MEDITATION PRACTICES FOR CHRISTIANS
Joseph E. Thomas, Ph.D.
“To find the way, close your eyes, listen closely, and attend with your heart”
Meditation has very powerful psycho-spiritual potentials. Its benefits and blessings have prompted many of us in recent years to take it out of the exclusive domain of monks and maharishis and make it part of our everyday lives. Because meditation is considered by many in the West as a tradition among the religions that originated in the East – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism – many Christians in the West have come to be suspicious of meditation practices. And some Christian groups have even prohibited its practice as unchristian.
The truth is that meditation is not alien to Christianity, especially to Early Christianity. And to some extent the Oriental and Eastern Churches have kept it up even to this day. They have also incorporated meditations and spirituality from meditators belonging to other spiritual disciplines. The Philokalia, the five-volume book in Mount Athos, the Eastern Orthodox monastery, contains several prayers and meditations by those who are not considered authentic Christian Fathers. The Catholic Church also has recognized the value of meditation and, lately, has even shown a willingness to borrow some practices from Eastern religions. The Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church says, “Religious institutes especially should carefully consider how Christian religious life may be able to assimilate the ascetic and contemplative traditions whose seeds were sown by God in ancient cultures prior to the preaching of the Gospel.” When adopting certain valuable techniques of spiritual practices of other religions we are not at all compromising or abandoning the fundamentals of Christian faith.
Psycho-Physiological and Medical Aspects of Meditation
Scientists who have measured brainwave changes of people during deep meditative states say that the inner experiences evoked by such neurological alterations resemble experiences that mystics have reported: experiences in which we recognize how connected we are to all others, and with a deeper, spiritual, universal part of ourselves. Studies on nuns during their meditation show that the location of the brain associated with concentration becomes livelier. The brain activity in the area responsible for the sense of self tends to become more acquiescent during deep meditative states. This might explain why the individual who meditates tends to be more altruistic and to accommodate all living beings as part of one’s own self. The walls that separate “I and You” fade away.
In addition to the obvious spiritual benefits, there is plentiful evidence that regular practice of meditation leads to such health benefits as lowered blood pressure and heart rate, and improved immune function and mental tranquility. American Journal of Cardiology (May 1, 2005) has reported a study in which patients with high blood pressure who practiced Transcendental Meditation had a thirty percent reduction in death rate from heart disease compared with a randomly assigned control group. Longtime meditators show a high proportion of a type of brainwave that reflects large-scale coordination of neural circuits. In another study on those who used Mindfulness Meditation the researchers found persistent increased activity on the left side of the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is associated with joyful and serene emotions. They also found increased antibody responses to an influenza vaccine in those meditators (Harvard Mental Health Letter, Vol. 21:10; The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation, The mind and Life Institute, Washington DC., 2005).
Recent research done at the Yale University also confirms that measurable physical changes occur in the brains of those who meditate regularly. The researchers studied the brains of twenty people who practiced Buddhist Insight meditation daily compared to fifteen who did not meditate. The MRI scans showed that the meditators had thicker gray matter in the cerebral cortex and an area of the right brain that is related to attention and emotions. The meditators also had developed the ability to control such autonomic functions as heartbeat. The people involved in the experimental group were ordinary people, and not professional meditators as monks or nuns.
The human brain has different centers that specialize in different functions such as vision, hearing, touch, and so on. But there is no particular center that co-ordinate all the various centers although they do “talk” to each other as a self-organizing system. The brain also has electrical waves of different wavelengths emanating from various parts of the brain. But they are not necessarily synchronized. Neuroscientists believe that Meditation enhances the co-ordination, the cohesiveness, and synchrony to the human brain (Wolfe Singer, MD, Ph.D., The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation, The Mind and Life Institute, Mind and Life XIII, Washington, D.C., 2005).
Biofeedback technique has developed certain programs for Neurotherapy aimed at enhancing the synchrony of brainwaves that mimic meditative states. Mechanical manipulation of the brain, however, does not give the same quality of experience as a good meditation does although you could accomplish some of the psychophysiological benefits in a much shorter time with biofeedback than with the prolonged of practice of meditation needed to attain the same physiological control. I have trained my clients in both these methods and I feel that a combination would be good, especially for some patients who need a faster relief of physical and mental problems than what meditation alone could provide. However, Neurotherapy is not needed for those who would stick to the discipline of practicing meditation. Besides, meditation elicits certain spiritual and psychological transformations, such as wisdom and compassion that the brainwave training with an EEG may not do for you.
Many Clinical Psychologists and Psychiatrists in America recommend meditation as part of a therapy regimen for their patients who are diagnosed with certain forms of anxiety, depression, psycho-physiological disorders, and attention deficit disorder. Meditation enhances one’s awareness of his/her mental and physiological processes. “Awareness per se -- by and of itself – can be curative”, says Fritz Pearls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, a well-known psychotherapeutic intervention technique (Gestalt Therapy Verbatim). Patients with chronic and life threatening illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes also find meditation to be of great help in alleviating and coping with the symptoms associated with those illnesses.
Research studies in some major Universities by prominent scientists such as Zindel Segal, Ph.D. (Cognitive Behavioral Therapist), and Helen Mayberg, MD (Neuroscientist, Emory University) recommend Mindfulness Meditation Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of depression. Depression has a strong tendency to relapse. However, they found a 66% reduction in the relapse rate of depression for patients treated with Mindfulness based meditation technique compared with only a 22 to 34% reduction in relapse rate for those treated with medication. Dr. Mayberg in her research found that electrical stimulation of the brain relieved chronic, intractable depression. However, she says that patients who recovered that way lacked something that meditation could offer. Electrical stimulation of the brain gave back a sense of well being to her patients, but she believes that meditation will give a sense of well being “beyond the normal”. (The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation, Mind and Life XIII, Washington, DC., 2005).
The Indian Ayurvedic System of Medicine talks about three systems in the human body that influence ones physical and mental health. Those are known as Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Exacerbation of any of these will cause an imbalance that will lead to illness. In a healthy state of body-mind system these three energies are balanced and harmonious. One of the necessary ways to maintain the physical, mental, and spiritual balance or homeostasis of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha is the practice of meditation.
Dr. Margaret Sternberg, MD, of the National Institute of Health, Washington, DC., believes that modern Medicine is trying to achieve the integration of body with the “Whole Self”. Scientific studies often isolate tiny variables for research, but now Medical sciences are also looking for the integration of the bodily systems with the Self. (Investigating the Mind – The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation, The Mind and Life Institute, Washington DC., 2005). Meditation helps this body-mind integration. It is said that the separation of body, mind, and soul is not a concept the early Christians had entertained. In the resurrection of Christ it was not the soul of Christ alone that resurrected. His body resurrected as well. Greek philosophers may have injected the body-mind dualism into our thinking.
We should keep in mind that meditation is not a “cure-all”, and we shall be better off if we do not look for a solution to all of our problems in the practice of meditation. As the Dalai Lama jokingly commented at the Seminar on the Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation (2005), sometimes a good sleep is better than meditation!
The Path of Experiencing God
People have different personalities and they might need different tools for experiencing God. Some people love the ritualistic forms of worship services with a community of believers reciting their prayers and singing devotional songs in unison. Others prefer to retire to solitary places to find their sacred space to commune with God. Some others devote their lives for the selfless service of their fellow human beings. Jesus was not against those who practiced any of these methods. He attended the Synagogues and also took time to commune with God by Himself. Healing the sick was also important to Him. Spiritual aspirants have to find out for themselves what works best for each one -- worship, prayer, service, meditation, or all of the above.
The Purpose and Methods of Meditation
People practice meditation for various reasons. Many people in the West use it for its health benefits, both mental and physical well-being. During meditation some others get into a trance-like state that makes them feel deeply peaceful. These meditations are not for spiritual purposes. It could be labeled as practices or exercises in the concentration of the mind. The meditations or contemplative practices in Christianity and other religions have a spiritual goal. In Sanskrit we call it Dhyana. Dhyana is a tool for the transformation of the self and a mystical union with the Transcendent Self. In Dhyana those who meditate are tuning their mind’s ears to listen to God’s voice. In the traditional prayers we try to talk to God. In meditation we give God a chance to talk to us. The Chandogya Upanishad (vi 1.3) says, “In meditation we hear what has hitherto not been heard, we learn what has hitherto not been learnt, we come to know what has hitherto not been known.” St Paul says, ‘we impart the wisdom of God shown in a mysterious way, and it is hidden…things that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the minds of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him’ (I Cor. 2: 6-9). Father Francis Acharya, a Catholic monk from Kurishumala Ashram in southern India says, “In a very true sense, meditation can be conceived as an anticipation, a foretaste of our ultimate destiny. And while we are on the way to that goal, meditation quickens in us the real life. The ego and this world are left behind and we reach out to the life of the real self. It awakens us to the divine source and fulfillment of all life,” (Meditation: A Hindu-Christian Meeting Point, 1982, 2005).
The Vedic traditions of India offer more than a hundred different techniques of meditation. Buddhism and Jainism add more. Jewish mystical tradition has given the world the ancient Kabbalah meditations. Kabbalah is based on Zohar or the Book of Splendor written by a second century Rabbi, Schimeon Ben Yochai. Sufi mystics have made meditation a part of Islamic spirituality. Monks of the early Christian Church, especially some of the fourth and fifth century mystics have added more ways of meditating. And all of them talked about meditation as a way of experiencing God, the Supreme Being and the ultimate Reality. When we examine this with an open mind, we can see the common thread that connects the mystical spirituality of all the religions in the world.
Different techniques of meditation or Dhyana are described in the following pages. One should choose a method that he/she finds compatible with one’s personality and life-style.
Reflective Meditation: Besides the communal recitation of long passages and hymns from a Book of Prayer some Christians would read a designated portion of the Bible and reflect on it as a form of silent personal meditation. They also bring up their personal concerns before God during such prayers to find answers for the vexing problems that they face in life. This form of meditation may be called Reflective Meditation or analytic meditation.
Reflective meditation helps us to know ourselves. The great fourth century Christian philosopher and theologian St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “Our greatest protection is self-knowledge, and to avoid the delusion that we are seeing ourselves when we are in reality looking at something else…each one must know himself as he is, and distinguish himself from all that is not he, that he may not unconsciously be protecting something else instead of himself.”
The Dalai Lama says that he gains much from the Analytic/Reflective meditation and has an affinity for this kind of meditation.
Dr. Eknath Easwaran, a scholar and teacher of meditation, recommends what he calls Detached Reflection in which you reflect on your samskaras (anger, jealousy, etc) for ten minutes daily or once a week. You should reflect on the same samskara until you make as much progress on it as you can. It is important that you see the event or emotion with a detached attitude, like you are watching an event on a TV screen, but without reacting to the scene that you see on the screen.
Mindfulness Meditation: One form of Buddhist meditation uses methods that expand the awareness of here and now, developing mindfulness of the present moment. Mindfulness meditation has its origin in Buddhist teachings and practices. When we are deeply in touch with the present moment our lives become more joyful and satisfying. Most of us live in our past, the days of our regrets and glories that have gone by; or live in the future, daydreaming or worrying what might happen next. We glide through life, seldom experiencing the present moment, and our lives slip by before we know it. Our bodies may be in one place -- with our spouses, children, or friends -- but our minds wander somewhere else. Mindfulness meditation trains you to be fully present in whatever you do, and experience the present moment.
Focusing on your breath is one way to practice this discipline. You observe your breath, paying close attention to the rise and fall of your abdomen or the coolness and warmth of the air at the tip of your nose while you breathe in and out. When you inhale you say to yourself silently, “I am breathing in”, and as you exhale say to yourself, “I am breathing out”. Repeat this 10-20 times, but remember to stop before you feel signs of fatigue. Keep your mind steadfast on your breath for the period of meditation.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen Master, popularized the Walking Meditation as a form of mindfulness meditation. While walking, practice conscious breathing by counting your steps. He suggests that you count the number of steps you take during each in-breath by silently counting 1-2-3--- as you breathe in, and counting your steps 1-2-3--- as you breathe out. The counting will help keep your attention focused on the synchronized “breath-step walking”. When you have gained enough experience in walking meditation you can drop the mechanical “counting” practice.
Mindfulness meditation can be practiced with any activity – having your one-pointed attention on walking, cooking, gardening, and even when talking to people. Staying fully present in whatever you do is the important aspect of this meditation practice.
Initially you should focus on the gross elements of the present, and then you should go beyond the limitations of time and space. With more practice you learn to go to the subtle aspects of the mind, the ego, and get closer to your true self.
The beginning practitioner should keep in mind that mindfulness meditation can be very monotonous in the beginning. When I was in training with Tich Naht Hanh I felt easily bored and tired of this practice during the first two days of practice. I thought it was just a waste of my time and that there was nothing much to it. But later on I began to see how meaningful and useful it was. From then on it gave me an awareness to ground myself whenever I felt myself sort of up in the air. I would practice it when I ate, when I was with people, while playing with children, and while praying to God.
It should be mentioned that the mindfulness meditation that Thich Nhat Hanh teaches has no reference to God or soul, especially the way the traditional Christians talk about it. Buddhism believes in Anatma, a concept that says that the Self cannot be reduced to an essence. The goal of this meditation is not to find God, but to find joy in one’s own life, and to develop love and compassion for all forms of life. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “the Kingdom of God is within you, but you have to be ready to welcome it”.
Gautama Buddha was an agnostic, believing that all definitions of gods are divisive. As Joseph Campbell says, once you give God a name you are stuck with it. He says that in the Middle East Jews, Christians, and Moslems have three different names for God as though they are talking about three different gods, and that god of each group is the only true God. Buddhist meditation does not search for a soul within us. Rather, it focuses on removing our delusion so as to gain compassion towards all life. Subsequent developments made Boddhisatvas (saints) and images of Buddha into objects of meditation – as representations of our own inner states of mind.
The mindfulness meditation methods might be more comfortable than the devotion (Bhakti) oriented meditation techniques for the agnostics and the atheists. But that does not mean that people who believe in God should not practice that form of meditation for purposes other than communion with the Divine. The technique in itself has nothing that offends Christians, and could be a good exercise to train concentration in prayer and other ways of meditating.
Dzogechen Meditation: This is a form of Open-Focus meditation practiced by the Tibetan Buddhists. In a popular form of Dzogechen meditation in the Tibetan tradition you are to sit in a lotus posture with your eyes and mouth partially open, and letting your breath flow through your nostrils and the partially opened mouth, and let all the surrounding stimuli to flow through your consciousness without making any effort to stop them or divert them. A benign recognition of the natural state of mind with a lucid awareness! This helps us to see things as they are with total clarity, without distortions, and without judgment. “When we remain in the view, we don’t try to manipulate and change the truth of what is. …It teaches us how to be vividly wakeful and one with what is”, says the Tibetan meditation teacher Lama Surya Das.
One-Pointed Meditation: What about the active, one-point focused meditation such as focusing your mind on a selected imagery or a word? Though there is plenty of literature in the Judeo-Christian tradition on Reflective Meditation, we rarely come across adequate literature on one-pointed meditation.
The Dalai Lama says that one-pointed meditation is not against analytic/reflective meditation, and in reality one only complements the other. Christian mystics and monks have practiced both methods in their monasteries. The types of meditations given below, such as Imagery, Gazing, and Mantra meditation may be considered as one-pointed meditations.
Imagery: Some people report seeing visions of Jesus or other divine beings in their dreams. They use those images as a focus of meditation. Dreams emerge from one’s unconscious or inner self and I would choose the imagery coming out of my own dream as a focus of meditation than an icon painted by some unknown artist or monk. One’s own dream image has more meaning and life to it.
Some people use sense-images as a focus for meditation: a lighted candle, a favorite flower, an image of a favorite deity, an olfactory image of a chosen fragrance, or an imagined sensation of touch by a loving Divine Being.
Gazing into the Eyes of Jesus: Place an icon of Jesus in front of you, a picture in which Jesus looks at you. Simply gaze into his eyes very gently, looking through his eyes without intensely focusing on the external eyes. Do not pray and do not ask for anything. Do not come up with any theology or intellectual interpretations. Just gaze! Let the barrier of “Me” and “Jesus” fade away! Let the Gazing be the only conscious process. Thoughts and images might intrude into your consciousness. Sometimes the image of Jesus might disappear from your view. Sometimes you may feel that the face of Jesus in the picture replaces your own face. But do not try to chase these intrusions. Continue Gazing for five to ten minutes. If any thought that seems important comes up in your mind during the Gazing you may reflect on it afterward, but not during the gazing. Gazing can be a very powerful technique of meditation.
This practice has not been written up very much in the literature that I know of. Therefore, with your permission I would want to write my personal encounter with this method of meditation. I was introduced to the Gazing technique during my stay deep down in the belly of Canyon de Chelly (Grand Canyons in Arizona) with the Navajo Indians, and in the Amazon jungles and mountains of Peru with the Inca Shamans. The shamans call this technique the Coyote Dance or the Shaman’s Way of Seeing. This practice was intended for us to experience what they call “communion”. In “seeing” the Shaman disregards the “seer” and the “seen”, focusing only on the “seeing”. The subject and the object fade away and the process itself comes into focus.
During our training the Shaman asked two of us, who had not known each other prior to this practice, to sit face to face gently touching each other at our knees. He then asked us to take a deep breath and, relaxed and centered, engage each other; and me “looking through” my partner’s left eye, primarily with my left eye. It had to be a gentle look, not trying to see anything in particular, and not expecting anything in particular. My partner and I stayed on it for five minutes. Then we took turns and my partner gazed at my eyes for five minutes in a similar way. Following this we shared with each other for three to five minutes any images or thought that spontaneously emerged in our minds during the gazing process. After just ten minutes of a non-verbal, non-purposive eye contact and being fully “present in the moment” we felt as connected as the best of friends. A surprising experience! In my day-to-day life I interact with so many people and “try” to talk with them, but how many of them do I really connect with in a meaningful way? Many of us just tiptoe through a crowd of people touching them without any real contact, rolling off like the raindrop on a duck’s feathers. In our daily life both the “seer” and the “seen” have their own agendas, and they have fortresses erected around them, and neither one dares to penetrate those walls.
Gazing into the eye of Jesus may help penetrate the barrier between you and Jesus, perhaps symbolically, in a very powerful and meaningful way.
Mantra Meditation: The Rig Veda says, “In the beginning was Brahman with whom was the word. And the word was truly the supreme Brahman” (English translation by Swami Prabhavananda and Isherwood). See the striking similarity between this sentence and that of the opening verse in the Gospel According to John in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The “Word” or mantra is believed to be a sound or an acoustic vibration packed with divine energy.
A variety of mantras are used for meditation. Mantras in the ancient Indian tradition have certain general characteristics. Most mantras begin with the mystic syllable Aum. It is believed that Aum is the sound that comes out of God when he manifests himself out of the primordial silence, and the aim of using that sound as a mantra is God realization. There are also a few other mystic syllables that are used as mantras (eg. Khreem, Hrim). These mystic syllables are not words, but are power packets or seeds. So they are called Bija Mantras or seed mantras. Just as a seed sprouts under the right conditions to become a tree, the seed mantra will bear the fruits of Realization. These mantras are believed to be the primordial sounds of Creation, and that the power of God is embedded in each of them. It is also believed that these mantras are used for different goals, intermediate goals they may be. For example, there are mantras that claim to burn away negativity from your ego, to evoke love in you, to see through the illusion of reality, to heal, and so on. Vedic teachers insist that the practitioner should receive these mantras personally from a qualified teacher/guru who could assess your needs and your personality, and choose the right mantra for you.
Some mantras consist of a set of words or a stanza. In general such mantras may contain one or more names of a deity. They start with Aum and end with a salutation, such as Swaha.
There is also a group of mantras known as Tantric mantras in the Hindu tradition. Those mantras are meant to awaken supernatural powers (Siddhis) of the practitioner. Those are very powerful mantras, and so they must be used with great discretion. There is what they call a ‘left side’ (wrong way) to some of the tantric mantras, in the sense that those mantras could be abused to accomplish unholy purposes. This is similar to the practice of black magic (mantravaadam) practiced by the mantravadis in India, and the satanic cults in Europe and America. Such abuses of the mantras are severely condemned by spiritual practitioners. They warn that the evil that such tantrics release will boomerang and in the end hurt the practitioner himself as well as those people who instigate it. Mantras should never be abused for harmful purposes.
Remember that Jesus warned us against cursing others and entertaining hatred and toxic anger against others. We read that St. Paul condemned the black-magicians of Ephesus. Vedic scholars of India also insist that the essential part of a mantra is Love. This view is consistent with the Christian understanding of spirituality.
(In the Buddhist tradition Tantra has a different connotation. Here the true purpose of Tantra is to get beyond simplistic condemnation of the body and the world as bad. One will see everything as a teacher if one approaches it with an open heart. The point is to get beyond spiritual materialism, beyond the craving for “transcendence” and “achievement”. It is about transforming negative emotions rather than trying to deny or suppress them.)
No matter what the mantra is, the practitioner must have faith in the mantra in order for the mantra to become effective. Don’t we say the same about prayer!
Unlike prayers, mantras are not necessarily based on meanings of words, but on the energy inherent in a sound. It is that energy, and not the meaning of the sound, that mantras draw their power from. Ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Aramaic are believed to be energy-based languages. The Hebrew mystics, like the Vedic gurus, considered the spoken word as alive and as “a unit of energy charged with power”, says William Barclay in his commentary on the Gospel of John. It is thought that the vibrations of the sound of each word in the mantra evoke certain specific vibrations and energies within us, much like the vibration of a tuning fork making other tuning forks of the same frequency vibrate in unison.
Mantra Meditation (Japa-Dhyana) in the Christian Tradition
Hindu and Buddhist traditions have a large repertoire of mantras, and many of those mantras have no reference to any parochial god or religion. The fact that many of those mantras are in Sanskrit should not deter Christians from learning them. God does not necessarily have to hear every prayer in English or in any particular language. However, I have noticed that many Christians in America feel touchy and ruffled about meditation in general and about Sanskrit mantras in particular. I am reminded of one of my pediatric patients who wondered what the strange looking scribbling was in a picture frame on a wall in my office. “It’s the Lord’s Prayer,” I told him. “It is from an old manuscript written in Aramaic language, the language Jesus spoke.” Feeling very puzzled, he looked at it again, and exclaimed, “You mean, Jesus didn’t speak English?”
There are many references to meditation experiences in the Bible. The following are just a few: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10). “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee” (Isaiah 26:3). Zohar, the mystical tradition of Judaism, says that there is a deeper meaning and reality to the Torah than what appears in a literal sense. For example, when God commands Abraham “Go forth to the land that I will show you”, the deeper meaning is, “Go to yourself, search deep within and thereby discover yourself” (The Essential Kabbalah, Daniel C. Matt).
Jesus spent a lot of time in private communion with God. “When you pray, enter into your closet and when you have shut your door, pray to your father who is in secret”, he told his disciples (Matthew 6: 6). When you translate this advice into the language of spiritual meditation one could say that when we pray we should close our sensory world, the five senses that are the windows of our mind and body, and open our soul to commune with the Father in Heaven. The Gospels say that Jesus practiced this kind of prayer very often (Mark 1:35), Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12 and 9:28-29).
Orthodox Churches: Meditation practice had been a strong tradition in the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches. It was considered part of the routine prayers, particularly in the monasteries, as a way to deepen one’s experience of the Divine. Ancient Christian Fathers compiled several such prayers, which St. Makarios of Corinth and St. Nikodimos of Athos published in five volumes known as Philokalia in 1792 A. D. It contains the mystical writings of Christian monks during the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. The Greek word Philokalia means love of good. The monastic movement called Hesychasm had been very popular in Orthodox Churches. St. Basil the Great says of hesychia as the beginning of purity of the soul and body. Training internal silence was the key concept in Hesychast. They trained themselves in stopping the surge of internal thoughts and feelings and achieved a state similar to that of still waters. According to them man became aware of God’s presence in that state of mind. St. Basil writes that when the mind is not dissipated upon extraneous things, nor diffused over the world about us through the senses, it withdraws within itself, and of its own accord ascends to the vision of God (Orthodox Psychotherapy by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos). “Silence purifies the soul. Freedom from all objects, unceasing and untiring worship, and the internal holiness that no one can steal are the main constituents of the silent meditation”, says Metropolitan Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, the foremost Orthodox theologian and spiritual leader from India. Practice of Internal Silence is one of the best forms of Christian meditation. Palamas, a Holy Father of the East considers Sabbath as a kind of rest in God that God showed us by taking rest from all His labors.
The third volume of Philokalia contains a beautiful poem about meditation titled The Ladder of Divine Graces. The author is known as Theophanis the Monk although no one knows for certain what his real name was or what time he lived. In this poem the author places particular emphasis on the need for direct personal experience of God. Let me quote that poem below.
The Ladder of Divine Graces
Which experience has made known to those inspired by God
The first step is that of purest prayer.
From this there comes a warmth of heart,
And then a strange, a holy energy,
Then tears wrung from the heart, God-given.
Then peace from thoughts of every kind.
From this arises purging of the intellect,
And next the vision of heavenly mysteries.
Unheard-of light is born from this ineffably,
And thence, beyond all telling, the heart’s illumination.
Last comes—a step that has no limit
Though compassed in a single line –
Perfection that is endless.
The ladder’s lowest step
Prescribes pure prayer alone.
But prayer has many forms:
My discourse would be long
Were I now to speak of them:
And, friend, know that always
Experience teaches one, not words.
A ladder rising wondrously to heaven’s vault:
Ten steps that strangely vivify the soul.
Ten steps that herald the soul’s life.
A saint inspired by God has said:
Do not deceive yourself with idle hopes
That in the world to come you will find life
If you have not tried to find it in this present world.
Ten steps: a wisdom born of God.
Ten steps: fruit of all the books.
Ten steps that point towards perfection.
Ten steps that lead one up to heaven.
Ten steps through which a man knows God.
The ladder may seem short indeed,
But if your heart can inwardly experience it
You will find a wealth the world cannot contain,
A god-like fountain flowing with unheard-of life.
This ten-graced ladder is the best of masters,
Clearly teaching each to know its stages.
If when you behold it
You think you stand securely on it,
Ask yourself on which step you stand,
So that we, the indolent, may also profit.
My friend, if you want to learn about all this,
Detach yourself from everything,
From what is senseless, from what seems intelligent.
Without detachment nothing can be learnt.
Experience alone can teach these things, not talk.
Even if these words once said
By one of God’s elect strike harshly,
I repeat them to remind you:
He who has no foothold on this ladder,
Who does not ponder always on these things,
When he comes to die will know
Terrible fear, terrible dread,
Will be full of boundless panic.
My lines end on a note of terror.
Yet it is good that this is so:
Those who are hard of heart—myself the first—
Are led to repentance, led to a holy life,
Less by the lure of blessings promised
Than by fearful warnings that inspire dread.
‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’
You who have written this, hear, then, and take note:
Void of all these graces,
How have you dared to write such things?
How do you not shudder to expound them?
Have you not heard what Uzzah suffered
When he tried to stop God’s ark from falling?
Do not think that I speak as one who teaches:
I speak as one whose words condemn himself,
Knowing the rewards awaiting those who strive,
Knowing my utter fruitlessness.
One can find the essence of the mystical Christianity of the East in this short poem; the steps of meditative experience as well as the concept of a God who is beyond the human ideas of good and evil, love and anger. One thing we notice in this poem is the importance it gives to repentance, an idea that is seldom emphasized in the Vedic and Buddhist meditations. Saint Gregory of Sinai says, “Without the practice of constant weeping, it is impossible to bear the boiling cauldron of stillness.”
[I want to write a footnote on Christian Meditation as described in Philokalia. When my friend Dr. Cherian Eapen was in Mount Athos in 2005 to familiarize himself with Philokalia he learned that the meditation practices described above were meant for the use of monks only. How could a layman find the time to meditate unceasingly! He also noted that very few of the Holy Fathers who were mentioned in Philokalia had been accepted in the Orthodox or Catholic churches as authentic. In a personal communication he wrote me, “ What is amazing is the inclusion of certain lessons of the non-Christian Fathers in Philokalia. The work of St. Anthony the Great of Egypt (A. D. 251-356) is one such example. His work contains many passages of deep spiritual insight, and no doubt, this is why St. Nikodomos of the Holy Mountain included it. It is almost certainly not of Christian origin. …The poem of Theophani is also not based on Christianity. But ten distinct steps are very beautifully given as the methods to climb on the Ladder of Divine Graces. So, my point is simple: Early Fathers boldly accepted certain methods the origin of which was not Christianity. In this 21st century, why should we get frightened, if we realize that there are very effective methods available outside the Church, to reach the Bliss of Peace and Shanti?”]
Among the books on Christian mantra meditation that are easily available to the reader, The Way of a Pilgrim, written in the nineteenth century by an anonymous Russian peasant has become a classic in the field. Looking into his heart and inhaling, the peasant said (mentally) “Lord Jesus Christ”, and while exhaling “Have mercy on me”. This peasant from the Russian Orthodox Church has described his meditation and his subsequent spiritual transformations so well that his book is profound, authentic, and at the same time simple enough that everyone could benefit from reading it. (This book has been published in Malayalam under the title Oru Sadhakante Sancharam by RIC publications, Kottayam, Kerala).
Catholic Church: Meditation has been part of the monastic tradition in Catholicism. A fourteenth century book known as The Cloud of Unknowing mentions a meditation practice in which the person repeats a one-syllable word such as God or Love. This unknown mystic from England rejects rambling, long-winded meditation with all its concepts and ocean of words. Bury all thoughts, concepts, and images, and let our naked love hidden in the cloud of unknowing rise up toward God. The author suggests that you reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil. “God can be loved but he cannot be thought. He can be grasped by love but never by concepts”, says William Johnston in an introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing (New York: Doubleday, 1973). In getting beyond thoughts the author suggests a method similar to that of mantra meditation. Unlike the Eastern mantras that are selected for you by an experienced guru you distill a short word that is most meaningful to you in your own life. This word or syllable is your defense against distractions, conceptualizations, images, and conflicts. When you sidestep these cognitive processes your mind will be ready to enflame your love of God.
The writings of Saint John of the Cross also give us a profound knowledge of the experience of God through meditation. St. Francis of Assissi chanted the mantra “My God and my all” for his spiritual transformation.
In India, Father Bede Griffiths and Father Francis Acharya of the Kurisumala Ashram (A Catholic monastery in Kerala, India) have written about and taught meditation for several years.
In recent years, Father John Maine, head of a Benedictine monastery in England, introduced mantra meditation to the Benedictine monks. As a layman, while working for the British embassy in Kaula Lumpur, John Maine learned meditation under the guidance of Swami Satyananda at his Ashram during 1955-56. Father John Maine’s group trains people in mantra
Meditation and have established several centers the world over, known as “The World Community for Christian Meditation.” They use the Aramaic word Maranatha (which means “Come Lord”) as their mantra. The Book of Revelation and St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians end with the word Maranatha.
In the United States, Father Keating has taken up the teaching of meditation to Christians. He has centers for “Contemplative Outreaching” in an effort to reclaim the lost Christian tradition of meditation. He believes that meditation is not just an inter-religious experience; it is an inter-spiritual experience. Our task today, he says, is to “convert” Christians back to their roots and to the authentic practices of Christianity.
Meditation and God Realization
Since the Indian Vedic system has done a superb job of studying meditation in a very systematic way this article has borrowed several concepts from that tradition. However, Christians have certain important views on God and meditation that appear at variance with Indian Vedic/Hindu concepts.
The Christian mantras mentioned in this article are for the inner spiritual unfolding of the practitioner in the path of devotion to and communion with God. In general, the Vedic mantras have a spiritual goal of the individual self’s ultimate union with the Absolute Self, although some mantras are chanted to attain certain intermediate goals as well as one’s concerns of daily living such as healing, prosperity, transcendental consciousness, and so on. One tenet in Hinduism emphasizes that God is within you, as well as in everything in the universe; and you are in God, and in that sense you are identified with God. This is the monistic view (Advaita) that you and God are “one”, and not “two”. Seeing God and you as two separate entities is only an illusion. Sankara, the Vedic genius and philosopher from Kerala, India expounded this theory of Advaita or non-dualism. God is the only Reality and the world of our sensory experience is unreal. According to monists, meditation is a path towards awareness of that God-Self that exists within you.
However, another doctrine called Bhakthi or Devotion holds that God is the creator and we are God’s creation. The Bhakti school emphasizes devotion to a personal God; the God beyond one’s self and the world of material substances and physical energies. The world of matter and energy that we experience is also real, although at the temporal level of existence. You meditate to commune with and to realize God. Swami Yatiswarananda says that monism may be all right for us; but in practice we are dualists and shall remain dualists for a long time to come (Meditation and Spiritual Life, Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore, India1998, p. 331). One’s ultimate destination, in the Hindu tradition, is to reach God and to finally dissolve one’s self (Atma) in the Supreme Self (Paramatma), like a river merging with the ocean, or a salt doll dissolving in the ocean.
Mainstream Christianity (not necessarily the mystical tradition) does not endorse the Hindu view of a fusion of individual self with the Absolute. Nor does man ever become God, at least not in man’s own terms. (It is said that Adam and Eve tried it, only to lead to their own fall from God’s grace). Christian tradition considers God as the creator, and human beings as His creation, and there is a clear distinction and distance between the two. For Christians meditation practice is a form of communion with God while keeping their bodies and minds in a relaxed state. Father Bede Griffiths, a Catholic monk and Vedic scholar, does not see the Hindu and Christian views as necessarily polarized. In perfect meditation you see “all the created universe in the One and the One in the whole created universe. Nothing is lost.” When we go beyond this world to the One we do not lose our individual identity we have had in this world. Nor do we lose the One when we see God in this world. The Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart goes a step further. He says, “God gives birth to the Son as you, as me, as each one of us. As many beings – as many gods in God. In my soul, God not only gives birth to me as his son, he gives birth to me as himself, and himself as me. I find in this divine birth that God and I are the same: I am what I was and what I shall always remain, now and for ever.” (Teachings of the Christian Mystics, Andrew Harvey, Ed, Shambala publications, Boston).
No amount of cogitation and logic will lead us to a satisfactory understanding of the nature of “God and Me” concept. It will have to be a spiritual insight that one gains at a certain point in meditation and prayer.
As I have pointed out at the beginning of this paper, in deep meditation certain changes occur in the brain, changes that diminish the feeling of separation between the individual self and the other. This does not necessarily mean that the neurological changes in the brain of the meditators caused the awareness of oneness with the others. It is only a parallel that confirms the veracity of the spiritual experience.
Meditation and Prayer
There is a distinction between traditional prayer and meditation. According to Swami Rama, “Prayer definitely purifies the way of the soul, but the method of meditation is a systematized way of exploring the interior self and the inner states of human life.” In prayer there is a significant element of pleas or petition to God by the devotee. In meditation you make no such requests. Instead, you try to listen to God rather than talk to God. Some of the Christian mantras and japas have a prayerful connotation, as do some of the Vedic mantras, but in meditation the supplication aspect is not to be emphasized. The awareness of the presence of God and the joy of being with God are the major concerns in meditation practice. Those who meditate learn to surrender to God saying, “Let Thy Will be done,” and let God’s grace flow unobtrusively as and when God wills it.
Preparing for the Path of Meditation
Meditation is a spiritual discipline that requires serious preparation. Yoga Science of Patanjali gives some important ethical guidelines to be observed by the spiritual aspirant who intends to follow the Raja Yoga that includes the practice of meditation. The first set of guidelines is called Yama and the second set is called Niyama. Adherence to these ethical principles is very important whatever your religious background may be.
Yama(Restraints and controls):
Ahimsa (Non-injury). Although in common parlance we use the word Ahimsa to mean non-killing, its real meaning is non-injury. One has to refrain from physically, verbally, and emotionally hurting others.
Satyagraha (Adherence to and love of the Truth). Be truthful in your speech, thought, and actions.
Asteyam (Not stealing and freedom from coveting). Yogis teach us that God will provide you with whatever you genuinely need when you abstain from stealing from others. Stealing is not limited to material objects. Grabbing anything that belongs to others is stealing.
Brahmacharyam (Celibacy, chastity). Brahmacharyam does not necessarily mean an unmarried life. The word here means conducting your thoughts, words, and behavior in a way that will lead you to Brahma or God.
Aparigraha (Not accepting gifts). A spiritual aspirant should not be greedy. He should not accept any gifts other than things to meet his daily basic needs for a living.
Soucham (Purity). This involves cleanliness in body, mind, and speech.
Santhosham (Contentment). This is the opposite of greed. However, contentment should not be mistaken for complacency or laziness. Happy, satisfied.
Tapas (Austerities). This might involve a strict, simple, straight-laced, abstemious life.
Swadhyaya: This involves the ongoing study of Scriptures and the study of one’s own thoughts and emotions.
Iswara-pranidhanam --Dedication of every good fruit of your life to God.
These may look like a lot. Let us put it in a way that is more familiar to Christians. Follow the Ten Commandments!
Is there a guarantee that if you observe all these laws you will see God and become enlightened? Certainly not! An ethical life is only a precondition for spiritual fulfillment. St. Paul says that observing all the laws in the Scriptures alone will not assure you of Salvation. God’s Grace is what takes you up there. “The Spirit blows where it pleases.” And yet, Paul gives all sorts of ethical guidelines to the members of early churches. Moses gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites before they would get to the Promised Land. They still had to tread miles and miles for years in the desert to get to the Promised Land even if they had stuck to all the commandments. That is the path of meditation. Mindfully walking miles and miles!
How to Practice Mantra Meditation
The following instruction is a simple way to start meditation practice.
Find a quiet place, away from telephone calls and other possible demands placed on you. A room devoid of much light, sound, and distracting pictures and decorations, where all external stimuli are at a minimum is preferred. It would be ideal if you can set apart a room for the purpose of meditation and prayer only. Lighting a candle and/or an incense to create an atmosphere of serenity and sacredness is desirable. Eastern Christians and Catholics find it soothing to have icons of Jesus and saintly beings in their meditation rooms.
Your meditation time is your own; do not allow anything or anyone to take it away from you.
Say a brief prayer for all of God’s creation, as an expression of your love for all beings. This will be a good start before you enter into communion with God. An ideal prayer for this occasion would be that of St. Francis of Assissi. It is a well-known prayer and yet I would like to repeat it here.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and
Where there is sadness, joy.
O! Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
A short prayer taken from the Upanishads is a good alternative to the prayer cited above:
May all beings be happy!
May all beings be peaceful!
May all beings be blissful!
Om, Shanti! Shanti! Shantihi!
A third alternative is to say the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of meditation, with a conscious emphasis on “Our” and “Us”.
Sit comfortably on a chair with your spine straight and your feet on the ground. If you are comfortable with the traditional Padmaasana (Full Lotus pose) or Sukhaasana (the easy cross-legged pose) you may as well sit that way. But the important thing is that your posture should be firm and pleasant. An uncomfortable posture will only distract you during meditation.
However, the Yoga science emphasizes that your spine, neck, and head be aligned straight vertically for flow of energy through the spinal cord. Posture (Asana) and breathing (Pranayama) constitute the physiological preparations for the practice of yoga and meditation.
Place your hands in your lap, palms up with your dominant palm (right hand if you are right-handed) supporting the other. This position of the hands is called the Bhairava Mudra. The two hands represent the union of the individual with the Supreme Consciousness. Another way is to keep your palms on each knee, with the tips of your thumb and index finger gently touching each other making a circle. Yoga science says that this mudra helps to rejuvenate your body by redirecting the prana (vital energy or life force) emitted by the hands back into the body.
Scan your body for any trace of muscle tension. You may focus your attention on your feet, be aware of the level of tenseness in your feet, and let go of the tenseness as much as you can. Next, concentrate on the muscles of your lower legs, become aware of the tenseness, let go of the tenseness. Work your way up like this until you relax the muscles of your scalp.
Focus your attention on your breathing. Proper, relaxed breathing is very important. Breathing is easily affected by our emotional state. Our breathing gets quick and shallow during a fight or flight reaction of our psycho-physiologic system to emotions such as anger, fear, and anxiety. And we sigh when we are sad. In order to relax your body and mind you want to breathe slowly and rhythmically. As you inhale let your abdomen expand, and as you exhale let your abdomen contract. Many people have a habit of breathing with their thorax, expanding it while they inhale. This kind of breathing suggests tension, and a fight or flight response generally appropriate for physical activities and emergencies. You want to practice diaphragmatic breathing for the purpose of relaxation. Keep in mind that deep breathing does not mean heavy breathing that might involve effort and tension. You may not get the diaphragmatic breathing right in the beginning, but you will get there with some practice.
In order to learn the diaphragmatic breathing you may place one palm of your hand on your chest and the other palm on your abdomen, and observe which hand moves more. Let your hand on your abdomen move forward when you breathe in, and inward when you breathe out while letting your hand on your chest move only minimally. A second technique is to visualize a balloon in your abdomen and as you inhale fill that balloon up and as you exhale let the balloon deflate. If these techniques don’t work for you, try lying down flat on your back placing a heavy book or a two-pound sandbag on your abdomen and push the book/sandbag up when you inhale and let it drop when you exhale. With some practice you should be able to breathe with your diaphragm naturally. However, be patient with yourself during the learning phase of your practice.
As you breathe in let your mind pay close attention to the coolness of the air flowing in through your nasal passage, filling your lungs fully, pushing your diaphragm down, and pushing your belly out. As you exhale feel your belly drop smoothly, and feel the warmth of the air as it goes out through your nostrils.
Slow, rhythmic breathing is sufficient for the practice of meditation. However, if you are an advanced practitioner and have a healthy and quiet life you may consider advanced breathing techniques known as pranayama. Some pranayama techniques are described below.
Keep the length of each breath, inhale and exhale, on a ratio of 1:2. Until you get a sense of the time you may count mentally as you inhale and exhale, like, inhale to the count of three and exhale to the count of six. Increase the length of each cycle when you are more experienced and feel comfortable with it. Continue the diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes and allow some time for your body and mind to settle down comfortably.
When you have mastered the above simple breathing you may want to try more advanced breathing techniques of pranayama. Clear up your nostrils with forced swift exhaling (like sneezing) about ten times. Breathe in, say, for three seconds, and hold your breath for twelve seconds, and exhale in six seconds, or to the count three, twelve, and six for the inhale, hold, and exhale steps.
Slowly increase the length of your breath, but stay within your capacity. Do not force your pace too fast. Keep the ratio of inhale: hold: exhale as 1:4:2.
You may also try “alternate breathing”, inhaling through one nostril and exhaling through the other. This may help to balance the functioning of the right and left hemispheres of your brain. Sit with your spine straight (as in all pranayama practices) and bring your right hand to your nose. Fold your index and middle fingers. (This mudra is called the Vishnu Mudra). Use your thumb to close your right nostril when you inhale/exhale through your left nostril and use your ring finger to close your left nostril when you inhale/exhale through your right nostril.
At any given time one of the nostrils will be more open than the other one. The nostril that is relatively more open is called the Active nostril, and the less open one is called the Passive nostril. Exhale completely through the active nostril while keeping the passive one closed with the appropriate finger. Next, inhale through the active nostril, close it with the appropriate finger, and open and exhale through the passive nostril. Next, inhale through the passive nostril and exhale through the active nostril. Repeat the sequence four times with each nostril.
The ordinary practitioner is advised to stay with simple diaphragmatic breathing until they are ready for more advanced practices.
Breath is highly significant, as the Book of Genesis 2:7 suggests: “And the Lord God formed Adam out of the soil of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” In Hebrew, Aramaic (and its literary form Syriac), Greek, and Sanskrit the word for “breath” also means life and/or spirit – Ruha (or Ruach) in Aramaic/Hebrew, pneuma in Greek, and Prana in Sanskrit.
The important thing in using breathing as a meditation tool is to stay focused on breath, being aware of the present moment, “being there” at all times, meditating on the Biblical connotation of God’s Breath flowing through you. In blending together the deep breathing with a spiritual sound the trainee could consolidate the benefits of breath and mantra meditation.
You may explore and find a mantra or sound that is most meaningful to you. A few suggestions are given here. Say the word Ruha aloud first, and then repeat it mentally in synchrony with each breath – Ru as you inhale and ha as you exhale. Similarly, you can use the word Abwoon (Ab--woon) in synchrony with your breathing. Abwoon means Father, the Breathing Life of all, the Source. The sounds Yahwe and Alleluia are other mantras Christians and Jews may chant. Yesu and Yahshua are Aramaic/Hebrew names for Jesus, and Christians could use those names as mantras. But if the sound Jesus resonates better with you it is fine to use “Jesus” instead. Kyrie-elaison, Maranatha, and Maranatha O’ Kyrie-elaison are other mantra sounds that Christians generally use.
Christian monks in India have suggested Christianized Sanskrit mantras. Francis Acharya of Kurisumala Ashram suggests a mantra AUM Sri Yesu Bhagavate Namah!. Another mantra adapted from Sanskrit is Om Namoh Bhagavate Yesu Devaya! Both mantras mean “I worship and pay homage to Lord Jesus!”
You may begin to chant your sacred sound (mantra or japa) mentally when you feel somewhat settled after the breathing practice. Choose whichever mantra resonates with you and stay with it. It is not a good idea to change mantras too often because it might take a while for the mantra to become a part of you. To start with, you can synchronize your sacred sound, for example, Kuriae-elaison, Mara-natha, Ab-woon, Ru-ha, Ye-su, Om-Namo Bhagavate Yesu Devaya with your inhaling and exhaling if that helps you to concentrate better. Eventually one should chant mentally, independent of the breathing rhythm.
At the next stage, if your mantra is a form of prayer or a name of God, you may let your mantra descend into your heart center. You keep focusing on the vibrations of the sound of the mantra emanating from your heart center (Anahata Chakra) that is located at the mid-point between your nipples. The heart that we refer to here is not your anatomical/physiological heart. It is a center of subtle energy and is the midpoint of the body’s other such subtle energy centers. This center is considered to be the center of the “spiritual heart”. Imagine this place to be the center of Christ-Consciousness that is within you as well as in everyone and everything else in the Universe. Meditating at this heart center is the “prayer of the heart” that is described in the Christian monastic literature, and what the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scripture, considers as more potent than external prayers.
The second subtle energy center suggested by meditation masters is on the forehead at the midpoint of your eyebrows. This center known as the Ajna Chakra is more suitable for people who are emotionally very labile. Wisdom, insight, discernment, and intuition are all qualities attributed to Ajna Chakra.
The Shamans of Peru teaches a technique that uses a combination of both the heart and the head. They call it the “Crown and Chain” meditation. Imagine that you are wearing a crown on your head and a chain on your neck that extends down to your heart center. When you meditate you focus on the crown and the chain simultaneously, like the head and the heart as a single unit. The idea is that you want to merge or integrate your faculties of thinking and feeling. Psychologically and spiritually this idea of integration makes sense.
The navel center (Manipura chakra) is another location that some people focus on during their meditation. The ancient Hebrew traditions as well as modern psychophysiologic studies suggest that the belly is more sensitive to emotions than the heart. However, meditation teachers from yogic traditions say that you should not use this energy center for meditation unless you are an advanced practitioner with a stable ethical, emotional, and spiritual life. They warn that it could be dangerous to meditate on any of the energy centers (charkas) below the heart center, in the sense that such adventures might evoke emotions and passions that are not desirable for a sound spiritual growth and mental health. An experienced teacher can guide you to focus on this and other lower centers in your body depending upon your particular psycho-spiritual maturity and needs. If you have no access to a really good teacher/spiritual guide you will be better off staying with your heart or forehead centers.
Some people use a rosary (Japa Mala) for meditation. Use of a rosary can be helpful when you chant long mantras or prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary for a specific number of times or in a particular sequence as the Roman Catholics do. Either way, let the chanting be effortless and you keep paying attention to the vibrations from within. Advanced meditators say that they can hear and feel the mantra resonating all around them. With continuous practice the mantra will come to you smoothly. Let the sound of the mantra flow, without your mind being distracted by ruminations on the meaning of the words.
Most beginning practitioners get upset when their minds wander and bounce all over like a monkey or a puppy. It is the nature of the mind to wander, as much as it is the nature of the ocean to have waves. Do not fight the oncoming thoughts; rather flow with it. You acknowledge its presence, witness it, and consciously and deliberately, gently and firmly, let go of it. Go back to your mantra right away. If the intrusive thought seems very important to you, tell yourself, “ Oh, a thought! If it is that important it will come back to me later when I have finished my meditation. Let me go back to my mantra now.” Do not moralize, evaluate, condemn, or suppress the thoughts and feelings that fly through your mind-screen as good, bad, ugly, resentful, and so on. Treat them in a neutral, dispassionate way and put them away gently and firmly, and you return to your mantra instantly. If you feel angry about the content of a particular thought, say to yourself, “Oh, it is a feeling of anger,” drop your feeling of anger and go back to the mantra. If you feel disparaged and frustrated about your difficulty to stay focused on your mantra say to yourself, “Oh, I am nitpicking on my performance,” drop the condemnation, feel compassionate and friendly toward yourself, and get on with your mantra. Tich Nhat Hanh suggests that a nice way to deal with intrusive thoughts and criticisms is just to smile at it gently and move on with your meditation.
Meditation teachers offer several metaphors to explain and deal with the problem of distraction. When you sit in your backyard you might see a bird fly by. But you don’t fly with the bird, nor do you let the bird build a nest on your head. Or, your mind is like a mirror during your meditation. When the bird flies within the mirror’s view you can see it, but when the bird is out of its field the image is gone. The image does not get stuck on the mirror. You are not the thought or the feeling. You are only a detached observer of the thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind-mirror. To use another metaphor, watch your distracting thoughts as a scuba diver might watch the bubbles of his out-breath ascending and burst at the surface of water.
The practice of putting away the thoughts and feelings as they appear spontaneously will strengthen your sense of freedom, says Swami Vivekananda. If your mind says, “look at that beautiful flower”, for example, and you tell your mind that you are not going to look now, you are developing your freedom to respond instead of mindlessly react. This will give a choice to indulge or not to indulge, to avoid frustration, depression, and the chasm of sadness and self-pity.
Generally, the waves of thoughts will subside after a while and your mind and body will reach a state of peace and tranquility as you continue with your practice. Sometimes you may feel upset, especially if too many annoying thoughts simmer within. That happens often when you have begun to see yourself more clearly, without self-deception and hypocrisy. And that could disturb you. Make sure that you look at yourself with compassion when this happens. Just acknowledge your feelings and move on. Meditation is also a process in which your conscious mind gradually becomes aware of the contents of your unconscious mind.
Each session is not an end in itself. Learn to take whatever you can get in a given session. In my mind it is like a psychoanalytic session. My patients in analysis have seldom complained that they did not accomplish anything substantial in any particular session. It has always been a “stream”; and in this case the stream finally ends up in the Lord.
Some people tend to fall asleep during their meditation. Although many people use meditation for relaxation and stress reduction where some drowsiness may not be a bad idea, true meditation is supposed to generate a relaxed alertness – deeper awareness of your body, mental processes, and spiritual self.
Twenty minutes of practice twice daily is sufficient for the ordinary practitioner. Too much meditation can do harm if you are a novice. Too many negative thoughts and emotions might come to the surface during the early months or years of meditation. This happens even to the experienced meditators, but it might overwhelm a novice and cause him/her much confusion. Novices are always given physical chores to do in their monasteries so that they could balance meditation with physical work and service. Short periods of meditation are sufficient for beginners. You should balance your life of meditation with social service and physical activities.
After your designated time to meditate, gently open your eyes, and slowly go about your routines. Don’t rush into frenzied activity.
Set apart a regular time to meditate every day. Early morning before breakfast, and late afternoon around sunset before your dinner are desirable times to meditate.
Avoid practicing meditation soon after your meals.
Regular practice is very important to gain maximum benefits of meditation. Try not to find excuses for skipping your daily practice. Learning meditation and not practicing it regularly will only benefit you to the extent of carrying your doctor’s prescription in your pocket without ever taking the medicine, says the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Tread the path steadily, and make meditation part of your routine. You will be happy with it. If you continue your practice for a couple of years you will experience a deep sense of joy and steadfastness.
Many people tend to ‘fall off the wagon’ after a few months if they are not connected with a group of people with similar interest in meditation (Satsangh). It is important to get together as a group and meditate together periodically. Group support and group meditation are particularly helpful to stay on the path. Consider if you can meditate together as a family, husband and wife together, and if possible with grown-up children. Meditating together will foster a healthy relationship within the family.
Finally, it is good to have an experienced person as your guide, especially if you notice anxiety or strange sensations and thoughts during meditation practice. People with serious emotional problems or mental disorders should consult an experienced teacher before they start practicing meditation. Certain psychiatric conditions could exacerbate with the practice of meditation, especially if those people spend too much time in meditation than might be considered healthy for them. This warning is not meant to deter people from attempting meditation. As Father Keating, a Catholic monk says, everything in life has some risks. “Not meditating is more dangerous than meditating!” Meditating is like driving a car on a road with many potholes. There are many potholes in meditation. So drive carefully, but drive you must!
Let me try to summarize a meditation session in simple steps that are easy to follow. Select a quiet place. Sit comfortably with your spine straight. Say a prayer for God’s blessing on all Beings. Do your slow rhythmic breathing exercise to calm down and to gain control over your prana or vital force. Turn your attention inward and begin chanting your mantra mentally, and move on to listen to the vibration of the mantra from within your heart-center. Try to keep your mind focused on the mantra and disregard any distraction, internal or external. Do not judge your thoughts and feelings during the meditation. Emerge from the meditation slowly and gently.
It is preferable to seek guidance from an experienced person if you are in doubt about you emotional and spiritual readiness to launch into the practice of meditation.
Swami Vivekananda mentions a final step: Samadhi and illumination or the realization of the Divine. This is the goal of meditation or Dhyana and of all spiritual practices. However, in order to avoid frustration and a sense of failure the ordinary practitioner will be better off not to get hung up on this goal in his day-to-day practice. Proper meditation will always lead to joy and spiritual fulfillment over a period of years.
Where Does Meditation Lead Us To
People will experience a progressive series of transformations of their selves, from the gross self to the subtle self, as they continue treading the path of meditation.
According to the yogic physiology you have several sheaths to your human framework. Your obvious self-image is that of your physical self or body image. At that level you think that you are what you look like physically.
At the next sheath a person encounters his mental self, the qualities of his mind and character, and his thoughts and emotions. You get more insights about your values, relationships, thoughts, and feelings as you go on meditating. The next layer is called the vital or energy body known as the pranic body. The practice of pranayama mainly enhances this layer of the body.
When you go further you begin to get in touch with your intuitive or psychic self. At this stage you might experience glimpses of extra-sensory perceptions, telepathy, and even supernormal powers. Some people could get carried away with having such powers and get stuck at that level. Such occult powers could become an ego trap, a power game that generates pride in you. Indulging in supernormal powers is an obstruction to spiritual growth because one cannot realize God with the slightest pride in one’s heart. You have to let go and move to the next level, the transcendental level in which you become more aware of your true self. That is the self beyond your body, mind, and intuitive self. At this level you experience pure bliss. However, you should not set this as your conscious goal and try to pursue it doggedly. That kind of “profit motive” could only frustrate you in the end, and any glimpse of transcendence will only elude you in the end.
Further along the line, deep within you, you will get a glow of mystical experiences in which you see the oneness of all creations, seeing God in everything and everyone, and feeling an overflow of love towards everyone. The famous Christian mystic Meister Eckhart has talked about an experience in which he had seen the whole world in God. And then, according to him, you go beyond the world, beyond form, and see God Himself.
The Kabbala (Jewish mysticism) teaches us about the unbounded, infinite God (Ein-Sof), the oneness of all creations, and the love that is the greatest unifying force in the universe. The Bhagavad Gita says, “Only by love can one see me, and know me, and come unto me.” The Buddhists also consider developing love and compassion as the major fruit of meditation. In meditation we come face to face with our true self that is greater than our body, greater than our thoughts and feelings -- a self that is spiritually connected to all other beings and to God. When we experience an awareness of that connection with all the created ones in this universe, we begin to get a glimpse of the love that Jesus and the Prophets talked about. Love each other as I have loved you, said Jesus. Loving God and hating one’s fellow beings is self-contradictory at best. St. John says that he who does not love does not know God; for God is love (I John 4: 8). No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us (I John 4: 12).
Someone asked Mother Teresa how she could pick up a leper from the ditch and hold him in her own arms. Mother said, “I see Jesus on his face.” The Me-Thou boundary dissolves in divine love. You are no longer “the other” to be separated and alienated. Instead, you are a part of me, and also a part of God. And as such you shall be loved. At that stage of spiritual growth loving becomes natural to us.
Is Meditation the Only Way to Realize God?
Not at all! Unselfish service to humanity as an expression of love, a meaningful and enlightened practice of the sacramental life of the Church, and seeking divine knowledge and wisdom are also ways to realize God. Many people follow those paths and find fulfillment in their lives. Although people enter a stadium via different gates, they all get to watch the same game. Meditation practice combined with a life of unselfish service to humanity may be even more desirable than a path of meditation alone. But meditation in whatever form is a path of importance that the mainstream Churches have neglected for too long. It would be great if we integrated meditation with our worship, ritual prayers, sacraments, and the charitable work that we perform in our spiritual pursuits.
It is with the instructions and guidance I have received from several illustrious people that I was able to write this article. I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to those who taught me how to meditate: Metropolitan Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, (Principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kerala, India, Metropolitan of Delhi, and a past President of the World Council of Churches), The Transcendental Meditation Centers in Chicago and Massachusetts, Swami Rama at Rishikesh, the Himalayas (Founder of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Sciences), Pandit Rajamani Tigunait, PhD (Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Sciences, Honesdale, Pennsylvania), Vietnamese Zen Master and peace activist Tich Nhat Hanh (France), Lama Surya Das of the Tibetan Dzogchen tradition (New York), Swami Brahmarupananda of the Sri Ramakrishna Mission (Washington, D. C.), Shaman and Psychologist Alberto Villoldo,Ph.D., and the Shamans of the Navaho Indians of North America and of Peru. Although my training in the meditation and spiritual practices of the Sufi, Jain, and Sikh religions have been rather brief I bow before those who introduced me to those rich traditions with utmost respect. I am also grateful to the Very Rev. Fr. JohnBrian Paprock (Madison, Wisconsin) who published the first version of this article as a booklet, Dr. Cherian Eapen (Moscow, Russia) who supported my efforts all the way and have sent me some valuable literature on Christian meditation that I would not have had access to without his help. I thank Professor A.M. Chacko and Professor K. K. Abraham (Aluva, Kerala, India) who took the initiative to publish an earlier version of this article in the Church Weekly in India. I want to express my gratitude to Suzanne Seed, a writer and art critic (Chicago) and Julie Nilsson, an artist and editor (Fort Collins, Colorado) for editing this article as well as helping me during my Buddhist meditation trainings. My indebtedness and thanks go to the Website of the St. Gregorios Orthodox Church, Oak Park, Illinois, the Church’s Vicar Rev Dr. M. K. Thomas, its website editor Mr. Varghese John who have encouraged me to publish this article for the use of Christians everywhere.
I am deeply indebted to my wife Dr. Chinnamma Thomas for her gracious support in my pursuit of learning meditation practices, and to my children Joe, Kurian, and Elizabeth who have participated in Meditation Retreats along with me and inspired me with their enduring interest in the practice of meditation.
Correspondence may be addressed to Joseph E. Thomas, Ph.D., 16W731 89th Place, Willowbrook, IL 60527, USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
A list of some of the books mentioned in this article is given below.
Anthony de Mello S.J. (1986). Wellsprings – A Book of Spiritual Exercises. New York: Image Books.
Anthony de Mello, S.J. (1991). The Heart of the Enlightened – A Book of Story-Meditations. New York: Image-Doubleday.
Eckhart, Meister (1996). Meister Eckhart from Whom God Hid Nothing. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc.
Easwaran, Eknath (1998) The Mantram Handbook. Nilgiri Press: Tomales, California.
Francis Acharya (1987 and 2005). Meditation: Hindu-Christian Meeting Point. Kottayam, Kerala, India: Jeevan Books.
Gass, Robert and Brehony, Kathleen. (1999). Chanting. New York: Broadway Books.
Gregorios, Paulos Mar (1988). Cosmic Man. New York: Paragon House, A New Era Book.
Griffiths, Bede (1976). Return to the Center. Springfield, IL.: Templegate Publishers.
Harvey, Andrew (Ed). (1998). The Teachings of the Christian Mystics. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc.
Iyengar, B.K.S. (1993). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. London: The Acquarian Press.
Johnston, W. (1973) Editor. The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: Doubleday Publishing Company.
Khasla, D.H. and Stauth, C. (2001). Meditation as Medicine. New York: Pocket Books.
Mahesh Yogi, Maharishi. (1963) The Science of Being and the Art of Living: Transcendental Meditation. New York: Penguin Books.
Matt, Daniel C. (Translator) (2002) Zohar. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylights Path Publishing.
Motoyama, Hiroshi. (1990). Toward a Superconsciousness. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press.
Pearls, Frederick S. (1969). Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Lafayette, California: Real People Press.
Rama, Swami. (1986). The Path of Fire and Light. Vol.I. Honesdale, PA., The Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Sciences and Philosophy.
The Mind and Life Institute (2005). Mind and Life XIII. The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation. Washington, DC (Video DVDs).
Thich Nhat Hanh (1987) The Miracle of Mindfulness. Boston: Beacon Press.
Unknown Author. Translation by Helen Bacovcin (1992). The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way. New York: Image Books, Doubleday. (Also published in the Malayalam language in India, 2005, by Roy International Children’s Foundation, Kottayam, Kerala, India, under the title Oru Sadhakante Sancharam).
Yatiswarananda, Swami. (1998). Meditation and Spiritual Life. Bangalore: Ramakrishna Math, India.