Psychotherapy was labeled as the “talking cure” decades ago. When we consider how contemplative prayer practice might impact our mental health, it’s worth pondering the good that naming and expressing emotion can bring. In contemplative prayer, we are invited to notice our distressing thoughts and to gently turn away from them and focus our attention on the present moment by sensing our breath going in and out, remembering a prayer word that expresses love and grace in the now. These are ancient Christian practices designed to help our brains change patterns. The naming of our fears and then gently turning from them is a good work out for our minds. I go so far as calling it, “fighting the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12).
I think of these practices as a conversation with myself and with God. In an activity-oriented time like ours, the complaint I hear is that this sort of prayer feels like ‘doing nothing.’ On the contrary, I think it is very important work of the first order. In noticing and turning over these troubling emotions we are doing something vital. We are discharging stress that if retained can cause aggressive reactions towards others when we least expect them or perhaps never allow ourselves to see them. Often psychological distress is the result of emotions that are stuck in us and thereby left unprocessed. Feelings don’t overwhelm us in an ongoing fashion near as much as attempting to not feel them does. In contemplative prayer, the psyche can process and integrate warded off emotions that could be making us deeply anxious. The prayer practice may even allow more of the unconscious residual emotion to surface and to be named and turned over – again and again, until the mind is able to digest and order these past emotions and experiences. To keep them in the past, so to speak. We internally release the stress, more consciously giving it to God and allowing our mind to release the chemical wash that goes with our distress.