Spiritual practices come in many forms. Three of the most common spiritual practices are prayers, contemplation and meditation. Sometimes mindfulness gets slipped into the category of spiritual practices. Often, these worlds are used interchangeably. So, what are the differences? Why are these three or four words often used for the same practice of centering one’s self or spending time connecting with the Divine Source of Life/God?
When we pray, we have an intention in mind, either consciously or unconsciously, that involves some sort of request or wish or hope or desire. That request is usually a petition for help or forgiveness from the Divine beyond ourselves or it could be an utterance of thanksgiving and praise to that Divine Source of life/God. Prayer is usually quite mentally active and sometimes, if not audible, at least filled with lots of mental words coming from one’s personal intention.
Contemplation is the process of focusing on one idea, concept or image and letting the mind “ruminate,” so to speak, about that idea, concept or image. As I was growing up, I would sit in front of a Mother of Perpetual Help icon or a golden shrine that housed the Body of Christ, which looked like a white circle of bread, and let my mind wander with thoughts about God and the Virgin Mary and the protection that I felt from those divine beings. I never said anything. I just gazed on those symbols of God or Christ in my life.
My thoughts just moved around, sometimes coming to insights, often just letting the thinking go where it wanted to. Later in my spiritual journey, I reflected on those experiences. I realized that I had settled into a physically relaxed state and that my breathing had become diaphragmatic and deep. I wasn’t forcing the formation of any words or discussing anything with these divinities, as I often did while praying. I was just “spending time with them.” Interestingly, that is the etymological meaning of the word contemplation—“spending time with.” My mind was focused, often going blank, only when it stopped wandering through the “spending time.” However, contemplation was not meditation. Meditation, in the truest sense of the word and practice, begins with mindfulness, which is a significant Buddhist practice. It begins with being mindful of the flow of breath in the body by first focusing on the breath. Mentally attending to the breath at the tips of the nostrils automatically stills the mind. One feels the cool flow of that breath as it enters the nose and moves to the bridge of the nose, bringing the still mind into union with one’s energetic center of the forehead, called the ajna chakra. This is the location of the wheel of energy that leads to the awareness of the life force in the body, called prana.
The mind is engaged only in following the flow of the breath in and out and connecting with that flow which carries our life force (our prana) within and throughout the rest of the body. The mind’s awareness of the flow of that life force becomes the union of our outside and inside worlds. Through this meditation process, we are experiencing yoga, for “yoga” means “to join, unite.” We are experiencing the union of body, mind and breath which carries our life force. We are in union with the almighty, all-knowing, all-present Source of our life. We are not thinking at all. We are not solving problems. We are not planning the day. We are not reveling in new ideas. We are just aware of the joy that we experience in that union.
When I sit down to meditate, I find myself moving through these three practices. I set my intention with a prayer to Christ or Brahman or the Divine Mother. Then, I find myself contemplating the coming day and the beauty of my life, especially because of all the loving people and our bounteous vegetable gardens. Then, I begin bringing my awareness to the Source of my Life (my breath which carries that source, my prana). I call this enlivening breath, the Holy Breath/the Holy Spirit, flowing through my nostrils and my body. I stay there then with my source of life, recognizing that life force and its loving presence. I am in the place that yoga calls “vishoka,” the place of no doubt, no fear, pure joy. This is meditation in the deepest, spiritual sense.
After I while, I begin to move into the outside world of sunshine, feeling the breath in my body and thinking of things and I bow to that Divinity within myself.