Experiencing God Through Meditation
Former Trappist monk James Finley talks about the spiritual benefits of contemplative practice for Christians.
You believe meditation has a transformative power and write that "It works." How does it transform you, how does it "work"?
The approach that seems helpful to me is to make a distinction between ego consciousness and more interior meditative states of awareness. By ego consciousness I'm referring to the modes of consciousness that are expressed when I say "I think" or "I remember" or "I want" or "I believe."
And the ego consciousness is a gift from God; it's through healthy ego consciousness that we get through life in the world. God wants us to have a healthy ego because when our ego is not healthy we suffer and those around us suffer. But the thing about ego consciousness is that in and of itself it's not gracious enough, it's not generous enough to be the subjective ground out of which we realize this oneness with God.
There are moments in which we're kind of unwittingly let out beyond ego consciousness and one example I give is standing alone looking at a sunset. In a very subtle but intimate way, while we're absorbed in the beauty of the sunset, we're at a moment of meditative awareness, beyond the intellect, beyond the memory and beyond the will. And whatever feelings that might come up, we also sense that the essence of the moment transcends emotion. We intuitively sense the richness or the fullness of the moment, and in terms of religious faith, we would say we sense God's nearness.
The next thing that tends to happen is that the moment like all moments slips away and we get back in our car and drive home and pick up things at the store and run our errands and so on. But when we reflect on that moment of the setting sun we long for a more daily abiding meditative awareness that we so fleetingly glimpsed.
Meditation then comes in as a response to that longing; it's a way of sincerely inviting or opening ourselves to this meditative oneness with God.
Does meditation change people? Does it make them, for example, more peaceful, more compassionate, more thoughtful?
My sense is that it does. Let's say that I'm struggling with a lot of things that are going on in my life right now: "Oh my God, what if the marriage does fall apart?" or "What if I do lose my job?" What is so invasive about all these stressors that we all go through is this perception that we are nothing but these things, that they have the power to name who we are. But if in deep meditation I can intimately experience a oneness with God that transcends all these things, that's the peace that surpasses understanding. I know that yes, I face these things today, these things are going on, but the taproot of my heart is grounded in the oneness that's not reducible to any of these things. And I think as people learn to habituate that awareness, it does transform their life.