This fall I began hosting a weekly opportunity for contemplative practice in our church foyer on Thursday mornings. It starts at 8:00 am with a short piece of recorded music and a brief reading. Then we spend 20 minutes in silence. People are free to spend the 20 minutes in any way they wish. One can sit, one can walk, one can read or write in a journal. It’s a time to practise silent contemplation with others. Just as it can be motivating to go to a gym class to do physical exercise, it can be helpful to do this silent exercise together. All exercise is a challenge! And all challenges need encouragement. And healthy challenges bring rewards.
The Christian life of the spirit needs exercise just as the life of the body does. The practice of the spirit has largely to do with our attention and intention. How are we being present and attentive to all the issues and people around us? How are we being present and attentive to God’s spirit and God’s direction in our lives? If we’re out of practice, our attention tends to be involuntary and our intention tends to be unclear. We can become like wobbling weathercocks on the top of a roof — pulled and turned by every passing breeze: the ping on our phone, the email that just came in, the comment from a colleague, the ad on the website, and all the other things that blow though our lives on any given day. There are so many things trying to grab our attention! Our phone, our work, the news, our phone, a sale, our spouse, our children…. To lead a fruitful life of peace, it’s important that we discipline our attention and clarify our intention.
The power of attention does not lie in the object, but rather in our will. The ability to give attention or pay attention is a great gift and power. It’s a distinctly human ability. When we truly pay attention to someone or something, we bring life to an encounter. We open ourselves to a revelation, a communion and an exchange. This year I’ve started singing in the Inshallah choir; the director regularly reminds us to pay attention to what we’re singing. As soon as the attention starts to wander, the notes tend to go flat. With attention and intention, the notes and the harmonies come to life.
Most types of meditation in most religious traditions seek to discipline our powers of attention. Some types suggest a focus on one particular thing — like a spoken mantra or the sensation of the breath. Other types, such as Christian centering prayer, aim for an “objectless awareness”. As soon as one becomes aware of thoughts, sensations and stimuli, one simply lets them go and returns to a “naked” awareness without object. Through centering prayer, one learns not to be “hooked” by every passing thought or sensation. The intention is to be open, receptive and totally available to God. With practice, one becomes more grounded and centred.
One of my teachers, Cynthia Bourgeault, says that as Christians we are really called to pay attention with the heart and not the mind. Christian spiritual practices help us to bring the “mind down into the heart”. When the mind is engaged on its own, it tends to want to control, divide and analyse. The heart perceives more holistically, and it is not just about emotions. The heart can live with paradox and perceive the movements of the Holy Spirit more subtly than thought or emotion alone. There will always be at least one person in our church foyer on Thursday mornings at 8:00 am if you’d like to come to practise. No experience is necessary. Everyone is a beginner.