John Main emphasised again and again in his teaching on Christian meditation the importance of staying with the mantra for the whole of our meditation time. He considered it vital that we keep re-giving our attention to the mantra as we meditate.
This seems to be, at first, quite an inflexible instruction. If, during meditation, I begin to feel peace or joy, why then can I not stop saying the mantra and give attention to these things? The same if I experience silence – why can’t I just put the mantra to one side and focus on this?
For the meditator, the temptation to do so is great. We could focus on these dynamics within us. After all, the experience of contemplative prayer within Christianity does not exclude this.
The meditator needs to be mindful that the ego can cling to these experiences. As it clings it keeps the whole of us from moving further into God. Whenever the mediator is aware of the fact that we are focusing on these emotions, experiencing and reflecting on this peace, this joy, this silence, we are asked to gently and humbly return our attention to the mantra.
What we are not doing here is judging the efficacy of other Christian prayer forms. Different traditions of prayer within Christianity have differing approaches to the life of the ego. What we are doing here is simply exploring the approach of Christian meditation.
Christian meditation is not against these experiences. The mediator is simply experiencing them in growing conscious-less-ness, growing ego-less-ness, neither seeking them nor expecting them. Union with God in silence is the main game. For this our attention remains on the mantra.
In November 1976 Fr. John was invited to speak at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, USA. This abbey was the abbey of Thomas Merton before his death (in 1968). This was the first time that John Main spoke publicly about Christian meditation. What Fr. John says about the meditator’s journey with the mantra is quite instructive and worth quoting at length:
Most of us start by saying the mantra in the head…In my experience of teaching people over many years I find that most people have to say the mantra like that for some considerable time. But then, following Cassian’s* injunction to keep the mantra always before you – as you go to bed at night, as you wake in the morning, as you go down to your prayer, always preparing for your meditation – the mantra begins to take root. Then it begins, as it were, to sound in the heart and so you begin almost to feel the mantra at a much more central level of your being. You could say that at this stage, the second you might call it, you hear the mantra. The third stage is when you begin to listen to the mantra and it’s only then that your meditation is really beginning; when you are beginning to listen. (The Gethsemani Talks, 2001, 42).
This dynamic of saying, hearing, and listening was one which Fr. John would come back to during the ensuing years of his public teaching. It essentially describes the journey of attention from the head to the heart. The heart is that mysterious dwelling place of both God and who we most deeply are. The heart is the place of contemplation and egoless listening, where Divine love and self ‘co-temple’.
Christian meditation, then, is about the sustained practice of going to and remaining in the heart. That is the intention, to simply be in the heart, to make it (over time) more and more the home of both our conscious and unconscious lives. What God does there with us is not the meditator’s focus. Our invitation is to practice the mantra as the ‘royal road’ to the heart and into the being of God. The experience of contemplation, while it is a potential (and sometimes realised) gift to the meditator, is not the focus of our meditation.
For the meditator the mantra itself is what God first uses during the lifelong journey of prayer that is the integration of head and heart. The human mind (or consciousness) is not just the head, our rationality, our thinking. It is both head and heart.
During meditation the Christian meditator surrenders even the choice of when to stop using the mantra. We do this because self-consciousness is implied in choice and the contemplative heart is beyond self-consciousness. Any inference of self-consciousness leaves the possibility, no matter how remote, for the ego to attempt to reassert itself and for attention to stray from the mantra. Attention to the mantra is the meditator’s sustained commitment to the decentring of ego, the forgetting of self.
Is it possible to use a mantra and still enter effectively into the experience of contemplative silence? Does the use of a mantra, no matter how well intentioned this use, just get in the way of a full experience of silence?
In October 1982, shortly before his death, John Main wrote:
Reciting the mantra brings us to stillness and peace. We recite it for as long as we need to before we are caught up into the one prayer of Jesus. The general rule is that we must first learn to say it for the entire period of our meditation each morning and each evening and then to allow it to do its work of calming over a period of years.
The day will come when the mantra ceases to sound and we are lost in the eternal silence of God. The rule when this happens is not to try to possess this silence, to use it for one’s own satisfaction. The clear rule is that as soon as we consciously realise that we are in the state of profound silence and begin to reflect about it we must gently and quietly return to our mantra.
Gradually the silences become longer and we are simply absorbed in the mystery of God. The important thing is to have the courage and the generosity to return to the mantra as soon as we become self-conscious of the silence. (Moment of Christ, 2010, xi-xii).
These two above quotes from Fr. John (from 1976 and 1982) speak of the meditator’s full journey from the head to the heart, and then into the silence that is “the one prayer of Jesus”, “the mystery of God”.
This journey is like falling to earth with an open parachute. The parachute is the mantra. The use of the directional chords on the parachute is our attention to the mantra. The target we are aiming for is the heart. As we approach the target we move from saying the mantra to hearing it and we begin to sense the approaching silence within us.
Listening to the mantra sees us close to the target. It is then that we are aware of our experience of silence. The temptation, of course, is to stay here in this awareness of silence, “to use it for one’s own satisfaction.” Fr. John asks that we be courageous and risk a generosity that would have attention to the mantra guide us into the full experience of our unselfconscious heart.
When the mantra ceases to sound we have landed on the target, we are in the silence of our heart. The mantra, like a parachute, gently falls away because it is no longer needed, but without the meditator consciously making that choice. In the heart, on the target, we have lost self- consciousness. All that is left is the experience of Divine silence in the heart, an experience we have without reflection.
Self-consciousness is forgotten. We experience our being in Being. We have moved beyond being close to God into union with God. Consciousness of this union, when it comes, is a movement out of union and back into closeness. It is then that we return to the mantra.
The mantra does not get in the way of silence. The mantra helps us fall into silence until the mantra falls away. When the mantra is forgotten in this way, it is no longer needed. The choosing of the time when the mantra ceases is not in the meditator’s hands. All we need be is attentive to the mantra as best as we can, in the way we can, for the entire meditation time. The rest is safely in the hands of Love.
* John Cassian (360-435) in his writings The Institutes and The Conferences introduced Europe to the life and times of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Christian church. Cassian gathered material for his works when he lived with these Fathers and Mothers over several years. It is in the 10th Conference in The Conferences where a mantra, or formula, is recommended.