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Along the Journey  |  

Contemplative Practices and Stress Reduction

What are contemplative practices?  

Centering prayer and Zen meditation are the two forms of contemplative practice I’m most familiar with. 

Centering prayer has its roots in medieval Christianity, especially The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic of Christian mysticism by an anonymous English monk.

It is a form of prayer without words—or with just one word—in which you sit in openness to God’s presence and God’s will, in the longing to know God fully.

Since human brains are very busy and easily distracted, you choose a “sacred word” to symbolize your intention to rest in openness to God—a word like God, Jesus, love, or mercy.

You silently, gently say that word, and whenever you realize your mind has wandered off elsewhere—which is fine and normal—you gently reintroduce the sacred word. 

In primary forms of Zen Buddhist meditation, the breath, rather than a sacred word, is used as an anchor point.

Seekers attend to the physical sensations of the inhalation and exhalation, not manipulating the breath in any way but just letting it be as it is.

Whenever you realize your mind has wandered off elsewhere—which is fine and normal—you gently return your attention to the breath. 

Can you use contemplative practices to cope with stress?

There are many different reasons, both spiritual and psychological, that people begin to explore contemplative practices such as centering prayer and Zen meditation.

One reason is to reduce stress and learn to relax.

Buddhist practices are the primary source of the “mindfulness” meditation that has recently been popularized in the West through institutions such as the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness practices, which involve repeatedly returning one’s attention to the present moment, can be helpful for stress reduction, pain management, and dealing with numerous other health challenges. 

Of course, stress reduction is not the main point of contemplative spiritual practices.

Centering prayer, like all forms of Christian prayer, is ultimately about our relationship with Jesus Christ and growing in love of God, neighbor, and self.

And Zen is ultimately about liberation from suffering—both the suffering we experience ourselves and the suffering we create for others. 

We could say that Christianity and Zen can help us find peace and joy in the midst of all of the vicissitudes of life.

A few years ago, a student in a Zen for Christians course I was teaching mentioned the Christian hymn It Is Well with My Soul, expressing this stance toward reality.

Horatio Stafford, a Presbyterian elder, wrote the lyrics after he was ruined financially and then lost all four of his daughters in a shipwreck. This is the first verse: 

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, 

When sorrows like sea billows roll, 

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, 

It is well; it is well with my soul.

Even if we have not come to a point where “it is well with my soul,” no matter what’s going on, we might at least experience some stress reduction and relaxation as welcome side effects of contemplative practice. 

Both centering prayer and Zen meditation involve learning to notice and let go of the thoughts that keep us from resting in the present moment.

Our brains are almost constantly spewing out thoughts.

It can be a significant relief to set aside a little time each day to neither scamper after those thoughts nor try to repress them but to see them repeatedly, let them go, and return to being right here. 

If you try such practices, please do not be alarmed by all the busyness in your brain. It can feel like someone left a TV on in there with the volume turned way up, the radio on too, the phone ringing, and the dog next door barking. That’s just what human minds are like. 

And there’s no need to try to eliminate all the busyness.

That’s not the point.

You’re not doing “better” contemplative practice if your mind is quieter.

The aim of these practices is not to have any wandering thoughts. Contemplative practices are not about eliminating thoughts but illuminating thoughts, airing them out, and learning to see them for what they are: just thoughts. 

You notice these thoughts and return to the present moment, over and over and over.

In centering prayer, you return to resting in openness to God. In Zen meditation, you return to attending to the breath.

The rhythm is this: notice the thoughts, return to the present moment, (repeat)

Kim Boykin is the author of Zen for Christians: A Beginner’s Guide. She and her husband are part of the Green Bough House of Prayer residential community in Scott, Georgia. In the spring of 2025, she will teach “Zen for Christians” at Columbia’s Center for Lifelong Learning. 

Along the Journey