The Good Retreat Guide Online

Mountains and lake graphic.

Meditation

Meditation is a stillness of body and a stillness of mind

There are many different meditation techniques to help you attain this state of being. They range from Insight or Vipassana Meditation practice from the Buddhist tradition to Christian meditation such as that set out by the monk Dom John Main (1926-82), which now enjoys a world-wide following among Christians. Meditation begins by relaxing the body into a state of stillness, then the mind into inner silence. Many of the techniques that achieve this, start with a deliberate breathing pattern. It is claimed that the breath is a bridge from the known to the unknown. A single word or a phrase, sometimes called a mantra, is often used to help the regularity of your breathing. For example, in John Main's approach to meditation, the word Maranathais repeated in a slow and rhythmical fashion. This word means Come Lord in Aramaic, the language Jesus himself spoke. It is used by both Saint Paul and Saint John in their writings.

The Ancient Way to the spiritual realm

Meditation is one of the most ancient ways to the spiritual realm because it leads to heightened concentration and those changes in the mind and body which can release hidden realms of consciousness. It will help you to still yourself so you can increase your interior awareness and escape from the constant external stimuli and transient desires and obsessions which compete for your attention and give you little time to be in the garden of your soul.

While the use of meditation as a spiritual practice has never ceased in the East, the art and technique was mostly lost in the West, certainly to the average person. Yet Christian tradition has always understood meditation as one of the exercises of the spiritual life of prayer. Starting in the 1960s, in the world of the atomic bomb and the cold war, there was a new interest in anything which might provide a new vision of the future, an insight into the meaning of life which was more hopeful and less frightening than the prospect of world destruction. The answers were, as always, to be found in spirituality and the West rediscovered mediation. Today in Christian spirituality there has been a return to the simplicity of biblical meditation based on the reading of scriptures or the writing of the early church fathers and on the use of non-Christian methods of meditation while holding to the specific idea of it being animated by the Holy Spirit and based on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Understanding meditation

Meditation is a way of letting go of your worries and for releasing yourself from the constant activities, ideas and emotions of the mind and the body. It is a way to clear out the unquiet, to clean up the self and to use your inner space to become calm and refreshed and restart your life.

Many people I have met over the years who could have benefited from daily meditation as a way of getting some calm into their lives were afraid to try it. They seem to think it is some sort of inner state from which they might not return – like plunging off a cliff. In one sense meditation is like a dive into unknown waters, but there is nothing to fear. The physiology of meditation has been well known through centuries of human practice and investigated by modern science if that reassures you. It is a safe and healthy practice.

What happens is this

In deep meditation, there is a sharp increase in the alpha rhythm of the brain with a concurrent decrease in the breathing rate and oxygen consumption. The heart rate decreases as well and there is a fall in the blood pressure. The skin has an increased electrical resistance. High lactate levels in the blood are associated with stress and these fall in meditation. Yogi masters can use meditation to control and master by conscious effort even involuntary functions of the body such as pulse rate, digestion, metabolism and kidney activity, body temperature.

Focus on this point

All meditation has a single common ground which is the turning of your attention inward, away from external concerns which demand your attention. It involves concentrating your mind, often on one particular object or idea. The mind is slowly cleared of all thoughts. You let them gradually fade away until your mental involvement with thought is suspended. A clearer, calmer experience of yourself then takes place. Your attention has become inward rather than outward to worldly affairs. The effect of meditation can best be summed up as a significant release from tension. Meditation can be a very powerful gateway to self-realisation.

Many ways of meditation

There are many ways of meditation to achieve this inner state, depending on which practice you chose. Different kinds of meditation may be useful for different purposes or for different people. In some practices you concentrate on breathing to focus your attention. Both Tibetan and Hindu spirituality insists on the importance of breathing - some ancient yogi texts tell us that all life is in our breathing. In other meditation techniques, there is visualisation where colour, shape or form is pictured in your mind and held in attention. Some forms of meditation focus by concentrating on a candle or a stone and many use a mantra or phrase which is repeated over and over again. There is a Zen sitting meditation where there is no object of concentration at all. You just sit and try to be aware of your changing thoughts and feelings as they pass through your mind. Zen priests in Japan doing this kind of meditation may increase and sustain their alpha rhythms more than ten times longer than the average person who meditates. There are walking meditations where concentration is on the body and the processes involved as you move. Vigorous whirling and dance movements as in Sufi religious practice are also techniques of meditation.

Great credibility

Today, meditation has gained so much credibility with people in the West that it is a popular practice with millions and increasing numbers know something of what it is about. Even the medical profession has come to recognise its therapeutic value although it is still the rare general practitioner who recommends meditation to a patient suffering from stress. In spite of this, some people still find the idea of letting their minds go a very scary thing. They may read about doing meditation in a popular magazine but actually getting down to doing some is another matter. Once again, if you want to live a sacred life, you must get practicing it.

Meditation is physically and spiritually safe

The rituals that may go with meditation are also regarded with suspicion by some Christians. Many church goers see meditation as anti-Christian, forgetting or not knowing the heritage of their own religion. Others fear being ‘taken over‘ if they are involved in any ritual like breathing exercises or focusing on a lighted candle. Our fear of the unknown is deep and abiding. Yet the unknown is always present in life from the hidden motives behind our actions to the events in the future which none of us can foretell. Rituals too are an everyday part of living which serve social, psychological and unifying purposes. Our lives contain multitude of these rituals from the way we set the table for a meal, to the village fete or how we always straighten our desk before beginning work. They also serve our spiritual purposes. The rituals or practices that go with a meditation are important ways to focus on your feelings and values, so that through meditation you can reach your inner world, where new discoveries about yourself wait for you.

The Christian tradition of meditation

For Christians meditation has been traditionally understood as one of the exercises of the spiritual life of prayer. This is distinct from living a life of virtue and making your faith visible through charitable works toward others. According to the Bible and to Jewish religious traditions, meditation as a practice or technique is based on a repetition of words and phrases. This is to use a form of mantra. In this century there has been a return to mediation by Christians as a form of contemplation based on the practice of reading the Scriptures or the writings of the early Church Fathers. Such readings should lead to prayerful and contemplative thoughts about the self, the way of life being lived, and the state of one’s relationship with God.

There are a number of meditation practices specially developed within the Christian tradition and these focus on the Gospels but non-Christian methods are widely used. Even today, some Christians still have difficulty in coming to terms with meditation practices arising from other faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism. If you are a Christian, reassurance is to found in this specific identity of your meditation:

Focus on this point for Christian Meditation

Meditation is a prayerful state, animated by the Holy Spirit and based on knowledge of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
– Anthony de Mello

Many Christians use some form of transcendental meditation as a way to achieve deep relaxation. This relaxation is a preparation for prayer but not a substitute for it. Other ways of easing a state of stress will also work. The whole point is not to treat meditation as a point of arrival in the spiritual life but rather as a gateway into the garden of your soul. That is your destination. As you pass through this holy gateway, you discard the external worries and concerns of the world. You leave the temporal and temporary behind and enter the freedom of true self. That is your goal.

Immediate benefits of meditation

The most immediate benefit of any meditation should be that you feel more calm and relaxed. It is an excellent way of combating stress. It should increase your ability to concentrate and generates a sense of a calm centre from which you may direct more of your energy into living more creatively in your personal talents and gifts. As we discover more about ourselves, our tolerance of others usually increases. Meditation can take you into different aspects of consciousness where new insights may come to you.

Healing with meditation

Here are just a few ways of using meditation to heal yourself in familiar personal situations which all of us sometimes suffer from:

Sadness

When someone says her heart is heavy, we know she is sad. Yet, we can be that way and not even realise it. It can be a hidden cause of our unhappiness. If you let your mind wander into the past you will soon discover if you are sad for the memories that surface will be of loss. Sadness comes from disappointments in your life and that includes being disappointed with yourself. This usually stems from having expectations of ourselves and others which are too high and desires which inflame our ego and don’t do anything for our sense of peace. Meditation is a way of going into your sadness and, by being within it, to understand its nature and be done with it for it is a dead thing. Say good-bye and be healed. Focus on this point:

If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish.
– Lao-tzu, The Tao Te Ching

Anxiety

We all know anxiety. It is natural reaction of fear, anger and stress. Our body chemistry has an automatic biological system for dealing with anxieties - chemicals and hormones rush about your body and make certain you are ready to flee from any threat. The demands of modern life often mean we are in anxiety overdrive most of the time. Show me what a man fears and I will show you what he is, is an old saying but the solution to the threat of anxiety is not to find courage to face the enemy - that is a practical weapon for other situations. To confront and deal with anxiety you need to enter a state of calm. In quieting the mind, you set the body at ease, its chemistry changes and the anxious state subsides. It is true that for some people just a few minutes sitting quietly will restore them. For most of us the stresses that flood our lives are so constant that we need to take stronger measures to restore a sense of balance and peace. Meditation is one of the most outstanding techniques to help you. This is not news but if you already know it, why haven’t you started to meditate? Today is a good day to be healed. Focus on this point:

Riches are not from abundance but from a contented mind.
– Hadith, Sayings of the Prophet Mohammed

Spiritual desolation

Spiritual desolation happens when we turn away from the positive in our lives. Sometimes we become negative in such tiny ways that we are unaware of it until these negatives collect together like drops of rain and flood us with a sense of desolation. We then feel nothing is worthwhile, that life has no meaning and that all we do is futile and all our efforts at happiness are in vain. Our frustration and hopelessness grows so enormous that we decide finally that God, if he existed in the first place, has gone away.

This is spiritual desolation and it relates to the promise of God. In our despair we have forgotten the universal and eternal aspect of our life, neglected the hope that knows no beginning and no end and, thus, denied love. Hope and love are the promises of the eternal in our lives. The important thing when you feel such spiritual desolation is to return to God as quickly as possible. Meditation facilitates this flight from the desert of self back to the sanctuary of inner space where you may recover in the embrace of the spirit.

Basic Meditation Practice: the relaxation response

One of the greatest obstacles to interior peace is nervous tension. Ten minutes spent releasing your tension before beginning each day will assist you in your ordinary living and when you are seeking to enter spiritual realms. The following exercises will help you start meditation. You will be putting your hand firmly on the Gateway of Meditation to push it wide open.

Exercise 1: Feeling is not thinking

This is an exercise to get in touch with bodily sensations. First sit comfortably in a chair. Close your eyes. Feel your back against the chair, then your chest as it expands with each breath. Become aware of your arms, then legs, feel the soles of your feet touching against the ground. Visit different parts of your body. Visualise them. Gently let them go. Sit now within the calm embrace of your body.

Summary:

  • Take off shoes and socks
  • Sit comfortably with eyes closed
  • Visualise your body
  • Feel your back
  • Feel your chest expand as you breathe
  • Feel your arms, then legs
  • Feel the soles of your feet on the ground
  • Focus on the calmness of your body

Exercise 2: Simple focusing

Here is an easy way to get yourself relaxed. Sit with your eyes closed for 20 minutes in a room which is quiet, breathe regularly, repeating during this time a single word like peace or one.If you are on a retreat try doing this each morning and at the conclusion of any talks or between items in the retreat program. Finally, do the exercise just before going to bed at night.

Summary:

  • Find a quiet room
  • Sit down
  • Breathe gently and regularly
  • Repeat a mantra of one word, such as peace
  • Do this for a set length of time from 10 to 20 minutes