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Contemplative Prayer - Part 2

Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee; All thing pass; God never changes.
Teresa of Avila

Before enlightenment chopping wood carrying water. After enlightenment chopping wood carrying water.
Zen Proverb

The Practice of Contemplation
In Part 2 we look at the practical aspects of practicing contemplative prayer. As the great Christian mystic Teresa of Avila once wrote, we must be comfortable to pray. Go through each of the points below before beginning on the journey of contemplative prayer. Some points relate to physical concerns while others deal with praying itself.

Find a place where you can practice contemplative prayer each day. It may be your lounge room or a space outside. It is important that it is somewhere you won’t be disturbed by noise or others.

The physical position you use is up to you. Some people prefer lying down, others sitting up. You may choose your favourite chair or sit on the floor on a cushion. You can purchase prayer cushions designed for sitting on the floor. Generally, I recommend a sitting position because it is important to keep alert when practicing contemplation. If you are lying down you may fall asleep. By the way, if you do find yourself falling asleep at first, don’t worry. This indicates that your body is tired and needs rest, but eventually you will find this not to be a problem.

Decide on a time where you can pray for 20 minutes each day. Be practical in doing this. Some people have a higher energy first thing in the morning, others at night. If you have a family, choose a time when you are least likely to be disturbed. When I first started practicing contemplative prayer my son was only a baby. I made the decision to get up at 5am every morning to pray because that was the only time in my day where I was guaranteed 1 hour without disturbance. Interestingly, my son would often awaken exactly one hour after I began to pray!

Expect distractions! They will happen and take many shapes and forms. Things you have to do, temptations, regrets, brilliant ideas! There are seemingly endless ways the mind (ie: the ego) will try to distract you with thoughts. Then there are external distractions; your neighbour decides to mow the lawn, the phone rings, the ‘clicking’ noise of the ceiling fan, cars going past, etc. If that isn’t enough, you will become aware of small body sensations such as itching or your leg against the chair. All of these distractions are normal, but over time they will decrease.

Even after many years of practicing contemplation distractions will still occur but the power they have over you will become negligible. So what do you do about them? Well the answer is deceptively simple. Do not try to force these distractions out or you will empower them. Just gently acknowledge there presence then focus back on repeating your heartword. Remember, all these distractions are the ego’s attempt at diverting you  from operating out of spirit and back into the mind (ie: the past or the future). After 3-4 weeks you will find distractions begin to become less of a problem as your ego starts to get the message. The ego is used to running the show; it won’t give up easily.  Remember that distractions are part of Divine creation as well.

Stilling oneself
You will find that stilling the mind and body is an important pre-requisite to practicing contemplative prayer. A stilling exercise enables us to ‘leave’ the external world and enter into our interior being. There are two common ways to still oneself. The first is to focus on body sensations. The second is to focus on your breath.

These techniques have been used for thousands of years to enable mystics to become centered; indeed some mystical traditions only focus on breathing and don’t use mantras at all. By becoming still we leave the mind behind and enter into our spirit, existing in the present moment; the only moment that actually exists.

Your heartword becomes your anchor in contemplative prayer. Just as a boat will drift when floating on a body of water if an anchor is not put down, so will your mind hopelessly drift in contemplation if you don’t centre it with a heartword or mantra. A heartword is repeated in the mind only, not out loud. In Jappa Meditation, a similar principle is employed but a sound is used instead of a word ie: the sound ‘Aaaaah’.

In Christian contemplative prayer there are two main sources for a heartword. One is a short passage of Scripture, the other a Litany title. A litany is a ceremonial or liturgical form of prayer which contains different titles. Originally they were designed to be used by a group whereby the leader would read a title and the congregation would read a repetitive response after each e.g. The Litany of the Most Holy Name of Jesus (type this into Google) contains various titles of Jesus. So of you wish to use a title from this litany as your heartword, read the litany and if one title stands out, stop there and begin to repeat it as your heartword, synchronizing it with your breathing.

If you wish to use Scripture, read a small passage and if a word or phrase stands out, then use it as your heartword e.g. you might read Psalm 46 and when you get to the line, “Be still and know that I am God”, it touches you. Then put down the psalm and beginning repeating this phrase as your heartword, again synchronizing it with your breathing.

A third option for a heartword is the expression maranatha, which is Greek for ‘Come Lord ’. Paul of Tarsus signed off his First Letter to the Corinthians using this expression. It is a popular heartword in Christian contemplative prayer circles. On the inward breath, breathe in ‘mara’, and on the outward breath, breathe out ‘natha’.

Finally, a word on discipline. If you wish to practice contemplative prayer, grow in it and experience its fruits, you must commit to doing it; ideally every day! This takes commitment. At first you won’t notice much difference in your day-to-day life from contemplation. You will experience distractions and think that you are wasting your time. Well you are wasting your time - with God!

See beyond any benefits you are seeking and just do it. If you persevere, the fruits will come. This can be very counter-cultural. In modern life we are used to instant gratification and expect things in return for our money and efforts. The spiritual life does not conform to these rules. Yet, paradoxically, the only part of us that is permanent and will never die is spiritual.

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