Over the past six weeks I have been writing a series on Hesychastic Prayer as taught by the Greek Orthodox tradition. If you have a moment, please see at least the last 2 posts for the introductory remarks on this subject.
Please see especially my notes for those who follow other religious traditions as well as those who are committed non-believers. For those of other traditions, none of my comments are ever intended to suggest you should change your views or your affiliations. Rather my intention is to share insights and experiences I have gained from my studies of the world’s monastic cultures. Another intention is to show the commonalities in many of the world’s monastic practices even if the specific teachings of those cultures appear to be very different.
The comparisons between the Christ centered Greek Orthodox teachings of the Jesus Prayer and the atheist, Vipassana Buddhist Jhana practices are one of the best examples. Could any two cultures appear to be more different?
Yet the higher stages of the Jesus Prayer and the Jhana practices are in some ways strikingly similar even if there are important differences in other respects.
Another benefit of these kinds of comparisons is that one of the world’s monastic cultures may have a better treatment of specific aspects of practice than does another. By better I mean one culture’s teachings on a specific practice may be much clearer and more effective than are the teachings of another. In this way, if one finds a technique of another culture that is clearer and simpler than the corresponding technique of their own culture, then a person can adapt the other culture’s technique into their own practice.
A good example of this is the role that awareness of the breath plays in the Greek Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer as compared with Vipassana Buddhist practice.
First and foremost, the Greek writers do not go into the details of how the meditator is supposed to integrate the saying of the Jesus Prayer with the inhale and exhale of the breath. The specifics are omitted from all the writings I have seen. Rather one is supposed to find a master of the Jesus Prayer from which to learn the techniques. But where can one find such masters? The end result is that even after reading several well respected books on the subject I still cannot find specific treatment of the details of this aspect of practice. In addition to the frustratingly incomplete comments about techniques related to breath practice, the Greek Orthodox writers talk about specific postures such as dropping the head so the chin rests on the chest with the gaze is directed to the heart. This practice of letting the head droop is a fairly significant variation from comments on posture from Buddhism and Hinduism and should be reviewed carefully before one adopts this suggestion. My sense is the Buddhists and Hindus are correct on this point.
Vipassana Buddhist writers are much more specific about breath practice and there is nothing left out of their books even if it is still strongly recommended that one find a senior teacher to study with. Understandably though, those people whose practice is centered in Jesus will find Buddhist comments about “no soul” and “no God” to be both confusing and, at best, misguided.
What I can suggest for Christians practicing the Jesus Prayer is this:
As you develop your own variation of the Jesus Prayer, find a way to match the repetition of the prayer with an awareness of the breath as you inhale and exhale. As your breathing slows after a few minutes pay particular attention to the end of the exhale in the pause before you inhale again. Let this pause be as brief or as long as is natural before the inhale starts in again.
As a reminder the most traditional form of the Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me.”
For me I have developed this variation of the Jesus Prayer.
“Ever more deeply with you O Lord Jesus Christ.”
As I breathe in I recite the first half “ever more deeply with you..” As I exhale, a recite more slowly..”O Lord Jesus Christ.” If the pause after the exhale is elongated I may repeat “ever more deeply with you…” or not. Key to this is a sense of awareness of all that is implied by the words Jesus Christ. It is the very personal and intimate sense of communion with Jesus and of love given and received that is the key to this practice rather than any mere mechanical repetition of the words or awareness of the breath. It is this awareness that appears to be a very real difference between Greek Orthodox and Buddhist practice although in the higher stages of practice of both cultures even this difference fades away.
Linking the repetition of the prayer, or Mantra, with a clear awareness of the breath and with a clear and sustained choice to blend your life with the life of Christ without reserve will contribute to the slowing of the heart and the breath and the general calming of the body and refinement of consciousness.
As Christocentric as the above paragraph is, I acknowledge that those following Islam or Judaism or any valid spiritual culture will use other words and images for the Holy One. But the process, and the integration of all the different layers of surrender and devotional intent into the process will prove to be equally efficacious.
Please do not hesitate to call or email with specific questions about any of these details. Please also feel free to call if you know of a bona fide master of Greek or Russian Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer. I would very much like to speak with such people to get more specific information from them.
All the best,
Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” host of Meditationpractice.com
will at meditation practice dot com (spelled out to limit spam)