of those deep down thoughts that are too heavy or too profound for words.
Mindfulness is a stress reduction technique, which may lead to all sorts of other benefits; but that’s what it’s about. It may be a part of our spiritual practice because if we are stressed and preoccupied we may not be able to pray or to concentrate on living out God’s love as Jesus did.
We have some very gifted and devoted mindfulness practitioners in our church family–Lynne Chappel, Kit Calaguas, Steve Fifield among others. I long to achieve what they have. I have tried. It’s very difficult for me to turn off active cognition. I haven’t been able to concentrate only on my breathing for very long at all. My younger son, Carson, is trying to help me with this since he knows I see its importance and want to incorporate it into my life. Both times I’ve been out to visit him in Portland, he has gotten an appointment for me at miniature spa called Float On. At Float On, one floats. One enters a chamber with heavily salted water that keeps the person floating from sinking. The door to the chamber is closed to shut out noise, and you are left alone for 90 minutes in near sensory deprivation conditions. It is dark. The water is your body temperature. There is no sound except the sounds that you may make.
It’s extremely relaxing for me, but I’ve not been able to achieve mindfulness even there for more than a very few minutes. I’m not giving up.
Someone has said that Jon Kabat-Zinn has changed medicine through his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction work centered at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. This is how he defines the practice he has used to help so many people combat and sometimes win out over stress, anxiety, chronic illness, pain, cancer, heart disease and depression: “Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Dr. Jim Hopper, a devotee of Kabat-Zinn’s broadens the master’s basic definition:
Learning to bring one’s attention back to the present moment, including the ever-present process of breathing, over and over again, involves learning to catch oneself entering into habitual patterns that prevent clear awareness of the present moment. With continued practice and increasing development of mindfulness, one becomes increasingly able to notice those habitual reactions – to unwanted and wanted but unhealthy experiences and emotions – that prevent one from responding consciously and constructively….Learning to non-judgmentally observe such habitual responses loosens their grip too. Again, after bringing your wandering attention back to the breath thousands of times, you are less likely to beat up on yourself for getting distracted.
It seems to me that in order to appreciate mindfulness and thus practice it in a way that is most healthful one must appreciate the extraordinary gift of each second of life, literally. Each beat of the heart is an amazing opportunity to take in some aspect of the wonder of life. Those of us who see life and take life in big blocks of time, as whole chapters at a time instead of one incredible word at a time, will not appreciate mindfulness and will not be good at being intentionally mindful if we bother to try at all.
There’s nothing wrong with you or with your spiritual self if you choose not to practice mindfulness, but pondering the possibilities is worthwhile because of the well attested benefits it may provide. Let me say this. I encourage you to try it and continue it if you can. Not everyone can. I’m not good at it because I’m more of a see the forest as a whole rather than individual trees kind of person in most areas of my life. It’s hard for me to break down life into seconds or heartbeats or breaths in or breaths out. Part of the reason for that is the pace at which I’ve come to live, and part of the reason is my brain as it is presently wired–including the hemisphere that is more dominant. Even so, it can be both a healthy and a beautiful way to learn to live.
Did you see the stage version or film of “Rent”? Lots of great music in that show. One song that captured me from the get go is titled “Seasons of Love.”
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights
In cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure
A year in the life?
How about love?
Measure in love
Seasons of love.
Certainly there are special moments that I remember and always will–joyous moments and shockingly sad moments, epiphany moments and clueless moments, proud moments and painfully embarrassing moments. Generally, though, I’m concentrating on larger segments of life when I look back and when I plan ahead.
If you’ve done any serious or casual reading on the theories of brain hemisphere dominance, you know the general traits of being left-brain dominant as well as the general traits of being right-brain dominant. Maybe you heard about them, but didn’t bother to find out anything more about the theories because they sounded to you like one more round of pop psychology. If that’s what you thought, you were wrong. The theories go back to the late Dr. Roger Sperry who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine/Physiology in 1981. Sperry was not a physician, but rather a zoologist who worked his way into neurobiology.
Sperry’s ample research revealed to him that most people have an innate learning toward either the left or the right hemisphere of their brain. A handful people appear to rely equally on both sides of the brain at all times; their process is called dual-hemisphere brain functioning. Presumably, these folks are more balanced in regard to how they make decisions, how they perceive objects and experiences, and how they get along in general. This is not to say, in any sense, that they are superior thinkers than the majority of us who lean a little or a lot left or right. Knowing which hemisphere you favor, if either, can tell you a lot about yourself, and it can absolutely enhance your understanding of others, not to mention your understanding of group dynamics.
We are generalizing here to provide a beginning foundation for understanding Dr. Sperry’s conclusions. The left brain enjoys and relies on logic, detailed analysis, sequencing, linear thought processes, mathematics, precise language, facts, thinking in words, the words of a song more than its melody. The right brain basks in creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, feelings and non-verbal communication, and the melody of a song more than its words. In an art gallery or having a look at picture someone just texted, a left brain leaning individual analyzes the various parts of a picture before seeing it as a whole. In contrast, the right brainer first sees the whole, and only after taking in the whole image does she or he begin to isolate individual parts. There are degrees of being left brained or right brained. A totally right brained person lives in a fantasy world and probably doesn’t know what time it is. A totally left-brained person is a captive of the present because she or he has no capacity to envision what might be.
If you are serving on a committee with an even number of people on it–half left brainers and half right brainers, there’s a great chance that every vote taken will be equally divided with no one to cast the deciding vote. Ideally, decision-making bodies should be composed of a mix of right brainers and left brainers with a couple of members who are dual hemisphere types.
Churches tend to ask left brainers to serve on finance boards and right brainers to serve on flower committees. The majority of our schools, at all levels in this country, favor left-brained-based teaching methods and left-brained students because sequential instruction is easier to put together than creative instruction and because evaluation and assessment are much simpler when a question is either right or wrong. A computer can grade a true/false or multiple choice test, but a computer can’t grade a “what if” essay question or a short answer test in which a student is asked to apply information learned to a real-life situation.
Most religious fundamentalists have more left than right brain traits; they love rules, cause and effect, right and wrong as black and white, tossing around key words and expecting others to share their definitions of those key words. Religious liberals, typically in contrast, are comfortable enough with questions to which there are no certain answers; they often find themselves more inspired by aesthetics than by a sterling theological statement.
This may seem like a long way from mindfulness to you, but it isn’t–at least not according to how my brain functions, and for your information I’m slightly right brain dominant. Right brainers are better at practicing traditional meditation in which the mind is allowed to go anywhere and everywhere it likes with no restriction. Left brainers are better at practicing mindfulness than are right brainers because they can think of life in small segments, because they can follow the “rules” of mindfulness, and because they are better at sticking to a daily or some other regular routine than are right brainers. Ironically, we’d be hard pressed to find someone practicing mindfulness who could be pegged a religious conservative.
My take on the importance of mindfulness, in addition to the wholeness it has brought to many people, is that in focusing on the basic act of living, namely breathing, I am naturally being drawn closer to God. That is not why mindfulness has been developed and practiced by most. The Master of Mindfulness himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn, confirms this:
The habit of ignoring our present moments in favor of others yet to come leads directly to a pervasive lack of awareness of the web of life in which we are embedded. This includes a lack of awareness and understanding of our own mind and how it influences our perceptions and our actions. It severely limits our perspective on what it means to be a person and how we are connected to each other and the world around us. Religion has traditionally been the domain of such fundamental inquiries within a spiritual framework, but mindfulness has little to do with religion, except in the most fundamental meaning of the word, as an attempt to appreciate the deep mystery of being alive and to acknowledge being vitally connected to all that exists.
I understand, respect, and affirm what Kabat-Zinn says about religion and religion as unconnected to mindfulness. I do not think I am disputing any of his insights when I say, again, that a sense of closeness to God is potentially a valuable by-product of mindfulness that may or may not have to do with the wholeness experienced by so many who practice it. I deeply and sincerely believe that whoever or whatever God is, there is a divine connection to life, which is why several years ago I began referring to God and/or describing God as the Life Source/Life Force. If I am breathing, I am living. If I am concentrating on my breathing I am embracing life–and if my understanding of God is anywhere close to correct, embracing life is embracing God. Thich Nhat Hanh said: “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
Many of you have heard a preacher or a scholar (sometimes they are one and the same, but not necessarily) explain that the Hebrew word for breath, ruach, is precisely the same word for spirit, human spirit or Divine Spirit. Ironically, the same thing is true of the Greek word for breath, pneuma; it may just easily be translated spirit–and again, human spirit or Divine Spirit. Both words can also be translated “wind.” The translator must make the call every time she or he encounters the word, and not all translators agree by any means with each other’s preferences and conclusions. “Breath” and “S/spirit,” then, are inseparably related.
In one of the creation accounts in the book of Genesis, God breathed into the man’s nostrils, and as a direct result of the breath of God Adam became a living being. I love the imagery and the inspiration I find in this old hymn by Edwin Hatch:
Breathe on me, breath of God, Fill me with life anew, That I may love what Thou dost love, And do what Thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me, breath of God, Until my heart is pure, Until with Thee I will one will, To do and to endure.
Breathe on me, breath of God, Blend all my soul with Thine, Until this earthly part of me Glows with Thy fire divine.
Here is a little prayer prayed originally by St. Teresa of Avila, one of the great mystics of the Christian Church:
Lord, you are closer to me
than my own breathing,
nearer than my hands and feet.
God nearer to us than the very air we breathe–what a magnificent, disconcerting image! On St. Patrick’s breastplate were found these words, and I let you know in advance that I do not favor the word “Christ” to refer to Jesus because I think it is believed by many to confirm a role he clearly rejected. I prefer to call him his Hebrew name “Yeshua,” or Anglicized “Jesus” so that I don’t have to explain why I said “Yeshua.” Furthermore, much that is attributed to Jesus when he is called Christ should be attributed to God. That said, I get back to part of what was inscribed on St. Patrick’s breastplate:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Similar sentiments from Carmina Gadelica:
God to enfold me,
God to surround me,
God in my speaking,
God in my thinking.
God in my sleeping,
God in my waking,
God in my watching,
God in my hoping.
God in my life,
God in my lips,
God in my soul,
God in my heart.
God in my sufficing,
God in my slumber,
God in my ever-living soul,
God in mine eternity.
According to James Baraz:
Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).
What is going on with you right this minute?