Christian Meditation: recently misunderstood
Search for “meditation” and “Christian” and you’ll get some good resources and a whole lot of panic pieces about how meditation is a direct pathway for the devil to infect your life. (I wish I was kidding.) Which is sad, because meditation isn’t new to Christianity, it’s been around for most of our history, and it is not in fact an invitation to evil.
It’s no mistake that the rising fears about meditation among Christians coincided with the sort of technological changes that made two things true: we were no longer around silence for much of the day, and ideas from around the world were suddenly available quickly and easily. Meditation, which many saw as “Eastern” became the boogeyman of a culture that had forgotten how to do quiet, and was desperately fearful of integration and new ideas.
Meditation: the truth
The truth is pretty simple, Christian meditation has been part of our tradition for a very long time. While the terms used for it have changed (centering prayer or contemplative prayer most commonly) the practice is ancient. Brother Lawrence for example, a monk in the 1600s wrote about “practicing the presence of God.” While he did not use terms like mindfulness it is indeed what he is teaching about. His practices are absolutely meditation and he was just one in a long line of mystics.
Earlier mystics, in the language of their time also express inward experiences of stillness that lead to ecstatic visions or experiences of God’s presence, or of their oneness with God, the created order, or all of humanity.
The real danger of meditation
I suspect the reason meditation has gotten a bad rap among some Christians is the same as why it’s so hard to find people spending time in any sort of silence. Modern Western humans are really, really bad at listening. Oh we’re surrounded by noise 24×7, but we’ve built a world where we are so accosted by noise that we never have to actually listen to anything: especially ourselves.
Spend even a few minutes in actual silence, without an activity to distract you and you’ll be confronted with yourself.
And because you aren’t used to silence your brain will do it’s damnedest to fill that silence with anything. Your mind will become incredibly loud, and you might not like what you find there. A lot of it will be petty, useless, or dull. But you might also have to finally face your fears, insecurities, and unhappiness. And that’s not something we’re great at doing.
Countercultural meditation: Do it anyway.
Because the thing we as modern people need to learn is how to listen: to ourselves, and to others. And to do that we have to actually get quiet. We have to be still long enough to hear what’s really being said. And we have to learn to sit with the discomfort of hearing things we might not want to hear. It is the only way to learn to actually listen.
(If what you hear is disturbing when you get quiet long enough to hear yourself, get yourself a therapist. It is the best gift you can give yourself. And in my experience is something every human being needs at least once in their life.)
Invitation to meditation practice
Learning to listen is a worthy exercise in itself. But meditation does more than help us learn to listen to ourselves and other people. It also opens us to the Divine. Meditation is an invitation to practice becoming aware of the presence of God in our lives. Because here’s the thing: the Divine is everywhere and always. But human beings spend most of our life totally unaware.
We spend most of our lives constructing God in our own image, little neat deities of belief that fit in our tidy boxes. The god who fits the teachings of our church, or our specific set of beliefs is far too small too truly be the Divine. But to encounter One who is beyond description or limits requires us to get ourselves out of the way first. Our egos have to get quiet, our beliefs have to stop yammering, and our expectations have to let go.
Then we can encounter the tiniest edge of that which is totally beyond us. Meditation is not a once and done proposition, it is a continual journey deeper into the mysteries of ourselves, and the Divine within us. There is no bottom to that well.
Methods of meditation
So, you want to learn to meditate. I’m afraid no one can teach you to meditate, it’s just something you have to do. As you practice the “method” becomes less important than the doing, and you will likely settle into what works for you. Until then here are a few starting methods that can be helpful.
Tips before you begin
- Set a timer, no matter what method you use set a timer before you begin. Start small (five minutes will feel like an eternity at first) and add time slowly until you are practicing for twenty or thirty minutes. I suggest using a timer or alarm tone that is gentle, not jarring.
- Get comfortable. There is no requirement that you sit half-lotus or full-lotus. You don’t have to sit on the floor. Sit in such a way that your body will not become your enemy. Support your back, but don’t get so comfortable that you will fall asleep. For many people a straight backed chair with feet flat on the ground is a good place to start.
- You don’t need any equipment. So don’t run out and buy meditation cushions, chairs, gongs, crystals, or anything else. None of that stuff will actually help you meditate.
- Let go of judgement: getting annoyed with your mind or ability to focus won’t help you at all. Let go of judgement.
Almost all meditation practice uses your breath in some way. And the simplest method of all is to simply count. Don’t change your breathing, the goal isn’t to slow it down, speed it up, or do anything else that forces things. If you try to change your natural breathing rhythm here you are likely to end up uncomfortable and concentrating very hard, that is not the goal.
Simply count to ten. Each inhalation and exhalation is one number. If you loose count, start over. You will loose count
You will probably start well, but your brain will get bored and suddenly you’ll have composed an angry email in your head, or added things to your grocery list. Don’t despair, just start counting again from one. If or when you get to ten, start over. Keep going until the timer goes off. Then do it again tomorrow.
A mantra might sound exotic but it’s not really. Meditation using a “mantra” really just means having a phase or word you repeat silently to yourself as a focus point (often in rhythm with your breath). You can choose anything you like for this, though I suggest keeping it simple. A phrase that reminds you of your purpose is helpful, and something that you can repeat at a speed that won’t change your breathing.
I have found a phrase like “God is here; I am here” to be very good. The two parts of the phrase are about the same length, and they fit well with my breath. Like with counting you simply repeat your chosen phrase in rhythm with your breath until you realize your mind has wandered, then you go back to the phrase.
If you are a visual sort of person you might find that a visual meditation focus works better than counting or repeated phrases. The possibilities are endless of course but two that I find particularly helpful are the candle and the river.
For the candle picture a single candle burning in the dark. Focus on this mental image. As thoughts arise calmly feed them into the flame and go back to the darkness. Try not to get angry in you have a continual stream of thoughts to feed that candle, this is entirely natural especially early in your meditation practice. Just keep going
The river is a similar image. You are sitting on the bank of a river, the water flows past you constantly. The thoughts that arise as you sit meditating are logs on the river. They are not good or bad, they simply float past. The key is to let them go. Don’t fixate on the thought about the grocery list, or the embarrassing rerun of that conversation with your boss. Just let them come and go as they please.
If you find yourself caught by a thought don’t get upset. Take a breathe, let the thought go and watch it float on down the river (or sink into the candle flame).
Adaptation & meditation aides
Maybe you’ve tried all this in the past and felt you failed. It might be that you just physically cannot sit still that long, or that even after weeks of practice you found your mind grew no quieter. The truth is sitting meditation isn’t for everyone. Anyone can learn to do it, of course, but that doesn’t mean it is the best use of your time.
The good news is there are most ways to meditation than there are people in the world. If sitting still on a cushion or chair simply doesn’t work for you I invite you to try walking meditation or another form of movement meditation (yoga works very well for me.) For some of us getting our bodies moving actually helps quiet and still our minds. It might seem counter-intuitive but it works very well for some people.
I have had some of my most profound spiritual experiences and moments of deep meditation on the yoga mat. The act of moving my body, and the need to concentrate deeply on balance and posture helps quiet my very busy brain and in that quiet the Divine can (finally) be heard.
So remember, there is no wrong way to meditate. (Other than not doing it.) If you need to change something about “regular” meditation practice for yourself, do it. You may find yourself eventually moving into a more traditional practice, or not, and both are OK.
Remember: reading about meditation doesn’t do you any good, you must practice.
Right now, take even two minutes and meditate, then make it a habit.