Mindful vs. Non-Mindful Cognition During Prayer
I 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.