Beginning a Contemplative Practice

By Lynda Young Kaffie and Joyce Palevitz

Welcome to this section on beginning a contemplative practice! The practices and ideas described here may be called “meditation”, or “contemplative prayer”, or “centering prayer”, (and other names!). This practice has a very long history in many traditions, including Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism. It is also practiced independent of any particular belief system. You are encouraged to think of this material as broadly describing any kind of prayer practice when we desire to be in a time of quiet, prayerful silence; when we make a quiet space for God to fill. What we offer here are suggestions for some of the many ways to begin a practice of contemplative prayer, knowing that there is no single, “right” way to practice. Find what works for you – what gives you joy, peace, and a richness of experience.

Why practice contemplation? Practitioners often cite these benefits: to cultivate calm; to bring greater attention to the present moment; to deepen a relationship with God; to manage anxiety, pain, insomnia, etc. With meditation, we cultivate mindfulness and awareness that enables us to respond to, not just react to, situations that arise in our daily lives.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.Viktor Frankl

To practice meditation as an act of faith is to open ourselves to the endlessly reassuring realization that our very being and the very being of everyone and everything around us is the generosity of God. God is creating us in the present moment, loving us into being, such that our very presence is the manifested presence of God. We meditate that we might awaken to this unitive mystery, not just in meditation, but in every moment of our lives. – James Finley

The “How To” of Contemplation

Begin by locating a quiet, comfortable spot where you won’t be distracted. Find a comfortable sitting position. This can be sitting in a chair with your feet solidly planted on the floor, body relaxed but alert. Some people like to sit cross-legged on a floor pillow. Eyes are either closed, or softly focused. Pay attention to your breathing. The Breath Mantras below will help you stay focused on your breath. Some people like to light a candle. Some people practice walking or running meditation.

Breath Mantras

Many people like to use breath mantras to keep them centered as they sit in silence. The following are options for gently breathing in and out as you practice:

(inhale) This Breath

(exhale) The Love of God
(inhale) This Moment
(exhale) God’s peace

(inhale) Be still and know that I am God (exhale)
(inhale) Be still and know that I am (exhale)
(inhale) Be still and know (exhale)
(inhale) Be still (exhale)
(inhale) Be (exhale)

 (inhale) Breathing in, I calm by body, 

Breathing out, I calm my mind. (exhale)

(inhale) May I be balanced.

May I be at peace. (exhale)

(inhale) Breathing in, I calm my body

Breathing out, I smile. (exhale)

(inhale) Dwelling in this the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment. (exhale)

Or, simply find one word that you repeat as you inhale and exhale, e.g.: Peace, Love, God

FAQs

  • How long should I sit/meditate/pray? Whatever works for you! Many people like to start with 5 or 10 minutes. Some people regularly sit for as much as 20 minutes twice a day. There is no hard rule, although it’s probably better to establish an amount of time that you can commit to every day, even if that’s just 5 minutes.
  • How do I track the time? There are a couple of good apps for that! 2 (free) apps that you may want to check out are: “Meditation Time” and “Insight Timer”. You can also use the alarm on your phone; or even an egg timer.
  • What if my mind wanders? How do I get rid of distracting thoughts? You probably can’t! But you can use your breath prayer or word to gently bring your mind back to stillness. Know that it gets easier the more you practice.
  • How disciplined do I need to be? Do I need to do it every day? Without discipline, there is no “practice”. We recommend that you find a discipline that you can sustain and build on, but that you do try to be well-disciplined in your practice. As one teacher said: “Discipline is remembering what you want.”
  • Is it okay to meditate in an environment that is not quiet (e.g. people/kids talking/playing in another room)? It can certainly be challenging to meditate in a noisy environment. Rather than “fighting” it by trying to will it away or tune it out, simply acknowledge it – appreciate it, even – and gently return to your breath. In other words, make the noise part of your practice instead of something to fight against.
  • Should I practice alone, or with others? While people practice alone most of the time, there is certainly a role for community practice. Practicing with a community provides support and encouragement for the journey. The Abbey has links to several practicing communities – see the “Groups” section.
  • How can I know if I am doing it “correctly”? It is important to remember that there is no one, “right” way to do the practice.
  • What is “guided” meditation? This is a form of meditation where a leader is gently guiding you through the practice. Here is a link to a website that includes guided meditations.
  • What is “walking meditation”? Some people like to practice meditation by walking outside in a natural setting.  The idea is to walk slowly and to immerse oneself in the sights and sounds of whatever is present in the environment. This link has some useful information on walking meditation.
  • Do people ever mediate while running? Running can be a form of meditation for some. This book is a source of information: Running the Spiritual Path: A Runner’s Guide to Breathing, Meditating and Exploring the Prayerful Dimension of the Sport.

Books

There are many, many books and resources on contemplative practice and meditation. It can be overwhelming at times to know where to begin. These books offer very readable introductions to contemplative prayer:

  • Into the Silent Land, Martin Laird – Provides inspiration for beginning a practice in language that is fresh, direct and focused on real-life examples of people whose lives are enriched by the practice of contemplation. (See More Here)
  • A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield – A warm, inspiring and expert book that touches on a wide range of essential issues; it is filled with practical techniques, guided meditations, koans, and wisdom that will ease your journey into mediation. (See More Here)
  • Nature as Spiritual Practice, Steven Chase – Uses a compelling blend of theological, scriptural, historical, and cultural discussions to reclaim the role of nature in the formation of spiritual identity. (See More Here )
  • Zen for Christians: A Beginner’s Guide, Kim Boykin – Offers Christians a way to incorporate Zen practices into their lives; can be particularly useful for those who want to enrich their faith through contemplative practices. (See More Here)

Other online resources

  • Listen to an interview with Gustavo Hernandez on beginning a contemplative practice
  • Listen Here

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