written by Geoff Colvin
Meditation—by different names, underpinnings of belief, and formats—is a central practice in all of the world’s major religions: Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity. In the next three sections (Getting Started, Refreshing Your Beliefs, and Maintaining Your Practice) I use meditation as a generic term for prayer forms that share common features: letting go of self, journeying within in stillness and silence, and using few or no words while intentionally resting in the presence and action of God.
Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity of attending group meditations as well as practicing meditation at home. In this time, I have come to realize that while many people are drawn to meditation, both group and individual, practices vary widely. Some people develop an on-again off-again practice, while others start out with great enthusiasm and then leave for a number of reasons. A third group builds and sustains a regular practice. I have often wondered—why is it difficult for some, and manageable for others, to develop and sustain a meditation practice?
To pursue this question more fully, I gathered information by interviewing several people who practiced meditation to varying extents. In addition, I explored the subject in published spiritual writings and from online information and have reflected on my own practice. From these sources I identified several factors that appear to help individuals develop and sustain their meditation practice as well as factors that contribute to diminishing or ending their practice.
For this article, I focus on Christian approaches. My informal surveys were conducted with people predominantly affiliated with Christianity and the source material from spiritual writings centered on Christian beliefs and practices. Different forms of meditation exist within Christian practices, such as Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Prayer of the Heart, Lectio Divina, Ignatian Contemplation, and Discursive Meditation.
Whether you have just begun to meditate or have a regular practice, the following suggestions may help enrich and sustain your meditation practice and address factors likely to weaken your practice.
- Getting Started
Group meditation brings a special energy which we don’t experience when meditating alone. In addition, group meditations provide a regular structure that generates a special kind of bonding and camaraderie between members which help to sustain attendance. Members look forward to seeing each other and chatting before and after the meeting. Meditating in a group also makes participants more aware of belonging to something larger than one’s self.
It is important to take steps to explore whether a particular group gathering is a good fit for you. Check out groups in your area and attend a meeting or two to discern whether or not a particular group will work for you.
Meditating alone is not necessarily inferior to group meditation, nor do you need to choose one over the other. Many report that they practice both individual and group meditation, and that this combination serves to enrich and sustain their overall practice.
Group meditation can be intimidating for a new person. It is helpful for newcomers to connect with a person who is a member of the group. Having a friend or contact at the meeting provides support and encouragement that can allay fears. The support person can provide information on what to expect and can share simple strategies for dealing with common difficulties and distractions: dealing with “monkey mind,” restlessness, fidgeting, and the sense that time is dragging. In this way newcomers better understand that these difficulties are quite normal. It is also particularly helpful for the support person to meet with the newcomer after the meeting to de-brief the experience.
Tips for an Establishing an Individual Practice
At a practical level, the following concrete details can help to anchor your practice:
- time of day
- specific location
- length of meditation period
- how to start and end
- physical set-up such as dimmed lights, candles, or shrine
- use of chair, meditation bench, or cushion and mat
- choice of posture to ensure comfort and attentiveness
- frequency of meditation period
- whether to mediate in a group, at home, or both
- use an App for guidance and tracking
Addressing these seemingly mundane details in your own way and following them consistently can help to establish and support a continued practice.
Given that meditation involves an inward journey, learning how to be still is a definite challenge. Even when you sit and settle your body you will likely find that the mind takes over, and soon you are flooded with thoughts, plans, feelings, and endless distractions. Here are some helpful strategies for slowing down the mind:
- attend to your breathing so that it is even and relaxed
- count your breaths
- repeat a sacred word or phrase (for example “Jesus,” or “My Lord and My God”)
- focus on some object such as a candle or statue
- cast your eyes down and look at a spot on the floor with soft eyes
- listen to some prayerful music for a short opening period
Keep in mind that with practice these strategies become second nature over time.
Coupled with the need for stillness of body and mind is the importance of establishing silence. Over the centuries spiritual writers have taught that it is in silence that God reveals His love to us. Silence, however, does not mean an absence of noise, as we cannot live in that kind of bubble. We can, though, choose a setting where noise is minimized and silence maximized. Moreover, silence in meditation really means silence of the mind, so that when some noise occurs, we accept it as a necessary part of our environment as part of the deal.
Expressing Your Intention
A common practice to begin a meditation is to simply and briefly express or pray your intention. That is, to establish the mindset of accepting God’s invitation to let go of all attachments and to rest in the Divine presence and action. Some practitioners use a set prayer while others prefer to use a word or phrase, as in Centering Prayer, that symbolizes their intention to become one with God during and following the meditation. In addition, as you proceed in the meditation you can use this prayer, word, or phrase when distractions arise (and they surely will), to renew your intention and gently bring yourself back to resting in God’s presence and action.
- Refreshing Your Beliefs
Several practitioners reported difficulty in reconciling what they were previously taught about faith and prayer with the underpinnings of their current meditation practice. It is as if their beliefs need updating. By reviewing the following five pivotal beliefs for meditation, you may be able to more fully inform and enrich your Christian meditation practice.
Meditation is an inward journey that rests on a fundamental belief that God already resides at the center of your being known as the divine indwelling. Here meditation becomes an invitation to union with God at the very core of your being—to become one with God.
This astonishing belief in divine indwelling, and its implications, can be quite challenging and daunting to many Christians. To consolidate and strengthen this belief, you may wish to take steps to become more informed on teachings related to the divine indwelling, such as reading scripture and spiritual writings, seeking spiritual direction, and participating in available classes and online courses.
Prayer is a Gift from God
Prayer is intrinsically and fundamentally a gift from God. Unfortunately, many practitioners think that sheer effort, along with an endless search for methods of prayer, can make meditation simply happen. Believing that prayer is a gift from God frees us to assume a much more passive and receptive mode. Rather than focusing too much on technique, we can put our energy into being receptive and responsive to this gift and to trust where it may take us. For me personally, this belief has made the biggest impact to my own practice. As I learned to accept that meditation is a gift, I have taken a more effortless approach to resting in the presence and action of God.
A Spiritual Pathway—Paved with Detachment
A major obstacle to our inward journey to communion with God is attachments—the desire for material possessions, recognition, honor, accomplishments, power, success, wealth, comfort, and satisfaction of physical wants or needs. Letting go of these attachments becomes both a critical first step and an ongoing challenge as we meditate. We develop a deep trust in God, believing that in exercising detachment we create a void, an open and waiting space, that is then filled by God Himself. Spiritual writers repeatedly remind us that the practice of detachment increasingly opens us to receive the loving action of God.
Doing God’s Will—Response to An Invitation
Christians commonly believe that to fully follow the spiritual pathway we must seek and align our will with God’s will. However, there is something quite daunting about “abandoning our will.” A richer interpretation is to see God’s will as an invitation so that our consent becomes an openness, a receptivity, and responsiveness to this divine invitation—and radical trust in where it may take us.
Resting in the Presence and Action of God
Once we let go of your thoughts and feelings and enter a more wordless phase, we well may ask, “What do I do now?” At this juncture, simply assume a position of waiting, trusting, and gently resting in the presence and action of the divine indwelling. Yes, this position can be challenging, and require a leap in faith. Yet life experiences can shed new light on what this level of prayer looks like. For example, some interview responders saw parallels with their own life experiences:
- sitting in front of a fire
- watching waves rolling in at the coast
- walking through a sunlit forest
- gazing at a vast canyon
- holding a new-born child
- listening to some deep and meaningful music
- relaxing in a chair in a still and quiet space
These fellow meditators reported that each of these cases brought them a sense of immersion—becoming one with the moment and the experience.
- Maintaining Your Practice
We have been looking at some of the logistics for setting up meditation and reviewing some key underpinning beliefs. Now, let’s explore those factors that either support or impede our practice once we are underway with meditation.
Seeking Spiritual Direction
Spiritual direction is a centuries-old practice involving a one-to-one relationship with an experienced or trained professional. The object is to provide assistance to individuals as they deal with the ups and downs in their life-long spiritual journey. The spiritual director is like a companion who carefully listens to the concerns, experiences, and challenges of individuals and helps them discern and respond to God’s action in their lives. Practitioners typically find spiritual direction from trained professionals, clergy, and those experienced in pastoral care.
The Experience of Darkness, Boredom, or Dryness
It is safe to say that once you begin to meditate on a regular basis that it is only a matter of time before difficulties arise. It is as if “the honeymoon is over.” Spiritual writers consistently warn that when you open yourself in meditation, surrender to God’s will, and assent to God’s action, you likely will experience a profound void characterized by periods of darkness, uncertainty, or confusion. These writers explain that such experiences are a necessary part of the spiritual journey requiring you to fully trust that God will lead you from this darkness to the light of Divine Healing at some point. The basic message is to stay the course. However, if individuals are significantly disturbed by what they are facing, they should seek additional support or professional help.
Unfortunately, some participants misinterpret this state of emptiness or dryness as a sign that meditation is not for them. Group leaders, or seasoned practitioners, are strongly encouraged to inform those seeking meditation, or just starting out, to expect a level of boredom or dryness as they develop their practice. The best advice is to stay with it, endure the period of dryness, and remain steadfast in the practice.
Beware of Expectations—Make Room for God
One of the biggest impediments to developing a regular practice in meditation is our need to set expectations. Unfortunately, the human predisposition to take charge may lead you to seek control and feel responsible for what happens during and following your meditation. When these expectations are not met, you may conclude that you are doing something wrong and seek other methods. Or you may determine that meditation is “not for me.”
Try to remind yourself continually that meditation is a gift from God, a way to become one with God at the center of your being. Your role then is to rest in the Divine Presence and to be open, receptive, and responsive to whatever you may feel drawn to during or following your meditation. We are invited to step aside—to make room for God!
It is also critical that you not judge your meditation. Such judgment is futile because you can evaluate a meditation only in terms of your own expectations, which are counterproductive to letting go and resting in the presence and action of God.
Fear of Facing Your Self
Practitioners often report that consistently spending time in meditation gives them a clearer picture of who they are, what is important to them, what character issues they may have, and similar insights. This closer contact with reality and becoming more aware of troubling aspects of themselves can unsettle individuals dealing with personal struggles:
- recovering from addictions such as alcohol, drugs, video gaming, gambling, pornography
- past or habitual serious problem behavior (for example, temper outbursts, violence, compulsive stealing, chronic lying)
- personal flaws or character defects that cause lack of trust in one’s self (for example, always blaming others, holding resentments)
Meditation can bring individuals closer to these troublesome issues, called their false self by spiritual writers, sometimes bringing discomfort to the extent that practitioners will abandon their practice. They find themselves unable to accept that the real core of their being is their true self made in the image and likeness of God and that God’s gift of deep healing is available. Rather, they see this core as seriously flawed and not redeemable.
While there are no short-cuts to help those of us afflicted in these ways, the key is to continually remind ourselves of the core belief that you, along with everyone else, are created in the image and likeness of God. That God’s steadfast love is always present, regardless of the contours of your life journey. The key suggestion is to remain resolute in your practice, trust in God’s healing love, and trust that with God’s grace, the ability to embrace your true self will grow over time.
Engaging in Supportive Practices
The best way to see meditation is not as an independent exercise but as an integral part of your spiritual journey. You can support and enrich your meditation practice by other spiritual practices. For example, retreats, which offer an opportunity for extended meditation periods, can serve to strengthen and deepen your regular meditation practice. Similarly, regular spiritual reading; online classes; participation in church services and activities; spiritual direction and counseling; creating space through walks and immersion in nature’s beauty; and engaging in community service work can create reciprocal benefits with your meditation practice.
While many are drawn to the practice of meditation, it is evident that fewer cultivate, sustain, and nurture their practice over time. I hope what I have learned through interviews with practitioners, the study of spiritual literature, and my own experience can help you to maintain and enrich your meditation practice—and to avoid the pitfalls that can impede the practice of meditation. Whether your practice has just begun or is well established, I hope you find helpful guidance from these suggestions about developing and sustaining your meditation practice and experience growth in your spiritual journey.
Dr. Geoff Colvin is a retired University of Oregon research associate, instructor, and public-school educational consultant. He has authored more than sixty publications on the subject of teaching and managing students with behavior disorders. Presently he devotes his time to enjoying retirement, writing on spiritual topics, and involvement with the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Eugene, Oregon.