So you know it’s important to practice some kind of stillness and solitude.  You know it would be good for you—not only your spiritual life with God, but it would do some good for your physical health as well.  The hectic pace you’re living is causing you stress and you know you should do something about it.  Your relationship would benefit too.  Creating a little space and carving out some margins might keep you from those knee-jerk reactions that mean you end up, well . . . mean sometimes.  You know, yelling at the kids, snapping at your spouse, saying something hurtful to a friend, criticizing a coworker.

The problem is, much as you’d like to create some space for stillness, it just isn’t happening.  You sit down to pray or meditate and a million things bounce into your head.  It’s more battle than bliss, and so you give up—feeling guilty and frustrated.  Maybe meditation and resting prayer is for other people, not for you.

Well . . . researchers at the University of Virginia have just reported that, honestly, it’s not just you.  We all have trouble getting still, being quiet.  We avoid open interior space like the plague.  We’d all rather yap at God like the neighbor’s annoying little dog.  Anything but be still . . . quiet . . . doing virtually nothing.  We seem bent on seeking distraction—anything to avoid being with just ourselves, alone with only our thoughts, and with . . . God.    

Leading researcher, Timothy Wilson, says, “We [researchers], like everyone else, noticed how wedded people seem to be to modern technology, and seem to shy away from just using their own thoughts to occupy themselves.  That got us to wondering whether this said something fundamental about people’s ability to do this.”

So, they devised a series of experiments reported at a recent meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.  It’s a story picked up in The Atlantic

“Participants rated the task of entertaining themselves with their own thoughts as far less enjoyable and more conducive to mind-wandering than other mellow activities such as reading magazines or doing crossword puzzles.

“In the most, ahem, shocking study, subjects were wired up and given the chance to shock themselves during the thinking period if they desired. They’d all had a chance to try out the device to see how painful it was. And yet, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. (One outlier pressed the button 190 times in the 15 minutes.) Commenting on the sudden appeal of electricity coursing through one’s body, Wilson said, ‘I’m still just puzzled by that.’”

So, being alone with just your thoughts is a problem for others—lots of others—not just you.  We’ll do just about anything to avoid being alone with without distractions.

Maybe there’s some comfort in this.

Maybe it’ll help you to know you’re not alone in not wanting to be alone.

And maybe that’ll help you drop that handy little excuse, “Hey, meditation’s just not my thing.”

It’s not an easy thing for anybody.

But doesn’t mean we shouldn’t practice it.  Frankly, we all need it—like we need air to breathe.  We need to cultivate the ability to create a little distance between the thoughts that bump around in our heads so that we won’t be driven crazy by them.  We need to create the ability to drop our devices and look at nature, or a book, or into someone’s eyes . . . to taste the food we’re eating, to hear—really hear—the sounds around us.

And we need God.  Just God.  No posturing before God.  No yapping at God.  No running from God.  Just being with God, in God.  Growing that sense of belonging to the Beloved, drawn up out of the cramped little spaces of our lives and into the grandeur of the Divine.

This is real prayer, the purest prayer.  But it’s not easy.  And it’ll never become easy if we keep salving our need for distraction by avoiding the fact that we need to drop absolutely everything and be alone for a little while with nothing but ourselves . . . and God.

Yeah, you and a lot of us would rather, it seems, shock ourselves electrically than sit for fifteen minutes with nothing else to do.  But if we take time and train ourselves to step away from distraction, we will find ourselves shocked by what we encounter in that open space—Something we can’t get anywhere else.

If you need a guide to this kind of prayer, see my guide to the Jesus Prayer here.

And here’s another short reflection on the need for contemplative space in our busy lives.


Posted
AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
CategoriesDO

Despite the rage over mindfulness these days, I confess I’m a slacker.

Sure, I’m all for the focus meditative practices bring into my life.  I practice at least twenty minutes of meditation once a day.  Sometimes more.  I have for years.  Meditation centers me, pulls me away from the continual lure of distraction, and helps me train my mind not to follow every thought wherever it wants to take me.  Through meditation the cage full of monkeys in my mind grows calm and still—or more calm and more still than it otherwise would be.  

Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

What’s more, meditation involves me in more than mental health exercises that balance the brain and free my body from many of the stresses of the modern age.  Through meditation, I draw my renegade mind down into my heart and become more fully integrated as a human being—rooted in a non-grasping experience of the love of God who gives me a deep sense of belonging, meaning, and empowerment.  I wouldn’t likely know all this without this kind of praying.

That said, while I practice what many call mindfulness, and I’m grateful for its growing popularity and the broadening of its practice, there are at least two reasons I’m slow to jump on the bandwagon.

 

1.  The term for me is a turn off and, therefore, unhelpful.  

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be full of my mind.  I’ve had enough already of all that goes on inside it.  I want less of my mind not more.  And mindfulness conjures up in my head visions of an oversized brain.  Of course, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others will tell me I’m mistaken, and I maybe am.  They’ll tell me that mindfulness isn’t about thinking.  I get that.  But mindfulness is a word like playfulness and joyfulness, awfulness and hatefulness.  It is the state of being as full of mind as I might be full of hatred.  

And I don’t want to be full of my mind.  

To be fully and authentically and robustly human, I want my mind to find its proper place within me.  And I don’t think that place is to fully dominate the rest of me.  

Now of course, I know that’s not what mindfulness practitioners are after.  But words matter, and frankly, the word just doesn’t help me to get where mindfulness is supposed to take me.

I’d rather experience the presence of mind.  That is, I’d like to cultivate a mind that’s more present to my body and my heart (or soul)—a mind that knows and values its place within the larger household of my being.  

So, when I become still and silent, I’m neither filling myself with my mind nor am I emptying it.  To help my mind become present to the rest of me and to God, I pray this prayer that I’ve drawn from the ancient Christian tradition and recrafted for today:

I still my lips that my mind may seek;

I still my mind that my heart may seek;

I still my heart and hide inside the Deep Silence,

'till What I seek finds me.

Following this prayer, I just sit and bring my full self to full attention before God.  Click HERE for an example of this kind of meditative practice.

In this way, my body, mind, and heart are drawn together in a unity of surrender and presence before God, and I avoid privileging any one of those parts.  I mean no disrespect for those who practice mindfulness and who draw their practices from other religious traditions, but for me the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ honors the fullness of my humanity—all of me and not only one part.

Someone will say I’m splitting hairs over words.  But hey, if mindfulness is a useful word for you and helps you find the balanced humanity we're made for, more power to you.  But for me, and for a number of others I suspect, it’s a word that doesn’t carry me where I need to go.  

 

2.  There are benefits that come to a wandering mind.

While there are many benefits that come from mindfulness training—focus, clarity, release from the relentless machinations of the mind’s thinking function, and an increased ability to be present here and now—there's a downside to all this.  Current research on mindfulness training shows us that there are real benefits that come from a mind that isn’t so taut, so disciplined, so focused on one thing . . . or no-thing.  

This doesn’t mean that we want to celebrate distraction.  No, distraction’s an epidemic today.  And if mindfulness can help heal us of the disease, I’m all for it.  But studies show that a mind that is too focused may not have the necessary freedom to wander down the interior paths that can lead us to insight, discovery, and creativity.  

A week ago last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article called Breathing In Verses Spacing Out: Is Mindfulness Always Best?  “Mindfulness could have unwanted side effects,” writes Dan Hurley.  New studies in mindfulness show that “raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations could prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies.”  

What this means practically is that the practice of meditation or contemplation—my mind present to the rest of me (that is, in my body and in my little part of the world rather than following my thoughts wherever they wish to carry me)—meditative practice can create an inner space that’s free enough from the relentless distractions of our modern world so that I can allow my mind to graze freely like a horse in an open pasture.  Contemplative practices like “mindfulness”, tether the mind, or fence it in, so that it doesn’t wander too far afield.  But if the mind is too tightly corralled the mind doesn’t have the freedom to discover new things.

So, yes, let's practice the presence of mind—focusing our awareness on the here and now—so that we can heal ourselves of the relentless distractions that pull and claw at us.  And then let us let go and let the mind wander with freedom so that our creativity can flourish and we can stumble upon those epiphanies (or let them come to us) that make life interesting.

Posted
AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
CategoriesBE, DO, PRAY
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