Sometimes I talk to people and they describe the remains of a prayer life, like a discarded nest.
Spring is a good time though to start the process of rebuilding a prayer life again. We can take our lessons from the nest-builders.
The most difficult thing in prayer and mindfulness is a daily practice. It is also the most important thing. You have to gather the stuff of a nest, and the stuff of prayer consistently and regularly.
Just as with the birds the stuff we need is all around. In our prayer times God interweaves his Word with all that we bring into a place that we can begin to find, home in on, like a nest. It becomes a home.
Just as the birds find the stuff they need from the environment around, so can we. Time spent in nature, letting the grass whisper of the Creator, as embodied contemplation, adds to the nest. The flight of silence and solitude where we attentively look and listen for the footprints of the Invisible God who is already there with us. The encouragement of others we see flying in the sky, also looking to build a nest of prayer.
The building of a nest and the life of prayer require stability, the returning to one place, from which we can fly. In that place, just like the birds, we can nurture new life, that will grow wings of its own. Like the birds we also need to migrate, to find a place to retreat to. For me over the last 10 years that has been Worth Abbey.
Perhaps each year, like the birds, we need to re-examine the nest, and start the process of building a new one. Automaticity in prayer and life can be the thing that leads us to discard the nest prematurely, and not try to build again.
Building again asks us to hope again, to not give up, to become resilient in our prayer life. In our prayer life our ordinary, embodied and relational life is transformed, as we meditatively consider His Word, the work of His hands…
One of the biggest myths about mindfulness is that in mindfulness meditation you are trying to empty your mind. Ruby Wax who is good at answering questions people are asking answers the question this way in her book Sane New World, ‘With mindfulness the rumour is wrong that the point is to empty your mind; you need your mind to analyse, memorize, create and most importantly exist. It can never be empty while you’re alive, even in a coma your mind is still chattering away.’
Why can she say this so categorically? It is all to do with what we think the mind is and how we define it. Interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel points out there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the mind. He defines the mind to be ‘a process that regulates the flow of energy and information.’ The mind is always receiving information from a great many sources. This includes sources outside of our own self and body. So it isn’t possible to empty it.
Whilst not directly addressing the question of ‘am I trying to empty my mind in mindfulness meditation?’, Mark Williams looks at mindfulness and psychological processes. He says there are two modes in which the mind operates (sometimes called being and doing), but more technically ‘conceptual (language-based) processing versus sensory-perceptual processing.’ Again, that’s a lot of information coming into your mind from different sources.
He goes on to say ‘In every waking moment we are receiving sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touch: stimuli from the external and internal world, but these are generally ignored in favour of spending most of our attention in conceptual mode: thinking, planning, daydreaming, analysing, remembering, comparing, judging, analysing, and so forth.’
Our minds are very busy! Now in a very important and technical phrase Williams then defines what attentional training (mindfulness meditations or mindful awareness practices) is doing, ‘Attentional training in mindfulness programs cultivate the ability to shift modes as an essential first step to being able to hold all experience (sensory and conceptual) in a wider awareness that is itself neither merely sensory nor conceptual.’
This is a shift from doing to being, from the narrative self (conceptual mode) to the experiential self (sensory-perceptual mode), followed by an ability to hold both in an open wider awareness. Far from trying to empty our mind we are learning how ‘to pay open-hearted attention to objects in the exterior and interior world as they unfold, moment by moment. Attention is paid not only to the objects themselves but to our reactions to them…’
Why this is important is another question. But staying with the rumour or myth that in mindfulness meditation I am trying to empty my mind, it can also be addressed by approaching it from the angle of feelings and emotion.
Rimma Teper in an important article does address this question directly, ‘A common misconception about mindfulness, and meditation in general, is that it involves emptying the mind of thoughts and emotions.’ Mindfulness benefits executive function and emotion regulation and she asks, ‘Does mindfulness foster better executive control and emotion regulation because it eliminates emotional responding? We think not. Instead, we suggest that these effects accrue because mindfulness promotes an openness and sensitivity to subtle changes in affective states, which are essential in signalling the need for control and energizing its execution.’ In mindfulness your mind doesn’t work against your embodied mindful brain, but with it!
Mark Williams makes a similar point, ‘Mindfulness is not about “not feeling” or becoming detached from affect.’ What mindfulness enables is to see ‘something as it is, without further elaboration: for example, seeing thoughts as mental events, or seeing physical sensations as physical sensations…’
So are we trying to empty our minds in mindfulness meditation? No, we are not! It may be that in switching to awareness, our minds suddenly may feel more spacious, but we are not emptying our minds – we are looking clearly at what our minds are processing. Mindfulness is seeing clearly and feeling clearly. It is an embodied, relational awareness that faces reality, not avoiding it.
 Ruby Wax, Sane New World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), 136.
 Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Brain New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 5.
 Williams, 2.
 Williams, 2.
 Rimmer Teper, Zindel V. Segal, and Michael Inzlicht, “ Inside the Mindul Mind: How Mindfulness Enhances Emotion Regulation Through Improvements in Executive Control,” Current Directions in Psychological Science XX, no. X (2013): 1, accessed April 5 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0963721413495869.
 Teper, 1.
 Williams, 4.
 Williams, 4.