It has been a little over a year since I began to post my daily reflections online here as a feature on Progressive Redneck Preacher. I began last summer, initially with a weekly post, and have moved into posting a daily reflection. The daily reflections I share are gathered from a personal journal I keep in response to daily practices of Christian meditation. For me these devotionals are a spiritual practice to me, helping me center my soul as I try and strengthen others with my words. They draw on several practices of Christian meditation as well as the long-standing practice of journaling as a spiritual practice.
Since a few readers I’ve spoken with have told me that these practices are new to them, I thought it would be fitting to take a few posts to re-visit what what these spiritual practices are, since one of my hopes in these daily devotionals is not just to share what I get out of my daily spiritual practice with others but also to invite others to discover their own spiritual practice for themselves.
The heart of what inspires these daily devotionals are various forms of Christian meditation. Meditation has begun to become a key practice which many are engaging in forms of coming out of the discovery of mindfulness as a means of working toward emotional and mental well-being. The mindfulness movement draws on forms of meditation removed from their religious context to help people create lasting inner peace, emotional resiliency, reduction of anxiety, and also greater mental focus. Often-times because of how central meditation practices like zazen and yoga are to Eastern faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism, people may feel only in Eastern religions can we find a model for such mindful practice. In actual fact, every world religion has some form of mindfulness practice used for meditation by the mystics at the heart of their faith whether they be Jewish kabbalists, Muslim Sufi mystics, Christian monks or charismatics. When I began to encounter the power of mindfulness and meditation in a secular sense I was amazed to discover depths of riches in Christian spirituality I had never been taught in church or Sunday school which were ways I could practice mindful living while connecting with millennia of Christian tradition.
One life-changing spiritual practice I’ve discovered is “breath prayer”. Breath prayer involves finding a verse or line in a Scripture, and meditating on it an extended time, in sync with your breath. For anyone familiar with zazen practice in Zen Buddhism, this practice is very similar but rooted instead in the prayer practices of monks, nuns, and people of prayer in the places like the ancient African deserts in the early rise of Christianity to places like Alexandria, Egypt, and Carthage in Northwest in Africa. It has continued in monasteries and among Christian mystics in all denominational traditions. In fact, in charismatic churches the praise anthems based on the psalms with phrases repeated over and over again instinctively are modeled on the breath prayer practice, even though most of the musicians have never been directly exposed to breath prayer. It seems to have been intentionally taken up by the Taize community, and Taize style Christian music is heavily influenced by this approach to prayer. Breath prayer is one of the powerful mindfulness practices of the early church.
One website describes breath prayer like this: “A breath prayer is prayed slowly using our natural rhythm of breathing to set the pace of our prayer, often as a way of entering into silence and solitude. As a centering prayer, a breath-prayer can bring our mind back to a God-focus when it wanders, help focus our full attention on God. And a frequently used breath prayer can become an unconsciously prayed prayer throughout our day.
“So a breath prayer actually has multiple purposes: it slows us down; it reminds us of our dependence (we become conscious of our need for breath); it focuses us on God (and keeps us focused on God); it leads us into deeper prayer (praise, confession, lament, petition, intercession, listening, etc.); and it is, itself, a genuine prayer.” http://www2.crcna.org/pages/crhm_breath_prayer.cfm
“Be still and know that I am holy” (Psalm 46)
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10) “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want” (Psalm 23:1) “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47) “Teacher, let me see again” (Bartimaeus’ request; Mark 10:51) “God, have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:13) “Abba, I belong to you” (cf. Romans 8:15) “Come, Lord Jesus, come” (The Maranatha Prayer; Revelation 22:20)
In my own personal spiritual life, in addition to the Scriptures I read and reflect on in my devotional, as I prepare for the journaling I do, if I am not using some other Scripture for breath prayer, I often will use Psalm 46, the Serenity Prayer, or the Jesus Creed.
Everyone has a different way of doing breath prayer. Most will recommend you find a comfortable place to sit, with good back support, and feet on the ground. For me, being life-long southerner that I am, I find I meditate best in an old rocking chair, so that the chair can rock along with each breath.
Then when comfortable, most recommend you take a deep breath in and out a few times, allowing the worries of the day to pass through you out into the world like the breath leaving your lungs. I like to begin also by taking time with each breath to pay attention to how I feel in each quadrant of my body – my feet, my legs, my waist, my chest, and so on. Then I like to pay attention to what emotions I’m feeling and to sit with each of them for a moment before focusing in on the Scripture, prayer, or saying I will focus on for my breath prayer. I do this because for me the best way for me to clear my mind and focus on the prayer I will be using for breath prayer is by connecting in on how I’m feeling. I find when I first started meditating I would try to push away my thoughts, feelings, and worries. I found trying to push away what I was thinking about or feeling only made me more tense and the feelings more intense. It is like the old adage that the best way to get someone to think of a pink elephant is to tell them not to imagine a pink elephant. Yet by focusing intensely briefly, at full attention, on the feelings in my body and in my heart I find I am able to let them flow out of me like the breath in my lungs during my meditation.
When I’ve done this I then will turn to the short prayer or word of Scripture. I say this prayers rhythmically, each phrase lining up to a breath in or out, focusing on each phrase. Usually I will either begin by saying them one word at a time until I have said the whole phrase fully, or beginning as one phrase repeated and slowly dropping off one word at a time. For instance, with Psalm 46, I might begin saying “Be, “Be still”, “Be still and”, and so forth or begin with the whole “Be still and know that I am holy”, followed by “Be still and know that I am”. Taking time to focus on each word helps slow me down from the busy “let’s get things done” pace of my life and really open up both to the meaning of the prayer or Scripture and also to that of the Sacred at work in my own life. I’m always amazed at the insights that come to me while meditating through breath prayer.
If you are interested in developing a breath prayer practice, here are some websites that give great information about how to begin, perhaps with some of the same verses I describe in my reflections: http://www2.crcna.org/pages/crhm_breath_prayer.cfm http://www.patheos.com/blogs/spiritualdirection101/2013/07/the-essential-practice-of-the-breath-prayer/ http://www.soulshepherding.org/2006/07/breath-prayers/ http://tenwaystopray.com/home/breath-sophrony/practice/
Next time I hope to share about some other forms of Christian meditation. I’d love to hear about what spiritual practices keep you going.
And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,