Last September, I took a two and a half day course in mindfulness (an updated version of this one). It was my first real exposure to mindfulness. We spent two days talking theory, technique and doing limited practice. Then the half day was spent in near complete silence, meditating.
As with most multi-day training seminars, I took a couple key ideas out of the seminar, vowed to practice and become proficient… and had completely fallen off the meditation wagon about six weeks afterwards.
Then a colleague gave me a copy of “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story” I like to think this was because she had an extra copy, and not a statement of my usual zen perceptions at work but… probably a little of column A and a little of column B. I worked my way through it this week.
The sarcastic “there are studies that back this up” version of mindfulness is, I think, a needed and necessary intermediary technique. As Dan Harris so eloquently lays out, lots of the talk of meditation is wreathed in a religious Buddhist understanding – or perhaps more accurately in the a western idealized & exoticised understanding of Buddhism. Meditation is a work that bespeaks hippies, patchouli and the prefix “transcendental”. (Or at least it was – it is being resurrected by books and courses like I’ve encountered.) I’m a scientifically-minded Christian (not an oxymoron), and deeply skeptical of patchouli. Still, the studies on mindfulness are compelling. And just as I see no conflict between God’s creation & scientific method, I don’t think that the Christianity that exploded across continents from the more rigid roots of Judaism would throw away a useful spiritual technique just because it wasn’t invented in Israel.
For those unfamiliar with the basics of mindfulness, the concept is to stop and pay attention to your own thoughts. This is done with meditation. In it’s simplest form, meditation is the practice of trying to create space between you and your thoughts. Usually you do this by focusing on your breathing, and every time your mind wanders (near constantly) you notice that it has wandered and focus on your breathing again. I’m told that over time, with practice, you eventually are able to respond to your thoughts with intention, instead of a near autonomic reaction. There’s all sorts of benefits ascribed to this sort of mindfulness, from blood pressure to managing temper to happiness.
I’ve thought quite a bit about how the stopping and listening is missing from my spiritual life. I’ve come to realize that what I loved about our Good Friday was just this. It was so long, so dark and so quiet. We had to do the hard work of sitting, quietly, by ourselves, and praying. In fact, apparently I was the only one who loved it, so we’ve switched to a less rigorous service that didn’t require sitting and praying for 60 minutes. But what is prayer but this kind of listening? Does God really need us to tell him what it is that’s on our mind? (Pro tip: God knows. Jesus said so. (Matthew 6:7&8 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”)
So if Jesus spent an entire night in the garden of Gethsemane praying, and he wasn’t rehearsing his finest arguments to God about why this whole “dying on a cross thing” was a terrible idea… what was he doing? What did that prayer look like? I suspect that there are few options other than perhaps this quiet listening and self reflection. If we still that inner voice, what is it we might indeed be able to hear? Perhaps the still soft voice of the Holy Spirit?
I think it is not impossible.
In meditation practice, it’s very clear that what you’re supposed to be doing is not thinking. It’s also clear that it’s nearly impossible to stop thinking. So the meditator is encouraged to forgive yourself and just start over and try again. While that advice is intended for within the meditation, perhaps it counts for the act of meditating, too. I’ve been distracted away from meditation. Instead of recriminations, perhaps I should just forgive myself and start over again, from the start. And see what might appear in whatever space it is I can create in my mind.
What about you? Have you ever tried meditation? Have you managed to keep it up? Does your spiritual practice contain something that isn’t meditation, but looks shockingly similar to it?