The Christian Disciplines: Meditation

[All posts in series]

True contemplation is not a psychological trick but a theological grace (Thomas Merton).

I’ll admit to a disappointment. Foster states that Christian meditation “involves no hidden mysteries, no secret mantras, no mental gymnastics, no esoteric flights into the cosmic consciousness.” Alas. It is as I said before — discipline as vainglory is a major temptation for me. Personally, I would love to fly into the cosmic consciousness, but such is not the purpose of Christian meditation.

The key to meditation must be the Holy Ghost, “the still, small voice” so important to Mormonism. If meditation is simply the attempt to hear that voice above the din of the day, then it really is quite simple. Trouble is, that din is so loud. Will we hear God knock at the door? (Rev 3:20 was written for believers after all.)

Richard Foster is a Quaker but I don’t think it’s a case of religious pride when he links Quakerism’s emphasis on “the listening silences” and their social impact “far in excess of their numbers.” I once attended a Friends’ meeting and found the hour of silence to be excruciating, which does not bode well for my own practice. Perhaps it is the Mormon in me — consider a Fast and Testimony meeting and the pressure we feel to fill the silences. Even five silent minutes in the celestial room can feel too long. Clearly, I will need to “pursue ‘holy leisure’ with a determination that is ruthless.”

Peter of Celles called for a “sabbath of contemplation.” I am three days in and have found the following useful to that call:

  • I downloaded the app “Meditation Helper.” It’s a very simple timer and alarm, happily shorn of empty zenisms and lame music. You simply set your time (for me, for now, 10 minutes) and it rings a bell in the middle and at the end. It also reminds you to meditate every day. That’s it. I was loathe to let my addiction to technology intrude on meditation, but this app really is very basic.
  • I have been doing the following cycle of meditation: day one, meditatio Scripturarum (with a bit of memorisation); day two,  the “palms down, palms up” prayer; day three, meditation upon the creation. Repeat. I had a peaceful walk yesterday among the hazel trees next to the cathedral.

So far it’s been a positive experience but I will admit to a snag. Foster lauds Faber’s words — “Only to sit and think of God, Oh what a joy it is! To think the thought, to breathe the Name, Earth has no higher bliss.” Such God-centred meditation feels very alien to me. Perhaps, again, it is my Mormon heart. I have been taught to listen to the Spirit to know what to do, not simply to contemplate God. It all sounds like Aquinas’s beautific vision, a rather non-Mormon view of heaven. Still, it will be worth seeing if there is value in this to discipleship. That is the point of the disciplines after all.

Please share your thoughts on meditation over November. We will turn to prayer in December. Local groups can easily be arranged via Facebook.

Comments

  1. John Mansfield says:

    What do you think of the weekly ten-minute slience Mormons call “the sacrament”?

  2. I’ve been meditating with the Spirit for many years and the results go far beyond the OP quotes. The simplest form of meditation to describe is the most difficult to do, most people find it impossible; stop your mental processing and listen! Be still and know that I am God. But it is useful to understand that this discipline is a goal even if it is never actually attained. It is much easier to meditate by giving your mind something menial and repetitious to do like a chant or mantra, this keeps a very small portion of your mind busy while freeing the rest to become a receiver. But there are other more pleasant ways like listening to music or guided fantasies. You are trying to attain the trance state many fall into when day dreaming while driving when you have no idea how you drove the last few miles. Some find this freeway trance very easy to do but if you’re the type of high energy person that only has two speeds on or off, awake or asleep and you spend little time in the theta wave transition between being awake and asleep a meditative trance will be more difficult to achieve.

    At first your concentration quickly wanders and the main goal is to learn to concentrate for longer and longer periods of time. As your skill increases focus on the dividing line between your conscious and subconscious, this line is not fixed and your goal is to consciously move into your subconscious this makes intuition. inspiration and revelation much more accessible but first you must weed out and expel useless repetitive trash thoughts. Something else that helps greatly is the removal of psychological and spiritual blocks so you are nearly dissonance free.

  3. John,
    I think it is a wonderful time to meditate . . . when you’re not wrangling children and when it’s not drowned by the rest of “the block.” I am going to try harder this month.

    Howard,
    That sounds very compelling, but to what end is this “trance”? I am interested in making it authentically “Christian.”

  4. KJH,
    I’m unsure what your concerns might be, there is no reason to fear a trance unless you fear your own subconscious even then it creates an opportunity to resolve that fear. You are not unconscious during the trance, you are typically in a theta state like the transition to sleep and you are consciously monitoring it. To what end do I meditate? To commune with the Spirit and that is largely takes the form of meditative prayer through out the day and personal revelation.

  5. Sounds cool.

  6. If you haven’t thought about it it may come as a surprise to learn that we think in concepts, not words. This process can be discovered through meditation. The importance is this is typically how we receive inspiration and revelation; as thought concepts (not as words) precipitating up from out subconscious and below. I believe this is part of the reason that our (or Joseph’s) perception of a revelation changes over time and may be one of the reasons for multiple first vision accounts. When you receive profound personal revelation it arrives as a dense nugget of concepts that must be unpacked and untangled in the process we must wrap words, inadequate as they are, around these profound concepts so we can begin to intellectually understand them. But the unpacking takes time and the further we get into it the more it changes our understanding the beginning concepts because the later parts shed more light and understanding on the earlier parts and often later revelations shed more light and understanding on earlier revelations. Contrary to popular folklore belief, divine “eternal” unchanging final truth is NOT typically revealed in single revelations instead the process of revelation is used to incrementally tutor us from our currently dumbed down understanding to less dumb states. So many if not all revelations are just interim lessons and I think this accounts for a lot of questionable or controversial doctrine such as blood atonement and Adam God, where they were actually offered as lesson examples rather than final conclusions or eternal laws.

    How do you get here via meditation? By meditation on the Spirit’s signal. At first you will have trouble similar to learning to meditate, your mind will wander and you will lose the signal but stay with it until you find it easy to locate and receive him even though his volume is low enough to be way down in the noise. Learning to meditate and reducing personal dissonance via repentance and perhaps psychotherapy reduces the noise increasing his single to noise ratio making him easier to receive until after years of practice it becomes quite effortless.

  7. “I had a peaceful walk yesterday among the hazel trees next to the cathedral.” Grrr . . . envious.

  8. See, that was pure humblebragage, Hunter, running entirely contrary to the whole purpose of this!

  9. Schooled by Howard. Thank you Howard!

  10. Having spent time in Korea, Japan, Middle East and among native Americans in the southwest, in think we could indeed learn for them conceptually. LDS are a reflection of society in part and we don’t focus or contemplate well. Push button technology at our fingertips 24/7 doesn’t help either. I find holy envy for many eastern religions in that respect.

  11. Chris Kimball says:

    Call it a trick if you will, but one way to deal with the Mormon “what to do” is to elevate the question from the ordinary daily “should I turn right or left?” or “what should I say in this lesson?” to something like “how can I realize the kingdom of God on earth?” Or if you’re really determined to stay Mormon, insert the three-fold mission of the church in place of “kingdom of God”.

  12. J. Stapley says:

    I was fresh off my mission and full of great plans to maximize my efficiency to be anxiously engaged in numerous activities. My dad took my aside and have me the advice: don’t forget to take the time to think. I’m still tying to live up to that. This is an inspiring post, RJH.

  13. I have been interested in meditation for a long time–interested as in, “That’s something I should try. I’m going to do that someday.” My mind has a tendency to wander. It is hard for me to concentrate on any one thing–unless I am concentrating on something I am *doing*.. I do spend quite a lot of time thinking (when I should probably be doing something), and I have had moments of accidental insight while randomly thinking, but I think the challenge for me is to empty my brain and let it stay empty long enough to receive the Holy Ghost. My brain likes to be busy. It doesn’t like to be still. I’m not sure if it’s ever been still. Or rather, I’m not sure I’ve ever allowed it to be still. I like quiet, but I’m afraid I’m incapable of stilling my thoughts. I mean, I assume it’s my fear of failure that’s kept me from trying meditation all these years.

    I am curious why the meditation app would ring a bell in the middle. Wouldn’t that be distracting? I guess it’s to remind you that you’re supposed to be meditating. Also, to differentiate it from a timer.

  14. Rebecca J: I can’t speak for others – but I find periodic harmonics as an enabler to enter into a deeper meditative state. Still a beginner – but being a student is the most fun I’ve had in years.

  15. I often start my meditation off with a call to Christ, Mother and Father:
    *I am here, and this time and space is Yours. Please mold me and my thoughts to align with Yours, so that I may leave this space, ready to serve You.*

    Some of the most significant revelations, visions and prophecies, have come from that humble beginning.

  16. There was a fabulous article in sunstone about meditation.

    along with meditation, I’m a big fan of the spiritual practice of some eastern religions of a more active meditation…like yoga: keeping your mind still and focused and in the moment while your body works. Children are meditative in this way…their bodies are active but their minds are thinking and focused on the now. Watching a child enjoy nature and attempting to observe like a child is a form of active meditation for me. I think parenthood can be a form of active meditation…it can be very physically demanding, but not always mentally demanded. sometimes we choose to fill our time …by we I mean me…with noise around us to keep our brains from going stale. I do need that. But I also need to remember to live right there in the moment with that child.

  17. No idea how I missed this post. But I want to comment that I agree, in practical terms, meditation is very simple. (Great comments above from people who are apparently experienced meditators.) I’ve done it off and on for several decades, sometimes in combination with Yoga. And because I am LDS, my meditation always centers on discipleship, regardless of how it is practiced. That is who I am and who I want to become, so meditation seems to always follow in that general path for me.

    One problem for many people is that we are culturally encouraged to intellectualize everything. We think a lot. Sometimes we “think” to avoid “feeling”. We need to learn to let go of all that cognition and our need to control meditative outcomes through our own devices. [Now I'm seeing Luke Skywalker speeding down that trench in the Death Star and hearing "Let go. . . use the force, Luke."] As mentioned previously in comments, emotions may surface along with insight. These are as meaningful for me as are images/impressions and I take note of them. Anyway, meditation, for me, is often more visceral than cerebral. I make a conscious effort to get out of my “head” and connect with my body, belly, feet – planted on the ground, etc. Paying attention to the rhythm of one’s breathing – the sound – like the ocean – the feeling of the chest rising and falling – is a great way to do this too.

    Also, allowing one’s mind to stop its gyrations requires practice. Practice of release. One of my favorite techniques goes like this: As I begin meditating, I acknowledge any thought that presents itself, then, if it isn’t the focus of my meditation, or if it seems to be a distraction, simply allow it to pass through, noting it, but not focusing on it. Sometimes many such thoughts have to make an appearance before they have worked their way out. But with practice, these thoughts become less frequent.

    P.S. I still resent the people who changed the artist’s words in “I Am a Child of God” from “teach me all the I must know” (the way I first learned it as a child) to “teach me all the I must do.” The writer of the song wrote it under inspiration. The decision to change those words was not under the purview of David O McKay (or whomever it was who suggested the change). And, in my opinion, this has left many a grown-up primary child with the wrong message.

  18. I think it is worthwhile making the crucial distinction between Christian Meditation (the subject of the OP) and Eastern forms of Meditation, because they really are very different. That’s not to say that one is any better than the other (I have pursued Eastern forms of meditation in the past and found it richly spiritually enhancing), but they are different. One important aspect in which they differ is this: Eastern meditation focuses on emptying your mind and all concepts of yourself, whereas Christina meditation focuses on *filling* your mind and your self *with Christ*. I still regularly try to practise Christian meditation on a daily basis – try being the operative word, I’m not sure I get it exactly right but it seems to work for me – and my experience with this form of meditation – in contrast to Eastern forms of meditation – is that my mind is very rarely empty or blank. Rather, it is *focused* – ideally on Christ and building His kingdom. The key is that in doing so, I try to place a lot more effort on earnestly ‘listening’ for God’s answers to the questions I have, rather than merely asking them. This I think is what distinguishes meditation from other forms of prayer: the emphasis placed on actually being filled with Divinely revealed truths to important personal questions (helping us to become better disciples of Christ) rather than merely asking for things.
    My personal meditation actually often involves a lot of me thinking about the things I hope to receive divine guidance about. I often find that I receive more revelation if I “study it out in mind” with the Spirit’s guidance rather than just passively waiting for God to answer all my questions.
    I don’t know. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I find it useful nonetheless. :)

  19. greenfrog/Sean says:

    For what it’s worth, I also have experienced Christian contemplative practice as quite different from Buddhist meditation. The former is a concentration practice that hones attention by limiting the mind’s focus to one phrase or detail or aspect of God or the experience of the divine. The latter also uses concentration practices, but utlimately for the purpose of developing the mind’s faculties enough to turn the mind to examine phenomenological experience itself. The results of the two practices share a lot of similarities, but do diverge for some. Both practices can lead to (and through) hypnagogic/vision/dream states that can be both vivid and symbolically rich. It is that stage in the meditative process that seems most invoked by Joseph Smith’s accounts of his own charismatic experiences, as well as texts such as D&C 88.

  20. I spent some time on a walk this week through a crowded city. The walk passed by a chapel and a cathedral, both open and both mostly empty. I entered each, sat or stood a while looking up and, with the aid of the Spirit in a setting that reminds me of God’s light and reality, let the various clamors and questions in my mind settle and prioritize themselves. And then I walked out, knowing better what was most essential.
    Sometimes it’s a cathedral and sometimes its just a front porch or the view out a window. Either way, that’s how meditation works for me.

  21. After a week in the deserts of Jordan, my co-pilgrim and friend, an Anglican clergyman, gave me a short book by Rowan Williams which examines the Christian desert tradition:

    This then led me to the World Community for Christian Meditation (http://www.wccm.org/). Some good advice there.

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