Meditation and Centering Prayer
Meditation is the ancient practice of stilling the mind. Practices primarily as a spiritual discipline for thousands of years in nearly every religious path, meditation helps one deepen awareness and understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of the universe and of life. For example, the Christian Desert Fathers, Zen Buddhist masters, Native American shamans and Hindi yogis all practiced meditation within the context of their faith traditions. Secular meditation is based on these spiritual practices.
In the post-modern world, research into the effects of mediation on health and well-being have moved meditation practice out of the the purely spiritual realm and into the area of Alternative and complementary Medicine (CAM). Meditation, it seems, helps people reduce stress, manage pain, ease depression, and improve serious conditions like cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease. In this context, it is sometimes called "the relaxation response," a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School.
No matter whether you begin a meditation practice to deepen your prayer life and draw nearer to the Holy or you take up meditation to improve your physical and psychological health, research indicates that your efforts will be rewarded in a relatively short period of time. In fact, prominent mainstream health groups like the National Institute of Health, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association and the American College of Cardiology are recommending meditation to both patients and caregivers.
Benefits of Meditation
Physiologically, meditation seems to affect the autonomic or involuntary nervous system by quieting the "fight or flight" response of the sympathetic nervous system and stimulating the "rest and digest" response of the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, heart rate and respiration slow down, digestion improves, and blood vessels dilate sending oxygen and nutrients to the tissues. Furthermore, research indicates that meditation improves the mind's ability to concentrate and to process information.
Emotionally, meditation increases mood enhancing chemicals in the brain and suppresses the production of adrenal cortisol, the stress-hormone that urges us to action. One study found that even novice meditators had more empathy for others after being in a meditative state. Regular meditation seems to make us more calm even when we return to the world and its multitude of stresses.
Kinds of Meditation
There are a number of meditative styles and techniques, but they can generally be divided into two categories— concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation.
Concentrative meditation involves narrowing the mind's focus t a single point, such as the breath, a sound or mantra, an image such as an icon, a candle flame, or even a point within the body.
Mindfulness meditation is more about present moment awareness. Instead of narrowing the focus, in mindfulness meditation the meditator observes the thoughts, sensations and emotions that pass through the mind in a continuous stream of consciousness. However, the meditator simply observes and does not think about, react to or become involved in these feelings, memories, sensations or worries. He/she is simply a witness to them.
While meditation implicitly requires a stilling of mental chatter, there are forms of mindfulness meditation that involve movement. The most well known of these is walking meditation r prayer walking (see below). Yoga, Qi gong, Tai Chi and other martial arts also have meditative components. Even washing the dishes or sweeping the floor can be meditation if done mindfully.
Centering Prayer is a specific kind of Christian meditation that combines the sacred sound on concentrative meditation and the witnessing awareness of mindfulness meditation. Although the roots of Centering Prayer go back to the Desert Fathers and the monastic movement, the current practice has been popularized within Christian communities by three Trappist monks— Fr. Thomas Keating, Fr. Basil Pennington and Fr. William Menninger.
Using a sacred word or phrase as a focus, the meditator repeats the sacred word as other thoughts arise, thereby returning focus to the sacred word. The activity of the mind may be observed, but focus on the sacred word keeps the meditator's intention on experiencing God's presence and not on habitual mind chatter or other concerns.
Some Christians are surprised to learn that this form of prayer is as old as the Christian tradition itself, thinking of it as Eastern rather than Christian. They remember the Beatles studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. (Indeed much of the research done in the physical and psychological effects of meditation was precipitated by this event.) Furthermore, they are more comfortable with the practice of verbal prayer and supplication because this is the kind of prayer they learned as a child and the kind of prayer they see modeled and practiced on Sunday mornings in community.
To confuse the issue even more in the Christian tradition, this quiet, wordless prayer method is more historically called contemplation in the monastic community, whereas meditation referred to deep consideration of a scriptural text or other sacred reading, of a piece of music or even of nature. The converse is true in Eastern traditions: meditation is equated with stillness and contemplation with reflection. However, the global nature of the postmodern world is seeing the terms used synonymously on both sides of the ocean.
One difference in traditional Eastern meditation and Centering Prayer is the meditation position. Eastern practitioners often assume a lotus or prayer stool position to meditate, while the person practicing Centering Prayer often sits with hands folded in the lap or turned up in an attitude of receiving. However, these positions are relative to the preferences of the individual, and practitioners of both may use either position as they feel most comfortable.
Walking Meditation/Prayer Walking
Walking meditation has been described as meditation in action. It is a part of many traditions such as Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity, where is is becoming more popular among the laity after centuries of being relegated to monasteries and convents.
The focus during walking meditation is on the body and consequently on the present moment since that is the only place our bodies can be. It is also the place where the Divine Presence is most accessible.
When we are caught up in our thoughts of the past and the future, our awareness of our own physicality and of the Presence of the holy is obscured. Walking meditation is able to center us in the moment by the pure act of moving.
Some contemporary groups like to use walking as a time for intercessory prayer, and that is certainly beneficial as is the appreciation of the beauty and wonder of nature that one encounters while walking. However, in its more traditional forms, walking meditation is less about attention to the other and more about presence/Presence. When the time is spent praying for others, the practice is sometimes called prayer walking. Both walking meditation and prayer walking have healing benefits, and you should choose the form to which you are most drawn. Some people even combine the two by spending half their practice time praying for others, and half the time focusing attention internally where they become aware of that "still, small voice."
Suzanne has been practicing meditation and centering prayer since the 1970s. She has studied with a number of teachers and worded with several styles. She co-leads a centering prayer group at her church. She leads workshops in different meditation techniques, including walking meditation. A typical workshop is a balance of teaching, practice and sharing.