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column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

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March 30th, 2009

What Works: Meditation

It isn't boring, it isn't non-Christian and you do have the time for it



“Oh, I can’t meditate. I tried it. My mind won’t shut up.” This is the most common rejection I hear when counseling people that daily meditation may help them. People think they can’t meditate.

“I don’t have time to meditate” is number two. Of course, life is busy. But we find time for yoga or sitcoms or the gym. Or eating. Other common rejections are that there are too many interruptions at home, that meditation is boring, and simply and perhaps most importantly, that they’ve tried it once or twice and it didn’t “work.”

The promise of meditation

The promise of meditation is not the 20 minutes of refuge from an otherwise insane day, wonderful as that may be. The promise is to gradually cultivate a way of living that is less anxious. The results are not instant — they’re not even quick — but they will come with practice.

I’ve noticed over and over: People struggling with anxiety over things they’re powerless to affect rarely have a daily prayer and meditation practice. The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, a leading figure in Christian meditation and wisdom teaching, describes the promise of a contemplative practice:

“It is not a matter of replacing negative emotions with positive emotions — only of realizing that… presence can be sustained regardless of whatever inner or outer storms may assail you… You discover that at the depths, Being still holds firm.”

You may feel calm and restored after meditating. It’s wonderful when you do. But you may not. You may enter a place of profound stillness and awareness and feel conscious contact with God. But you may not.

We call meditation a practice. Think of your daily meditation as practice for life, practice for being in the moment, practice for letting go, practice for attuning to God.

I’ve been practicing Centering Prayer since Cynthia introduced me to it over 15 years ago. Gradually, I assure you, with daily practice we can develop the posture towards life described in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 — to “pray without ceasing.”

And when we do that, what the Buddhists call monkey-mind — the constant chatter in our heads — abates. And with that, we stop fighting so much, we start trusting more, and we can just be.

Bestselling author and spiritual education expert Marsha Sinetar says in Ordinary People as Monks & Mystics : “Something in us… is strengthened by silence, much as our physical bodies are strengthened by sleep.”

Isn’t meditation non-Christian?

“Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10)

The purpose of meditation is to better align with God, to better know God — to stop struggling against God’s Will, against the way things are; to better comprehend that we are held and loved, that we are OK no matter what we might be walking through. There is nothing non-Christian about that.

The Desert Fathers of the early Church were meditating in the Third Century. References in the Gospels to Jesus’ prayer life often speak of long unstructured periods in the presence of God. Monks and mystics throughout the history of the Church have meditated. And have you noticed how similar rosaries are to the Buddhist meditation bead bracelets so many people wear?

Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating, a founder of Centering Prayer, was abbot all through the 60s and 70s at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This area is thick with religious retreat centers, including the well-known Theravadan Buddhist center, Insight Meditation Society. Fr. Keating tells of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph’s by accident, many of them cradle Catholics, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplative work:

“It did not occur to them to look for a Christian form of contemplative prayer or to visit Catholic monasteries. When they heard that these existed, they were surprised, impressed, and somewhat curious.”

It’s mostly just a matter of form and terminology. And that’s really unfortunate, because a lot of cradle Catholics, when they decide to try meditation, think they need to go to a zendo or yoga studio, without realizing the listing in their church bulletin for “Centering Prayer” offers a beautiful meditation practice that is directly connected to their faith community. Or that they are meditating when they kneel in silence at an Adoration service.

Personally, I also find nothing wrong with borrowing from non-Christian practices, but it is important to be grounded, so, to be clear: Meditation exists as part of the fabric of my religious life — with being Christian, Catholic, a member of a church and parish; with daily reading of Scripture and other spiritual writing; with weekly Mass; with occasional Vespers and Adoration services; and with monthly meetings with a spiritual director.

I don’t meditate 20 minutes a day. I practice meditation 20 minutes a day; I meditate ceaselessly.

Just sit!

In the sidebar on the right, I describe the simple meditation practice I’ve been using for over 15 years. That’s really all you need. Do that every day and it will change you.

But if you’re like me, you will want to read more, learn the history, debate the points. In that case, there are endless books on meditation, from the Desert Fathers to Thomas Merton to the present, and across a variety of methods and religious traditions. I direct people to one book above all others, by the teacher who personally introduced me to Centering Prayer in the early 90s, the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault: Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.

If you don’t do daily meditation, let me encourage you right now, today, to change that. Whatever form of meditation you pursue, I encourage you to give it time — time each day, and time to work. Just sit! Commit to yourself that you will stick with it whether it seems like it’s working or not, whether it’s comfortable or not, for… oh, let’s say 40 days.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with meditation — your struggles and joys, your concerns and questions in the comments below.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • http://twitter.com/devancaoffical De Vanca

    The idea of meditation is to be able to do this at any point and any time and any moment…it does not have to take place in a special place..it can happen wherever you are and in any stressful moment…a reality check is what occurs within and without!

  • Christopher Boozell

    Both the article and subsequent posts have been very enjoyable to read. Phil – you did a nice job of laying why and how a person – even one who “can’t meditate” – would do well to consider including the practice in their daily routine. The health benefits (and I’m thinking of much more than the simple reduction in stress) are enormous.


    Chris Boozell

  • Anthony

    Hei, Phil, nice article. In situations like yours (the loss of job) meditation can make you not only (relaxed/concentrated i like this oppositions :) ) but to offer a solution to your problem as well. There are numerous of times when i realize the right path just after meditation.
    To Stancy’s situation, everything is ok without a doubt. I believe no one can tell you what is a correct condition while meditating. The way you feel during the meditation is the best condition you can expect from it.
    In my blog i overview some basic advatages of catholic meditation http://mydeepmeditation.com/meditation/guided-meditation/catholic-guided-meditation/ , and i am willing to learn such inspirational writing as Phil’s style.
    Thanks again for the article

  • Kat

    Thanks to both MK and Phil for your points on Christian contemplative prayer. I’ve always been enamored with the rich mystical experience of St. Teresa and St. John, and that has always been my idea of the ultimate Catholic Christian meditation, of the pinnacle of communicating with God. I assumed that and centering prayer were the same. I agree with Phil that you really don’t have to look into the Eastern traditions for meditative practices, that we have it right here in the rich Catholic tradition! (which does, after all, span the globe and 2000 years) It is too bad that people don’t see that, and that somehow yoga and Buddhism are supposedly more hip and enlightened among our contemporaries. I love yoga, but not for the serenity aspect, just for the delightful stretching (in the same way I also enjoy pilates). I don’t think of yoga as “godly” in any way. Thanks for addressing this topic. I will try CP as well.

  • David G

    Good article, Phil! I have been using Centering Prayer for a couple of years and its been a blessing in my life. I really recommend people try Centering Prayer and commit to it for 3 weeks. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bcc5_R9415Q was really helpful.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    “Catholic”, thanks for your feedback about meditation. I have no problem with Christians practicing yoga or sitting zazen, but my article pointed out strongly that you could meditate within the Christian tradition, without turning to Eastern practices. Even so, I’ll address your concern, because I think this is quite important.

    The document you point to — only a working group provisional report dubbed a “meditation” — is about “New Age.” New Age is an entirely different issue. It is rooted in a view from astrology that we’re entering the Age of Aquarius in which human evolution will take our species to the next level of development. It figures prominently in some aspects of the self-help movement because of its focus on individual growth, and it tends also to be associated with things Anglo-Catholic mysticism expert Evelyn Underhill would have categorized as “magic” — crystals, channeling, tarot, etc. Though even the Vatican report says there are things of value in it, none of this has ANYTHING to do with meditation.

    To group Hinduism, yogic philosophy and Buddhism into New Age is wrong. These are major world religions practiced by billions of people, each of which predates Christianity. Far more appropriate would be to cite the papal declaration Nostra Aetate, which points admiringly to Buddhism in particular and says it and

    “other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”

    If I am in a room that has some images of Hindu gods or a Buddha statue, where a few of the people present practice that religion, this does not threaten my Catholic faith or identity. If there is a talk and it veers into territory that is in any way incompatible with my beliefs, in my experience it is almost always possible to find much that is good in the teaching anyway. And this can happen in a Christian church too! If someone finds, week after week, a focus on spiritual teaching that is unwelcome by them, then they can go somewhere else where it’s not, or where the focus is kept to meditation or yoga postures.

    One final note. Many people less open than I on this issue still consider it acceptable to identify as both Catholic and zen. Practitioners of Zen Buddhism tend to be quite adamant about its role as a set of ethics and a way of understanding right actions in the world separate from any belief system.

    But I don’t want to get bogged down here in arguing whether it’s a religion or not. The form of Buddhism I have practiced is Theravada. Even if zen and Theravada Buddhism were full-blown theistic religions, I see absolutely nothing wrong with learning from them. The truth of the matter is that in the West, the mystical tradition was largely ignored or even discredited for many centuries. So those faiths that kept it going have much to teach us.

    Thanks again for the respectfulness of your note. I hope you find my further thoughts welcome.

  • Stay

    I thank you for your suggestions. I will give them a try.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Ricky, I confined my column to the issue of meditation, but it’s interesting you bring up “meditating” on Bible passages. Centering Prayer is often paired with Lectio Divina, or divine reading. While the form varies, it is essentially reading a brief Bible passage with an open heart, then reflecting contemplatively on it. This practice dates back to the Sixth Century monasteries. I limited my focus for this column to sitting meditation but will certainly be devoting a column to contemplative reading of Scripture in the future. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Stacy, thanks for your question. It is totally OK that you sometimes fall asleep while meditating. If you are that relaxed, on one level you are in a better place than most people! If you fell asleep all the time, that would be a potential concern, but if it’s just occasional, I wouldn’t worry.

    That said, here are a few thoughts. One is, Is this because you, like most Americans, are in a permanent state of being sleep-deprived? Many of us are moving most of the time, but then when we stop, our need for sleep catches up with us. Also, if you are meditating in the morning before you are fully awake, you might experiment with doing it at other times. And finally, two things I suggested in the column: sit in an alert, stable posture, not reclining in any way; and if you meditate with your eyes closed, try doing it with them open. Both these things can lessen the tendency to get into a dreamy state of mind. While meditating you want to be fully alert, despite not focusing on anything. Hope that helps!

  • Catholic

    Thanks for the interesting article. There are many things I agree with, and there are some elements that are potential cause of concern. Particularly when it comes to “co-opting” other faith’s practices and implementing them into Catholic practice. One does not need to look far inside a yoga studio for example to see images of Hindu gods and goddesses rampant – or instruction about chakras , the kundalini, etc. And any zendo will be just as so as it pertains to Buddhism. To simply ignore it is not only naive, but it’s an invitation to many unforeseen dangers. Yoga cannot be simplistically viewed as a purely physical exercise. Catholics I know that practice yoga have said multiple times that they put on their “armor” when they practice b/c the Hindu element is beyond obvious.

    For further reading about Christianity and New Age http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/interelg/documents/rc_pc_interelg_doc_20030203_new-age_en.html#4%20NEW%20AGE%20AND%20CHRISTIAN%20FAITH%20IN%20CONTRAST

  • Kristine

    Great article. While I don’t really know HOW to meditate per se (I’d love to see an accessible how-to article on this), a year and a half of daily quiet reflection under the guidance of a spiritual director changed my life. I left my career in New York City and moved to Italy to write! I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, and for anyone enduring daily life and job turmoil, reflection and silence are the best ways I know to start hearing what God is trying to tell you about your life and what you are to do next.

  • Stacy

    I have tried mediation before however sometimes I fall asleep. Is this normal? Should I tried to prevent it? If so, do you have any suggestions?

  • Marion

    Bravo! Thank you for this article. Meditation & yoga are centerpieces to my practice as a young adult – and they exemplify how my spiritual practice has matured as I’ve grown older. At this point in my life, I need something more contemplative than what I needed as a child & adolescent.

    I’d also recommend reading Fr. Tom Ryan’s Prayer of Heart & Body for more information about Christian meditation. He writes about the use of meditation and yoga in a Christian context to experience God’s presence.

  • Ricky Spears

    Thanks for the article, Phil! I couldn’t agree with you more when you say, “I‚Äôve noticed over and over: People struggling with anxiety over things they‚Äôre powerless to affect rarely have a daily prayer and meditation practice.” Because every Christian’s relationship with Christ is unique just as their relationships with other people are unique, I can’t say that every Christian must meditate and/or pray daily. However, our strongest interpersonal relationships are those where we have frequent two-way conversation and mediation and prayer is how Christians are to have conversation with God.

    For myself, rather than meditating on a single word all the time, I meditate on different passages from the Bible. I’ll read them and spend time focusing on different words and phrases, asking myself questions about them, and actively conversing with God as He converses with me over His word.

    I’ve documented a number of these sessions and typically publish new ones each week as Christian guided meditations. If you get a chance to check them out, I’d love to hear what you think. You’l find them at: http://www.mindfulworship.com/category/free-guided-meditations/ They aren’t for everyone, but it’s my way of inviting people to join in what I naturally do myself.

    Worship Mindfully!
    Ricky Spears

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