Perhaps the biggest hindrance to developing a deeply satisfying prayer life is the problem of the mind. The brain is a wonderful tool for solving problems, but can become a terrible difficulty when it comes to the exercise of the spirit. The reason for this is that the brain has for so long dominated man’s being that when it comes time to pray (which is predominantly a spiritual activity in which the mind plays only a supporting role), it rather resents giving up its position of dominance and tries every trick in the book to keep the centre of our attention on meeting its relentless needs, questions, worries and fears.
The first five exercises are intended to help us bring discipline to our unruly mind; quietening it’s insane chatter so that we may clearly hear the voice of the Spirit. This is harder than it appears, as anyone who has made prayer a serious practice can testify! To maintain a calm, serene and peaceful mind, one that is at full attention and deeply aware yet acting only as a servant to the spirit and not the master, is the mark of every true man and woman of prayer. Paul describes this as, “taking every thought captive and bringing it into conformity to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), while he tells us in Romans 12:2 that we will only be transformed when our mind is renewed from being something that dominates the spirit to being that which serves the spirit.
The second exercise is called Full Awareness, and trains the mind to focus on what is actually happening right now rather than obsessing about past events, future fears, fantasy flights of the imagination or simply getting lost in analysis. It helps us to calm the mind in order to become gently aware and deeply thankful for the moment we find ourselves in right now, for the environment around us and for life as it presents itself to us. It is an exercise in what Paul would describe as, “giving thanks for all things” (1 Thess. 5:18). As it becomes increasingly aware of the physical environment in which it is currently immersed, it recalls the mind from its normal state of dispersal to a single-pointed state of deep awareness and heartfelt gratitude.
The Second Exercise: Full Awareness
Sit in a comfortable position, back straight and body relaxed. Close your eyes and rest your hands in your lap. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that the spirit within you is none other than the very life of God, breathed into you when you were created. Like the first exercise, we are going to use breath as a way to slow the exercise down, avoiding the common human habit of rushing through things in order to achieve a goal. There is no ‘goal’ as such, just an ongoing commitment that in the space of this breath, I will devote myself to becoming aware of all that is around me and being deeply thankful for it.
Establish yourself in the gentle rhythm of breath, becoming deeply thankful for each ‘in’ breath and each ‘out’ breath. Then, when you are ready, with your next ‘in’ breath begin to become aware of your surroundings. Maybe you can hear the birds singing, the sunlight on your eyelids, the murmur of the wind in the trees. Maybe you can sense the energy of the person sitting beside you (if you are performing this exercise as part of a group). Maybe a car drives past, a fly lands on your nose or you can smell the flowers. Don’t get caught up in analysing these phenomena (the mind is very subtle and can easily divert you into analysis here). As these sensations arise, just let them come, be aware of them and then let them fade naturally, as though if your body is a house and the various phenomena are temporary visitors. Simply allow them to be, letting them pass through the front door of your ‘house’ and leave through the back door – just don’t make them tea! Remember that you are simply noticing the sensations presented to you by the ears, eyes, nose, mouth and touch without getting involved in them. If you find yourself getting lost in thinking, just return your attention to the natural rhythm of the breath – and then thank God for that!
As each phenomena arises, recognise it and gently offer thanks. It is easy to give thanks for birdsong, but you can also give thanks for a dog barking or a car revving it’s engine. Be equanimous with whatever is happening, and, as it passes out the ‘back door’ of your perceptions, bestow on it your blessing and a gentle smile.
You might like to spend five or ten minutes or even longer on this, and you may like to preface it by using the First Exercise – ‘Coming Home’ as an introductory practice, and then just move right on in to this second exercise after five minutes of preparatory work.
This exercise is a lovely antidote for an overtired, stressed mind that has worked for far too long at far too fast a pace. Often when we are in this state of haste, we can miss the many splendored things around us that God has placed in our path to nourish and strengthen our souls. As we practice this way, we will find that we become naturally much more attuned to these little blessings that cross our path, and our capacity for thankfulness increases dramatically. Of course, the result of this is that we become much happier and peaceful, and far more able to hear the gentle voice of the Spirit as he ministers to us throughout the day. Enjoy your practices!