Emptiness and Non-Attachment

Last week I wrote about the difference between how Catholics understand meditation and contemplation, based on material found in the Catholic Catechism. A reader left the following comment on that post:

We rest in God. But we do not empty our minds. We are always in communication with God. Prayer is focusing on God and we praise him for who He is, we intercede for others, and we put our requests to Him. We align our wills with His in prayer. Never do we make our minds a ‘spiritual vacuum’ for something else other than the Holy Spirit to fill it.

I am in agreement with everything that is said here, but I am left wondering why some folks go out of their way to insist that meditation and contemplation are not about “emptying” the mind. I think it has to do with critics who think that Christians should have nothing to do with non-Christian practices (like transcendental meditation or yoga), and consequently are uncomfortable with interfaith-friendly contemplative methods (like centering prayer). For some reason, opponents of centering prayer — and more broadly, of non-Christian meditation practices — really seem to believe that these practices promote emptying the mind.

But that’s simply not true. The best one could say is that it represents a misunderstanding of both Christian and non-Christian forms of meditation.

Over the past thirty years I have studied meditation and contemplative practices in a variety of settings, Catholic, non-Catholic, and non-Christian. And I have never been instructed to “empty my mind.”

Many meditative and contemplative practices involve paying attention to silence, focussing awareness on one’s breath (or on a prayer word or scripture phrase), or learning to be non-attached to thoughts and images that arise during the practice. The key term here is non-attachment.

Contemplation: It's Not What You Think (Photo Credit: Shutterstock)
Contemplation: It’s Not What You Think (Photo Credit: Shutterstock)

Silent, contemplative prayer is an exercise in resting in God’s love and God’s presence, so nothing less than God — including our thoughts and mental images — will do. Mystics like St. John of the Cross or the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing point out that even religious or pious thoughts, thoughts about God or Christ or Mary or the saints, can get in the way when we seek the prayer of silent adoration and non-attachment. Contemplation does not call us to suppress such thoughts, but to learn to be non-attached to them: to let them come and go in the openness of our inner silence, which is ultimately what we are offering to God in contemplative prayer.

So emptying the mind or creating a spiritual vacuum is not part of the Catholic contemplative experience. But no one is saying that it is. Meanwhile, non-attachment to all created things — even the chatter in our heads — is an important part of contemplation.

Some folks, because of this (erroneous) idea that contemplation involves emptying the mind, then jump to the conclusion that it is dangerous. The logic goes like this: if we empty our minds, then we become susceptible to demonic attack.

But there are two problems with this line of thinking. First, as I have pointed out, contemplation is not about mind-emptying. So it’s a straw man argument. But second, it’s a bogus argument because it does not address the real vulnerability that most people have to temptation: it comes to us not in silence, but in our thoughts.

Among the desert fathers of the 3rd and 4th century — early Christian spiritual teachers like Evagrius Ponticus or John Cassian — there was a clear recognition that thought is the way in which temptation to evil and sin manifests in our lives. Evagrius even wrote an entire manual of recommended scripture verses to memorize and recite whenever one faces demonic attack — as evidenced by unhealthy thoughts, such as thoughts of anger, lust, greed, or pride (Evagrius identified eight “deadly thoughts,” which Pope Gregory the Great streamlined into the more familiar list of seven deadly sins). Since we are more likely to be tempted not in silence, but in thoughts, therefore learning to be non-attached to our thoughts is actually a very safe and spiritually beneficial practice. So far from being spiritually dangerous, silent forms of prayer are perhaps the safest way to simply bask in the love of God.

While it is important to acknowledge that contemplation is about non-attachment rather than mind-emptying, I do want to point out that emptiness is an important spiritual value in its own right. We see this in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
 Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance…

(Philippians 2:5-7; emphasis added)

The Greek word St. Paul uses here is kenosis, and it’s an important concept for Christian spirituality. Christ emptied himself of his claim to “equality with God” in order to embrace human form in the incarnation. Likewise, we are all called to the imitation of Christ. But how do we “empty” ourselves, since we make no claim on being equal with God? We empty ourselves in a variety of ways. In repentance, we seek to empty ourselves of our sin. We seek to empty ourselves of our will, to create room for the will of God to direct our lives. And if we are willing to embrace the fullness of the mystical life, we recognize that we are called to empty ourselves of everything that is not God. Which, frankly, is probably not that far afield from the non-attachment at the heart of contemplative prayer.

To summarize: in silent prayer we do not seek to “empty” our minds (which is after all is impossible) but to be non-attached to everything in our awareness (including thoughts, imaginations, and feelings) that might come between us and God’s deep silence. But because Christ did in fact empty himself in becoming human, we might profitably reflect on how the contemplative practice of non-attachment really does invite us to the most radical emptiness of all: emptying the self of all that is not-God.

Update: A wonderful conversation in response to this post is taking place on Facebook, with folks quoting Benedict XVI, the Philokalia, Garrigou-Lagrange and others to reflect on both the promise and challenge of “emptiness” as a category of contemplative practice. You can find the conversation (and join in) by clicking here: https://www.facebook.com/pan.cogito/posts/10104731461390348 — at least so far the conversation has spirited but civil (thank heaven). What seems to be emerging is a sense that the Catholic/Orthodox contemplative tradition speaks of emptiness in various ways — in response to Matthew 12:43-45, emptiness-as-void is criticized in the Philokalia, even while non-attachment (grounded in Christ) is lauded. What I’m taking from this conversation (aside from a humbling recognition of how little I know the tradition myself!) is the importance of wise spiritual counsel, so that when we engage in contemplative practice, we have a spiritual father (mother) to whom we can turn for guidance, support, questions answered, warnings, and loving accompaniment. Meditative and contemplative prayer may seem to be a solitary practice, but Christian spirituality always happens in community — even if just a “community” of two.


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