8 ways to be with thoughts in prayer

How’s it going in surrendering yourself to the Mystery that has intimately accessed your heart and has brought you to this place that it might translate you into itself?

James Finley 

If you ask me just precisely how one is to go about doing the contemplative work of love, I am at a complete loss. All I can say is I pray that Almighty God in his great goodness and kindness will teach you himself. For in all honesty I must admit I do not know. And no wonder, for it is a divine activity and God will do it in whomsoever he chooses.

Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 34

25 years ago, when I was younger and more limber, I went on a 10 day Vipassana retreat. The day started at 4am and there were 7 hours of meditation practise each day, plus some teaching. We slept in dorms and were in bed and asleep by 9pm. The first few days were simply paying attention to the sensations of the breath around the nose and upper lip. Once a day, the teacher, who sat with us, would call us out to the front of the meditation hall and ask us how we were getting on. We would talk about our physical, emotional, mental discomfort, the never-ending story of our thoughts, the boredom, and so on. Inevitably, when each of us had finished speaking he would say, “Keep breathing.” That was the extent of Buddhist spiritual direction. I had a bit of a wobble at day 4 and considered leaving, but then I settled down and found an inner clear space. Even now, when I consciously take a breath and feel the air pushing in through my nostrils, I am taken back to that quality of silence and presence. It wasn’t the most nuanced version of Buddhist teaching I’ve encountered – like some expressions of Christianity it didn’t always recognise metaphor – but I am grateful for the experience.

Of course, in that sort of setting, I was beset by thoughts. Or, rather, I noticed that I was beset. When I say ‘thoughts’ I mean the ten thousand ideas, images, emotions, plans, ruminations, desires, cravings and aversions (as the Buddhists say), attachments, and so on, that occur in any hour of the day. As the retreat went on, the spaces between thoughts did occasionally lengthen, maybe even a second or two at a time, but this clamour is the common lot of humanity and, in my exploration of mindfulness, I learnt that there is no blame in this. This is not a failure or a mistake, neither lack of will nor weakness of intellect. It is just what minds do, though it is possible, with practice, to find that we are not our thoughts and that there is some freedom to be had, little by little.

All thought arises within the belief that reality is not all right as it is at the moment. Something is lacking. The shopping must be done. The desk must be sorted out. The future is uncertain and scary. The past is regrettably full of mistakes. I’m not good enough – not clever, pretty, successful, wealthy, safe, loved, or holy enough. Things could be better. I suspect, in the final analysis, this reduces to ensuring we “eat lunch and don’t be lunch today.”

The practise of letting go of thought into silence is ultimately the practice of Presence. It is the realisation of identity in God and that I already have everything.

In a nutshell, there are two ways to deal with thoughts:

  1. Let them go. Neither react or respond to them nor suppress or repress them. They arrive and leave. Like dandelion seeds in the wind. Another way of thinking about this is that we let go of the story we tell about ourselves. Relinquishing my story allows me to be in God’s story.
  2. Pay them kindly attention: Some aspect of the story we tell compels our attention. To ignore this is unkind. It is self-neglect.

Strike a negotiation between knowing what you want and then sticking with a discipline, and knowing when you need some kindness. It is like being with a child: there is a balance between boundaries (homework has a deadline; chores are important contributions to family life; curfews are for protection and sufficient sleep; meals together are important; wait for a gap in a conversation before interrupting) and kindness (rest is more important than work; the scraped knee or the wounded heart that needs tending and loving right now; the special party; excitement that cannot wait).

Who, if they were interrupted by a distressed child during prayer, would tell the child to go away and wait until they had finished? Well, why would you do that to yourself!? Kindness (e.g. Matthew 7:9). If the child was just bored, that would be a different matter. Children can learn to give their carers some space and make their own amusement. Boundary (e.g. Matthew 6:6). As Auden says,

and always, though truth and love
can never really differ, when they seem to,
the subaltern should be truth.

So-called contemplative prayer practices are another kind of scaffolding. The aim of silence is not to stop thinking. This is a common, and damaging, misapprehension. The horizon of silence is God (Reality/The Truth). It is to connect with God, to have a relationship with God, to be translated into God, and ultimately to know that this world has never been anything other than God. We practise silence because, in the final analysis, God cannot be known through thoughts, and words, and emotions. God is always other than our conceptions, images, and stories.

By love he may be touched and embraced, never by thought.

Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 6

Silence is therefore about letting go of what we think in order to be open to what is, to recover reality, to encounter the uncreated. It is letting go of the comforting certainties of faith to be with That about which all certainties fail. Words may bring us to the temple door but can never carry us over the threshold. We have to leave them outside with our other weapons.

So, here is some scaffolding. These 8 ways of being with thoughts are all tried, tested, and practised by yours truly. The first four are about boundaries; the second four are about kindness.

1. Desire

All prayer starts with desire. What do you want? What brings you to prayer? What are you looking for? Why pray rather than doing something more useful and productive? You may not know what you want, and yet you turn up. What’s this about? Where in your body do you feel this desire? What is it like?

When you find yourself carried away by thoughts from the here and now, return gently, with no fuss, no recrimination, to your desire and where you feel this desire in the body. Express this desire to God in some way.

2. Breath

What is wonderful about the breath is that it is always there. It lies in the borderlands between the conscious and unconscious. In the normal course of events, breathing is autonomous, keeping us alive without intervention. But we are also able to be aware of and regulate our breathing at will. And when we presence a breath (gently does it, mind you) we know an elemental and joyous unfolding.

Rowan Williams suggests this:

You can watch your breath. You can be conscious of your diaphragm rising and falling, conscious of the movement of life in you, and if you think at all about it you might think, ‘Well, for this time as I breathe in and out, all I am is a place where life is happening.’ The breath moves in, the breath moves out; I am a place where life is happening. And if I am a place where life is happening, I am a place where God is happening.

Being Human, pp. 102–3

3. Word

If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as “God” or “love” is best. But choose one that is meaningful for you. Then fix your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defence in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and subdue all distractions, consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you.

The Cloud of Unknowing Chapter 9

This word is not really in the head. The word expresses the intention of desire. It resonates in the chambers of the heart, belly, and pelvis. It is the response to all thoughts that refuses to answer any thought.

This discloses the reason we turn tail and run from silence. The idea of me is constructed from habits of thought and story that silence incrementally abrades. Prayer is not a self-improvement programme; it is a self-subtraction programme.

And now we are truly afraid
to find the great silence
asking so little.

One word, one word only.

David Whyte, “It is Not Enough” from Where Many Rivers Meet

It is an immense relief.

4. Body: (my favourite!)

Thinking is in the head and tends to be about the past or the future. The body is always in the present. Let your attention sink down into the body. Feel your way lower, into the heart and belly, down to the pelvic floor. This is who you are – this presencing in the world. Your thoughts carry on, up there, like dust on the surface of a pond, never immersed, never properly alive. Or as Mary Oliver says in “Wild Geese,”

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

And then, having more presence, more heft, open:

Life up your heart with a gentle stirring of love desiring God for God’s sake and not for any gifts.

The Cloud of Unknowing Chapter 3

This is both a centring of attention upon your beating heart and its soft unfurling towards the Divine, which is always present.

These four ways may be used on their own or woven together to hold you in silence, e.g. desire You, float it on the breath, name it in the silence, presence it in the body. You will notice that these first four practices, all of which are rooted in the Christian tradition going all the way back, bring attention to the body. When you “take up occupation of the site of [your body] in stillness before God” you realise that “you are a place where God is happening.” Christianity is incarnational.

As I said above, to ignore some thoughts/feelings/sensations is to abandon yourself. In these cases, to give some kindly attention to yourself is the right thing to do. How do you find out whether it is right to let thoughts go or to give them kindly attention? Well, first off, it is never wrong to extend kindness. Secondly, does getting it wrong really matter? How else do we learn? Just try it and see. Over time you will work out what is best for you.

5. Welcome

Darling, the body is a guest house;
every morning someone new arrives.
Don’t say, “O, another weight around my neck!”
or your guest will fly back to nothingness.
Whatever enters your heart is a guest
from the invisible world: entertain it well.

Rumi (Version by Kabir Helminski, “The Rumi Collection”)

To extend a welcome is the primal act of kindness. Attend to a thought without indulging it. Thoughts are just the tip of the somatic iceberg, expressions of ‘deeper’, unconscious, bodily processes. When we welcome a thought as a guest, we open the sanctuary of our heart in which these deeper processes can unfold and resolve. 

Being kind does not mean having no boundary. Only boundaried kindness allows this to happen. The kind of boundary I have in mind is is a temporal one. We hold and observe the thoughts (feelings/sensations) in the present, not ruminating on the past but attending to the feeling of anger or loss or hurt or guilt, not fantasising about the future but attending to the feeling of fear and anxiety or excitement and anticipation. We do this by welcoming the sensations of the body, which are always in the present.

There are three prayer practices that help me to be kind to the thoughts that need attention:

  1. Focusing, a technique first developed by Eugene Gendlin. This has been given a Christian and spiritual extension into BioSpiritual Focusing. I first encountered this 20 years ago and it changed the way I pray. It is what started me banging on about this body and presence.
  2. The Welcoming Practice developed by Mary Mrozowski to complement Centring Prayer. There is a good video of Cynthia Bourgeault explaining it.
  3. Tara Brach’s RAIN practise.

Again, this is essentially getting out of the head and into the body. The body knows the score

6. Write

To write is a challenge. The page provides a boundary in which kindness is offered to the words that inhabit our heads. The words are let out onto the playground; meanwhile, the schoolroom of the heart finds a patch of calm in which to reflect more usefully. Be as honest with yourself as you dare. The challenge is to write without thinking too much about it. Allow the words to play and see what games they come up with.

Some people do not know what they think until they talk. Writing is another way to find out what we think. Writing gets the circling thoughts out of the head and gives respite from the merry-go-round of rumination by letting deeper processes have a voice.

One helpful writing practice is the morning pages of Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron. If you like writing on a screen, 750words.com can be used as a spiritual practice.

Give your words Rumi’s welcome. Envelop them with kindness. Return them to God.

7. Walk

Physical movement stimulates mental movement. As the body moves, so does the mind. When you find yourself stuck in loops of in-turned thought that seem to go nowhere, when you reach a mental or emotional cul-de-sac, go for a walk. If at all possible, go for a walk where people, and the products of people, are not.

We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

We are taken out of the claustrophobic, self-referential, narcissistic bubble of the merely human into the airy, more-than-human world of “earth and air and rain.”

Walking and other kinds of movement don’t stop thoughts, but while one is otherwise engaged the thoughts find another route through. The linear, logical mind goes into abeyance and the open, receptive, intuitive mind, which is always there but substantially disavowed in our technological era, takes over.

The fact is, walking is some people’s contemplative practice.

8. Talk

I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, realisation of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

D.H. Lawrence

Some thoughts – that is to say some internal constellation of ideas, emotional feelings, and embodied hurt – need kindly, committed, patient attention over time as a practice. When we return, again and again, to the scene of the crime; when we ruminate upon certain events in the past; when we are always anxious about what the day will hold; when there are moods that are hard to bear; when we think there is something wrong with us: then we need help.

A committed prayer practice can help.

One place to start is to let Jesus see you. Be brave. Show and tell. It can help to have an icon to look at, to let yourself be looked upon with kindness. You might reasonably say, “Jesus already knows.” That’s as may be. But it is a defence. Give it up. You need to talk. It is in the articulation that matters become real and the truth hits us.

You see, what we’re doing is taking the focus away from anxious self-concern and onto something that is a window into God, whoever She may be for you. 

Sometimes, perhaps more often than we like to admit, prayer it is not enough. We must speak to another person about what is wrong. The psychotherapist or counsellor, the spiritual director, the confessor, the friend who can listen compassionately: avail yourself of these. I know it is not easy. I know it makes you vulnerable.  Give yourself the inestimable gift of being heard.

But beware: most people do not listen. They wait for a gap in the conversation so they can have their say. Only a centred self can be unself-centred. Only someone who has found a measure of contentment with themselves can truly listen. Only someone who, for this time, doesn’t need to be heard can truly listen. Only someone who doesn’t need you to change can truly listen. Find someone like this. It may take several tries to find the right person. Be brave. Talk. It is not easy but it does help. Things change if you stick with it. I speak from experience.

Silence is not about emptying and leaving nothing. That is impossible. There is no moral or spiritual kudos in being able to empty your mind. God will not love you more. Silence is about curating an inner disposition of letting go of what distracts you from being more fully alive.

I have two online events coming up:

  • 5th November: “The self of the spiritual director”, a training day for spiritual directors hosted by the London Centre for Spiritual Direction.
  • 2nd and 4th December: “Waiting during Advent”, two retreat days.
    (This is an advance date for your diary; more details in due course.)

I would love to hear your thoughts on this, for preference in the comment section below, or privately if you prefer using the Contact page.

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