Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Breathing Meditation

What is meditation?

This is about setting time aside to be calm and at peace. It is very different from most other types of prayer in that it is not about talking to God, or even listening to God, but simply being there. The aim is simply to sit there, trying to free your mind from thinking about anything in particular. You are not trying to achieve anything, or say anything, or do anything: you are just taking time to be.

In the Christian tradition, this tends to be called Contemplative Prayer rather than Meditation, but the technique or discipline is very similar. In Christian contemplation, the underlying assumption is that when you spend time just being, you are being with God. You don’t even have to busy yourself thinking good thoughts about God: just be, and let yourself become aware of yourself in God’s presence.

Meditative techniques

When you try it, you may well find that it is surprisingly hard to simply sit still in silence, even for a few minutes. Because people tend to find this very difficult, various different practices have developed to help you focus. The two main ones are concentrating on your breathing, and repeating the same word or phrase over and over - usually either in silence, or just under your breath. These are well known techniques in virtually every spiritual tradition. They are often combined, so that you say a word, or part of a phrase, on the in breath, and repeat it, or say the other part of the phrase, on the out breath.

The actual word or phrase (known as a ‘mantra’ in some spiritual traditions) isn’t important. It is simply there to help you meditate, rather than saying it being the point of the exercise (and it certainly doesn’t have any sort of magical power). The most common phrase used in the Christian tradition is a very old, short prayer known as the Jesus Prayer: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, A Sinner’. Other people use a favourite bible verse, or simply the word ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’. Don’t worry about choosing the ‘right’ word. For now, I suggest that you use the Jesus Prayer if you want to use words.

Some people also find visualisation helpful. You can begin your meditation by imagining going into a secluded, beautiful place - somewhere where you are alone and safe, and can leave whenever you want. Imagine yourself walking across a threshold into that place: going through a gateway or door, or down some steps, and then sitting there. For example, you could imagine walking down some steps into a sunken garden, or through a gate into a meadow, or along a path through sand dunes to a beach.

Physically, concentrating on your breathing calms you down and makes you more aware of your own body. Mentally, it helps you to free your mind from distractions, and it gives you something to focus on while you deliberately choose to take time out of your busy life to spend that time on prayer or meditation. Spiritually, taking time to just be with God helps us to focus on who we really are in relation to God, and helps counter-act the tendency for us to want to ‘get really good’ at prayer. It helps us to become aware of our true selves, with all the things that we do and say to try to give a good impression to other people stripped away. It also gives us space to listen to God, and to receive any image or suggestion that God may be trying to give us but that we are normally too busy to hear: but don’t let ‘trying to hear God’ become the point of the exercise! The aim is simply to be: don’t expect any particular results.

The Experiment

First, find somewhere where you can be comfortable, still and undisturbed. Most people sit, but find a position that is most comfortable for you: what matters is that you can stay there for the time you have set aside.

Now set an alarm on your phone etc., to set the amount of time you are going to set aside. I suggest that you start with 10 minutes - you may want to build up to 20 minutes or half an hour over time.

Then shut your eyes, and begin to concentrate on your breathing. Be aware of each breath in - and out. If you are saying the Jesus Prayer, say a phrase on each breath, in and out. You will probably find that your breathing begins to slow down.

After a while, become conscious of your body: of the weight of your limbs, how it feels to be sitting. You might find that you begin to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious. You might also find yourself disturbed by noises from outside your room. Just notice what you are feeling or hearing. Notice it kindly, don’t tell yourself off for being distracted by it. Mentally acknowledge what is there, then focus on your breathing again.

It is completely normal to find that all sorts of thoughts and worries come rushing in - from big important things that you must remember to do, to all sorts of trivialities. It is also normal to find that you suddenly realise your mind has wandered. Again, don’t worry. When you notice a thought, a worry, or a feeling, or realise that your mind has wandered, just notice it kindly, and then consciously return your focus to your breathing. It is when you are distracted like this that repeating something like the Jesus Prayer can be particularly helpful, as it gives you somethign to focus on when you need to bring your attention back.

Doing this may well feel really weird. We are very rarely still, silent, and have nothing to keep our minds occupied. So when we do, it can feel very uncomfortable. Even those who make a habit of doing this for half an hour or more a day find it difficult at times. You may find yourself getting very annoyed. Just accept any weirdness and discomfort, notice it, and keep concentrating on your breathing.

If you are using the Jesus Prayer, you may want to drop parts of it as you go, so that it gets shorter. In the end, you may be left with only one or two words, just repeating those on the in and out breaths.

Keep at it until your alarm sounds. If you visualised going somewhere, now visualise leaving it: walking back out through that threshold, knowing you can return whenever you want. If you were using the Jesus Prayer, say it one last time and then say ‘Amen’, out loud.

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