Meditation is the key to living a sacred life.
It is the key that unlocks the chamber to an inner life of tranquility. Meditation is also the indispensable discipline you must practice in order to know a sacred, spiritual life.
If meditation is the indispensable link, therefore, even the key to living a sacred life, what is meditation and how may I learn to practice it?
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is easier to define than it is to practice. As a definition, meditation is the progressive quieting of the mind.
It is just that simple.
And, it is just that difficult.
I have always loved Sir Edward Dyer’s poem, “My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is”
My mind to me a kingdom is, such present joys therein I find
That it excels all other bliss, that world affords or grows by kind.
Though much I want, which most would have, yet still my mind forbids to crave
They get with toil, they keep with fear; such cares my mind could never bear.
Content I live, this is my stay;
I seek no more than may suffice; I press to bear no haughty sway;
Look! What I lack my mind supplies.
Lo! Thus I triumph like a king, content with that my mind doth bring.
Some have too much, yet still do crave; I little have and seek no more.
They are but poor, though much they have, And, I am rich with little store.
They poor, I rich; they beg I give. They lack, I leave, they pine, I live.
But all the pleasures that I find, It is to maintain a quiet mind.
How then, do you “quiet the mind” through meditation? That’s the first question that must be answered before asking how to “maintain” a quiet mind.
1. A specific time and place is important when learning the art of meditation.
In the early days of my spiritual practice, I would try to engage in the practice of meditation at about the same time every day and certainly the same location. For me, it was getting up at five o’clock in the morning and meditating in the front room of our house, while sitting on a coach. Some people get into the lotus position, as it is called. But that never seemed to work for me. I chose sit up instead on a couch but in a position where I would not as likely fall asleep. Sometimes, however, I fell asleep anyway.
Although I no longer use that same place to meditate today, I still regard it as a sacred place. Places become sacred with practice. The manner in which I meditate, however, has remained the same. More often than not, I use the same posture whenever and wherever I meditate. If there is a couch or a reclining chair available, that’s what I typically use.
You will have to find the method that works for you. If you are serious about meditation, try the lotus position first. You may just find it works for you. It has millions of others for hundreds of years.
2. A specific method or practice of meditation is important.
I used a method one of my spiritual teachers taught to me – the Japa Method of Meditation. This is an Eastern practice, but a Lectio Divina practiced by many Benedictine monks and practitioners of the Roman Catholic faith is based on this method.
I found the Japa method to be the most helpful. For an introduction into the mechanics of this method and its specific practice, I would suggest you read the layperson’s take on it and, among those, few would be better than Wayne Dyer’s book, Getting in the Gap: Making Conscious Contact with God through Meditation. While not the most comprehensive book on Japa meditation, it is a good introduction with specific guidance in its actual practice.
There are many different practices of meditation, however, You may need to try several before finding one that works best for you. In recent months, for example, I have enjoyed a meditation series produced by Deepak Chopra and Oprah. Now, after several offerings, they have a wonderful collection of meditations that will help you get started. Check out the link and see for yourself.
3. Have few expectations of meditation.
That may sound like a strange suggestion but it is important to be mindful of what you’re expecting meditation to do for you. And, most of your expectations should probably be discarded.
It might be better in fact to have no expectations at all. With practice, the benefits of meditation will become obvious enough. Most likely, however, you will not notice the benefits until the practice becomes as essential and as habitual as your morning coffee.
People who stay with diets eventually lose weight. People who consistently exercise as a means of getting in shape do not depend on any of their expectations for their primary motivation. Hence, they are able to stay with those practices, especially during the difficult times when the benefits of their efforts are barely noticeable. Which is most of the time.
To help you identify unconscious expectations you may have about meditation, ask yourself the question: “Why am I beginning this practice? What am I expecting from meditation?”
Now, do not misunderstand.
I can almost hear someone saying, “Are you suggesting, if my expectation for practicing meditation is to enhance my sacred life, I should give up that expectation?”
Well, as strange as it may sound, that is precisely what I’m suggesting.
Maybe this clarification will suffice. What I am suggesting is that you simply be aware of your motivations and expectations regarding this or any spiritual practice. Awareness is all that is necessary. There is no need whatsoever to purge your desires. Just be aware of them. That is enough.
This way, when meditation does not feel as if it is enhancing your sacred self – which will sometimes be the case – you will nevertheless stay with the practice, knowing the benefits will be forthcoming. In time, you will discover that you feel spiritually-renewed, even when your meditation is interrupted by someone or something or does not produce the same feelings of peace or tranquility every time.
4. Remember the primary purpose of meditation: It is to awaken in you a deeper awareness of this present moment.
When you are present, you are in Presence. You’re in Presence whether you are aware or not. Meditation trains you to be more alert, more aware, more in touch with this present moment. Hence, you are never more spiritually-connected than when you are grounded in Being itself, to borrow Paul Tillich’s famous phrase. Meditation is by design the means by which you enter into a deeper connection to with the present moment or Presence herself.
People may practice meditation for different reasons. Some for health or relaxation; others for happiness; and, still others meditate in hopes of altering their brain chemistry.
That is correct.
Recent brain research, for example, now tells us that frequent meditators seem capable of changing the genetic make-up or chemistry functions within their brains. In other words, meditation seems to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter within the brain associated with positive, happy or tranquil feelings.
While all of these are positive benefits of meditation, the real purpose, however, is far more altruistic. It is to bring you into the present more completely. While that may seem just as self-motivated as the other reasons for meditating, the fact is, when you meditate, you become more and more free of yourself. Altruism is the consequence of a meditative practice. Which is why some people define meditation as the key to transformation.
The former Catholic nun turned Buddhist, Pema Chodron puts it like this: “We do not meditate to become good meditators. We meditate in order to be more awake.”
Two spiritual teachers spoke of the same reality although they used two different metaphors.
The Buddha and His Disciples
What enlightenment is to a Buddhist, salvation is to a Christian. Both are designed to awaken the spiritual practitioner to the eternal – which is only ever this present moment. There is no past or future, except as memory or anticipation. There is only ever now. The present may be filled with thoughts about the past but thoughts about the past are only ever thought about this present moment.
The same is true of the future. Thoughts about the future…even the future itself…if and when it ever appears, it does so only as this present moment.
When you understand that this is the nature of reality, you will begin to understand the longing you feel inside to be free. Therefore, all spiritual traditions offer a pathway to salvation…enlightenment…nirvana. What you call the spiritual goal is secondary. What you experience is universal. And, that experience is the joy…the focus…the freedom…the peace and tranquility of living completely and fully into this moment.
It is here you meet the deepest needs in yourself and in the lives of those around you.
When the Buddha was asked, “What do you and your disciples do?” he answered, “We eat, we walk, we sleep.”
“But,” pressed his inquirer, “how is that enlightenment? Don’t we all eat, walk and sleep?”
“Indeed, we do,” replied the Buddha. “But when my followers eat, they know they are eating. When they walk, they know they are walking. When they sleep, they are aware they are sleeping. That is the difference.”
Jesus and His Disciples
One day, Jesus and his disciples saw a man born blind. “Rabbi,” he was asked, “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
The clever way in which we avoid the immediate is by focusing on the insignificant. Which is precisely what those around Jesus had done and were doing with the blind man. Instead of entering into the moment at hand, they gave their attention to the man’s past and what either he or his parents had done that resulted in his blind condition.
What each of us need “saving” from is both the past and the future. Which is the point of Christian salvation. Those who think Jesus came to be God’s scapegoat for sin or simply the means by which you can have a future in heaven miss the point of salvation entirely. Jesus, like Buddha before him, came to save you from yourself.
Meditate on this and see what happens.