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Prayer and Meditation I - A Personal Introduction
Depending on timing and fit, most of my clients will hear me talk about prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and various relaxation exercises. As a Christian counselor frequently working with Christian clients, I often wonder what assumptions my clients have about those words and practices. Unfortunately they can be loaded terms. Depending on your situation, background, and personality, I guess there might be at least three possible reactions to mindfulness meditation:
1) It may sound cliche, because everyone is talking about it (just ask Google);
2) It may sound overly simplistic; how can paying attention to air moving in and out of my lungs possibly help my crippling anxiety? and
3) It may sound problematic for Christians, because the popularity of mindful meditation owes much to Buddhism and Hinduism.
In this and future articles I am going to address those three doubtful reactions: cliche, simplistic, and unbiblical. We will start with the first and second doubts and ask if mindfulness can really help as much as people are saying.
I remember the first time I recommended a breathing exercise to a client while in my graduate school internship. Having learned some very basic facts about breath awareness, I suggested the practice with some hope that it would help. However, because my knowledge was limited, I don’t think I really believed in its effectiveness, and my client was understandably skeptical.
In addition to limited scientific knowledge, my practical knowledge was quite minimal. I had first learned about slow breathing in my own counseling during college. My counselor, also a practitioner in residence (although at the Psy.D. Level), recommended a simple practice of breathing in for 5 seconds, holding breath for 2, and breathing out for 5, whenever I was feeling anxious or stressed. While this simple exercise certainly didn’t remove the pit in my stomach before delivering sermons to my preaching class, it did give me a small measure of calm. Helpful? Yes. Life changing? Hardly.
Since those early years in college, and since graduate school, I have grown in my confidence and belief in mindfulness practices. I am more confident in these practices because, not only have I studied more, I have done it more myself. The proof is in the pudding, after all.
Growing up with an emotionally and verbally volatile mother, I learned to cope with emotional intensity by checking out. From an early age I lived in a world of fantasy with imaginary friends who stuck around long past the period where it is developmentally normal. While the imaginary friends said goodbye a long time ago, I still find it difficult to stay present during conflict and negative emotion. At some point, this turned into an involuntary dissociative reflex my wife calls my “fugue state”. In some heated arguments my eyes glaze over, words become indistinct sound, and my mind just goes blank (in Polyvagal Theory, this is known as dorsal vagal shutdown).
In more recent therapy, I hoped that I would be less susceptible to these dissociative states by approaching and facing my developmental trauma. One way of approaching my trauma recommended by a CBT therapist, and related to this article, was The Welcoming Prayer. Without going into much detail, the basic idea is to prayerfully invite God’s presence into one’s experience and come to a place of accepting discomfort rather than demanding change. As with the deep breathing exercise in college, I found this practice to be somewhat helpful, but I’m sure I did not practice it often enough to really experience the true potential of mindful prayer.
Such benefit did not come until I discovered Dan Siegel’s practice of The Wheel of Awareness. As with The Welcoming Prayer, I’m not going to explain The Wheel of Awareness in this post; a helpful, short explanation of this practice can be found at Dan Siegel’s website, as well my post Healing Prayer. Given my long struggle with an overactive dorsal vagal nerve, I was quite surprised to see that after a few weeks of consistently practicing the Wheel of Awareness, my tendency to shut down and withdraw in conflict was greatly lessened. This was a surprise because it was not my motive in trying the practice. But it was a pleasant surprise indeed, and forged a powerful connection between my personal experience and the scientific theory of mindfulness.
I tell this personal story to express my belief in the power of mindfulness, meditation, and prayer. And I started here because, why bother answering other questions if at the end of the day there is no hope of helpfulness? If you believe that mindfulness can help with your anxiety, depression, trauma, relational conflict, or even physical pain, or if you at least believe that I believe it can help, then let’s take some time to consider how these practices relate to our Christian faith.
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