In “How Should I Pray,” it is suggested to begin praying by “focusing your consciousness in your heart and forcibly gathering there all powers of the soul and body. Take the time at the beginning of your prayer time to quiet your body and to concentrate your energies in your heart.” Some further steps include: set aside all earthly cares: problems, memories, and anxieties; prepare the mind to pray by standing, walking, and or prostrating before beginning; reflect on God; try to bring about a feeling of humility and reverence for God; enter every word of the prayer, bring the meaning of the words down into the heart; slowly pray, as drops of meaning fall into the heart with humility and awe of God. When one prays, it is a normal pitfall to wish to hurry through and get it done, which makes prayer an obligation. It is essential to break this tendency to rush, and to concentrate on God and speaking to Him. Return to the words of the prayers and practice focusing when the mind wanders, which is also a very natural and likely response to efforts of prayer. The demons are real and do not want even one to enter into genuine, heart-moving prayer with the living God. For example, I’m falling asleep as I struggle to write this. It seems that the heaviest exhaustion is coming down over me, flowing over my head like a cool black veil. As I wrote that sentence, the exhaustion lessened. If one learns to increase her efforts to concentrate, each day she will gain in her ability to attend to prayer. When one’s prayers are complete, stand and try to hold in the heart what one was given during the experience of prayer. Treasure God’s peace and His presence, especially if He were palpably present during the prayers. Make prayer an everyday necessity so that the body and soul is properly tended.
Prayer differs from “mindfulness” that is a common secular practice today. Meditation does not rely on communication with God, prayer is only concerned with that—all the rest of one’s body-spirit discipline is to quiet one’s self and invite the Holy Spirit into one’s own. According to Fr. George Morelli, current behavioral research uses the Buddhist philosophy of mindfulness as a clinical tool to break bad habits and troubling emotions. The psychologist Kabat-Zinn (2003) explains mindfulness as “awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” The focus in Buddhism is to attend to the sensory and physical aspects of a moment and to recognize thought patterns, feelings, and physical sensations that occur. When one does, one may learn to tell the difference between thought, emotion, and physical sensations. Then, one may make choices based on what one really wants. Mindfulness can occur in meditative and non-meditative states.
Morelli explains that the early Church Fathers spoke of “nepsis,” or vigilance of the mind and heart. This notion is similar to mindfulness and metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking. It is a practice that leads to wellness by reconciling the body and spirit. To be wakeful and attentive is likened to the manner in which a mother pays attention to an infant or a soldier to others in battle. St. Anthony the Great (251-356 AD) speaks of the power of discrimination, Morelli says. Discrimination is to scrutinize all thoughts and actions of a man and to distinguish what is base. Christians utilize nepsis in prayer to detect harmful habits, to realize emotional reactions that are damaging to one’s self and/or others, to choose to be vigilant in mind and body, and to counteract negative responses with prayers that re-route one’s heart and mind to goodness.
However, there is an “anthropological and theological chasm” between the ethos of Buddhists’ mindfulness and Christians’ nepsis. Specifically, and again, the traditional understanding of mindfulness omits God. The experience of noetic knowledge is beyond one’s own mind; it is an encounter with God and the experience of grace poured into the heart. For the Church Fathers, the mind is the “nous” and is located deep in the heart. Morelli writes:
Thus, mindfulness that is separated from God is never a true Christian mindfulness. The mindful, noetic, mind of a person is enlightened by an illumination from God, through the Holy Spirit, in the depth of the heart and mind, which allows perception of spiritual experience. True and purified reason will burn more brightly, like a light.
When one opens to the Holy Spirit, God fills the heart and mind with Himself, which is Peace. The resulting good feelings are beyond one’s individual understanding. God is divine but enables humankind to perceive Him when that individual wills to be in prayerful relationship with God.
From ancient times within the Christian Tradition, wellness has been understood as a matter of a person’s individual spirit and body within the Body of Christ. We limit the wellness of society by divorcing from the reality of God. Since the fall of mankind when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit of knowledge, individuals’ spirits and bodies have divided. The inner divide we embody is a direct result of the separation between humankind and God. We heal by prayer. To heal, we return to God, like the blind man, and realign the natural goodness of our bodies and spirits by lives that are becoming prayers.
The struggle for holiness is real for each of us when life is becoming prayer. Even though I realize that I am more well and balanced when I follow the Church’s natural appreciation of the relationship between the spirit and body by fasting, praying, and controlling anger, my human lusts derail my spiritual resolve. I am not a robot, and burgers, ice cream, and letting off steam with a good, angry scream can seem more effective than holding back, waiting, absorbing my frustration in quiet. I need encouragement, each one does. In my Lenten confession, after I’d complained about my weakness with fasting, my priest said that he feels resistance to fasting. This doesn’t mean he fails to follow through with it, but that it is a struggle to deny the body what it thinks it wants. Faith is the continual choice to believe Christ is real and worth my small sacrifices. It’s like signing the cross over my husband when I first awake. The day would begin just the same, whether I made the effort, but doing so connects my will to loving him and is good for us. In a real sense, fasting is channeling one’s will to serve Love as a break from enslavement to one’s self. A sacrificial act done without selfish intent is rare and hardly consistent, as in the next breath I am grumbling about tripping over my husband’s ancient cat, but each time we will to act in Love, He saves us from ourselves and we taste the truth. This taste is like all good tastes, and becomes something we crave (even more than chocolate). Christians have always known the benefit of struggling against indulging the body. Somehow, giving less to the body allows one to give more to the spirit. The choice to try sets the ball rolling, and as my priest said, the Lenten effort picks us up and helps us along the journey, even in our individual weaknesses.
Though individual and different from each other, humanity shares temptation to common vices that are evil because they destroy one’s ability to love others as God wills for us to. Pride and guilt keep us occupied with what others do for and to us, rather than concerning one’s self with how we might give to another. Thoughts and feelings, as well as words and actions, can be misdirected and even make us ill. Our words convict us, and we begin to acquire an attitude based on the things we say. An antidote to spiritual illness (that can become physical illness) is to realize that one is not alone or completely different from others, and to stop saying things that indicate this falsehood. For example, “You have a new house; I don’t. You can’t understand what it’s like…” Or, “Your husband takes good care of you, but mine is always gone. What can you understand about my life?” While it’s true that some have it better than others, in the world’s eyes, it is also true that all things can work for the good for those who love God and are called according to His purposes (Romans 8:28).
Because God is with us, each one in every life circumstance may turn to Him to be well. Though this takes effort, the web of our personhood is reintegrated by spiritual efforts of prayer.
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