Since the time of the desert fathers in the third and fourth centuries, Christians have practiced meditation as a way of experiencing and responding to God’s presence in their early lives. The desert fathers were Orthodox Christian hermits, ascetics and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century A.D. These mystics have left a body of writings that contain trustworthy and encouraging insights into how meditation can help us experience the presence of God in our lives. A hermit said, “Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the attacks of the demons.”
Meditation is defined as “the action or practice of meditating.” To meditate is to spend time in quiet thought for religious purposes or relaxation. I’ve heard it said that to meditate is to “do nothing.” Yeah, you say, but we’re always doing something, right? Yes. Meditation involves focusing one’s thoughts. It means to ponder over or reflect on something. Meditation implies a definite focusing of one’s thoughts on something so as to understand it deeply. Attention and focus are hard to come by. So many distractions, both from within and from without.
Distracted by email, cell phones, the ping of a new text message, bad news on television, and the stresses of work, of relationships and family, it is easy to be overwhelmed, stressed and miss the extraordinary gift of being alive. Our bodies’ break down under the onslaught of stress – insomnia, anxiety, depression, and all chronic disease is made worse by unremitting stress. What matters most in life is the quality of our experience, the ability to be awake to what is real and true in our lives, for the difficult and the happy times, to be awake to each person we touch, to our own experience, to the moment we are in, to the simple, sweet, and alive gifts of a smile, a touch, a kind deed, the breeze on our skin, or a firefly flickering in the early summer night.
Pain is inevitable. Loss is inevitable. Death, illness, war, and disaster have always been and will always be part of the human condition. Yet within it, I wondered as a young man, was there a way to understand suffering in a different light, to break the cycle of suffering? These are some of the ultimate distractions we face. They will rob us of the present. Steal our current experiences from us. You see, there is a way to be more awake, to see things as they are, to notice life as it is and to savor it, to love it, to wake up with gratitude, lightness, and celebration for the magic of life no matter what our circumstance. Life is always there, and the trick is simply to notice.
This is harder than it sounds, because it requires us to be patient with ourselves, to love ourselves, even all the ugly, petty, small thoughts. It requires us to create calm within the chaos through non-judgmental awareness. Most of us have no clue how to do this. We know about wrong, and blame, and consequence, and fear. We know how to wallow in self-pity. To let our emotions tell us what’s so, as if they were factual. Emotions are nearly the farthest thing from the truth. Emotions lie. Emotions keep us distracted, stuck, telling us this experience is just more of the same old crap. Everything begins to look the same. Our tolerance goes out the window. We have no capacity, at that point, to accept what is happening to us. We tell ourselves this current experience cannot possibly mean anything different from the last time we went through it.
The point of meditation, of doing nothing, is not an end in itself, but a way to calm the mind, to see the true nature of things, and reduce the impact of suffering while increasing love, kindness, wisdom, fearlessness, and sympathy. From that stillness life becomes richer, your actions more clear, your words more direct and powerful, and your capacity to be fully engaged in life enhanced. It is not a retreat from life, but a way to go fully into life and cultivate your own power and happiness.
The benefits of meditation have been well proven by science. Mediation reduces chronic pain, blood pressure, headaches, anxiety and depression. It helps you lose weight, lowers cholesterol, reduces heart rate and breathing, increases sports performance, boosts immune function, relieves insomnia, increases serotonin, improves creativity, optimizes brain waves, helps in learning, focuses attention, increases productivity, enhances memory, and more.
Sounds good. But what do I do? The good news is that all you need is a few minutes and a place to sit and be quiet (you can do this anywhere). You don’t need fancy equipment or a “yoga” room addition to your house. In fact, the only thing I would recommend you start with is a cheap egg timer from the dollar store. Meditation will feel nearly impossible to accomplish at first. You won’t last but a minute. Your mind will wander. Within seconds you will be somewhere else, planning out your day, wondering if you left the oven on, realizing you forgot to put the garbage at the curb. So get your egg timer, turn the dial to one minute and just let go. Think of nothing. Listen to your breathing. Feel your body. Keep doing this once a morning for a week. Try adding a minute the following week.
Here are some simple instructions for mindfulness mediation you can try yourself.
- Sit in a comfortable position. Try to sit in the same place each day. Avoid positions that you might fall asleep in.
a. The back is long and supports itself.
b. Shoulders are relaxed downward, the neck is long, and the chin is pointing neither up nor down.
c. The face is relaxed.
- Begin to breathe (preferably through the nostrils). Feel the belly rise, the ribs expand, and the slight movement in the collarbones and shoulders as the breath moves upward. Feel the exhalation.
- Focus on one aspect of the breath.
a. The movement of air in and out of the nostrils.
b. Or the lifting and falling of the belly.
- Watch that one aspect of the breath.
a. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath and the aspect you have chosen to watch.
b. Do this as many times as you need to.
c. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. (Good and bad are judgments, events in the mind – just note them and go back to the breathing.)
- Start with 1-5 minutes and then increase the time until you can sit for 30 minutes.
One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it’s about making your mind go blank. I don’t know where this idea originated, but it’s pervasive and long-lasting. I think it may take at least another generation or two of spiritual practice before that notion goes to the scrapheap of ideas that it deserves to rest in. Certainly, in meditation we want to reduce the amount of thinking that goes on. Most of us are plagued with thoughts that arise seemingly without cause.
When meditation brings us to the point where self-talk ceases, the mind is anything but blank. Instead it’s full — full of an awareness of sensations, feelings, emotions, and images. Guess what the Buddha calls this? Mindfulness. We need to get our mind so full of experiencing the present that there is not room for inner self-talk. You know, that dangerous generating or reinforcing of unhelpful emotions. So, no, it’s not contradictory to say that meditation isn’t about making your mind go blank. Meditation can help us to reduce, or even eliminate, inner self-talk for periods of time. Meditation is about developing mindfulness, or “mind-full-ness.”
I dare you to give this a try. I believe it is the first step to clearing out the clutter and making room for God. It is through a disciplined meditation program that we can learn to start hearing from God. Good luck. Oh, and have fun.