Meditation is probably the most misunderstood of all Christian practices. The word just makes us think of sitting cross-legged, our hands turned up and resting on our knees, humming and floating in the air like an old man in a bad kung-fu movie.
As a result, most Christians have abandoned this ancient and beneficial practice out of fear of its connection with eastern spirituality and mysticism. We feel much safer reading devotional books or listening to sermons because it is so much more comfortable to learn about another’s experience of God than to experience him ourselves. Perhaps we read our bibles and pray prayers of intercession. These things, while beneficial, if used in isolation can confine our relationship with God to His allotted time. We seek to reduce God to some entity that can be learned without being known.
But meditation is not a strange thing to be afraid of. In fact, it is just the opposite. It is an integral part of the Christian life. Meditation is the deliberate filling of our mind with the things of God and opens us to letting God break out of his designated time slot and into our whole day. Meditation heightens our awareness of God’s love for and presence with us. Meditation destroys the illusion that we can simply learn God. One of the great masters of Christian meditation, Thomas Merton wrote:
“The aim of meditation, in the context of Christian faith, is not to arrive at an objective and apparently “scientific” knowledge about God, but to come to know Him through the realization that our very being is penetrated by His knowledge and love for us.”
Meditation is about knowing God by realizing how deeply he knows and loves us. When we see this love we begin to see the God who IS love.
So then, given its importance, how do we begin to practice meditation?
Time and Place
Eventually the practice of meditation can become so natural that we do it anytime and any place. But as we begin it is good to set aside a time and place as we develop the necessary spiritual muscles.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests morning since “the first moments of the new day are not the time for our own plans and worries, not even for our zeal to accomplish our own work, but for God’s liberating grace, God’s sanctifying presence.” Before the day even begins we give the first of it to presence with God so that time may influence the remainder of the day.
To help focus the mind find a place free of distractions like ringing phones or TVs. Maybe one day you can meditate in a crowded mall or while stuck in traffic, but for now take baby steps. There is no reason to add unnecessary distractions to your attempts. Just be mindful to avoid associating the place with some special presence of God. God is universally present and your place of meeting him is not the only place.
Our physical state can influence our spiritual state and so we should be mindful of our posture during meditation. There is no rule for posture. Just find a position that is most comfortable and least distracting. The most common is sitting up right, with your feet firmly planted in front of you, and your hands resting on your thighs. Some people close their eyes. Other people find closing their eyes increases the distraction from surrounding noises and prefer to keep them half open (I am one of these people). If you do keep your eyes open, find a focus point and continue to look at that.
In Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline he suggests using this simple form of meditation he calls centering. Place your palms down as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn any concerns you may have to God. Pray a simple prayer releasing any concerns you have, for example “Lord, I give you my anger with John.” After several moments of surrender, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord. Pray something like, “Lord, I would like to receive your divine love for John.” Spend the remaining time in silence, do not pray for anything, but just be with God.
Dryness in Meditation
Occasionally meditation may seem fruitless. We feel as if we are wasting our time, when this happens Francis de Sales encourages us to be like Jacob and hold onto the divine demanding a blessing. But if you still feel your meditation is dry, do not be discouraged. Remind yourself that God is present everywhere and in everything and was with you even if you did not sense it. Like all exercises, whether physical or spiritual, the transformation lies in diligence. Your father who sees in secret will reward you.