Friday, January 29, 2010

Christian Meditation

In my last blog I described Contemplative Christian Spirituality as the belief that we can best experience God as Jesus experienced God, by letting go of our thoughts and expectations and experiencing God in the silence and stillness of our souls.

I said that the cornerstone of Contemplative Christian Spirituality is the practice called Christian Meditation. In this blog I will discuss Christian Mediation and describe how you might incorporate it your prayer life.

Christian Mediation does not replace other Christian spiritual practices. It completes them. Most spiritual practices use our brain, either to talk to God (as in prayer), to understand God (as in Bible readings), or to worship God (as in church services.) Christian Meditation introduces a new dimension into our spiritual practice, the dimension of the heart. We have many ways of communicating with God and about God. Christian Meditation is about listening to God.

Listening is harder than you might expect. We are so busy fretting about the past or worrying about the future that we have few brain cells available for listening to what God is telling us right now.

You might think the solution is easy. Just stop fretting and worrying. Stop thinking and start listening. But not thinking is not so easy.

Allow me to demonstrate with a simple experiment. Sit down in a quiet place with no distractions. I am going to ask you to count your breaths, one by one, without thinking about anything. I want you to try as hard as you can not to think of anything at all except the counting. Before you try this, guess how far you can get. Can you make it to 50 breaths? 100? Write down your guess on a piece of paper.

Now let's try it. Close your eyes. As you slowly breath in, think to yourself, "in, one." As you slowly breath out, think to yourself, "out, one". With your next in breath, think to yourself, "in, two." As you breath out, think to yourself, "out, two."  Continue this until you find yourself thinking. Stop the moment you find yourself thinking about anything other than counting your breath, even if it is just a fleeting thought about picking up something on the way home for dinner or maybe how silly you feel counting your breaths. Once you have any non-counting thought, no matter how brief or insignificant, stop and note how far you got.

Try this exercise two or three times. Keep track of how far you get each time. When you have completed this, scroll this page down and continue reading.

If you are like most of us, you will be doing well if you make it to 5 before your mind wanders off. Does this surprise you? And if you can't go 5 breaths without your mind becoming distracted, how can you find the interior silence you need to fully experience God's presence?

This is what Christian Meditation is about: creating a silence within which to experience  God.

The bad news is that most of us will find it difficult to ever make a perfect silence for God. The good news is that God can do an amazing job with even an imperfect silence. God doesn't ask that we succeed, only that we keep trying.

Think of meditating as like playing the violin. The first time you pick up a violin, you aren't likely to play very well. Neither reading about the violin nor taking violin lessons is going to make you a violinist. If you want to play, you must practice and if you want to play well, you must practice daily.

The same is true for quieting our minds. When you first tried to quiet your mind, you didn't get very far, did you? That doesn't mean that you are a bad person or an ungodly person. It just means that you need to practice. 

Christian Meditation isn't easy. Ideally you will practice at least twenty minutes at a time and repeat this twice a day. It is a definite commitment. But God is worth it.

Now down to the nitty gritty. How to do it. There are a number of variants that different people teach. I will explain the practice as taught by the World Community for Christian Meditation.

First, choose a word or short phrase. This will be your centering word. You will repeat this word over and over as a way of settling the turmoil that is typically going on in your brain. Unless you have a word or phrase that really speaks to you, the recommended word is Maranatha, an Aramaic word that means something like "Come, Lord."

Maranatha is pronounced in four syllables. The first is "mar" (rhyming with "far.") The second is "a" (sounding like "ahh.") The third is "nath" (rhyming with the English pronunciation of "bath.") The fourth is "a" (sounding like "ahh.")

One reason for choosing Maranatha is that it is in the language of Jesus (Aramaic). Another reason for choosing Maranatha is that so many other meditators use that same word. So many, in fact, that it is likely that at any given instant, somebody someplace in the world is saying Maranatha silently, and by using that same word you are joining in this collective never ending chorus.

Now that you have chosen your word, you need three more things. First, you need a quiet place. Second, you need a comfortable chair that will allow you to sit straight. Third, you need a twenty minute timer, preferably one that does not have a jarring finale. You can download such a timer from the link shown on this blog's home page, titled "Meditation Timers (MP3 Files)."

Next, practice thinking your word in time with your breathing. I like to think "Mara" with my in breaths and "natha" with my out breaths, but find a pattern with which you are comfortable.

Next, sit in a comfortable position with your back straight and both feet planted on the floor. Your goal will be to sit without moving for twenty minutes, so find a position that will be comfortable for a while.

Next, start the timer. Close your eyes lightly and start thinking your word in time with your slow breathing. Think the word quietly and peacefully, allowing it to permeate your whole body with each breath. Maintain the stillness of your body. Continue this until your time period is finished. That's it. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

Of course, you won't get far before your mind wanders off. When that happens, just start repeating your word in time with your breathing again. Don't feel bad about wandering, it happens to most of us most times we practice. As soon as you find yourself feeling or thinking or judging something, gently go back to repeating your word. When your mind wanders off again, just start the cycle again.

Some days it will seem hopeless. Your mind will seem to have a mind of its own! Other days, it will seem wonderful. Don't judge the days either way. Days that don't seem to go well may be setting the stage for good days down the line. Trust God to use whatever silence you make available, even if that silence seems to you measured in milliseconds.

How do you know you are meditating well? First, if you are doing it, you are doing it well. As Woody Allen said, success is 80% showing up. So if you are doing your practice twice a day, you should pat yourself on your back. And if you aren't doing it twice a day or for the full twenty minutes, you can still congratulate yourself for what you are doing. Anything is better than nothing!

The second way you will know you are meditating well is when you start seeing subtle changes in your life. You will see God more often in the day to day moments that before you took for granted. You will find yourself getting less tense and less angry at life's little irritations. You will notice physical differences, like lower blood pressure and more restful sleep patterns. I'll talk in future blogs about the many physical and mental benefits of Christian Meditation, but for now, know that the benefits are more than just spiritual. (As if the spiritual benefits aren't enough!)

So Christian Meditation isn't very complicated. John Main, the Benedictine monk who is one of the best know evangelists for Christian Meditation, said he could describe the practice on the back of a postage stamp. It is simple, he said. But it isn't easy. There will be a dozen reasons every day for not meditating. Your favorite TV show is on. You want a beer. You are too tired. The dog is barking.

Remember, God is waiting for you, patiently and lovingly. God wants to be present within you. God needs just one thing from you. A little silence.

Pax Christi,
Roger Sessions

Would you like more information on Christian Meditation? Two good sources are the web site for the World Community for Christian Meditation ( and the short paperback by Fr. Lawrence Freeman titled Christian Meditation; Your Daily Practice available at Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment