How Christians Can Use Mindfulness and Prayer to Achieve Balance
How do we achieve true balance in life? As the first lay president of Marquette University – a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee – a husband and father of four, there are many demands on my time. The resulting balance challenge is never-ending. Here’s how I approach it.
Prayer and exercise have always been daily practices that have helped me address stress in my life. Both help me to focus my thoughts, and I have had some of my best ideas and solved my most difficult problems while running and cycling after reflecting through prayer. Recently, I have worked mindfulness practices into my daily life.
Last spring, I took a class with my son, Matthew, on mindfulness, and we read “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel. The most helpful concepts I learned in that class were to be present in the moment and, indirectly, to be a better listener. My job necessitates going from one thing to another all day. I used to either carry what happened in one event into the next, or I wouldn’t be fully present at the current meeting because I was preoccupied with what was going to happen next. Using tools that I learned in my mindfulness class, I now try to always be present in the meeting I am in. It helps me to listen more attentively and not miss important conversation.
Mindfulness also helps connect our minds to our bodies. When I practice mindfulness, I try to feel my body in my seat, feel my feet on the ground and slow down my breathing. These techniques help me to draw my mind back from wandering. When you are young, you use all senses nearly equally and you notice so much more about the environment around you. As adults, if our minds are racing, we’re not recognizing the sights, sounds and smells around us. When I was at a silent retreat last summer organized by Marquette’s Office of Mission and Ministry, we had a session led by a mindfulness instructor who took us through what’s called the 61-point relaxation exercise. It calls for you to focus on sensing specific points of your body in a particular order. When we finished the 61 points at the retreat, the instructor said she sometimes uses it to help herself fall asleep – but she always falls asleep before making it through all 61 points. It’s fascinating and it works.
As a devout Catholic, prayer is a big part of my daily life. I take at least 15 minutes a day to pray and to reflect on what I did well and what I can improve on. The Jesuits call this practice an Examen. Through a national Jesuit leadership training program called the Ignatian Colleagues Program that I participated in, I learned a prayer practice that St. Ignatius and his colleagues used 500 years ago that involved placing yourself in the scene as a character in the Bible passage you are reading and asking yourself what you see, hear and smell – focusing on what it is like to be that person in the scene. These practices have similarities to some mindfulness practices. A young Jesuit is currently doing neuroscience research on these practices of St. Ignatius and other saints to see whether science proves their benefits. It will be exciting to see what his research shows.
Mindfulness has been scientifically studied. Neuroscience research has proven that practicing reflection and mindfulness helps reduce stress, lower heart rates and strengthen immune systems. Being present in the moment through mindfulness and prayer can help us cope with everyday stressors. As an engineer by training, I’m always looking at the scientific approach to life. With mindfulness, science has shown that you can create new pathways for your brain through its neuroplasticity. When something triggers you to react or go into a space where it’s hard to be present, you can actually breathe and mindfully switch yourself back into the frontal cortex where logic and reasoning occurs.
I have always been a very nervous traveler and would typically get anxious when navigating long trips. Last summer, I went on a trip with my daughter, Anna, to Croatia. I applied my mindfulness tools when I got anxious in a long line waiting to be screened – a delay that could impact our connection. Anna commented without prompting on how much better I did as a traveler and how much more enjoyable I was to be with. She had no idea I was practicing feeling my feet on the ground and was breathing deeper and more controlled to stay in a regulated and present state of mind.
When we are constantly bombarded by all the noise and chaos of the outside world, it can be hard to focus and to devote the time that we should to our families, our friends and our colleagues. Prayer, reflection and mindfulness can help direct us back to what is most important.
Dr. Michael R. Lovell is the president of Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit university located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.