We can define contemplative prayer as resting in God or experiencing God. If we’re just beginning to explore these practices or being introduced to them, there are a couple of things to take into consideration. One is the myths that are connected to mindfulness and meditation, of which there are many. The second is deciding if we do decide to pursue this as part of our spiritual practice whether it is really doing any good. Is this having any impact on me in the long run, and how is that impacting others or those around me?
The “clear mind” myth
The first myth connected to mindfulness practice, or contemplative practices, is that when we meditate, our mind is supposed to be completely empty. That as we move into whatever form of meditation we may be engaging in, our thoughts are just supposed to somehow magically disappear. That, obviously, is not the case.
When we move into the experience of silence, and solitude, and stillness, the experience is actually quite the opposite. We notice that our minds are racing. There’s actually a term for this called “monkey mind.” It’s like the thoughts just won’t stop. It’s helpful as we begin to realize that thoughts are normal: they’re part of the practice, and they’re part of our human experience. Just knowing that your mind is not going to be completely empty and you’re going to have thoughts and that it’s completely normal and they actually serve you, is something that we can embrace.
The “transcendence” myth
The second myth is connected to the first. And that is this idea that we’re supposed to also float off onto cloud nine somewhere, like we’re supposed to have this transcendent experience. Our mind is empty; now we just have this great peace that we’re sinking into. And again, the experience, especially when we’re beginning, is the opposite of that. There are very few periods in culture and society where we actually are in silence, where we are still, where we are alone. And we call that awkward silence. If everything is quiet, and if you and I were having a conversation, we would call it awkward.
So we have to embrace the fact that by engaging with these practices, our awareness is actually being heightened. We notice everything that is going on within us and around us. In addition to any thought, any little sensation in the body—an itch of the nose—we can start to label these things as distractions, emotions that we may notice coming up within us. These practices help us to not only be aware of what’s happening with us and in us, but it also helps us to embrace those things.
The “isolated, immediate benefits” myth
The question then comes up if we’re going to pursue this spiritual practice and move down this path. “What is this really doing? Is this doing any good? Is there any benefit to this?” The short answer to that is there are a number of benefits. The main one that I would offer up is that when we move into these practices, what we are equipping ourselves to do is to respond wholeheartedly to the things that are happening in our daily lives, instead of reacting based on emotional triggers. The fruits of the practice, if we dedicate five minutes or up to twenty minutes of centering prayer and those periods of solitude, stillness, and silence, the fruits may not be experienced in the time period itself. The benefits are reaped in every other minute of the day. Moving into that place where we can respond wholeheartedly—these practices of contemplation and centering prayer help us to do that.
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Tia Norman is a contemplative leader whose serves as pastor of the Awakenings Movement and curator of the Life Design Academy in Houston, Texas. She is the author of Giving Up Mediocrity: A 40-Day Fast Toward Living a Crazy Fulfilled Life. She participated in listening sessions about innovation hosted by the Reformed Church in America.