Explorations of the Brain on God – #2:
It occurred to me as I pondered the content of this second installment of “Explorations” that something like a glossary is in order. Why? As I noted in “Explorations – #1,” I am hoping that these explorations will help us identify the neuroscientific aspects of a number of Christian contemplative practices – in order to suggest how these practices might be deepened through awareness of neuroscientific understandings. But before that can happen, we need some basic shared vocabulary, some common working terms and understandings that name salient features of the practices themselves. Hence, a glossary, a collection of definitions to which we can refer with some sense that we are all talking about the same thing.
At this point in our explorations – that is, at the point of establishing some foundations – I think the most helpful glossary will consist of a list of the different dynamics that tend to show up in Christian contemplative practices. By “dynamic” I mean some dimension, movement, or process within a meditation or prayer practice. For instance, one term that has been used to refer to a particular dynamic of Christian prayer throughout the ages is apophatic. The word, which means “without images,” points to the fact that certain forms of prayer are built on, sustained by, move toward, and filled with the absence of “things” such as words, pictures, images, emotions; instead of such “things,” there is silence, stillness, or what seems to be described as a sort of lush emptiness (whatever that is!). A particular dynamic, such as the one named by apophatic, may show up in a variety of prayer styles of traditions. For instance, meditation forms based on the “Cloud of Unknowing,” lectio divina, and “Prayer of the Heart” are all said to have apophatic aspects (see descriptions of these under list “B,” below). On the other hand, a particular prayer style may have more than one dynamic. Lectio divina, for instance, moves toward an apophatic experience, a sense of “no-thing-ness,” but begins with engaging a very concrete ‘thing,’ the words of scripture.
As I consider what might go into a “glossary of dynamics” I am aware that many of the items to be listed might have only subtle differences (or may share the same essential features). For the moment that is not a problem; initially I want to name as many as possible, so that later the list might be pared down or arranged according to not-yet-established categories.
For the most part, the glossary will contain terms that come from Christian traditions. Occasionally, though, I will use terms unique to this list in order to give generic names to dynamics that show up in a variety of Christian streams. (Perhaps other religious traditions contain contemplative dynamics similar to those in Christianity, but that have names particular to those traditions. My generic terms may work for some of those, but I leave it to contemplative practitioners within those religions to make their own judgments about the accuracy of the terms.)
In addition to naming generic dynamics, the glossary contains particular forms of prayer and meditation that have been developed, labeled, practiced and taught by the faithful. The names of these forms of practice will appear both within the listing of dynamics (in order to help more clearly define the term I am using) and as part of a separate list.
When possible and appropriate, the lists include links to Web sites (that I trust) that further explain the practices or dynamics listed.
A. Dynamics (or Dimensions, Processes, and Movements) of Christian Contemplative Practice
- Confession: Asking for forgiveness for a perceived offense
- Supplication: Asking for something for oneself
- Intercession: Asking for something on behalf of or for other persons or the world, etc.
- Thanksgiving: Expression of gratitude directly to God.
- Praise/adoration: Expression of boundless appreciation of God’s might, glory, magnitude, compassion.
Attention/concentration: This refers to focusing the attention on/in something beyond or within oneself, e.g, feeling the breeze, noticing one’s breath, eating a grape, gazing upon an icon, a word/mantra. Mantra-styled Eastern meditation forms do this. John Main’s form of Christian Centering Prayer draws on Hindu attentiveness meditation by using a sacred word as the focus of attention in order to aid in concentrating on one’s presence before God. [For descriptions of John Main’s meditation form, see www.wccm.org; www.innerexplorations.com/chmystext/john.htm]
Awareness: Noticing a particular experience here in this moment; may involve an inner observer noticing, watching, even labeling/naming; moves toward clarity and sense of presence. Buddhist Vipassana meditation, as I understand it (along with certain forms of Vipassana-based Christian meditation), does this.
Intention: Within meditation/contemplation practices, this usually refers to the willed act of just “being here,” available to God.
Releasing/surrendering: Refers to processes of letting go of the need to be in control; not observing or labeling; only noting and releasing; similar to 12-step’s “let go and let God.”
Emptying: Refers to processes of letting go of images, words, thoughts, etc., moving to no-thing-ness; more controlled than “releasing/surrendering.” Thomas Keating’s form of Christian Centering Prayer (see below) has this at its heart. [www.centeringprayer.com/cntrgpryr.htm; www.snowmass.org/keating.htm]
- Opening/openness: Refers to processes of clearing oneself — or being cleared — to be available.
- Invocation: Asking for God’s presence and attention (or the perception of these).
- Gathering/centering: Drawing one’s capacities, senses, attention together in preparation or in order to be available.
- Conversation/dialogue: Simply speaking with God whenever, where-ever, anytime.
- Soaking/resting/being: Being there; basking-in/enjoying grace, love, Presence, etc.
- Absorption: Being there unaware of self and surroundings; caught up without willing oneself to be present.
- Imagining: Activating the capacities of drawing images to attention and entering into those images.
- Arousing the affections: Activating the capacities of deep feelings/emotions, and drawing oneself more into the experience of those.
- Study: More-or-less scholarly analysis of a text, image, theme, etc., for personal/spiritual edification/growth. E.g., Rabbinic practice with scripture.
- Consideration: Pondering, mulling over the meaning/meaningfulness of a theme, text, image, idea, etc. E.g., thoughtfully considering the narrative of my life, its meaningfulness for me now.
Apophatic: Refers to the processes in which experience of God increases as one moves toward a state or experience of no-thing-ness, i.e., no thoughts, images, words, affections, kinesthetic sensations, etc. While the traditions affirm a no-thing-ness, many also speak of an underlying, ineffable perception. The Desert tradition, for instance, identifies a sense of stillness, while St. John of the Cross notes a deep sense of longing that persists even within the Dark Night of the Soul.
Kataphatic: Refers to process in which the experience of God increases as one moves toward richness of images, words, thoughts, affections, kinesthetic sensations, etc.
Ecstasy: Deep, intense, transportative, absorptive joy.
Meditation: In the Christian traditions this usually refers to forms of conscious, willed, intentional, prayerful consideration of or attention to some thing – such as scripture, music, word of wisdom, theological theme, image (either interior, such as imagining Jesus on the cross, or exterior, such as an icon to be gazed upon). In meditation, pray-ers consciously mull over the meaning, teaching, or purpose that may come to them through the object of meditation.
Contemplation: Unlike meditation, contemplation is the giving up of conscious, intentional consideration of a thing. In contemplation, pray-ers are caught up in/by the Spirit of God. They are no longer consciously willing their praying. Nor are they thoughtfully considering the meaning of a thing. They have lost the sense of consciousness of self.
B. Named Traditions, Forms, or Aspects of Prayer/Meditation (that may include dynamics and terms noted in the list above)
Lectio divina: Beginning in the 5thc, this practice eventually came to identify 5 dimensions of prayer: reading, rumination (repeating the reading over and over like a cow chewing a cud), meditation, oration (actively expressing something to God – such as a petition or thanksgiving), contemplation [www.osb.org/lectio/about.html].
Benedictine contemplation stresses an apophatic way. That is, the pray-er moves through meditating on words, images, and sounds toward a place of ‘no-thing-ness’. The experience of God’s presence increases as the experience of being caught up in ‘no-thing-ness’ increases. [www.benedictine.org.au/prayer.htm; www.osg.org]
Ignatian contemplation stresses a kataphatic way. The pray-er moves with meditation on words and imaginings toward a place of increased imaginings. The experience of God’s presence increases as the experience of being caught up in images increases. [www.slowreads.com/RuminationsMeditationIgnatius.htm]
Jesus Prayer: Beginning in approximately the 7th c, this prayer form developed from the early desert tradition of repeating bits of scripture. A common version: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me [a sinner].” [www.svots.edu/Faculty/Albert-Rossi/Articles/Saying-the-Jesus-Prayer.html]
Rosary [www.newadvent.org/cathen/13184b.htm] and the Eastern Orthodox “prayer rope” (comboschini) tradition [http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/comboschini.aspx]
Hesychastic: An apophatic form of prayer that moves to inner stillness. This developed in the early Desert tradition, 3rd c – 5th c. [www.newadvent.org/cathen/07301a.htm; www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/hesychasm1.html]
“Ecstatic”: This appears in many forms of prayer. For instance, early Desert hesychastic tradition identified it as something that occasionally arose after one passes through the apophatic way of “inner stillness.” The modern Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions associate it with kataphatic forms of prayer involving the activation of the affections.
Centering Prayer (20th c)
Thomas Keating: Focus on intention; being available; letting go of thoughts, images, words; saying a word that reminds you of the intention whenever you notice yourself drifting. Keating draws on the “Jesus Prayer” and “Prayer of the Heart” traditions [www.monachos.net/library/The_Jesus_Prayer_-_The_Prayer_of_the_Heart; www.svots.edu/Faculty/Albert-Rossi/Articles/Saying-the-Jesus-Prayer.html], the apophatic tradition of the “Cloud of Unknowing” (which emphasizes intention) [www.ccel.org/u/unknowing/cloud.htm], and desert hesychasm [www.newadvent.org/cathen/07301a.htm; www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/hesychasm1.html]. He developed the form after engaging in Buddhist practice. According to Cynthia Bourgault, the heart of his way consists of neither “attention/concentration” nor “awareness,” but of “release/surrender” (in the ways those terms are used in the list above). [Bourgault, Cynthia. Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2004. See especially pages 20-25.]
John Main: Similar to Keating, but a prayer of attention/concentration, with the word being used more like a mantra — that is, the word carries, anchors, and focuses the attention. Main lived in India with practicing Hindus for many years, so was influenced by their meditation traditions. [http://www.johnmainprayer.com; www.wccm.org; www.innerexplorations.com/chmystext/john.htm]
- Speaking in tongues (glossolalia): Involves an intense experience of surrender/release. [www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/g/glossolalia.html; ]
- Labyrinth walking: Meditatively walking a winding path. The nature of the meditation itself may take many forms. [www.veriditas.net; www.labyrinthsociety.org/]
- Liturgical: Set forms of communal prayer and worship.
- “Mental prayers”: Refers to free-form personal meditation/consideration/cogitation, as opposed to set/prescribed liturgical or prayer formats.
- Praying the Psalms: Refers to many varieties of using the Psalms in prayer.
- “Recollection”: A form of centering/gathering/re-collecting oneself in order to be available to God. The term is most closely associated with the Ignatian tradition, but appears in Teresa of Avila and elsewhere.
- “Repetition”: After a prayer experience, the pray-er reviews the experience, identifies one bit that draws attention, then takes that bit to God in prayer. This is closely associated with the Ignatian tradition.
- “Colloquy”: In the Ignatian tradition, a process of freely conversing with God.
While the above lists are extensive, they are not exhaustive. Variations exist within most, if not all, of the dynamics and forms noted. In fact, these lists are only a beginning; I am hoping that you might add to them. What have I neglected? How would you refine one or more items named? Are there variations on an item that you believe it is important to identify? I invite you to expand and nuance what I have listed. Explain terms you use, and include links to knowledgeable Web sites, if possible. (Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org). In time, these lists could offer a rich resource for deepening Christian contemplative practices through the understandings of neuroscience.