What Works: More on meditation for Christians

Currents tapes a segment with Busted Halo columnist Phil Fox Rose's Centering Prayer group in New York

Segment on Centering Prayer with Phil Fox Rose interview, on the program Currents on the NET TV network. It’s queued up for the segment, but if that doesn’t work in your browser for some reason, it begins at 14:26.

I hope you all had a wonderful 4th of July weekend. A few weeks ago, I was on Currents, the news show on NET TV that I appeared on once before, this time talking about Christian meditation and Centering Prayer. It’s been about six months since the last time I wrote about contemplative prayer here, so showing you the new video seemed as good a time as any to revisit the subject.

The video, which you can watch right here, focuses on the Christian context of meditation. Reporter Nathalia Ortiz’s interview with Christine Murphy, one of the members of the Centering Prayer group I lead at St. Ignatius in New York City, is especially rich. She says, “It just gives me space to sit with my God, and that’s really precious.” That really says it all.

Since I’ve written about that topic here before, as well as about the nuts and bolts of meditation, I’m going to address a few practical issues about sitting that come up over and over in comments and when I work with people.

Sitting position

Meditation methods usually dictate strict rules about how to sit, so I get questions about sitting form. One of the things that makes Eastern meditation methods look exotic, and more importantly hard to do, for Westerners is the challenging sitting positions they require.

Most Westerners don’t grow up squatting and sitting on the floor for meals and lounging. So they’re not used to it, and their legs have not been trained to bend that way. Overcoming this discomfort has become a right of passage or body-hostile pseudo-ascetic act. That’s not what it’s about; it’s about being totally stable so you don’t feel the need to shift around. In the full lotus position your knees and rear form a tripod, totally balanced on the ground. But if you’re not limber from a lifetime of sitting on the floor — I can barely do a quarter lotus — positions like this are distracting, both in the pain they cause and the challenge of holding them. I think that’s silly.

In Centering Prayer groups, practitioners typically sit in regular chairs. But make sure your posture is good and your position stable. I tell people to sit down, put both feet flat on the ground, and then scoot back in the seat a little more. Make sure your lower back is supported, if possible.

Another option that requires more limberness but is possible for many people is kneeling with your rear supported using a special two-legged stool, called a seiza bench, or a Japanese sitting cushion turned on its end. I prefer this method at home. It may feel familiar if you’re used to praying on your knees. It’s similar to those times at church when you keep kneeling but lean back and support yourself on the seat. If you can be comfortable sitting this way, it may be more stable and less distracting than sitting in a Western chair. But only if you can do it easily.

It’s also good to rest your arms in a way so they’re stable. Again, many meditation methods require specific hand positions. There is no such rule in Centering Prayer, but it’s usually best to place them either palms up on your thighs, or palms down with your hands on your knees.

Eyes open or closed

Centering Prayer guidelines and those of many contemplative practices say to close your eyes while meditating. I do not. I’ve tried sitting with my eyes closed many times to make sure it’s not just something I’m avoiding for the wrong reasons, but my experience, and I’ve heard this again and again from others, is that it makes it much easier to turn thoughts into full-blown daydreams, to get lost for minutes in the visuals. Unless your practice welcomes this, like Sufism and Ignatian Spirituality, it’s something you want to avoid.

And meditating with eyes closed also makes it much more likely those daydreams will turn into the other kind of dreams: People fall asleep all the time while sitting in meditation, often in a constant cycle of nodding off, then waking up with a start, then nodding off again. I tend to agree with my friend and long-time Zen Buddhist practitioner, Julie, that this makes the meditation session nearly useless.

Several major schools of meditation, including Zen, recommend sitting with eyes open. At home, you can face a blank wall or other undistracting scene. Look at about a 30 degree angle down in front of you without focusing on anything in particular. In a group setting, especially a circle, this may be more challenging. I’ve gotten very used to (not) looking at people’s ankles over the decades. But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake I did just last week: I was sitting with a small group around a table and I left some papers out as the meditation started. I spent the next half hour trying not to read the top sheet!

Many people are sleep deprived and if they stop moving for more than five minutes, their body tries its darnedest to grab what it can. My entire life changed when I started getting enough sleep, and I’ve written about it here before. So, address that first. If you can. But if you sit with your eyes closed and find you keep falling asleep (it happens to everyone occasionally), try it with your eyes open, or at least open them for a few minutes to get more alert again.

Whether to sit with lights on or off is similar. Bright light can be distracting; darkness can lead to daydreaming and sleeping. I recommend dim lighting. Indirect outdoor light may be sufficient. In a windowless room, turn on a floor lamp that is not within your field of vision while you’re sitting. Again, the goal is to create an environment that encourages you to be alert but not distracted.

Wanting a perfectly silent space

Another issue that comes up frequently is people’s frustration with sounds. They hunt for a perfectly silent spot, usually in vain — even build soundproofed rooms. But sounds are just thoughts you can practice not attaching to while you are sitting. And silence is relative. There’s an air conditioner in the room where I usually with a group. That has become the sound of that room in our minds. It seems odd if it’s off. On the other hand, I was sitting with a group outside recently and was constantly distracted by bird calls, which my birder’s brain has been trained to notice and identify. Afterwards, a friend said he hadn’t noticed them.

Whenever this issue comes up, I can’t help being reminded of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Thích Nhất Hạnh talking years ago about sitting in meditation during the war while bombs were dropping. Talk about not attaching to sounds!

Sounds also can play a helpful role. No matter how developed one’s practice, sometimes you do get lost in minutes-long trains of thought. A sudden sound will break you out of that; giving you the chance to notice you’re attached to a thought, let go of it and return to sitting in silence. While there is no tradition in my practice to make sounds intentionally for this purpose as there is in some, I encourage people to use it that way.

Take it easy

While I’m giving you suggestions about how to improve your contemplative practice, I want to stress that you not use them as reasons to beat yourself up for doing things imperfectly. We sit, ultimately, to improve our conscious contact with God. Berating ourselves does not serve this goal. Nor is it self-loving. So I encourage you to sit every day, perhaps twice, to sit for at least 20 minutes each time, to create a sacred space where you usually sit, and to avoid falling asleep. But what’s really important is that you use and treasure your practice. As Centering Prayer founder Fr. Thomas Keating famously said, the only way to do it wrong is to get up and walk away before you intended to. If you get lost in thoughts, if you fall asleep, if you get annoyed at a sound or sight, just let that go like any other thought and keep sitting.

I’d love to hear what other practical things you might be struggling with in meditation or another contemplative practice, or your experience with any of the things I’ve talked about here. Comment below or email me at phil (AT) bustedhalo DOT com.