By Rob Stucky
Given that most people want peace, but many are unclear on how or where to find it, it occurs to me it might be helpful to share some great and timeless observations on the process of attaining inner peace from a tenth century Greek Orthodox saint named Simeon the New Theologian. He wrote a beautiful treatise on the Art of Prayer, in which he described “three levels of attention in prayer”. I find they apply not only to prayer, or any overtly “spiritual” practice, but to life in general, and share them here:
The first level of attention is external: we focus on the various elements around us (whether the wording, trappings and choreography of the liturgy, or of our daily routines). Even if we are filled with devotion and enjoyment of them, believing they make us happy, to stay focused there alone is a trap, because by nature externalities are impermanent, so if our joy is dependent solely upon them, we are doomed to lose that bliss when the externalities change. So much for our acquisitiveness and material dependence!
Logically, then, we must go deeper. Simeon then speaks of the second level of attention as mental prayer- in which we shut out external distractions, turn within, and contemplate a particular object of our interest- be it a name of God, a sacred image, or uplifting ideal, even a secular one. The problem there is, we are then stuck in our heads, and apt to get caught in the constant mental churnings of “what ifs” and “if onlys”… and never find peace, because of our mind’s constant busyness. Simeon likens being stuck in our minds to boxing in the dark, where we can’t even see our oppponent.
So apparently, we must go still deeper – to the prayer of the heart. This third level of attention is not about sentimentality or warm fuzzy feelings. It is literally about getting to the axial point in our center- the hub from which everything else radiates. To get into the heart we must penetrate the roadblocks of fears and desires that surround it. This requires developing our capacity to listen, in silence, and without judgment, to whatever is going on within or around us. When we do that, refusing to get caught caught up in or identify with the particular content of our mental activity, by letting go of all that, we penetrate that barrier, and achieve a clarity and peace that then informs and illumines our thoughts and actions. We’re not talking about intellectual understanding, but directly enlightening experience. As a well-known prayer says, “The peace of God surpasses all understanding”, and it transforms the quality of living into something truly joyful.
Sounds easy- and in principle, it is. In practice, however, it may take some work to break old habits that tend to block us from experiencing it. For me, one of the most helpful tools in getting out of my head and into my heart is to be aware as much as possible from moment to moment, where my energy and focus are- and if I’m in my head, I redirect my focus to the center of my chest and simply breathe, fully and slowly. Every mystical tradition on earth speaks of the power of the breath, and of the stillness of the heart as the temple, the illuminating place where we actually experience divinity. “Be still, and know”. That is divine. To get there we need free ourselves from the tyranny of the mind.
A Spanish mystic once described the process of overcoming that tyranny perfectly: “When my mind becomes agitated, I take a lesson from the fishes, who, when a storm arises and troubles the waters, dive deep, where the waves cannot batter them”. So, unless your goal is to surf the tsunami of your mind, (good luck with that), take a deep breath, and dive deeper into your heart!