Monday, May 14, 2012

Prayer Brings Benefits Beyond Meditation

A New York Times article, "In Sitting Still, A Bench Press For the Brain," (May 10, 2012) in a special section dedicated to "Retirement," caught my attention. As I expected it was an article promoting non-Christian eastern meditation.  The article quotes a devotee of Sri Chinmoy, a mediation teacher in Queens , NY., who has practiced meditation for a number of years and who believes that this practice has "expanded the boundaries of her consciousness and also had beneficial effects on her brain."

The article quotes several studies done in university labs which support the idea that meditation has a physical effect on the brain. One study shows that long time meditators have "greater gyrification which is the folding of the cerebral cortex. Another study shows benefits for those with coronary heart disease, reducing the possibility of an heart attack. The conductor of this study says the reduction in stress produced by meditation can cause changes in the brain and cut stress hormones like cortisol and damp the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis. The essence of these experiments is that meditation physically changes the brain in beneficial ways.

What is involved in the practice of meditation and how does is differ from what the Church Fathers teach us?  The article answers the question about what to meditators do in the following way: It [meditation] is hard work, because you have to make a constant mental effort. It challenges the brain by demanding greater attention which is especially helpful for maintaining cognitive health as one ages.  It is a discipline that improves your ability to focus and concentrate.  It's a way of exercising your cognitive muscles.  

There are many forms of meditation but they all are centered on an exercise which demands a focus of attention.  For some it on a mantra, for others a focus on the breath.  Others have you focus on a spiritual saying.  They ask you to engage in this meditation for 30minutes each day to gain the beneficial results.  They also ask you to have a special place, to sit in a special way, to use incense, light a candle and to use differing forms of visualization to gain  a relaxed orientation.  They often avoid the mention of God, but when they do they put it like Sri Chimmoy: "Self-realisation is God-realisation, for God is nothing other than the Divinity that is deep inside each one of us, waiting to be discovered and revealed. We may also refer to God as the Inner Pilot or the Supreme. But no matter which term we use, we mean the Highest within us, that which is the ultimate goal of our spiritual quest." 

This is quite a different view of God than we know as Christians where God is the Creator of All. A God who came down from heaven taking on human flesh, who taught, was crucified, and then arose from the dead only to send to us the Holy Spirit and establishing the sacramental life of the Church.  This Spirit we receive when we are baptized and it transforms us so we have within our heart the capacity to join in union with God, to continually receive His grace for living His teachings, the virtues, and eternal life in His kingdom.  As Christians we seek not "self-realization" or "God-realization" of a God buried within our on being, but we seek the Holy Spirit of a transcendent God who is through the Spirit active within us, enabling us to join with God's will and carry out His work.  We surrender our own will to join with His through ascetic practices and participation in the sacramental life of the Church.  This surrender is called humility which is essential for us to receive the grace of God which transforms and saves us.

There is something to be learned from the studies on meditators as meditation has some similarities to what the Church Fathers teach, but there is also something fundamentally different. In medittion there is no aim of salvation, eternal life with God, or union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is in truth only a  practice that yields "self-realization" with the danger of self-induced visions that one thinks is God. Often it leads to an expanded ego state rather than a place of greater humility and love. 

Many of the teachings on prayer, the Jesus Prayer, include elements of meditation that will also give the same physical benefits described in the meditation studies. For prayer demands our attention and is hard work just like meditation. It also will change our brains. In prayer we must constantly battle the forces of errant thoughts that distract us from a focus on God.  To overcome these distractions requires a focus of our mind based on love.  Due to the love we have for God, we do not want to do anything that is not in agreement with His will.  We find as we try to focus our minds on God in prayer, that we have an active mind which is continually distracted by our brain and thoughts that come from our bodily passions and our interactions with things of the world. Without true love of the Trinitarian God, we fear death and act out of our own self interest, failing then to love others, but instead, loving ourselves more than others or God. This leads us to experience all the common stresses of daily life.

Here is how one Elder of the Church teaches us on the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The prayer is simple, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner."  One is instructed to repeat this over and over concentrating on the words.  This is different than a mantra as used in meditation, because one must believe in Jesus Christ and feel the pain of their sinfulness.  One must have a great desire to follow God's will, seeking with sincerity His mercy.  It is more than just concentrating on the words, although it also demands this.

Elder Nkiodim of Karoulia, a monk who lived on Mount Athos, gives us some simple instructions of which I will give only part.
One starts prayer by standing and then, after introductory prayers, you can sit.  
The prayer is said in your mind and you use a prayer rope to help in your concentration.  You move your fingers to the next knot on the prayer rope each time you complete the prayer.  
You hold your attention in your breast and not in your head or anywhere else.  He says, "If you pray in your head you will have a head full of thoughts.  You have to lower your attention."  Its best to pray with your head lowered onto your chest.
The key is to do what will help you maintain your concentration in prayer. He tells us that it is no longer prayer when you lose the sense that you are praying to God.  
The elder says, 
"If he doesn't have the awareness that he's addressing the Lord, then he's only praying with his head. He knows that there is a God, and remembers that he is addressing God, but is not aware of it.  But awareness leads a man to feeling.  And when feeling comes, then he begins to weep. True repentance is then revealed. He becomes aware of his sins and begins to repent sincerely.  He cries out to the Lord, "Forgive me, forgive me, have mercy on me!"  Everything concludes in the heart."  
We pray without invoking any images.   
The elder says, 
"Look upon the Lord and believe that the Lord is looking upon you.  In spirit–pray in spirit!...We will our spirit pray to God the Spirit.  Our spirit is united with God. When we turn with faith to God the Spirit, then the Lord will look upon us and the human spirit will be united with the Spirit of the Lord at the time of prayer."  
The main problem we face in prayer is attention.  
The elder says, 
"Strive to maintain your attention in the words of the prayer.  Then there is no place for thoughts to pop up, since attention is occupied with the words of the prayer.... When you pronounce the words be aware– as if you feel them."  
The elder elaborates on this in another dialogue. He gives advice on how to eliminate distractions and maintain attention during prayer, 
"You should not enclose your mind in all the words at once, but in each word separately.  You must do it like this: When you pronounce one word with your mind, you must at the same time listen with your mind to the word that is being uttered. Then, without a pause, immediately pronounce the next word the same way. Likewise with the third, fourth, and fifth words.  Finish one prayer and then immediately without a pause, another, then a third, and so on through the whole prayer rope.  Articulate with your mind the words of the first half of the prayer – "Lord Jesus Christ" – firmly and clearly. Pronounce the second half of the prayer – "have mercy on me" – close together, constraining your chest a little and restraining your breathing, but not too strongly, expressing in this way your contrition of heart and repentance. But this must be done calmly, so as not to irritate the nerves. At the same time you must constantly stand with your attention in your heart and look upon the invisible face of the Lord in His name.  Pronouncing the words of the prayer this way, word after word, without pauses or stops, you give no place for extraneous ideas and thoughts to intrude. Laboring in this way  with God's help you will see the fruit of your labor – the lessening of distraction."
We are advised to engage in this prayer for at least 30 minutes each day in a quiet place.  Most Orthodox Christians have a special place in their home for prayer where they have icons, a cross, incense burner, a candle and their prayer books.

Yes, there are similarities in the practice of meditation and prayer, but there is much more to prayer. For a Christian, in the practice of the Jesus prayer, one will also gain benefits from the physical changes described in the meditation studies, but will gain benefits far beyond these physical ones.  We must remember, our aim is not just longevity, happiness, or peace of mind, but eternal life with God in His kingdom.  This is the aim of the Jesus prayer.  Along with it also comes all the physical benefits ascribed to meditation.

References: The Orthodox Word, No 278, 2011; No 279, 2011

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