Daily Meditations



“Let us sit still and keep our attention fixed within ourselves,” says Evagrius. Simone Weil describes prayer in much the same spirit when she says “Prayer consists of attention,” and “the quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” The practice of contemplation begins with our attention and our bodies.

The basics are simple. We sit down and assume a solid, erect posture. Saint Gregory of Sinai recommends sitting on “a seat about nine inches high.” Nowadays we call this a prayer bench, which we place over our calves and sit on, with the back straight but not rigid. The bench is angled to facilitate the back’s natural s-curve and encourages a sturdy, alert posture. These prayer benches are fairly popular, quite googleable, and not especially inexpensive. Still others prefer a prayer cushion. But most prefer to sit in a chair. In any case the body’s solid, stable posture contributes to prayer by its stable, alert tripod solidity. The body’s physical stillness facilitates interior stillness, alertness, and calm.

Quietly repeat the prayer word united with the breath. If the prayer word is of more than one syllable or word (such as “Jesus,” “Abba,” or “Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me”), we inhale on the first syllable (or group of words) and exhale on the second syllable (or group of words). During the time of prayer (normally for periods of at least twenty to twenty-five minutes twice a day), we give our attention entirely to this quiet repetition. Whenever we become aware that we’ve become distracted, we bring our attention back to the prayer word united to the breath, “continually breathing Jesus Christ.”

The basic instruction in the practice of contemplation remains fundamentally the same throughout its seasons of practice: whenever we become aware that our attention has been stolen, we bring it back to the prayer word united with the breath. The practice is not to sit there trying to have no thoughts or only certain thoughts. As St. Teresa of Avila put it centuries ago, “by trying not to think, we hopelessly stimulate the imagination. . . . The harder you try not to think of anything, the more aroused your mind will become and you will think even more.” Nor do we push away thoughts in an attempt to generate a dull blankness. Instead we simply bring our attention back to our practice whenever we find that our attention has been stolen. The challenge lies in its simplicity. The practice of bringing the attention back time and again creates what is called a habitus or habit, an interior momentum that gradually excavates the present moment, revealing over time the stillness that is within us all like a buried treasure.

In early seasons of practice there is typically very little sense of our abiding immersion in Silence. Instead, when we try to be silent we find that there is anything but silence. This inner noise is generated by a deeply ingrained tendency, reinforced over a lifetime, to derive our sense of who we are and what our life is about from these thoughts and feelings. We look within and genuinely think that we are our thoughts and feelings. If our thoughts and feelings were a mass of vines and branches, we would say we were smack in the middle of it all. In fact we might even say we were this tangle of vines. Sometimes it seems that it is not our attention that is so easily stolen but that there is a strong headwind that prevents our attention from even focusing on the prayer word. No matter what our experience, the practice remains the same: gently direct the attention back to the prayer word united with the breath. The basic skill we learn at this doorway of practice is to return to the prayer word instead of getting caught up in reactive inner commentary on the distractions.

Because of our nearly complete identification with thoughts, we have a strong tendency to move through life reactively. This generates inner noise and alienates us from the simple experience of thoughts and feelings. Instead we experience reactive commentaries on thoughts and feelings. The ability to meet with stillness all that appears and disappears in awareness will gradually (very gradually) replace this deeply ingrained pattern of meeting experiences with reactive commentary.

The reactive life is strengthened by these sudden spasms of talking, talking, talking, talking to ourselves about life and love and how everybody ought to behave and vote. This twittering chatter keeps the attention riveted to and identified with the objects that appear in our minds. With regular practice and according to timing beyond our control, our practice will begin to change. As our practice deepens, thoughts and feelings continue to come and go, but our relationship with them changes.

~Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence:  Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation