Question: Meditation has become fashionable, even trendy. Many people engage in mindfulness meditation. Even some businesses and professions encourage it. Do you engage in meditation? If so, what are its benefits? How can an ordinary person with family responsibilities who also has to hold down a job find time to meditate?
Frank answers: Thanks for the first new question for my blog. It’s a big one. Or, rather, it’s several questions. I’ll do my best.
As life has become more multi-tasking, keeping us going 24/7, and probably without as much time for sleep as we ought to have, we all need opportunities to stop what we are doing, collect our thoughts, and focus on one thing—or maybe nothing. People are suffering from various forms of stress in the family, in the economy, in their place of work. Meditation has become popular because it brings relaxation and mental and emotional peace.
Mindfulness meditation has become popular because it helps people to focus on the present by clearing away the distractions of the past (why did I do that?) and anxiety about the future (what am I going to do about it?). It is a practice that comes out of Buddhism and is simply to be present with one’s experience. Mindfulness can be as simple as, “Pay attention to what you’re doing. Don’t be distracted by other things.” No wonder mindfulness meditation is encouraged by many companies for their workers. People normally are not mindful. Their minds wander and they are easily distracted by other thoughts or outside distractions. However, some have questioned whether a few workshops sponsored by corporations for their employees can accomplish what Buddhist monks and Hindu yogis have achieved by years of meditation.
Moreover, mindfulness cannot be the whole of meditation. Even in Buddhism and in classical yoga, calming or focusing the mind serves to prepare it to arrive at insight. This is achieved by practicing a form of sitting meditation in which attention is focused on some simple object such as the breath. Focusing the mind is really preliminary to meditation. It clears away distractions so that I can focus on something in particular—or nothing in particular. Focusing on nothing doesn’t mean that the mind is empty. It means that the mind is an open space that can be filled with thoughts that come looking for our attention. Such thoughts are received without judgment, because if we judge them we preclude the possibility of new insight.
Meditation has been used in all the religions of the world. We think of contemplative monks, both Christian and Buddhist, engaged in focused meditation for hours. Many non-monks are looking for opportunities and ways to meditate today. These people are householders with worldly responsibilities who cannot dedicate themselves to what St. Paul called “ceaseless prayer” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Older Forms of Christian Meditation
Older forms of Christian meditation include lectio divina (divine reading), which originated in the contemplative prayer tradition of Benedictine monasticism. In lectio divina one focuses on a text of Scripture, bringing simple but specific questions to it. Another historic form of Christian meditation is Ignatian meditation. This was developed by Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), and is used in Jesuit-led retreats. In this practice one focuses on a visual image such as a scene from the Gospels. In the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, contemplation is a very active form of meditation that engages the mind and heart and stirs up thoughts and emotions.
Newer Forms of Christian Meditation
Newer forms of Christian meditation have emerged in the last quarter of the 20th century, although they are connected with Eastern forms of meditation. While working in the English foreign service in India, the Irishman John Main (1926-1982) learned to meditate from a Hindu swami. Later, when he became a Benedictine monk, he began to discover the rich resources in his own tradition of contemplative prayer going back to the desert fathers of the 3rd/4th centuries. In 1974, he opened a Christian meditation center at Ealing Abbey in England. In 1977, John Main, OSB and his colleague Laurence Freeman, OSB, were invited by the archbishop of Montreal to establish a Christian Meditation Center in the heart of the city. By the time John Main died in 1982, it had already become a key resource center for a growing international movement among lay members of the Christian churches. In 1991, the international center moved to London as the World Community of Christian Meditation under the leadership of Laurence Freeman, OSB. It calls itself a “monastery without walls” and now flourishes in 120 countries.
In 1975, three Trappist monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA—William Menninger, Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating—began bringing together the scattered teachings on contemplative prayer in Benedictine sources and sharing this tradition with others in retreats. Whereas John Main called his packaging of the tradition “Christian meditation,” the Trappist monks decided in favor of the title “centering prayer,” borrowing the term from Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky who had entered into dialogue with Tibetan Buddhist monks. Merton spoke frequently of attaining the experience of God by going into one’s center and passing through it into the center of God.
In 1987, Mary Jo Meadow, with Carmelites Kevin Culligan and Daniel Chowning, began to lead Silence and Awareness Meditation retreats, based on the teachings of St. John of the Cross and the ancient Indian Vipassana (Insight) meditation practice taught by the Buddha. Rather than focusing on a sacred word, this school enters meditation by cultivating awareness of the breath, which is very close to the kind of meditation practices I learned in yoga.
The question asks if I practice meditation. I do. In the past I practiced lectio divina by considering a text, perhaps a verse from a psalm, and turning it over and over in my mind, asking what it says about my relationship with God, or God’s relationship with me, or my relationship with others. I have also meditated in a yoga class with the guidance of the teacher, sitting in a lotus position as best as I am able (see the Excursus on Postures for Meditation below this article).* Yoga techniques are employed in many forms of meditation.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Many people learn to meditate today in yoga classes. Patanjali’s classic Yoga-Sutras (perhaps ca. 200 AD) was really a manual dealing with the techniques of meditation. It has little to say about the postures that dominate modern yoga practice. In the Yoga-Sutras the postures (asanas) were intended not as physical exercise but as “seats” to support meditation. (The Sanskrit word asana means “seat” and the most common posture was the seated lotus position. It derives from the custom of South Asian rulers and teachers sitting on a large cushion with a lotus design.) The postures (asanas ) and breathing techniques (pranayama) were intended to stabilize the body to enable one to concentrate on a single object (dharana). Along with pratyahara (retaining or closing off the senses to remove the distractions of the outside world), dharana prepared the way for meditation properly understood (dhyāna). Meditation might then lead to pure contemplation or absorption (samādhi). Along with the preliminary yamas (moral principles) and viyamas (ritual purification of the body), which are preparations for meditation, these concepts comprise the eight limbs (ashtanga) of yoga. Thus the eight limbs in order are: moral principles, ritual purification, posture, breath control, control of the senses, concentration, meditation, and contemplation or insight.
[An accessible translation and commentary is by Barbara Stoler Miller, Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali (New York: Bantam Books, 1998). For a contemporary reinterpretation of these eight limbs and the the whole of Patanjali’s classic see Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga: A Remix of Patanjali’s Sutras With Commentary and Reverie (Matthew Remski, 2012). On the history and reception of this classic work see David Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography, in the series Lives of Great Religious Books (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014).]
Often when we come to meditation from the affairs of the day our minds are agitated (what Patanjali called the “turnings of thought”—citta-vritti). I learned in yoga class that if my mind wanders (which it always does) I can always return to the breath and use my breathing to refocus. One can meditate just on the breath. That could lead one to contemplate the gift of life itself and the One who is the author and giver of life.
Filling the Mind with Presence
There is a misconception that the object of meditation is to empty the mind. Rather, eliminating the clutter in our minds is the precondition for engaging in meditation. Meditation should lead to contemplating what Kierkegaard called “the one thing needful.” For the Christian that “one thing needful” is the sense of the presence of God in one’s life. The object of meditation is to fill the mind with this presence.
Many of us have moments in our everyday lives when we can develop a deeper awareness of ourselves in relation to God and to the world around us. Maybe it occurs when taking a walk on a beach and watching the waves wash in, or hiking through a forest and noticing the breeze moving the branches of the trees, or walking through a field and noticing the blades of grass or wild flowers, or strolling in a city park and noticing the activities of people who are enjoying being outside. There can be a walking meditation as well as a sitting meditation.
All occasions for meditation can be opportunities to experience stillness and the contentment of being in the moment, without regrets over the past or expectations of the future. One is simply immersed in the present moment in one’s surroundings. This is why natural surroundings are so conducive to meditation. They can be calming and they provide a location removed from one’s often-hectic everyday world of business and household responsibilities. Some have found it helpful even to remove one’s clothing and the cultural veneer clothes and ornaments represent. It is probably easiest to experiment with naked meditation in the privacy of one’s home. But in a natural state one can feel a connection with the natural world. Being naked even brings out a feeling of honesty with oneself.
A Time and Place
Walking or sitting in natural surroundings are informal approaches to meditation. But there can also be a formal approach to meditation. Formal meditation is actually having a time and place and structure for meditation. The time for meditation is when you’re not being called to do something else. The place for meditation is when the possibilities of intrusion are closed off. Unfortunately, the time and place for meditation is not in church before or after worship because there’s too much distraction caused by the presence of people and the activities going on in the building. Not many church buildings are open during the day on weekdays so that people can just wander in and sit (although some make meditation chapels available). Group retreats can offer a time and place for extended periods of meditation, with the added advantage of removing you from your everyday surroundings with their reminders of your daily cares and burdens. Some yoga teachers allow for a few moments of meditation at the end of a yoga class, although these periods aren’t long enough to get into real meditation.
So it’s best to have a designated place of your own, a set-aside time, and a tried-and-true structure. A tried-and-true structure may be one that you’ve experimented it and found that it works for you. Once you have that structure, stick with it. Don’t flit around trying different practices. By working within a tried-and-true structure, there is the possibility of achieving a focus and coming to some conclusions—or none at all.
The benefits of meditation can be as varied as the meditator. However, one benefit is learning how not to react when something intrudes. There are bound to be interruptions to one’s meditation practice. Someone intrudes, there is some noise from outside, one’s leg falls asleep from sitting in the meditation position too long. One notices the distraction, quietly responds in an appropriate way—noticing but not judging the intrusion, the loud noise, the need to flex one’s leg and change cross-legged positions—and continues by returning first to the breath. Too much of our life is characterized by angry reactions. Meditation can help one learn to act calmly with an appropriate response when confronted by unwelcome situations.
Finally, we should recognize that when our body is at metabolic rest stored tensions and suppressed traumas may emerge that can be troubling. Be prepared that some issues could come up that might require spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, clinical therapy, or confession and absolution. If you need help to deal with these issues, you should seek it.
Frank C. Senn, STS
Excursus on Postures for Meditation
The attention given to the posture of the body as preparatory to meditation in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras indicates that the body is not unimportant. If one is going to be in meditation for a long time one must be in a comfortable posture that can be sustained without undue strain. Patanjali says that “The posture (asana) of yoga is steady and easy” (2:46). The classic asana is lotus pose (padmasana).
The first two images below show variants of lotus pose (padmasana). In lotus pose it is best to sit on the edge of a blanket or cushion so that the pelvis tilts forward. Hands are placed on the knees with palms facing upward. This helps to rotate the shoulders back, open the chest, and straighten the back. Yoga prefers a “straight spine,” which allows energy to travel up and down the central axis of the body. It also prevents lower back tension. In the full lotus pose pictured below the bottoms of the feet are up against the groin. Not many yogis can do this. Sitting with legs simply folded on the ground in front of the body is also acceptable (and more doable for most Westerners).
Half lotus pose, as in the image below, shows one foot on top of the other leg. It is important to switch leg positions after a while. Hands may be placed on the knees. Push lightly to keep the shoulders back, which opens the chest and straightens the back. The straight back and open chest is a corrective to the slumping we do most of the time in front of a computer screen and also helps keep our minds focused.
Some sit in hero pose (vajrasana), which involves sitting on one’s legs, as the this naga sadhu (naked holy man) is doing.
The following version of vajrasana, using a cushion for the knees, a blanket for the feet, and block to sit on, may be more comfortable for modern Westerners.
If one is kneeling in a church building, this is a posture that can be maintained for a long time. Kneel on a cushion with one’s seat on the pew and arms resting on the back of the pew in front of you with hands folded. The important thing is to be in a posture for meditation that is comfortable and will not be a distraction.
The other thing is to focus on the breath. Focus at first on inhaling and exhaling evenly. One can meditate just on the fact that one is breathing and therefore alive. If distractions within the mind or invading the mind from the outside get in the way of meditation, simply notice them without judgment and return to a focus on the breath. To have a comfortable posture, to regulate the breathing, and to shut out distractions is basic to the practice of meditation.