What is Christian meditation? Why do we meditate? How do we meditate?
The practice of meditation has an important place in many of the world’s spiritual traditions. Generally speaking the practice of meditation is about the focusing, the disciplining of our minds attention. Here the word mind is not just about the brain. Mind, in the meditative context, is a more inclusive term. It includes thought, and also emotion, imagination, all the senses. The mind in meditation also includes our body – our sense of it, how we live in and with it. From the Christian perspective, mind in meditation is an incarnational experience, a whole body experience, not just a cranial one.
Our minds tend towards stimulation. And in today’s world there is a lot of stimulus out there for us. Each day, in our work, our relationships, our recreation, indeed in the general living of an active life, there is much that requires our attention and much that can take our attention. This world of stimulus and activity can leave us over stimulated and can easily distract our attention away from other aspects of a human and spiritual life, aspects that may not be as obvious or as immediately demanding.
A commitment to the practice of meditation can still the mind, allowing it to come to a point of more or less rest. This is very important for the health of the human mind and the human body. The bodies systems can rest. Blood pressure lowers. We come to experience a natural stillness that perhaps we had forgotten about and in fact needed. And it is in this stillness that the Christian Meditator comes to experience, in the heart of their own unique human identity, something of the presence and action of God.
To facilitate this coming to stillness in mind and body that is so necessary in the experience of meditation, the mind needs a focus. The diffuseness of attention that our culture encourages through its constant stimulation needs to be met and countered. How is this done?
Firstly, all approaches to meditation ask that the body be still and positioned in such a way as to keep both body and mind relaxed and alert. Zen Buddhism advocates the lotus position, for example. Christian meditation simply asks that the meditator be positioned so that the back remains straight. This can be done seated, cross-legged on a prayer mat, or from a supported kneeling position. If the meditator is seated, it is recommended that their feet be flat on the floor. It is important that, during the time of meditation, there is a commitment to maintaining a stillness of body. It is recommended that the meditator close their eyes.
Secondly, an inner focusing technique is employed. Some spiritual traditions ask that the meditator focus on their breathing, while breathing from their stomach. Other traditions ask that the meditator use a prayer word or mantra. The Christian meditator employs a mantra. This is a single word repeated interiorly. Ideally, the home of the mantra as it is recited is in the chest or lower abdomen. Over time the Christian meditator ceases to say the mantra, instead coming to listen to it as it sounds with their breathing and from the heart. The word that we, as Christian meditators, are recommended to use is the single Aramaic word maranatha. This word has deep Christian scriptural roots and is of the language that Jesus spoke. In English it means ‘come Lord’. We separate the word into its four syllables and sound it gently and consistently for the entire length of our meditation: ma-ra-na-tha. It is God’s word of transforming grace for us.
The word was suggested for the Christian meditator by the Benedictine monk John Main. It is in Aramaic so as not to be a source of distraction for the mind coming to stillness. John re-discovered for us this way of Christian meditation within the monastic tradition, a way that had been largely forgotten. He embraced its practice and enthusiastically championed its use and relevance for all Christians. Its roots go back deep into Christian history, as far back as the third century to the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Today, Christian meditators can be found throughout the world, members of a movement called the World Community for Christian Meditation.
So all that the Christian meditator needs to do in order to meditate is to practice the stilling of the body through sustained position, and the stilling of the mind through the use of a mantra. It is recommended that the Christian meditator meditate morning and evening each day for a minimum of 20 minutes. 30 minutes is best.
In these two aspects of practice we see the simplicity of meditation. Simplicity is important because our minds, if left to themselves, can complicate matters. The simplicity of meditation can highlight just how distracted our minds can be. Time and time again, during the practice of meditation, our minds can wander from the mantra. That is why, to experience the fruits of Christian meditation, we must remain committed, listening to the sounding of our mantra for the whole of our meditation period, gently returning our attention to the mantra time and time again. As we do this, growing in gentle fidelity to our morning and evening practice, seeds of patience and compassion grow into good fruit and perseverance flowers. Stillness takes subtle root in our psyches.
What else can happen as we grow in the stillness that meditation provides? We may begin to notice that the outer distractions and stimulus that once caught our attention now begin to lose their appeal. Perhaps the TV starts to become annoying. Gossip magazines lose their luster. The car radio is turned off. We start to want to be still. We begin to intuit the importance of stillness for us. And as we grow in the experience of this stillness, we begin to notice the silence that lives in the stillness. This is certainly what has happened to me.
As time has gone on, and as my meditation practice has deepened I have discovered that silence is not to be feared. Silence is the natural home of my spirit. Meditation is a way into the experience of silence. And silence is the language of God. Silence is the texture of Divine Love. There is such a deep well of silence in each of us. In the stillness of meditation we can swim in this well. And sometimes, in such times of divine embrace, we can experience the gifts of an inner peace and joy – gifts that come from the life of Christ within us.
My experience of meditation has also taught me that in meditation we are always starting again. A lot of the time I am distracted by the compulsion of my mind towards over- thinking. I have come to realise that in the times when I am still enough to enter the silence, it is in those times that God acts within me to make it so.
In Christian meditation progress is not linear. If there is any progress at all, then it is one of faithfulness, faithfulness to what Christ is doing. Sometimes it feels like nothing is happening, or even that the mind seems worse and the heart is far away. It is during these times that humility has a chance to grow in us as we experience our own inner poverty. At these times too perseverance can take root.
Christian spirituality teaches us that as we grow in allowing God into our hearts, minds, and lives, so too we grow in being loving and loveable people. It is often in the experience of our own human weakness and limitation that we discover, over time, a divine invitation to let go a little more and allow the life of God to love us a little more. This has been my experience in the practice of Christian meditation. I need God if I am to meditate. And as I meditate, as I somehow allow, God acts ever more deeply in the hidden places of my psyche. As this happens healing happens, transformation and integration occurs, and I grow in the freedom of Christ. I experience the life of Jesus within me and his friendship.