In contemplative teaching we talk a lot about structures and stages, about mental habits and patterns, about awareness and self-observation, about attachments and letting go.
And making a daily practice of contemplative prayer or a similar meditative practice certainly helps create the conditions for the peace that passes even the ability for understanding, when we begin to see that false self, the ego for what it is – a contrived system, a distraction.
But whatever our particular game is, our particular program for emotional happiness that keeps us caught in a cycle of fulfillment and deprivation, of resistance and anxiety, even after an awakening experience, we can slip back into it.
The ego is persistent, and constantly looking for ways to get back in control.
And even if we have a long standing practice, even if we’re opening up that space beyond thought, beyond self-concept on a daily basis, we can still benefit from simple ways of bringing that space into the present moment.
Whether we’re suffering from ongoing self-doubt and depression, intense remorse, or anxiety about the future, the practices are intended to open up a spaciousness around those afflictive emotions, so we don’t attach to them, so we don’t identify with them. And they can begin to dissolve. We recognize, though we have them, they are not us.
Some contemplative teachers invite us to simply become aware of the subtle energies at work in our hands. Getting in touch with that can get us out of our heads and back into the present. We can feel the subtle blood flow or maybe a slight tingle. This is enough to get us out of our heads.
Others need something a little more involved.
One practice that helps here – whatever our state of mind – is a kind of extended body scan. The instructions are simple but very effective. With our eyes closed and taking long, slow breaths, we take a moment to recognize the different parts of our body, saying “Breathing in, I am aware of my… Breathing out, I smile to my…”
So, for example, we might start with our eyes. We use them to scan for feedback from other people, and they take information from our gadgets and devices. It can be both relaxing and healing to simply acknowledge them for a moment: “Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.” Then the nose. Then the mouth. The throat. The heart. The lungs. The stomach. The hands. And so on.
Even as we go through the exercise, we might begin to think of all the work our heart does. We might think of all the work our hands have done. Who they’ve touched or held. We might think of where our feet have walked. In keeping with the contemplative practices, recognize the thought, accept it, and gently let it pass, returning focus on the sensation of that part of the body.
One way of dealing with depression or emotional issues is to stay with the sensation in the body. To allow it to be without turning it into a resentment or story of victimhood, before making it a mental narrative that stretches backwards and forwards in time, before making it an identity.
But as with most things, even when we know what might help, we still need practice.
A student once asked his teacher why Proverbs says to inscribe the words of Scripture onto the tablet of your heart. The teacher responded “So that when your heart breaks, the words will fall in.”
So many of us turn to spiritual practice when a crisis hits, not realizing that the ongoing practice prepares us for the crisis.
The body scan can take a couple minutes. Or we can choose to extend it and focus on more areas of the body. For the first time, maybe simply pick parts of your body that are sore or tired or could use some attention.
It’s a simple way to get out of our heads, to generate some much needed inner body awareness, to subtly distinguish between the “I’ and the body, and to bring some energy to much neglected parts of ourselves.
Breath Practice and Peace from Fred Brussat’s Spirituality and Practice
Carl McColman on Failing At Contemplative Prayer
Thomas Merton on Contemplative Prayer
Cynthia Bourgeault on The Heart of Centering Prayer