Our bodies are constantly telling us about how we are interacting with the world. Tensions in our shoulders, soreness in our back, and the tightness we sometimes experience in our heads all point to elements of our experience that remind us that we are souls that exist within a physical body. In fact, the Catholic Church teaches that our bodies are an essential part of our human nature, a nature that has been elevated and divinized through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. When we are resurrected on the last day, our bodies will experience the fullness for which God intended them.
This means that our spirituality and our prayer cannot be divorced from our physical bodies. Often, we prefer to experience prayer as a mental activity in which we leave our bodies behind. At best, we notice our bodies when they seem to distract us from the more sublime world of the mind. Such spirituality can work its way into our lives to such a degree that we fail to see the interconnectedness of our interior life with our physical existence. However, this does not mean that we should over-exalt the body and physical health as if physical equilibrium was the same as sanctity.
Instead we must learn to integrate our body into our meditation in a way that neither neglects the body nor exalts it. One great insight I have learned in my research has come from what is called Mindfulness Meditation. One technique used by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in his research and treatments is called a “body-scan.” Although mastering his techniques takes time and practice, the idea is relatively simple. In this technique, we explore our physical sensations with what he calls a “non-judgmental” awareness. Instead of giving into negative labels that tend to distort our experience, we instead learn to look at the experience itself. For example, we often associate the idea of being “tired” to a whole variety of physical phenomenon that may or may not correspond to the label we are attaching to them.
Although this technique is not necessarily prayer, there is no reason why it cannot become prayer. The assumption in Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work is that the practitioners are talking to themselves. There is no reason why a Christian cannot do this practice within the context of a dialogue with Jesus, Mary, or any of the saints. In this way, we can use a powerful insight from the field of psychology in order to deepen our intimacy with our Lord and the saints. I would even go so far as to say that the Holy Spirit begins to speak to us through our physical experience.
There is a lot of great research on this topic, and one article cannot do the field justice. However, I think that one can begin to apply the insights of the body scan to prayer with little training. Give it a try and let me know if it helps.