A Feature Review of
Practice the Pause: Jesus’ Contemplative Practice, New Brain Science, and What It Means to Be Fully Human
Paperback: Broadleaf Books, 2023
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Reviewed by Christopher Brown
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). The notion that Christians should imitate Jesus’ practices of prayer is not new, but Caroline Oakes has uncovered new depths of significance and possibility in that imitation. Oakes’ book Practice the Pause: Jesus’ Contemplative Practice, New Brain Science, and What it Means to Be Fully Human suggests that Jesus’ own prayer life formed his fully human brain to make him the enemy-loving, wisdom-teaching rabbi he was. Now science is confirming what ancient monks also taught: We, too, can cultivate this “mind of Christ” today by pausing regularly to practice contemplative prayer.
For readers who are already familiar with contemplative practices such as Centering Prayer, the new contribution to be found in Practice the Pause is the highly accessible presentation of scientific research on what happens in the brain during prayer and meditation. Part Two of the book teaches readers about the anatomy of our brains, the concept of neuroplasticity, and the internal workings of our instinctive “fight or flight” response. While the amygdala controls many of our instinctive desires and behaviors, the neocortex is the portion of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions including social awareness and impulse control. The perception of danger or conflict shifts us out of our neocortex and into the instinctive reactivity of the amygdala, resulting in what’s often our least Christ-like behavior.
But there’s hope. As Oakes says, the research shows that “an intentional contemplative practice of even short duration can significantly rewire the brain in ways that develop new prefrontal cortex neural patterns, which slow down the mechanisms that cause the amygdala to fully activate the fight/flight response” (49, emphasis original). In other words, prayer and meditation literally build stronger connections between these portions of our brains, giving us more control over our reactions.
Though the earliest disciples of Jesus didn’t understand this science, Oakes believes contemplative prayer shaped Jesus’ brain in this way, effectively forming him into the kind of person who could pray from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Being Jewish, Jesus likely practiced daily prayer in the ways Jews of his time did, including reciting the Shema at the beginning and end of each day and praying the Amidah three times daily. But Jesus also prayed in ways that went beyond routine liturgical prayers. At times when he went off into the wilderness in solitude. At other times he stayed awake all night on mountaintops. Oakes suggests these instances show Jesus withdrawing into his own “inner room,” as he instructed in Matthew 6:6, and practicing silent prayer and meditation. What we now know about the science of prayer and meditation tells us that even Jesus’ brain would have been shaped and formed in new ways through such practice. The fact that this pattern recurs throughout the Gospels means “Jesus himself exemplifies what it is to be an engaged and active contemplative in a demanding and complex world” (xxi).
The fact that Oakes places so much emphasis on Jesus being our example may raise questions for some readers about her Christology. Oversimplifying the differences between Christian traditions, Oakes characterizes western Christianity as soteriological (salvation-oriented) and eastern Christianity as sophiological (wisdom-oriented). While the former places emphasis on our belief in Jesus, the latter lets us “understand Jesus’ active and contemplative life and ministry not as something to believe in but as a contemplative-in-action way of being that can transform our own” (130, emphasis original). Of course, a choice between believing and being is a false dichotomy. One can simultaneously believe in Jesus and follow him as a wise teacher whose example transforms our lives. But Oakes emphasizes imitating Jesus’ way of being precisely because so many believers have not experienced the transformation that is possible in their own lives.
That said, what readers might perceive as a low Christology in Practice the Pause may really be the other side of Oakes’ generous theological anthropology. Oakes writes that her “understanding does not deny the divinity of Jesus; rather, it affirms our shared divine nature with Jesus” (15). She finds theological backing for this in the eastern Christian doctrine of theosis, the notion that through Christ our human nature has been made capable of sharing in Christ’s divinity. Oakes argues that the life of Jesus displayed the height of what humanity can become if we heed his teachings and imitate his contemplative practices. Oakes sees that divine height of humanity as the true self which is “created according to the likeness of God” and “hidden with Christ in God” (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:3).
So how do we ascend to these heights? By pausing regularly to practice the science-backed spiritual disciplines that conform our minds to the mind of Christ. Part Four of Practice the Pause provides thorough introductions to contemplative practices like silence, stillness, lectio divina, and Centering Prayer. The chapters on Centering Prayer are particularly effective at tying the book together, drawing connections between Thomas Keating’s idea of “divine therapy” and the actual transformation that scientists have observed through brain-imaging technologies.
Whatever contemplative practice one chooses, a general takeaway is that consistency will compound the rewarding effects of such practice. Each time practitioners of Centering Prayer return to their sacred word, new neural connections are formed. Each moment spent lingering in silence trains our minds to be less reactive to the noise around and inside us. Each opportunity to appreciate the beauty of creation opens our minds to hear the voice of God.
Jesus modeled this rhythm for us and showed us the fruit it can bear. As Oakes writes near the beginning of the book, “Jesus shows us at every turn how a consistent pattern of pausing to return to God’s presence again and again and again can ultimately change our awareness and perception . . . so that (as Paul later says) ‘the eyes of our heart may be enlightened’” (15). Whether in the eyes of our heart” or the wires of our brains, Practice the Pause is a fresh invitation to the imitation of Christ.
Rev. Christopher Brown is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Berthoud, Colorado. He is also an ICF-credentialed coach who serves pastors, new worshiping community leaders, and others seeking spiritual growth through his work at Still Mountain Leadership and Life Coaching.
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