The mystic traditions have been misinterpreted and misrepresented for many generations. Simply put is the act of being still, internally, letting go of all of the white noise, and leaving space in your mind, heart, and soul to hear God, above all the din of “us” that inhabits those spaces most of the time.
“Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalms: 46:10)
This quote simply put is the practice simply put. It is also one I use often when leading centering prayer practice as I often open up with a reading, read three times, which is part of the practice of Lectio Divina which is a way of listening to/reading with that same openness and space in mind, heart, and soul.
Centering Prayer or Contemplative Prayer is the titles given to the Christian Mystic practice in modern day. It is something ancient and practiced since the beginning of the Christian tradition but it was wiped out periodically through history due to the fact that it is a personal not corporate practice (although it can be very communal) and since one’s internal experience could not be regulated it was seen as “dangerous”–all these people praying outside of officially designated prayer language, times and places. Throughout history, personal spirituality has been very fear-inducing and, usually, never accurately depicted as a result.
The mystic tradition in Christianity is having a resurgence of late, in this past generation and people like Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating brought back the tradition and yet again made it accessible to everyone–not just monastic clergy.
The eastern traditions never lost their connection to their contemplative/mystic practices and, I believe, that fact (it being more well-known for the practice) along with the mystery of the new is why many western people have sought out msytic and meditative practices in eastern thought. My own introduction to contemplation was through eastern thought by way of Yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. I was very impressed with these traditions abilities to get me to that place of internal silence in a way my Catholic upbringing and pew-prayers never had. They guided me to a place–through visualizations, breathing, and learning to clear out the white noise din–where I could finally find some space in my mind. Thousands of years of perfecting the art of clearing the “mind-fields” in humans had made these traditions experts.
I appreciated everything I received from their rich histories and practices but I kept feeling there was one ingredient missing to get me to the soft graces that touched on what they called “enlightenment” or “higher self”. I needed something more solid and familiar to latch on to; for me my higher self couldn’t come just by personal will. I realized I needed a practice with God at the center or, for me, it fell short of what I was hungry for.
This is when I found my way to Christian contemplative prayer and it satiated something in me far beyond what I ever knew I needed. It was more than calming or soothing, and better than healing old wounds (although it got me there as well). It was warmth and chills, bright and soft, and it felt like home. Inside of centering prayer/contemplative prayer I found my way to the healthiest relationship with myself, the loved ones in my life, and intimacy with God that surpassed any I had known before.
Not always of course, sometimes it is just sitting in the darkness behind my eyelids thinking of ice cream or shopping lists or projects–but every once in a while I get a glimpse of something more, when there is space between the thoughts enough to let a bit of God in.
SILENCE IS FOR EVERYONE
The practice of practicing silence is in existence in just about every religious and spiritual tradition.
In the Muslim tradition it is called Sufism. If you have heard of the beautiful love poetry written by the Sufi mystic Rumi you have heard the exclamations of love for God that came for him out of the contemplative practice.
In the Jewish tradition it is called Kabalalism. This has been publicist and popularized in the last decade or so by practitioners such as Madonna. It can be understood why it is appealing–people seek the silence of meditation and within the Abrahamic traditions these off-shoots allow for a way to have a meditative philosophy at the core of many people’s “faith of origin”.
In the Christian tradition it is called Christian Mysticism and it doesn’t have the celebrity following to make it quite so “known” in tradition, lineage, and practice as its Jewish neighbor. My hope is that it will be better understood and accessed by the up-coming generations of people within the Christian faith tradition–and not only so that I will have someone besides myself in the under 65 category at centering prayer workshops, groups, or activities…but partially for that reason.
The Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions have overt and dense histories within the mainline tradition of meditative practices. (only the Abrahamic traditions segment off the parts of the whole, creating offshoots for the silent prayer). This is also why they have such a rich repertoire of teachings on how to perfect the mechanics of the practice–clearing the mind, calming the breath, and centering yourself.
I was teaching centering prayer one night in the fall and a woman came up to me at the end and said, “I just realized, next time I should bring my Jewish friend to this, there is nothing in this practice that she couldn’t do with me; that would be nice.” To which I replied, “Yes, you’re right. Silence is for everyone.” I said it sort of thoughtlessly in the moment. It was one of those things that carried more weight after the fact. On my drive home I thought of it and ever since then I have been thinking of it more and more.
Silence is for everyone.
In silent communion there are no visible differences in my dogma versus yours, my view versus yours, my side versus yours, my generation versus yours. Silence is something we can all do in communion and community with each other. In sanskrit there is a word called “sangha” and translated it means,”… the assembly of all beings possessing some high degree of realization.”
To me that is what the contemplative path allows for–a higher level of realization and, I would add, communion with others and intimacy with something beyond us in the divine. And it is something available to everyone. In silence we all have access to the same greater “something” and in the silence of the practice, no one disagrees.
YOGA & BREATH
Prana [breath/energy in sanskrit] is often called wind, vital air. The Bible begins its description of Creation with the sentence, “God’s breath moved upon the waters.” Prana is God’s breath. Prana is the energy permeating the universe at all levels. It is physical, mental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual, and cosmic energy
by B.K.S Iyengar in his book Light on Life
Breath is life–we breathe it in our first moments out of the womb and we breath out our last moment on earth. Breath can be healing and it can be constricting. I would say in a therapeutic and somatic way, if you study someone’s breath you might have the gateway to diagnosing their very state of being. When we are tense we hold our breath, when we are very anxious we can hyperventilate and when we are calm our breath becomes a timed rhythm, like a metered metronome, slow and steady.
In yoga breath is everything. Some would say (I am among them) that it is the core of the practice–without breath, like a fluid dance of body and air, everything is off kilter. There is a little yoga in every deep, calm and rhythmic breath we take. And as the well-known yogi above, B.K.S. Iyengar said, breath is God’s movement in us, at the most elemental and intimate level.
One of my other favorite quotable Iyengar statements is, “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” This one resonated with me as yoga provided me a foundation, post-trauma, to first do the latter and then, when I was ready, the former. It was not my only medicine of healing but it was a profound element in the concoction. One part yoga, one part psychology, and one part contemplative prayer–all parts I believe elementally linking me to some further intimacy in connection and communion with God.
Over the course of my time since my own healing and recovery from trauma, and in my time fine-tuning my profession of helping others down their crooked path I have learned much about the mind, body, and spirit connections of “why” yoga seems to be entangled in these essential parts of ourself and healing. Trauma impacts us at a physiological level and the somatic nature, wordless, connects a person back to the root part of their pain and suffering–the “stuckness” in their body. Our brain and neurobiological functioning registers stress by the messages the body sends and so dis-regulated breath and tense body responses as well as the companion stress hormones signal the mind of danger and so when we regulated the body responses we calm down the mind, through breath and grounding and centering.
The science is wonderful and it helps us often brain-living people but for me the experience of God and connection in breath came first and I spent another few years piecing together all the answers that my brain could register understanding of what was. Yoga to me was a path to my mystic lineage inside of me, it was a path to meditation and to contemplative prayer.
And, today, it is still a path to something inside of myself and also better than myself in the fluidity of motion and breath–a dance in calm and in silence.