About a week ago, I made reference to my struggle to maintain a consistent meditation practice and yet my belief at how helpful it could be. Several of you commented that you too have been thinking of meditating or have struggled with how to meditate. So I thought we might have a dialogue about what has worked for us and what has not worked. I'm looking forward to your comments because I hope to learn from you.
But I'll start by sharing what meditation is to me and how I approach it.
I think that my approach to meditation is somewhat untraditional. When I have read about meditation practices, the descriptions are often more off-putting than helpful. Some schools of meditation seem to view it as a negation of self. I have never been able to make that approach palatable to me or compatible with my belief in having been created in the image of God.
Instead, I prefer ideas that focus on quieting or centering the self. I have two goals (and only two goals) when I meditate:
1. to quiet the chattering of my mind and center myself so that I can (hopefully) slip into kairos time
2. to use that centered state to open the deepest part of my spirit to the Spirit of God so that (s)he may do whatever work in my life that (s)he wills
One thing that I have always found is that meditation is very much like physical exercise. Some days it is easy and refreshing, and some days it is a painful slog. Also, when I have neglected to do it regularly, I usually have to build up my meditation endurance. When I am first starting, I can barely stand to sit there for ten minutes. It takes practice and repetition for me to be able to meditate longer than that. Many times I have given up after a few weeks and then found myself needing to start all over again.
I've recently decided to try to reacquire the discipline of meditating. Last week, for six days out of seven, I managed to sit quietly for at least ten minutes. I admit I sneaked looks at the clock, but I try not to get down on myself about that because self-criticism is very toxic and destroys the peace of a centered spirit. (Similarly, when my mind wanders, I try to just gently take note of what happened and return to the act of meditating instead of chastising myself.)
This week, I am trying to sit for twelve minutes at a time. Today, I managed to do that--and only look at the clock twice. It isn't much, I know, but it's a start that I can build on if I can just keep myself from feeling discouraged and giving up. I have read that you need to meditate at least 20 minutes to get real benefit from it, but I have hardly ever been able to sustain that intensive a practice. I'm going to try to work up to it this time, though.
I use a variety of techniques to help me meditate. Sometimes I need to switch what I'm doing to keep my mind from just going through the motions.
1. All of the techniques I use include deep breathing. I try to take at least four counts to inhale and at least four counts to exhale, and I try to make the breaths regular and even for the whole time I'm meditating.
2. Many of the techniques involve repetition. At times, I have said the Rosary or one of the prayers designed for Anglican prayer beads. Other times, I repeat a Bible verse. (One that helped me recently was "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief." The first sentence was said on the inhale; the second on the exhale.") Most often, I use a mantra. Some people like to use very simple mantras such as "Abba" or "Lord, have mercy." I use a mantra of my own, which is a somewhat-more-complicated adaptation of the second one. While leafing through my journals, I saw that I use the phrase Lord, help me frequently. So my personal mantra is "Lord Jesus, help me. Lord, have mercy." I say the first sentence on the inhale and the second on the exhale.
3. Some of my meditation techniques involve visualization and other sensory imagination. For example, sometimes when I want to dwell on my connectedness to God, I will imagine myself as a tiny drop of water in a huge ocean. The other drops are all the other living things in the universe and God is both the ocean that holds us and the sky that stretches over us. In this meditation, I concentrate on the feelings of floating and of union and of warmth.
4. Finally, I sometimes use a technique called creative meditation. In this technique, you put yourself in an imagined situation and wait for God to meet you there. You can meditate on a Bible story and see which character you relate to and see you have to learn in that story. Or you can imagine yourself in a symbolic place such as a mountaintop, forest, or beach.
The first time I tried creative meditation some 25 or more years ago, I was quite skeptical about it, and yet once I placed myself in that imaginative place, a story played itself out, often taking turns that were the exact opposite of where I expected it to go. I met Jesus in that place, which was a forest, and we had a significant conversation there. For many, many years, I periodically went back to that place. God once told me that it was a representation of my heart. Sometimes, as I would be using a different meditation technique such as repeating my mantra, I would suddenly find myself in the forest without expecting to be there. I learned many things in that forest, both through conversations with God and from visual symbols.
A little more than a year ago, God led me on an imaginative journey away from the forest to a desert area with rocky hillsides and told me I was not going back to the old country. We have only begun to explore this new place together—partially because I have been reluctant. I miss the beauty of the forest and haven't wanted to be in this new place. I hope that by re-acquiring the discipline of meditating, I will allow myself to open to this new place for teaching.
The results of meditating for me have been as varied as the techniques. Sometimes, it is a feeling of peace and wholeness. Sometimes, I "hear" messages from God. Sometimes, I receive symbolic visions. Sometimes (perhaps most times), I simply have the satisfaction of knowing I kept to my discipline even though I didn't see any results.
So this is a summary of my still-very-undisciplined experience of meditating and a description of the various practices I use. I would love to hear about your experiences, approaches, progress, and failures. And please feel free to hold me accountable to my intention to build the discipline of meditating again.