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Mindful vs. Non-Mindful Cognition During Prayer

February 20, 2013

saint theophanI came across this interesting link this morning, outlining some views of Saint Theophan (about whom I know very little) on prayer.  He suggests that if our mind wanders during prayer, we should mournfully rebuke it (my own emphasis in bold):

Kindly read the 19th discourse, concerning a Christian’s duty to force himself to do good. There it is written, “One must force oneself to pray, even if one has no spiritual prayer.” And, “In such a case, God, seeing that a man earnestly is striving, pushing himself against the will of his heart (that is, his thoughts), He grants him true prayer.” By true prayer, St. Macarius means the undistracted, collected, deep prayer that occurs when the mind stands unswervingly before God. As the mind begins to stand firmly before God, it discovers such sweetness, that it wishes to remain in true prayer forever, desiring nothing more.
I have stated more than once exactly what efforts must be made: Do not allow your thoughts to wander at will. When they do involuntarily escape, immediately turn them back, rebuking yourself, lamenting and grieving over this disorder. As St. John of the Ladder says, “We must lock our mind into the words of prayer by force.”

Interestingly, this approach seems quite different from the general approach outlined in my previous post by Orthodox Fr. Meletios Webber on “brushing away” sinful thoughts.  Webber specifically stated not to treat unwanted thoughts as “fire-breathing dragons” but to take a more mindful approach.  The difference is that in mindfulness, all thoughts are simply observed without prejudice, and allowed to come and go.  Mindful meditators are not supposed to react with frustration, anger, or grief over unwanted thoughts, they are simply taught to observe, then return, to the desired object (a sensation, mental image, etc.).

Both of these teachers are Orthodox, but they seem to take very different approaches to unwanted cognitions.  Certainly some would favor one method over the other, but if practitioners wish to reap the benefits of mindful thinking (which have been demonstrated in psychological research previously) the more mindful approaches would be favorable.

In fact, it would be an interesting research question to test each approach empirically.  Instruct some people to pray or meditate mindfully while another group is instructed to “fight” against unwanted thoughts.  But what would the dependent variable be?  Perhaps the two kinds of thinking are intended for different ends.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2013 2:50 am

    To pray or meditate mindfully doesn’t mean that you don’t ever struggle in order to become and stay fully immersed in the processes. I would think that everyone struggles to a certain degree; that everyone ‘fights’ against unwanted thoughts. It’s a process that needs continual monitoring and efforts for re-focussing. It’s not a event; it’s not arriving at a destination without ever having been on the journey to get there. Struggles, refocussing, or as you say, “fighting” is all part of the process. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or nothing to do with being a neophyte, or anything like that.

  2. March 11, 2013 9:47 am

    In the mindfulness literature and training I’ve experienced, I have been told there should never be anything like a struggle or fight. In fact, at the mindfulness lab at the University of Kentucky I was actually told that if you fight or struggle with your thoughts you are destroying the whole point of mindfulness and not getting of the clinical benefits of mindfulness. This is because in mindfulness meditation there isn’t such a thing as an “unwanted” thought – all thoughts are welcomed, observed, and then dismissed without fighting. Maybe I just haven’t read what you’ve read, but it seems that mindfulness and struggle are two polar opposites in the literature and so it would be hard to mix them together. It sounds more like you’re talking about concentrative meditation which is a different kind of thing.

  3. March 11, 2013 2:41 pm

    An interesting response. I suppose there are different modalities with regard to meditation. About two years ago I attended a week long Zen Buddhist silent retreat. It was very difficult and I wanted to flee after only two days into the retreat. I thought, “I can’t do this.” It was very arduous and we were taught to constantly refocus, quiet or still the mind. At one point in sitting zazen I was ‘caught up’ for just split second to ‘somewhere’ or to some state of ‘light’ maybe. It was very thrilling, but it also frighten me in some way; or maybe not ‘frightened’ but the experience intimidated me.

    I think the issue here is two sides of the same coin. In zazen you are suppose to suspend judgmental thinking and let any ideas or thought images come and go without getting involved in them, but you are also supposed to concentrate, say, on your breath or even sometimes repeating a mantra. It sounds paradoxically contradicting, doesn’t it — let thoughts come and hopefully they’ll float by, but concentrate on just your breath at the same time.

    However, is meditation really the same thing as totally focussed prayer?

    Anyway, you may find this brief audio clip by Eckhart Tolle interesting. He talks about ‘pure awareness’. Or, as Paul Valery stated: “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.”

    http://www.soundstrue.com/weeklywisdom/?source=tami-simon&p=1573&category=PP&version=full

  4. March 15, 2013 12:05 pm

    Yes, there are many different modalities with regard to meditation and prayer alike. Steve Stratton at Asbury University once explained to me that, in his research, prayer can fall on one of two axes – the first is concentrative vs. mindful (either you are trying to get yourself to focus on one thing, or you accept and observe every sensation) and then the other axis, I believe, was discursive vs. reflective (either you “have a conversation” with God and ask for things, or you just sit and reflect on God’s presence or attempt to feel the presence of God). So the answer is that prayer can be meditative, but doesn’t have to be. And actually, growing up Mormon, I don’t think I was ever really taught meditative prayers or strategies. Mormon prayer is strongly discursive – we thank God, tell him what we want, and then end. Some will sit in silence to see if God answers their prayers, but there are no real structured ways to do this in our tradition.

    But yes, the idea with most mindful-based meditation strategies is that when we “attack” or “fight against” unwanted thoughts we are actually feeding them and giving them power. Because if we acknowledge that we are in a battle, we are reifying the unwanted thoughts and making them into a “fire-breathing dragon,” whereas if we just note them and move on, we are giving them the “silent treatment.” Psychological study actually shows that the mindful way leads to less of the unwanted thoughts (and their corresponding behaviors) than fighting against them.

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