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.