meditation and beyond

I’m still meditating.

I don’t know if I’m getting anywhere, but I do feel a certain calm, and at least now it’s habitual.

My favourite meditation time of day at present is midwinter sunset, around 4pm. It’s that pivotal time between early afternoon, when there was still time to ‘do ministry’ (a pastoral visit or a meeting starting at 2pm) and late afternoon/early evening, when people who work from home shuffle off to put the kettle on and think about food before those of us who also have evening work, take a deep breath, check social media, and go out again at 7.

Maybe it’s because I spent so many years with a school run, but 4 o’clock is always a time I come home – even if’s now it’s coming home only to myself. 4 o’clock is breathing time, putting the kettle on time and taking stock time. Sofa, stroke cat, Earl Grey, meditation.

Before discovering mediation, I set out a while back to try and practice contemplative prayer – that is – to sit in God’s presence without saying anything. The 19th French priest John-Marie-Baptiste Vianney once found a peasant man sitting in church hour by hour, apparently doing nothing. When questioned, the peasant simply said, ‘I look at him and he looks at me’.

It’s the ultimate definition of prayer, of adoration. But before this came anywhere near being a reality for me, I knew I had to learn how to tame the mind. So I took up meditation. Also, I’d been unwell and needed to come to a better understanding of my mind and body, and how they functioned and could best flourish.

Meditation helps you to focus on the present moment by drawing attention to your breath, which in turn stills the mind from restless thoughts that assail us when we stop and sit still. You learn to notice when your mind has wandered (this is normal) and to bring it gently back. It teaches you that you have more control over your thought life than you realised. But in order for it work, you have to stop and sit still.

In terms of stopping, modern life has become lived at such a hectic pace that we are making ourselves ill with stress and over stimulation. Like our many devices, we sometimes need re-charging, but for personal re-charging, ironically, we need to unplug ourselves – from TV, radio, smart phone, background music and internal chatter.

But it’s not easy these days to unplug.

I watched the first Bond movie last night on the TV: Dr No, starring Sean Connery, and made in 1962. In comparison to a Bond made this decade, the scenes in Dr No were so slow my attention span was crying out in protest and I was sorely tempted to browse ebay at the same time.

But as we have a house rule of ‘no devices after supper’, this was not possible. I was forced to watch Sean Connery crawling through radioactive tunnels for at least 15 minutes at a time, sometimes stopping to look slowly around, or tie another bandage on his hand. With no fast paced scene changes, multiple weird camera angles, or any soaring background music, it was like having a prolonged lesson in mindfulness.

I’ve discovered meditation apps, which are great because someone’s meditative voice keeps telling you come back and focus on your breathing, which is helpful when after 4 or 5 seconds your wandering mind has already covered 1) what are we having for supper? 2) how late could I feasibly get up tomorrow? and 3) When do the A level exams start? (answer: they’re at least 5 months away so do not start worrying about them now).

But what about contemplation? Has that gone out of the window? And is it really necessary any more, because I do feel really chilled after meditating, especially when you get mood music and background sounds of waterfalls on your app.

I’ve met a number of non-religious people who meditate and it seems to serve many of the needs that “spiritual but not religious” people still have. It helps you focus, it makes you feel more peaceful and it has health benefits. But I think the difference is that meditation is essentially still about you, whereas prayer (or meditation which is specifically Christian) is about something greater than me.

I’ve come to see meditation techniques as the warm up for prayer. I can sit and think about my breathing and listen to calming music and waterfalls, but there’s still this hunger to connect with something bigger, and that for me has to be something that’s beyond creation. It’s something (someone) who created it in the first place. It’s like going back to first principles.

The trouble begins when the meditation app stops. At the end of my 12 minutes, I see I have done 10 meditations in a row and am being congratulated by some little dancing stars on my phone, and a crooning voice telling me I’m great. Then it’s phone off time, no more soothing waterfalls or vibraphone harmonies. The stimulation ends and I think, time for contemplation.

That’s when the real challenge begins. That’s when the chasm opens up. In terms of contemplation, I am still profoundly in the shallows, or perhaps shadows. But at least I can now sit still. So my body is assisting, not hindering me.

It’s a start.

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