I learned mindfulness of breathing from Buddhists (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order specifically) in Cambridge in the mid-nineties, and I also do a meditation called the "meditation on silence" that I learned from a book on Christian meditation (known "Zazen" by Zen Buddhists). In this article I'd like to look at why I think meditation is so powerful for Christians.
Meditation is a highly overloaded word with no clear meaning. Many people use it just to mean "thinking" (at best perhaps "deep thinking"), whilst others use it to mean "letting my mind wander wherever it wants". This last definition is particularly troubling as for me meditation (whatever the practise) means either a totally rested mind or a totally focused mind (ideally both), and a freewheeling mind is neither rested nor focused!
Anyway semantic wranglings aside, mindfulness simply means "awareness". The mindfulness of breathing is not directly a spiritual exercise, but is an exercise of the mind and soul to develop focused awareness. Essentially to practise being totally focused, having let go of all distractions, using the breath as the object of focus.
As this blog is primarily aimed at a Christian audience here's one of my favourite bible verses:
1 Kings 19:11-12Do me a favour. Pause for one minute, sixty seconds, and clear your mind. Don't think of anything, just be at peace and enjoy "being". Any thoughts that come into your head, just let them go. For a whole sixty seconds.
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice.
If you're anything like most people instead of enjoying a minute of peace and rest you just had a battle with your mind. As soon as you try to pause the freewheeling thoughts and vocalisation in your head a herd of clamouring voices, thoughts, worries and concerns all arose demanding attention.
How can you expect to hear the still small voice if you aren't in control of your mind and can't silence the other "voices" that demand attention? And the simple answer is that you can't hear it. This is why meditation is such a powerful thing. By developing the ability to focus you learn to let go of other distractions, to still the other voices in your mind and soul. Through focus you develop strength of mind, by letting go of distractions you cultivate stillness of mind. Not just powerful, but essential in being able to really hear God.
This is important, so I'll say it again. If you can't still and control your mind you can't *really* hear God. Not in any depth and substance. Not in the way that you could. If you want to be able to bear and hold any intensity of the life and power of God you need a soul that is capable of focus, a strong mind. So I strongly recommend *disciplined* exercise of the soul and mind, and I've yet to see a better exercise than meditation. Meditation doesn't replace prayer, but if you have an unfocused mind prayer is difficult and weak. A dedicated, determined approach to developing a strong mind will pay huge dividends in your prayer life. If you think you don't really need this, try again the experiment of stilling your mind for a whole minute, without wandering or drifting. Decide for yourself how much control over your own mind you have and how much you want.
As an added bonus, in the process of learning to focus you have to learn to let go of distractions. As you still the constant chattering of the mind, the whirring of the fast cogs of thought and worry, you become more aware of the deeper stirrings in your soul. As you let go of these too you can find release from things that have been trapped in your soul for years. This is my personal experience. Even things you didn't know still bothered you will float to the surface. If we want to bring to God our whole soul, all of our life and substance, this is another pre-requisite. It isn't a quick process, but it's sure and steady.
The specific practise I use most is called "Mindfulness of breathing". There are lots of resources online about this. I wrote up (a long time ago) how I do it:
If you find something better then *great* (and be sure to let me know), but if you don't then why not give it a try? (And sometime I'll tell you how it's changed my prayer life.)
If you do try meditating be prepared for it to be difficult. The mind is used to having free reign to wander and *everyone* struggles at first. It doesn't take long, maybe five or six times, before you push through the distraction and start to discover how relaxing and rewarding it can be. It doesn't take much longer than that, maybe a couple of weeks, before you start to really feel the benefits. You'll start to notice when your mind is freewheeling and be more able to return to rest. Like anything worth having, the kingdom pearl for example, a deep peace of mind takes determination and a struggle to obtain. The process of having to fight for it, fight to push through the distraction, fight to carve out some time in your schedule to make room for it, are part of what helps shape your character. Prove that finding depth with God is a priority for you by fighting to make it a reality in your life.