Contemplative Practices

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Contemplative Practices:



Contemplative or Centering Prayer:

       Prayer is an openness to God in speaking or listening.  P. T. Forsythe said that "prayer is to religion what

original research is to science."  Most us are familiar with discursive prayer (speaking to God) which takes the form of prayers of thanksgiving, intercession, petition, or adoration.  Less familiar for most of us are the contemplative forms of prayer.

        First let us look at centering prayer which can be used as a bridge to contemplative prayer. Thomas Keating in his popular book Open Mind, Open Heart gives the following directions.

        "Once you have picked a suitable time and place and a chair or a posture that is relatively comfortable, and closed you eyes, choose a sacred word that expresses your intention of opening and surrendering to God and introduce it on the level of your imagination. Do not form it with your lips or vocal chords. Let it be a single word of one or two syllables with which you feel at ease. Gently place it in your awareness each time you recognize the intrusion of some other thought."

        "The sacred word is a way of reducing the ordinary number of one's casual thoughts and of warding off the more interesting ones that come down the stream of consciousness. . . . The sacred word is not a mantra in the strict sense of the word. We do not keep saying it until we drill it into our unconscious. It is rather a condition, an atmosphere that we set up, that allows us to surrender to the attractive force of the divine Presence with in us. . . . It's an exercise of effortlessness, of letting go. . . . As you quiet down and go deeper, you may reach a place where the sacred word disappears altogether and there are no thoughts.

        Contemplative prayer can be thought of as opening to God.


The Jesus Prayer:  

The "Jesus Prayer" is the simple repetition, over and over, of: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Many people use a shorter version such as "Lord Jesus, have mercy on me." The words may also be sung. In any case, the repetition of this, or any simple prayer, can bring the practitioner to a meditative state. 


Lectio Divina:  

The following two readings give a historical and a practical explanation of this practice.

        "The method of prayer proposed for lay persons and monastics alike in the first Christian centuries was called lectio divina, literally, "divine reading", a practice that involved reading scripture, or more exactly, listening to it. Monastics would repeat the words of the sacred text with their lips so that the body itself entered into the process. They sought to cultivate through lectio divina the capacity to listen at ever deeper levels of inward attention. Prayer was their response to the God to whom they were listening in scripture and giving praise in liturgy.

The reflective part, pondering upon the words of the sacred text, was called meditatio, "meditation". The spontaneous movement of the will in response to these reflections was called oratio, "affective prayer". As these reflections and acts of will simplified, one moved on to a state of resting in the presence of God, and that is what was meant by contemplatio, "contemplation".

Thomas Keating - Open Mind, Open Heart

"1. Begin with reading, stopping when a word or phrase really "shimmers", becoming a vibrant transparency of God for you. The intent is not to get to the end of a passage but to the bottom of it in God, to the word through which God touches you now, the word that becomes an icon for you. This is not always a strong awareness.

2. Move toward an understanding of God in the word: the step of reflection. This step involves the use of your cognitive capacity to reflect on the possible spiritual meaning of the word for you life, and at times for the larger community's life. Do not try to force a meaning. .

3. Move to active prayer: for your heart to open to God through this word in direct communion, and for your will to open to God in responsive action, as may be called for.

4. Finally, move to a still presence in the spaciousness of God. Seek to simply rest in your larger identity in God, through and behind the images and feelings that may rise.

A rural Southern minister, not knowing this tradition technically but knowing it in his heart, summed it up succinctly when he was asked how he prays: "I read myself full, I think myself clear, I pray myself hot, and I let myself cool" (another version of his statement ends "let myself go")."

Tilden Edwards - Living in the Presence


The Labyrinth:

        The labyrinth is an ancient meditative art form whose design can serve as a metaphor of one’s life journey. Its path helps walkers circle inward to the center of their soul. The labyrinth’s center represents moving toward a goal and allowing one to release emotions that they carried inside — in order to create or envision a solution as one turns around in order to work one’s way back. This liberating exercise lifts us out of our linear, left-brain thought processes by joyfully invoking our intuitive, creative right brain.

        During various time periods of its 4,000-year existence, religions throughout the world have embraced its mysterious healing abilities. Labyrinths are typically found in cathedrals, hospitals, parks and residences.

Some walk the labyrinth methodically, heel-to-toe, as a contemplative and joyful pilgrimage to draw in, closer to God. Others tread fearfully on their knees, as a penitence for sin.

        There are two basic types of labyrinths: the Cretan and the Chartres.

            1). The Cretan labyrinth is named after the island of Crete and takes the walker into seven arc circuits in which the center

                       is a cross.

            2).  The Chartres is named after the stone labyrinth in the floor of the Chartres Cathedral in France. It carries the walker

                      through eleven paths that wind through four quadrants of a circle. It also has a cross in the layout with a rosette in

                      the center which is said to represent the Virgin Mary.

Prayerfully, meditatively walking a labyrinth can help deepen your spirituality, no matter which path you choose.



Walking Meditation:

                Many people have watched the graceful movements of the Tai Chi player and resonated with the silence embodied in    this movement. While Tai Chi may not be an option for all of us, we shouldn't overlook the walking meditation which is         available to most of us and offers us many of the benefits of Tai Chi Chuan. Recently Westerners have been introduced to walking mediation by attending Buddhist meditation retreats.

        Walking meditation can be very enjoyable. We walk slowly, alone or with friends, if possible in some beautiful place. Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking. Walking not in order to arrive, just for walking. The purpose is to be in the present moment and enjoy each step you make. Therefore you have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past, just enjoying the present moment. You can take the hand of a child as you do it. You walk, you make steps as if you are the happiest person on Earth.

        We walk all the time, but usually it is more like running. When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on Earth. Everyone of us can do that provided that we want it very much. Any child can do that. If we can take one step like that, we can take two, three, four, and five. When we are able to take one step peacefully, and happily, we are for the cause of peace and happiness for the whole of humankind. Walking meditation is a wonderful practice.

                                                                                                                               Thich Nhat Hanh - Being Peace


Retreats/at-home retreats:

        There are many different kinds of retreats—solitary or group, religious or secular, highly structured or self-directed—but any retreat essentially involves getting away from your usual distractions to focus on your contemplative practice.

This is what separates a retreat from other forms of rest or vacation: your intention. When you go on a retreat, you make a commitment to engage in and deepen your contemplative practice or religious discipline. Since retreats are often lead by a teacher, they can also be valuable opportunities for you to ask questions and receive guidance on more personal spiritual matters.


At-Home Retreats

        The typical retreat experience involves staying away from your home, at a retreat center or spiritual community of some kind, such as a monastery or meditation center. But for many of us it can be difficult, if not impossible, to get away from everyday life for an extended period. Fortunately, if you have good self-discipline and a little creativity, you can create a rejuvenating retreat for yourself at home by setting aside time to be used exclusively for your spiritual well-being.

        The primary problem you face during an at-home retreat is that you are surrounded by your usual distractions. For the period you are designating as your retreat time, unplug the TV and the phone and remind your family to leave you alone as much as possible. If you want to read, write, make art or listen to music while on retreat, gather your supplies before your retreat period begins. You may wish to keep a journal of your thoughts and experiences. Or, you could try removing yourself from all distraction -- no reading, no listening to music, no writing -- and just experiment with being alone with your self for a time. Follow your instincts to spend your time the way you find most appropriate.


Traditional/Residential Retreats

        It is more traditional to leave your home for a retreat. Retreat settings vary, and can include monasteries, campgrounds, spiritual or religious centers, or any rented space such as hotels and conference centers. The duration can vary from one day to several months, or, in the Tibetan tradition, even several years.

        Although attending a retreat does require you to have free time and money for things such as transportation, food, and registration fees, retreats do not have to be expensive. Of course, some are held in exotic locales, serve gourmet meals, and house guests in private rooms, but others are more simple, providing dormitory accommodations and simple meals, or depend on participants to camp and provide their own food. Additionally, it is quite common for retreat centers to offer scholarships, work study programs, or "suggested donations" instead of fixed prices.


This material was borrowed from Jim Flory's Contemplative Quakerism Page.

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Last updated: 01/08/09.