This Lent, each Friday, I have been running from our home in Glendale to the Jewish Community Center, in Whitefish Bay, to participate in a class focused on mindfulness and meditation. My cool-down from my run is my walk through the JCC to the classroom, passing the many plaques honoring Jewish benefactors in the halls; the beautiful old books of sacred scripture under glass, and the Hebrew words and phrases in hallway banners. I picture Jesus chuckling in recognition as I go about my Lent at the JCC.
Thanks to new developments in brain scanning technology and a burst of research centered on the human brain, science is confirming what world religions have long known—mindfulness and meditation are powerful forces of good.
Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, the body, and the surrounding environment. A person who is trying to be mindful focuses on what he or she is sensing and feeling in the present moment, rather than thinking about what might need to be done later or returning to a memory. Mindfulness is the opposite of multi-tasking. Mindfulness is truly listening; fully tasting; deeply experiencing; it’s taking our feelings as they come, and not burying them or pushing them away. In The Sacrament of the Present Moment, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, an 18th century Jesuit, put it this way: “The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love.”
Meditation involves quieting the mind and heart. It is a time of focusing our attention on a sacred word or on our breath; a time of letting our thoughts pass by, without holding onto them or entering into them. It is a time of deep awareness. Meditation can be secular or rooted in a religious tradition. A common theme, though, is silence and stillness. The Catholic practice of centering prayer, as taught by Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, both Benedictine monks, is “prayer in which we experience God's presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself.” (Keating.)
The research on the benefits of practicing mindfulness and meditation are clear. According to a study published in the Clinical Journal of Pain, meditation can reduce symptoms of chronic pain by 50%. In a study of health insurance statistics, meditators had 87% fewer hospitalizations for heart disease. Middle school meditators show improved work habits, attendance and grade point average, according to the Journal of Research and Development in Education. And compassion-based meditation programs can significantly improve activity in the areas brain of the brain important for empathy, according to a study published in Psychological Science.
As study after study documents the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, a secular movement is exploding. An organization called Mindful Schools instructs teachers how to bring mindfulness and meditation to their students. The Shorewood public school system is one of a number of area schools that have added mindfulness and meditation to their curriculum—being careful to focus on the secular practices, rather than the ones born out of religious tradition.
And where are Catholics as brain-scanning MRIs and hundreds of studies corroborate the both the words of Scripture and what our greatest saints have been saying for centuries? Too often, rather than cheering with recognition and using the studies to buoy our own re-commitment to our long-standing history and tradition of meditation, Catholics are sitting on the sidelines, not sure what to do with the mindfulness and meditation movement. Kids are meditating in the public schools, and too often, our Catholic school students are not. A new meditation studio is opening in Mequon while area Catholic churches sit empty most weekdays as just a handful of parishioners among the five large North Shore parishes gather for centering prayer.
Our Catholic schools are fantastic with many types of prayer— I will never forget Jacob’s first grade class saying the Rosary together on September 11, 2001, right after the towers came down. I have been brought to tears by children singing at all-school Masses. I love the spontaneous petitions that are part of many teachers’ morning prayer experiences. But many Catholic schools miss the opportunity to teach children to meditate; to pray from the heart—not with words, but with their very being. The current swell of attention to meditation and mindfulness—and the school curriculums that accompany this attention-- is an opportunity to give our Catholic school children the gift of learning to “Be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:10).
I still have a couple Fridays left in lent to run to the JCC for my mindfulness and mediation class. I’m participating in centering prayer at our parish on Sunday night, as well, and there are also a couple of those sessions left. But as my lent ends, and I look toward Easter—I have a desire to help resurrect this ancient wordless form of prayer—a form of prayer that, while certainly not dead, is perhaps more latent than it should be. In a world full of words and noise, texts and tweets, what a gift we could give to our children, to ourselves, to learn to rest in the loving presence of God. And as lent ends, I don’t know exactly how I’m being called to help people move toward this type of prayer, but I’m not too worried about that. In the words of Thomas Merton, arguably the greatest modern teacher of centering prayer: “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”