With most spiritual matters I say different things might work best for different people, but I have no reservations saying everyone should meditate. Regular meditation is invaluable in aligning with God’s Will, with the way things are — however you want to say it — and by so doing, in reducing anxiety and self-driven suffering. It changes you.
The promise of a devoted spiritual life, of which meditation is an invaluable part, is serenity — not that nothing bad will ever happen but that you will be able to walk through setbacks, disappointments and even outright tragedies carried by a trust that things will be OK; that in everyday life you will not be anxious, restless or irritable; and that in good times you will be fully alive to enjoy them.
That trust is not wishful thinking. This mortal realm has its egos, its fight or flight syndrome, its illusions of scarcity, its fear. But those of us on the mystical journey know there’s something more. Why we know this we cannot really say. We might have been shown it from a very early age, or we might have had an encounter with the Divine that we couldn’t ignore along the way. But somehow we have experiential knowledge that there is a deeper reality, a transcendent level of reality that is not this physical world, but which is the foundation for this physical world. This is not blind faith; it is based entirely on experience, on conscious contact with this foundational Reality. Our lives are filled with beliefs that are based on experience, yet maintained when the experience is absent. As the Barlowgirl song says, “I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining.” Those who dismiss such faith as naïve or blind don’t understand it.
While you cannot force this encounter, there are things you can do to enhance your conscious contact with God, with the divine, with Ultimate Reality — whatever you call it — to open yourself to the Mystery and to quiet the world enough to hear it. I have found — and in recent years I have noticed more and more spiritual teachers emphasizing — that meditation is the single most valuable spiritual tool for achieving and enhancing this conscious contact.
Yet, when I offer the suggestion of meditation to others, I meet a host of objections.
“Oh, I can’t meditate. I tried it. My mind won’t shut up.”
Or, “I don’t have time to meditate,” even though they devote hours a week to yoga and television and reading and other things they value.
There are those who say their home is too hectic, or the schedule too chaotic. They mean to meditate, but just never find a perfect, serene moment to do it.
And there are many who’ve tried it once or twice and simply found it boring or interminable.
But meditation does not require a perfect setting, perfect silence, or hours of your day. Just 20 minutes, some say even five, every day — in the best setting you can manage — for an extended period will change you internally, will give you rewards beyond measure. I know this from my own experience and I have seen it happen for many, many others. And if that’s not enough, there are, of course, testimonials to the power of meditation and similar contemplative practices going back thousands of years in nearly every spiritual tradition.
The reasons most people think meditation doesn’t work or isn’t for them usually spring from a misunderstanding of what meditation is about, and what it promises.
The promise of meditation
The promise of meditation is not the 20 minutes of refuge from an otherwise insane day, wonderful as that may be. The promise of meditation is to make that day less insane, by making you less insane. In other words, to gradually cultivate a relationship with Divine Love so that the grounding of your reality is no longer this fearful world but instead is the real Reality. Different traditions use different terminology, but most play off of one of two metaphors: being awake as opposed to sleeping or dreaming; or being alive, reborn, born from above as opposed to dead.
Once you are grounded in the true Reality, then the trivial insanities of the world no longer threaten your foundation. Fears of losing what you’ve got and not getting what you want evaporate along with the illusion of scarcity that feeds our survival instinct, replaced by the divine math of abundance that says the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that the more you give, the more you will receive.
Once you are grounded in the true Reality, then the focus on expectations with its inevitable anxiety and disappointments, the obsession to figure everything out in order to create some sense of control over the scary universe, are replaced by a trust that whatever comes will be OK.
I’ve noticed over and over: People struggling with anxiety over things they’re powerless to affect rarely have a daily prayer and meditation practice. The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, a leading figure in Christian meditation and wisdom teaching, describes the promise of contemplation:
“It is not a matter of replacing negative emotions with positive emotions — only of realizing that … presence can be sustained regardless of whatever inner or outer storms may assail you … You discover that at the depths, Being still holds firm.”
You may feel calm and restored after meditating. It’s wonderful when you do. But you may not. You may enter a place of profound stillness and awareness and feel conscious contact with God. But you may not.
We call meditation a practice. Think of your daily meditation as practice for life, practice for being in the moment, practice for letting go, practice for attuning to God.
I’ve been practicing Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation, for over 20 years. Gradually, I assure you, with daily practice we can develop the posture towards life described in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 as to “pray without ceasing.” And when we do that, the constant chatter in our heads — what the Buddhists call monkey mind — abates. And with that, we stop fighting so much, we start trusting more, and we can just be.
I don’t meditate 20 minutes a day. I practice meditation 20 minutes a day; I meditate ceaselessly.
Bestselling author and spiritual education expert Marsha Sinetar says in Ordinary People as Monks & Mystics : “Something in us … is strengthened by silence, much as our physical bodies are strengthened by sleep.”
Isn’t meditation non-Christian?
“Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10)
The purpose of meditation is to better align with God, to better know God — to stop struggling against God’s Will for us and accept things the way they are; to better comprehend that we are held and loved, that we are OK, no matter what we might be walking through. In other words, in a variety of ways, meditation helps us stop trying to play God. There is nothing non-Christian about that. In fact, you might say it’s essential.
The Desert Fathers of the early Church were meditating in the Third Century. References in the Gospels to Jesus’ prayer life often speak of long unstructured periods in the presence of God. Monks and mystics throughout the history of the Church have meditated. And have you noticed how similar rosaries are to the Buddhist and Hindu meditation bead bracelets so many people wear? Christian meditation is as old as Christianity.
Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating, one of the founders of Centering Prayer, was abbot all through the 60s and 70s at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This area is thick with religious retreat centers. In the 70s, the well-known Theravadan Buddhist center, Insight Meditation Society, opened just down the road from Fr. Thomas’ monastery. He tells of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph’s by accident, many of them cradle Catholics, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplative work:
“It did not occur to them to look for a Christian form of contemplative prayer or to visit Catholic monasteries. When they heard that these existed, they were surprised, impressed, and somewhat curious,” he says.
Many Christians, when they decide to try meditation, think they need to go to a zendo or yoga studio, without realizing the listing in their church’s bulletin for “Centering Prayer” offers a beautiful meditation practice that is directly connected to their faith community. Or that they are doing a form of meditation when they kneel in silence at an Adoration service or pray the Rosary.
Personally, I also find nothing wrong with practicing non-Christian forms as long as their theological underpinnings aren’t offensive to me, but it is important to be grounded, so, to be clear: Meditation exists as part of the fabric of my spiritual life — with being Christian, a member of a church; with daily reading of Scripture and other spiritual writing; with weekly church attendance; with occasional Vespers and Adoration services; and with monthly meetings with a spiritual director.
Above, I described the simple meditation practice I’ve been using for nearly 20 years. That’s really all you need. Do that every day and it will change you.
But if you’re like me, you will want to read more, learn the history, debate the points. In that case, there are endless books on meditation, from the Desert Fathers to the medieval mystics to Thomas Merton to the present, and across a variety of methods and religious traditions. I direct people to one book above all others, by the teacher who personally introduced me to Centering Prayer in the early 90s, Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault: Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.
If you don’t do daily meditation, let me encourage you, right now, today, to change that. Whatever form of meditation you pursue, I encourage you to give it time — time each day, and time to work. Just sit! Commit to yourself that you will stick with it whether it seems like it’s working or not, whether it’s comfortable or not, for… oh, let’s say 40 days.
There are many forms of meditation. I believe Centering Prayer is particularly good for cultivating radical acceptance, but if a different practice speaks to you, consider that. I discourage you, though, from any practice that’s goal-oriented, complicated or overly attached to form, or which has an underlying philosophy that repeatedly contradicts your beliefs. As Thomas Merton said, “Contemplative prayer has to be always very simple, confined to the simplest of acts.” If you don’t know where to start, I offer this simple framework from my centering prayer tradition.
Centering prayer really has just one action: When you realize you’re engaged with a thought, you let it go. That’s it. No special postures, breathing patterns or mantras.
Most people find it helpful to use a word of one or two syllables — when they realize they’ve gotten caught up in a thought, they say the word to themselves silently as they let go of the thought and return to God’s presence. Some examples of words are: Amen, Abba, Grace, Love, Oneness, Peace, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Jesus. Pick one thoughtfully, but don’t get hung up on it. This is not a sacred mantra that is supposed to have meaning in itself. At first you may want to try different words. That’s fine. Just don’t change it within a session. Some prefer to use a simple inward glance toward the Divine Presence, or noticing one’s breath.
Resist no thought; retain no thought; react to no thought. When you realize you are engaged with a thought, return gently to the stillness. Centering prayer is not about pushing thoughts away, or trying diligently to have no thoughts. Our minds were designed to have thoughts. As Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault says, “striving for emptiness is a surefire way to guarantee that your meditation will be a constant stream of thoughts.” In centering prayer, we let thoughts happen, but we don’t engage them. We let them float by without giving them attention, and, before you know it, they’re gone. (The term “thoughts” here includes anything you focus your attention on, including sensations and feelings.) Some find it useful to visualize thoughts as boats floating by on a river or bubbles going up and away. Our attention is on the river, the air or water, not the boats or bubbles. (Don’t get hung up on visualizing, but this framing of it can be useful to some.)
You may drift into not needing the word, just “resting in God.” This is wonderful when it happens, but it’s not the goal and it won’t last. You’ll realize you’re thinking about something (possibly how great it is that you’re not thinking!) and the moment will have passed. That’s OK. Just let that new thought go, and return to the silence. With practice, the clutter in your head will reduce, but you may stay in the attachment-surrender loop for an entire session. That’s OK too. As Fr. Thomas Keating says, ten thousand thoughts are “ten thousand opportunities to return to God.”
Sit comfortably, feet planted on the ground and back supported — so there is no need to adjust while sitting, and to encourage alertness. Sit for 20 minutes or more if at all possible. Something often happens to the stillness around 10 to 15 minutes in. If you stop too soon you will miss it.
Set a timer. You set it and then can turn to sitting until it goes off. Having to check a clock or watch is distracting. After maybe an opening tone or reading, settle briefly, and silently introduce the sacred word to start the sitting period; repeat it for a few minutes, or a few times, then let go of it and rest in the silence. If you realize you’ve been focused on a thought, let it go, say the word to yourself or notice your breath, and return to the silence. When the ending bell sounds, take a minute or two to gradually return to ordinary awareness. Don’t hop right up. Many practitioners say a closing prayer.
I’ve had a Christian meditation practice for over 20 years. If you are an experienced contemplative, I hope you found something useful here. And, if you are brand new to meditation, welcome! I encourage you to pursue a contemplative practice, whatever it may be. Centering prayer is a very simple and straightforward method, which you may find more accessible than some others. There are centering prayer groups all over, often though not exclusively in Catholic and Episcopalian churches, since the practice began within those denominations. Join my mailing list to receive a free PDF flyer on centering prayer, and to receive updates on my other published work.