One of the things that makes me laugh when I read love stories, whether adult or YA fiction, is that moment when the boy and girl or man and woman kiss for the first time and the woman’s mind just . . . empties. All those fizzing synapses get burned out by the sheer electric power of the meeting-of-the-mouths, and all thought ceases. Not just all rational thought, but all thought. Period.
This is in some ways a lovely fantasy. The problem is, I don’t think this is the way it actually works. At least not to most women I know of. And this is not a drag on the guys we’ve been kissing. It’s simply to point out that, anecdotally speaking, women are capable of thinking of many things at once and even the most mind-blowing kiss does not negate this ability. Perhaps it’s our more bilaterally-symmetrical brains and the fact that our two brain hemispheres talk to each other more.
I remember an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data the android gets a human girlfriend. It’s doomed to fail, of course, but the death knell of the relationship tolls when she kisses Data and asks what he’s thinking. He matter-of-factly reels off a laundry list of about 15 things, including the limit of pressure he can put on her lips without caving her face in with his superhuman robotic strength. Her face falls and she walks away. She knows what it means that she doesn’t totally occupy his thoughts: he doesn’t love her.
When I watched the show a teenager I thought this storyline was romantic and star-crossed and bittersweet, even if more than a shade past believable (specifically, actor Brent Spiner’s pasty shade of pancake makeup, back when extreme pallor was supposed to indicate “android” and not “hot teenage vampire”). Poor girl, always falling for the unavailable guy! Poor Data, longing to be human but unable to understand love.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a lousy idea for Ensign-of-the-Week to try to date a robot, and I have no idea whether it’s true for guys that physical contact makes your brain spontaneously combust, but I know for a fact that women can be kissing their significant other and enjoying the experience while simultaneously running through their grocery list, their best friend’s relationship woes, that upcoming project deadline, the sale at Zulily, and whether they have clean unmentionables for tomorrow. Sure, the kiss works better – a lot better – when your attention is undivided, but generally speaking, that single-minded focus happens because you decide you want it to, not by some sort of hormonal fiat over your gray matter. You can tell your brain to shut up, if you want, but you’re still giving yourself over to the moment with the full assent of your thought and will.
Remember Ghost? I don’t care what the CGI and camera angles are telling you, Demi’s character is perfectly aware she’s kissing a dead guy borrowing the body of another woman. (For a gender-swap variation on this plot, read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.) She might not care, but that’s different from her brain turning completely to mush and disconnecting her from reality. Even if Patrick Swazye’s lips are literally glowing with light from heaven. (Which would give most anyone trouble, I think.)
What I am working up to saying, in a roundabout fashion, is that, contrary to years of received wisdom from Danielle Steele, Hollywood, and Team Edward, it’s hard to shut off your brain. It’s hard if you’re a woman. It’s hard if you live in a city, especially one of loud-talking, fast-moving overachievers like New York. It’s hard if you have any kind of stress in your life. It’s probably hard if you’re a guy, too, but I don’t have the same kind of personal experience with that situation.
So how to quiet all that noise in your head and just . . . be present? Especially during the first days of the year, which are – let’s face it – kind of like the hangover to the just-concluded holiday season. You know what I mean. Christmas and New Years are over but their detritus is still with you – your dried up Christmas tree, shedding needles faster than your Uncle George’s scalp is divesting itself of its hair, needs to be hauled to the curb (or, in the case of my tabletop Charlie Brown-esque model, smooshed back into its box and schlepped to the basement), the ornaments returned to their packing, and those peppermint bark and champagne-induced love handles need to be melted posthaste by some New Year’s juice cleansing and Soul Cycle. Oh, and you’re back to work and the kids are back in school, but the government is still shut down.
How, amidst all this bustle and chaos, can you find time to be with God, to invite him to step through your busyness and defenses and consent to his presence the way you would to a kiss?
One way is to practice centering prayer. This ancient practice is designed to shut down distractions from inside and out, to help you become completely open to God. Here’s how it’s done:
First, find a quiet place and get comfortable in a seated position. Then, breathe. Slowly, in and out, becoming aware of your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Feel the rise and fall of your chest, your breath slowing, your body gradually loosening, your thoughts slowing down to the pace of your respiration.
Now, choose a focus word or phrase, something that will help anchor you in the moment, a word that resonates with you and where you are with God. For me, the word is often “Holy.” Begin to repeat the word in your head as you breathe, so that the word falls into place with the rhythm of your body.
Then – and this, for me, is the hardest part! – try to empty your mind of thought. You’re trying to achieve inner silence, a total openness to God and God alone. This takes practice! Almost certainly a billion little thoughts will zoom in like industrious bees. Rather than trying to swat them away with your mental fly swatter, simply notice them, without guilt or frustration, and go back to your anchor word for a time. Repeat it until you reclaim your focus and inner stillness. When you’re ready, let the word go and try to empty your mind again and simply be with God. Pray as long as you feel able to sustain your centered state.
If you need a bit more support, there’s a Centering prayer app! You can use it to frame your practice with music and scripture or to set a timer. The organization that created the app, Contemplative Outreach, also offers online communities and workshops for those interested in centering prayer.
Title photo credit: Ilya Naymushin / Reuters via theatlantic.com
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