Benedictine Monk Laurence Freeman OSB talks about what meditation is and provides a simple meditation technique that Christians, or anyone, can practice. Father Laurence describes the primary experience and nature of meditation, and outlines a simple but effective method using a sacred word or mantra.
What is Meditation?
What is meditation and how do we meditate? The word meditation is like the word “medicine.” It has this prefix “med,” which is a Greek prefix that means “care” or “attention.” When we meditate we are being careful, we are paying attention.
Meditation is a universal, spiritual tradition, wisdom. We find it in all the great religious traditions of the human family. Years ago I was teaching meditation, Christian meditation, in Australia. I was talking about the 2,000-year old tradition of Christian meditation, going back to the teaching of Jesus on contemplation. And then an aborigine, Christian aborigine, who was in the audience came up to me afterwards. He thanked me for the talk and he said, “You know, our people, my people, the aboriginals,” he said, “have been meditating for 40,000 years. We call it didgeri, which is a silent, non-questioning awareness, a harmony with the world around us.” They go to a sacred place, maybe a rock or near the river. He belonged to a river people. He said, “We just sit beside the river and feel the flow of the river and we open ourselves to the presence that is in nature.”
So meditation goes back to the very earliest intuitions of humanity of what lies deeper than the senses, or deeper than even our rational mind. In meditation you could say we go from the mind to the heart, from thought into silence, from words and images and planning and problem and analyzing–all the things that we do all the day in our active minds. We go deeper than the mind. We go into that place of the heart.
The heart is not just a romantic, emotional symbol. We find the heart as a symbol in all the spiritual traditions. And it is a symbol both of the interiority of the human person and also the wholeness of the human person, where the body, the mind and the spirit converge into the true Self, into the person I most deeply and truly am, through all the years and all the experiences of my life.
So meditation is our journey of consciousness, shifting the center of consciousness, from the mind to the heart. And we do that, not by trying to achieve anything, but simply by being still. Stillness is the primary experience of meditation. So when you meditate, sit physically still. The stillness of body will help to bring you to a stillness within, the stillness of mind.
Then we also practice silence, because in silence we are learning to pay attention. Remember that word “med,” to pay attention. We’re not thinking about God. We’re not thinking about the meaning of life. We’re not thinking about ourselves or our problems or solving our future plans. In meditation we’re not trying to have good thoughts, but we are letting go of all thoughts, moving to that deepest level where we are paying pure attention to pure being.
So silence is about attention, but in order to be silent to pay attention, it’s very helpful to have a quiet place. So when you meditate, try and find a quiet time and a quiet place.
And the third really important quality that we practice in meditation is simplicity. And by that I mean that we’re not analyzing ourselves. We’re not saying, “Am I happy? What don’t I have? What do I need to make me happy? What are my problems? What are my daydreams?” In meditation, then, we let go of thoughts, words, images, and daydreams. We come into the present moment. That’s the essence of all meditation. And it’s only in the present moment that we can find God, the God who is, the God who reveals the mystery of God as I am. “I am who I am,” God said to Moses.
How to Meditate
This is the nature of meditation, but how do we do it? How do we become silent, and simple and still? And how do we let go of our worries and plans and daydreams and desires and fantasies, and slip into the only place where we truly are real, which is the present moment?
In the Christian tradition there’s a very simple method, taught from the beginning of the Christian spiritual tradition, which has deep resonance with the same method taught in other traditions even older than Christianity. And that is to take a word, a single word, short phrase, a sacred word, a mantra, and to repeat this word continually, gently, faithfully, attentively, during the time of the meditation. The saying of the word is what focuses our consciousness. It’s what stills the mind. It’s what takes the attention off our busy, active and distracted minds.
So you don’t have to fight your distractions. Just let them go. And when you do get distracted which, of course, happens all the time, when you do get distracted simply come back to the saying of your word.
The next most important thing is to know what word to choose, and because you want to stay with this word all the way through the meditation and from day to day. The recommendation of all traditions is to take a sacred word, the word that is sacred in your own tradition. Stay with the same word and give your full attention. It’s helpful if it’s not in your own language because that means it’s easier to get out of your head and to let go of thoughts, even good thoughts.
The word I would recommend is the word, “Maranatha.” It’s a beautiful prayer word, a beautiful mantra. It’s in the language that Jesus spoke, Aramaic, and it means, “Come, Lord.” You’re not thinking about the meaning as we say it. And St. Paul ends the First Letters to the Corinthians with it. So it’s a scriptural word of great sacredness, the oldest Christian prayer.
If you choose that word say it with just four syllables: “Ma-ra-na-tha.” Listen to the word as you say it. Don’t visualize it. Just listen to it as you say it. As thoughts come, let them drop, let them go, and keep returning to your word.
So this is how you meditate. You sit down. You sit still. Sit with your back straight so that you are alert and awake. Meditation is about being awake. Close your eyes lightly. Sit relaxed. Breathe normally. And then silently, in your mind and heart, begin to say your word, your mantra. The word again I would suggest is “Maranatha, Ma-ra-na-tha.”
That’s the simple way of meditation. It’s very simple, not easy, but you can meditate at any point in your life. You start to meditate from where you are. You can teach a child of six to meditate. You could meditate on your death bed. The important thing is to start where you are, to accept yourself where you are, and begin to deepen your spiritual journey from the place you find yourself to be.
Regular practice and community
If you want to meditate seriously, build it into your life, then meditate twice a day. Aim at this twice daily rhythm of beginning the day and ending the day with about twenty minutes of meditation on each occasion.
And if you want to strengthen, to deepen, to encourage that practice, then be in touch with others who meditate. Meditate with them regularly. The community that grows out of meditation is a community of spiritual friendship. If you’d like to contact one such community, a Christian meditation community, you can do so through the internet, wccm.org, or for younger meditators, thespiritualsolution.com.
The community that meditation creates begins with the harmony, the peace, that we find within ourselves. It’s a simple way, and it’s a way that leads to fullness of life
About Laurence Freeman
Dom Laurence Freeman OSB is a monk of the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation. Fr Laurence was born in England in 1951 where he was educated by the Benedictines and studied English Literature at Oxford University. Before entering monastic life he had experience with the United Nations, banking and journalism. In the monastery his spiritual teacher was John Main with whom he studied and whom he helped in the establishment of the first Christian Meditation Centre in London.