The Orthodox Church, better than the Latin, but not as fully as Eastern spiritualities, remembers the importance of the body in one’s prayer-life. Especially in the monastic tradition, an awareness of the breath and the practice of bows and prostrations, some very similar to the homage to the sun asana in yoga, help to keep body and mind in sync. Perhaps any spiritually that is only at the mental level and only uses will-power and self-evaluation, will fail to bring the practitioner to a higher state of integration and peaceful ease with him or her self. One can never say often enough to westerners that the purpose of ascesis , such as what we have chosen to do or not to do during Lent, is not to punish but to purify.
Fasting (reducing one’s daily food intake) and abstaining from meat and stimulants (caffeine and alcohol) are also traditional physical practices found in all spiritual traditions. Sometimes beginning such a practice makes one aware that we are more addicted than we had realised, which is humbling and advances self-knowledge. In our time, dieting has replaced fasting, as tourism has replaced pilgrimage but they can be understood as the same things done for different motives. Motives are important to the quality and outcome of what we do. Maybe an ancient Syrian monk tried to bridge them when he said ‘try to be thin so you can pass through the narrow gate’. Jesus said few can get through it, overweight with attachments and anxieties as most of us are, although ‘nothing is impossible to God’.
Meditation itself is a fasting and abstaining. But, in daily life, attention to our physical intake helps to condition our meditation. Regular drowsiness, falling asleep and even certain kinds of distraction can be reduced by healthier nutrition. Today many people meditate to be healthier. The meditator eventually comes to see that we stay healthy in order to meditate.
Sleep and rest, too, are part of the natural rhythm of the body and mind. Many people today are sleep-deprived because they work late or watch movies or play games late and many continue their digital life even after they have got into bed. The monks of old, by contrast, used to recommend to consciously limit the hours of sleep and encouraged getting up in the dark hours before dawn to pray. As my head hits the pillow I usually give a sigh of relief and often remember Jesus saying he did not have anywhere to lay his head and am asleep before I apply it to myself. When people do get up in the early, still hours to pray they discover a special joy and calmness, a certainty that stabilises them for the whole day.
In the Song of Songs we find “I sleep but my heart is awake.’ If you fall asleep saying or listening to your mantra you may find you awake up doing so as well. With enough REM sleep you may find that you need less sleep but what you have refreshes you more. This helps the conscious and unconscious levels of the self to jangle with each other less during the day and so we may find we are both calmer and more intuitive.