“The Sanctuary,” a retreat center in Dublin, Ireland, provided the venue for my recent Mindfulness in Schools Program “Dot B” workshop, a secular mindfulness training course which paradoxically provided me with a new understanding of prayer. We did some of our mindfulness practices together during the workshop in this intimate, bright chapel setting.
One of the verses I remember from my Lutheran upbringing was to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17), which was the ideal of staying in touch with God as often as possible throughout the day. Certainly this has always been the strategy of religious communities throughout history. The Muslim call to prayer five times a day is heralded by the dramatic and ennobling azzan that rings throughout a community, inviting the faithful to break their normal routines and return to God. In my own Christian tradition, the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict advises the offering of prayers 8 times daily. The clearest biblical teaching for me in this regard comes from the Jewish Torah, in which after the great Shema declaration, which proclaims, “Hear, O Israel, The Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength,” the text then advises how to do that:
“Talk about them [the teachings of God] when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deuternonomy 6:7-9).
The advice is clear: in order to love God with one’s whole self, talk about these things at different times through the day, involve the body, use symbols, and display the sacred in one’s daily environment. In short, pause from your normal activity and bring your full being – body, mind, and heart – into a state of alignment with God.
These ideas, then, had circulated in my head for many years, yet I could not have said before this week that I had a working vision of what it really meant to “pray without ceasing” in a modern context. Paradoxically, it was through a secular mindfulness course that I gained a new understanding of prayer.
My Experience at Dot B
For the last four days I have participated in a teaching mindfulness training course called “Dot B” in Dublin, Ireland. The clever name “Dot B” means to stop (dot as in a period at the end of a sentence) and to focus on one’s breathing and enjoy a state of being. Stop, breathe and be. While the excellent training course of the brilliantly composed mindfulness curriculum made for what might be considered an intense training, the experience never seemed onerous, for we frequently did the “dot B” practice of stopping, breathing, and being.
During the 8 hour daily training sessions, we would drop into practice many times during the day. For example:
- We started the day with a 25-minute, trainer-led meditation
- During the classes that we were taught as if we were students, we needed to do the practices as the students would in a class. Whether it was the “7-11” (count to seven on the in-breath and 11 on the out-breath), slow motion mindful walking, or body scan meditation on a yoga mat, we did practices during every 40-minute class module.
- Then we did “teachbacks” where each of us had to lead a practice in pairs or small groups of what we had just learned in the mock class session.
- Some lunches also had periods of silent eating.
- Whenever we had a transition moment – say, after lunch, before the next class session, or before small group reflection time – we would pause for 1 or 2 or 5 minutes for a time to stop, breathe, and be.
- We would finish the day with another 20+ minute trainer-led time of mindfulness.
Yes, it was an intense workshop in terms of time on task, but it never felt rushed. We always took time to stop, breathe, and be. This contemplative element brought a sense of refreshment to the whole group setting – even if one’s individual mind was chaotic – reminding us that the main goal was to cultivate mindfulness by doing the practices rather than just talking about them. One of the major benefits of these frequent practices, then, was that talking between participants became a conscious choice; we could also opt to remain quiet with each other, as we did in our practices. Filling our lives with endless nervous chatter, a mark of modern life in general, became a choice. There was plenty of talk throughout the week, but it was also very acceptable to be quiet, which struck me as a more natural, healthy, and balanced way of being than our more common experience of incessant verbal processing of daily life.
A New Vision of Prayer
Reflecting on the last four days, I do feel I have a new vision of the role of prayer in daily life. When I go back to my childhood and think what “praying without ceasing” meant, we as a community prayed before meals, before events (basketball games or meetings), and during church services. But it was limited to verbal prayers in a community – usually led by the pastor, teacher, or leader – and it generally felt like a routine, even if it was invariably sincere and well-intended. As soon as the prayer ended, it was back to “business as usual.”
Now I can reconceptualize prayer as dropping out of the mind and into the body many times a day. Prayer, then, becomes being with yourself, others, and What Is in this present moment rather than directing verbal prayers to God, who, for many of us I would suggest, often feels distant and something separate from oneself.
Dot B challenged me to think that prayer should include (1) lots of silence, (2) bodily involvement and (3) lots of creativity and flexibility. This experience rings true with the Wisdom Tradition’s understanding that the main problem in our spiritual lives is that we are living in our mind center and have forgotten to cultivate the intelligences of the body and the heart. One of Dot B’s most fundamental practices for students is called “FOFBOC,” which stands for “feet on floor and bum on chair.” Every day in our lives, Dot B teaches, we need to practice leaving the mind and coming into our bodies. As we train – and entrain – the mind and body, the Wisdom Tradition instructs, heart intelligence emerges naturally. And so paradoxically, through this secular mindfulness course, I have come to gain a practical vision of how, in my own personal life, I can better “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Stop, breathe, and be.
Our Dot B workshop developed another texture than common teacher training experiences that I’ve had, even in Christian settings, because we practiced cultivating presence more than 10 times/day in our 8 hours together. Constantly dropping into the body, slowing the breath, and just being seem to be a very effective way to put “pray without ceasing” into practice, whether in a secular or religious context. When mindful activities are seeded throughout one’s day, this new way of being manifests a different fruit. It is spiritual without words; it is embodied. Maybe that’s what “pray without ceasing” was intended to mean all along.
Disclaimer: I would like to re-emphasize that Dot B is a secular mindfulness training course. My personal comment here is my own interpretation of the week’s training rather than the intention of the workshop, which is avowedly secular in order to offer mindfulness to students in schools as widely as possible.
Take a deep breath
Look at what is right in front of you.
-Stephen Buhner, The Secret Teaching of Plants (272).