I sit in the chapel, cross-legged on the floor. Through the closed door I hear the dull thud of doors slamming shut, the hum of students conversing, and the buzz and bustle of a regular Tuesday evening. I fidget and move around so that I’m kneeling, and then prostrate myself on the floor. I breathe in and out, close my eyes, and hold still. I want to keep the busyness of the day at bay; the never ending to-do list threatens to invade the quiet space that I’ve created. I try to focus my thoughts: Am I just supposed to be thinking about God? Maybe I should just focus on trying to feel peaceful. Or is it that I’m supposed to be thinking about something about God’s character? What was that thing I was supposed to do for my hall director? When was the last time the carpet was cleaned? Crap, I’m not even thinking about God. OK. Now I’m hungry.
My first experience with the Christian discipline of meditation took place eight years ago. During my junior year of college I enrolled in a class entitled Responding to God. It was a crash course in prayer, reading the Bible, and practicing disciplines aimed at fostering a relationship with the Lord. Each week we were given a new task or exercise to put into practice. This particular week we had been instructed to find a quiet place – somewhere we wouldn’t be interrupted – so that we could simply sit and think about God. In addition to thinking about God we were supposed to listen to him. The entire week was a struggle.
I may be a natural born listener when it comes to my interpersonal relationships with friends and family, but when it comes to listening to God, I’m much better at thinking about all the things I could be doing rather than listening to him.
Aside from that week years ago, I have never incorporated meditation into my spiritual life. Like many people, I have associated the term with eastern religions, yoga classes, and modern psychology’s adoption of mindfulness. I’ve seen it used as a tool to combat anxiety and cope with trauma, but have given it little thought as a way to connect with God.
Perhaps that is part of the problem – my understanding of meditation as a spiritual practice has been skewed by the way it’s defined by the culture around me. In fact, the contemporary understanding of meditation is completely different than Christian meditation. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard J. Foster writes that in the contemporary cultural context, meditation is seen as an effort to empty oneself of thoughts and distractions. The effort is placed on letting go and freeing the mind. In contrast, the practice of Christian meditation is not a matter of becoming empty but a matter of making room for God to come and fill us up.
Additionally, Christian meditation is an ancient spiritual practice that exists independently of its eastern counterpart. There are numerous references to meditation throughout the Bible, and according to Foster, the two Hebrew words used to mean meditation appear a total of 58 times. Meditation appears with great frequency in the Psalms, where the author writes, “I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds,” in Psalm 77:12 and “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways,” in Psalm 119:15. More references to meditation can be found in Psalms 19, 38, 49, 63, 104, 143, and 145.
The type of meditation referred to in the biblical text is still relevant for Christians today. Foster puts it eloquently when he says, “What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.” It is not about becoming detached, but fostering and building the most important attachment of all, our attachment to God.
That’s it. It’s pretty simple. There’s not a special formula, and you don’t need to have achieved any sort of expertise or prowess in biblical knowledge or your prayer life to practice meditation. All you need is the willingness to schedule a specific time to practice meditation. Although that may sound simple, I found my own initial experience with meditation to be quite challenging. It was difficult to sit and allow myself to be present with God without being consumed by distracting thoughts.
This is why meditation is the first discipline that we are exploring as part of our spiritual practice series. As we look into the various ways that Christians can deepen their relationship with God, meditation is the fitting place to start – learning to direct our thoughts toward God and to listen to him is something that those in search of God and seasoned Christians can both practice. Other spiritual disciplines build upon the foundation that is developed through meditation. As Dallas Willard states in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, “Spiritual growth and vitality stem from what we actually do with our lives, from the habits we form, and from the character that results.”
It’s hard at the beginning to feel that meditating is actually productive. And the only way to get good at meditating is to do it habitually. That’s what I am trying to do now rather than to give up when I get discouraged, get hungry, or start thinking through my never ending to do list. I’m going to practice this and make it a habit. I invite you to practice along with me.
Prompts for Meditation
Try using some of these prompts to begin your meditation practice. Before you begin, find a place where you will be free from distractions. Set down your phone or turn it off. Find a place that will allow you to focus and actively engage… I do not recommend trying to meditate in bed before you fall asleep, because more often than not you will fall asleep (this is based on personal experience).
Scripture – Read a verse or small passage. As you sit quietly, dwell on it and the weight of its words.
Centering – A you sit to meditate, place your hands palms down as a symbol that you wish to give your concerns or worries to God. Inwardly, pray, “God, I give you my worry about work. I give you my anger at my mother. I give you…” After a few moments, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from God. You may pray inwardly, “God, I receive your peace, your patience, your joy.”