PraXis explores evidence-based wellness practices in exercise, diet and mindfulness as they relate to the ancient Christian tradition of askesis or spiritual training. Wellness addresses two core chronic health problems in America: heart-related disease and mild anxiety and depression. We’ve talked a good deal about how exercise and diet can address our bodily health. In this post, we’ll introduce you to practices that contribute to our emotional and mental health, while deepening our relationship with God.
The idea of PraXis is practice Christian diet and do light exercise before a mindfulness practice. Before we can jump into what that mindfulness bit might look like, we’ll need to define some terms.
“Be still and know that I am God,” Psalm 46:10
Contemplation: Contemplation is an ancient Christian practice, but most don’t know much about it. This type of prayer is referred to as mental prayer, wordless prayer, imageless prayer, silent or noetic prayer. Contemplation is different from other common forms of active prayer, in which we spontaneously or through written words, praise God, or ask for something ie: supplication, intercession, confession, etc. In contemplative prayer we are sitting in silence, and without words or thoughts, we open ourselves and wait on the presence of God.
“Be still in the presence of the LORD, and wait patiently for him to act.” Psalm 37:7
You might see contemplation in terms of the form of prayer that the Jews refer to as Tifalah, or join with the divine. Or we can look at the Latin word, con-templatio, which denotes, con– to join with, templi, the temple. A nice way to think about it is, in contemplation we are engaged in the most sacred of actions: waiting on the presence of the Lord, in the same spirit that temple priests in Jerusalem use to enter the Holy of Holies once a year to encounter the Earthly presence of God. Contemplation is a spiritual act of intimacy with God that occurs in the deepest and most profound state of our own mental silence.
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“Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.” Joshua 1:8
Meditation: Meditation is a very confusing term, because it means two different things depending on if you are a Christian or a non-Christian. If you are NOT a Christian, meditation basically means the same as contemplation. If you are a Christian, then meditation means the opposite. It means actively thinking about or pondering a specific question, issue or text. The scriptures say to meditate on the bible every day, for example. This conflict in the Christian and non-Christian use of this term causes a lot of confusion.
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” James 1:19
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of our thoughts and emotions on a moment-to-moment basis, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us or inside our heads. We are mindful when we are not carried away with our own thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is when we can see things first, as they truly are, and then act– rather than being triggered by events, thoughts and emotions and just reacting rashly or robotically out of reflex. You can think of this as simply having inner peace or calmness in the face of stress. And taking actions in life deliberately and not mindlessly.
How are these things related?
Contemplation is a form of spiritual training in which we learn to sit in silence, and wait on the Lord. And that training essentially strengthens our ability to concentrate, while relaxing our tendency to react to our own thoughts and emotions prematurely. The process of strengthening and stretching our mental muscles is referred to as neuroplasticity. Increased neuroplasticity makes us more resilient to stress and less susceptible to anxiety and depression.
We’ll go into greater depths in other posts. But what is important at this time, is that as we practice contemplative silence, we learn to let our thoughts just drift by. Eventually our thoughts slow down, and this opens us a silent mental space, in which we can encounter the Holy Spirit. Practicing this silence also allows us to respond to everyday life with more mental/emotional calm.
Christian Mindfulness: We are going to use this term to refer to anything that moves us along the path towards silence, as we wait on the Lord. There are lots of forms of prayer including labyrinth walking, and forms of scripture reading like Lectio Divina, that move us towards silence, without you having to actually sit in complete silence all the time. So, if you are terrified of silence, don’t worry. There are alternative ways to ease into this at your own pace.
We’ll explore some of the health benefits of mindfulness and look at some forms of Christian Mindfulness in the next post. Hope you keep reading.
GO TO PART TWO