About three years ago I was listening to a Sunstone Symposium recording (a “Pillars of my Faith” talk) given by John Kesler where he talked about his conversion to the gospel after being an atheist for quite a while. He also mentioned that later in his life as a member of the church he started meditating with a Zen Buddhist which led him to feel incredible love and connection with God, which has also allowed him to occasionally hear God’s voice. He also described the experience as training one’s thoughts and gaining self mastery. As a result, I was intrigued with the concept of meditation as a spiritual practice and decided to look into it some more.
I found out that meditation is a part (or has been a part) of the spiritual practice of Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. for thousands of years. I started paying attention to the use of the word meditation in the correlated materials and the word is often used in conjunction with prayer, scripture study, and fasting as a means to feeling God’s presence and experiencing personal revelation. However, the context that I believe most Mormons use the word is often synonymous with the concept of pondering, or thinking deeply about something; rather than as a systematic mental exercise. The spiritual practice of meditation in other traditions seems to be somewhat different than what I think Mormons do (though it may still be parallel in some regards).
So, to make a long introduction even longer, I’ve been reading articles by Adam Miller in Element as well as in posts he has written for a blog he regularly contributes to where he consistently describes graces as an imminent and ubiquitous reality, a reality that one only needs to pay attention to in order to experience. Like Blake Ostler, I think that Adam Miller is one of the brightest minds in the theological contributions he is making to the church. Anyway, Adam writes often about Buddhism and grace and networks and other paradigm-shifting ideas. The way Adam writes has made me reflect much more deeply on the benefits of meditation.
So, after 3 years letting the impulse marinate (which is why God doesn’t talk to me most of the time), I finally decided to pick up a bunch of books from the Provo library on meditating. In one of the books (which is an introduction to meditation), I found an insightful overview about the purpose of meditation. The author pointed out that the purpose of meditation is to be “awake”: awake to the reality of the present, awake to the reality and needs of other people, and awake to the thoughts that we entertain. An awareness of the moment is achieved through the practice of meditation and one becomes aware of the spiritual laws that are operative in the world and with which one must align one’s life in one’s daily walk to experience peace and happiness. This resonates with me since I believe that God lives his life with us; fully attentive to our lives, perfectly aware and engaged in our every thought in every moment.
So here is how I was taught to meditate: It is done by focusing one’s attention on just one thing and keeping one’s attention on that one thing (though I’m not sure, I think with my limited experience that “thinking” can almost be eliminated and turn into “experiencing” the sensations of the moment). In the first exercise he recommends focusing on one’s breath and the sensation of breathing. He wrote that training the mind is like training a puppy. You take your puppy and put it on some newspaper in the middle of the room and tell it to stay on the paper. Of course the puppy doesn’t obey, but it just runs off. You go pick up the puppy and bring it back to the middle of the room. It runs off. You pick it up again. It stays a little longer this time before running off. You get the idea. One’s train of thought is the puppy. Every time you realize that you aren’t focusing on the experience and the sensation of breathing you pick up your train of thought and go back to focusing on breathing. You don’t berate the puppy or give up when it wanders off, you are just patient and you keep at it.
So I did the exercise. I listened to a CD which walked me through a meditation session and I sat comfortably and closed my eyes. The voice of the instructor was silent during most of the time, usually just reminding me to come back to focusing on my breath. I noticed the cool sensation of my breath, the way my chest expanded, the rhythm of my breathing (while trying not to control or affect it). My mind wandered off a lot, but I kept bringing it back to pay attention to my breathing. And then an amazing thing happened after about 8 minutes of trying to focus: I was able to just be completely focused on the sensation of breathing without having my mind wander or really even think. At that moment of complete focus I started to feel another sensation quite suddenly which felt euphoric and peaceful. I experienced a moment of joy that was completely unexpected since I had no thought of experiencing that sensation prior to having it. It was interesting in that I didn’t feel “loved” by God, in fact it didn’t feel like it necessarily came from “out there” nor did it feel like it came from myself (though it may have). I just “experienced” without much cognition or understanding. In fact the sensation of euphoria didn’t seem to even bid me to think much about it. I really felt “in the moment”. I don’t think of it as a connection to the Holy Ghost really, just intense euphoria, peace, and joy. The moment and sensation disappeared after a few seconds (probably 10 seconds or so) as the voice of the instructor on the CD brought my attention back to him. I tried to control my focus again but I couldn’t do it for more than a moment at a time before the exercise ended.
The entire exercise took about 12 minutes and was surprisingly simple. I went into meditation to learn how to control my thoughts better and ended up finding a feeling that I’m excited to have again. I did the same exercise again two nights later, but my mind was too wound up to ever settle down and allow me to focus. That puppy ran around like it was hyped up on Red Bull! So, nothing to report on the second attempt, but I’m planning on working on meditating on a regular basis so that I can get good at focusing. Now I can see why billions of people have been doing this over the centuries if they also have been able to feel that euphoria somewhat regularly. I’m hopeful that I can truly learn how to control my thoughts to the point where temptations will quickly come and quickly go without me entertaining them. I’m also hopeful that in such a state I will be able to hear God’s still and small voice and be able to communicate with Him.
Has anyone else had any experience with meditation? Do you view the practice with mistrust or trepidation? Is there a place within our formal tradition to teach this practice if you do find it valuable?