Meditation as a Spiritual Practice

December 13, 2009    By: Kent (MC) @ 10:24 pm   Category: Happiness,Mormon Culture/Practices,Personal Revelation

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?

21 Comments »

  1. Thank you for posting about this, Kent. I am LDS and I have been meditating on and off for the last 12 years. More recently I have become serious about it and I am currently studying contemplative psychotherapy at Naropa University in Coloardo, which uses mindfulness techniques such as meditation to work with psychotherapy clients.

    Your description of meditation was great. It is good that you had a positive experience on your first try, but I would like to point out that this is not always the case. I would say that I experience feelings like those you described less than 1% of the time. Furthermore, seeking out those feelings goes against the purpose of meditation and will probably end in failure.

    If you do experience blissful moments, remember that you must let go of them just as you try to let go of painful moments. Attachment to pleasure is just as dangerous as attachment to misery.

    I’ve spent the last year thinking a lot about meditation’s role in Mormon spirituality, so I appreciate your thoughtful sharing on the subject. I hope you’ll continue to update us on it.

    Comment by Tristin — December 14, 2009 @ 12:12 am

  2. The key to meditation is letting go. In the same way you let go of your thoughts, etc. and focused on just being, if you focus on reattaining that same feeling of “oneness”, you won’t be able to. That is in fact the fundamental basis of many types of meditation (and Buddhism) – being able to not only let go of the bad or things that make us overly down, but also letting go of the longing for things that make us overly excited.

    Good luck in your quest. Studying Buddhism has given me many more insights into what it means to be Mormon. There is something much more profound to life than following a list of rules (ie. home teaching, WofW, Sunday observance, etc.) that meditation has helped me unlock.

    Comment by Mike S — December 14, 2009 @ 7:50 am

  3. I read somewhere once that David O. McKay had a practice of prayer that was very similar to meditation.

    Comment by Matt W. — December 14, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  4. Meditation is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind. To me, this is the equivalent of “be still and know that I am God.”

    If you believe that God answers your silent prayers then you also believe in a form of telepathy. By quieting your mind you are allowing it to be more of a receiver than a data processor.

    Comment by Howard — December 14, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  5. See, that’s exactly what I’m thinking Howard. I’m sick of the background music and distractions that are constantly bouncing around in my mind.

    I appreciate the first two comments counseling me not to hope for a similar feeling. Kind of like prayer I suppose, you do it even when you don’t feel like God is listening.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 14, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

  6. Matt (#3),

    Either you read that in the Rise of Modern Mormonism or Geoff’s post on that passage in the book, or both.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 14, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  7. Jacob, thanks for linking that post. Geoff posted it over three years ago and I don’t remember it. I’m especially interested now to hear what techniques Blake uses to meditate.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 14, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

  8. Holy cow, could that have been 3 years ago?!?

    As to meditation, I have never tried to meditate, but your post makes me want to give it a try.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 14, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

  9. great post. i always enjoy hearing people discover meditation. it is the most underrated, yet powerful practice one can engage in. keep it going – you will be pleasantly surprised how it will change your health and spiritual life in beneficial ways you cannot yet imagine.

    Comment by Dallas Robbins — December 14, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

  10. I have been studying Buddhism this semester. I have benefited from learning of their practices and experiencing the spiritual strength that comes from them. I have practiced meditation alone and in large groups over the past few months. And what you said, Kent, about allowing thoughts that come to quickly go has been strengthened through my meditation. Something that the Buddha brought into the practice of meditation is Vipassana, or insight, meditation. I have gained great insights as I combine meditation with scripture study and prayer.

    Comment by Jacob Howard — December 14, 2009 @ 10:42 pm

  11. How wonderful that Mormons are discovering the peace that comes through meditation. I think our Mormon preoccupation with “busyness” hinders our spirituality. Buddhist principles enrich my Mormonism.

    Comment by Course Correction — December 15, 2009 @ 10:10 am

  12. Great post. I look forward to hearing more about your adventures on the meditation cushion.

    Has anyone else had any experience with meditation?

    I’ve meditated formally for about four years now — mostly vipassana meditation, following approximately the instructions of western teachers in the Theravada lineage.

    Do you view the practice with mistrust or trepidation?

    Yes, but only trepidation with respect to what part of my ego is going to get disassembled the next time I sit. ;-)

    Is there a place within our formal tradition to teach this practice if you do find it valuable?

    As others have noted, I think that there are indications in David O. McKay’s writings and biography that he practiced meditation, rather than the more common contemplation practice often referred to as meditation. I do think, however, that seriously pursuing a meditation path over time leads to changes in the way we think, understand, and believe, as well as the content of those thoughts, understandings, and beliefs. Seeing clearly how my mind works — especially how my clinging and aversions affect the very nature of my perceptions and self — leads toward some principles of Mormonism, as it is commonly understood and taught, and away from others.

    s

    Comment by greenfrog — December 15, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  13. Thank you for sharing this Kent. I was reminded of the need for quietness and stillness a few months ago. Something I’d entirely abandoned as I embraced Mormon Christianity (the faith of my parents — as a young adult); needless to say, the last decade has been rough for me.

    I spent my adolescence, like many, in the simplicity found on the near side of complexity. Unlike most of my peers, however, I rationalized my behavior through a projection of myself in the fashion of a species of Shoulin warrior monk. I sought after “presence” in everything I did. I had had one spiritual experience as a young tween and I needed confirmation that it was not just the machinations of a crazed mind. Early experience with meditation resulted in the gift of joy/euphoria that Kent speaks of, which resulted in me bursting out laughing in a desert mountain park in Arizona. Something that seemed to hint at the possibility that “God” was found everywhere, and that the “Spirit” was mostly just a mind’s projection of peace. This compelled me to continue to seek stimuli (violence, speed/free fall, girls, etc.) I was Daniel in “Altered State” seeking to commune with the Spirit through experiential knowledge. This Kenntnis tirade was rather long-lived and shadowed a potentially more fruitful journey via a scripture, prayer, ponder based journey.

    However, that journey and the path I’ve been on until late would not likely have culminated in the one I’m hungry to embark upon had the contrast not been so stark. The journey I’m hungry to embark upon is that of finding the simplicity on the far side of complexity. Key to this is to live an integrated life. No dualities: private face/public face. And while I’m comfortable with paradox, as a rule, I believe that a few things can be more synchronized:

    1. Meditation as a communion with Christ. IF association with “big mind” is sufficient to steer my perception of life I see little need for all of the complex attachments I’ve maintained in the spirit of having faith in Christ because I will cease to transgress/sin and then what need will I have for a Savior. HENCE, meditation needs to serve as more than luxuriating in peace “So I can face the day”.
    2. Meditation as a segue into a mindful participation in my attachments. Draw a column filled with dots. Now mark an A and B on opposite sides of that column. In a simplicity on the near side of complexity engagement of life how would you draw a line from A to B? And for a life committed to complexity? And one for a life committed to simplicity on the far side of complexity? I see meditation and a life lived mindfully as informing (in a regular way), that 3rd line.
    3. Prayer synchronizing the experiential knowledge I obtain through attachment to people and serving them with a digestive communion meditative exercise.

    Comment by David Gonzalez — December 15, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

  14. David, I think I get the gist of what you are saying. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who has experienced that sense of euphoria while meditating. Although I’m not sure exactly what you are trying to say in number two, I have two questions for you. Why did you give up on meditating ten years ago? Do you think that attachments are something to be embraced or avoided? It seems to me that being attached to Christ is a necessary part of the plan of salvation, yet you question the need for Christ if you don’t get communion with Christ through meditation. Can you expand on that? I’m trying to understand your distinctions between simplicity and complexity and how that relates to meditation and attachments.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 15, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

  15. Kent thanks for sharing this. I spend about 15 mins each morning in quiet mind meditation and 15 minutes each night after my work out with breathing and thankfulness for each breath. I find that God’s voice is heard in the silence of the mind.

    “Be still and know that I AM God.” I translate it: In the stillness thou shalt know that I AM — God.” I experience moments of breakthrough, insight, revelation and a peace that passes understanding. I am thankful for meditation — though I call it “centering.”

    Comment by Blake — December 15, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

  16. Why did you give up on meditating ten years ago?

    As a young adult I developed a practice of meditation, early in the morning — outdoors, that would usually take up an hour. Though often it would go longer, I never set an alarm. That was just not tenable as my life’s attachments and obligations increased.

    In college (at BYU) the only way I could crowd out the world was to use my roommates’ CD players (5 in total) and put a disk in each and play them, rather loudly, simultaneously. This worked for me but not for my roommates (and since I started school in the winter — and came from Arizona — taking my meditation outdoors was not possible). It was college that really sunk meditation for me.

    Now, I never gave up on meditation completely. But what was once a practice became an exercise I did to center after an “anxious engagement” with something. This slowly gave way to engagement followed by engagement without centering. Too often my meditation would take on the camber of pondering, which in my opinion, is the opposite of meditation. Pondering it the artful practice of engaging as many ideas at once, doing a Pro/Con assessment and narrowing down your options. And while I can appreciate the value of starting your day and the transition out of professional/me time that Blake utilizes; for me it never held up against the constant barrage of distraction coming from many important attachments (family, friends, work, etc.).

    Do you think that attachments are something to be embraced or avoided?

    On principle, a life of simplicity (prior to complexity) requires no attachments. And don’t think that when the kids are yelling and the pets whimpering and the house is messy and I’ve got to make dinner, that I don’t pine for the simple, disciplined life of a Buddhist monk (I grew up near a Buddhist temple and so I had a familiarity with the lifestyle). If one cannot find inner peace sitting in the lotus position near a pond in some remote mountain retreat, then inner peace cannot be found.

    Yet, upon recognizing three things, attachments and a subsequently complex life became commitments I was willing to bear. Those three recognitions:
    1 An understanding through the Spirit that a loving Heavenly Father exists
    2 An understanding through the Spirit that Christ is my Savior
    3 A realization that the Buddhist peace I so adored, was not tenable in the life I truly wished to pursue (one with many attachments).

    For me, the first two begat the other because my understanding of the existence of a Heavenly Father and Christ happened through association with Mormon Christianity. Granted, correlation does not prove causation, but the association was deep enough for me to commit to a Christian/LDS spiritual obligation. Incumbent in LDS Christianity, more than in most other Christian belief systems, is the notion of attachment; often expressed in many homes on a piece of wood, baring the message: “Families are forever” . . .No nirvana there.

    It seems to me that being attached to Christ is a necessary part of the plan of salvation, yet you question the need for Christ if you don’t get communion with Christ through meditation. Can you expand on that? I’m trying to understand your distinctions between simplicity and complexity and how that relates to meditation and attachments.

    For me it is as simple as life’s engagements being a previous or concurrent endeavor. In the eastern tradition, life’s engagements are a previous endeavor played out currently. Hence, every subsequent iteration holds the promise of finally “getting it right”. And release is the goal. And so, meditation gracefully opens a world free of attachments and rewards the earnest and open seeker with euphoria: evidence that the universe is good.

    Western culture views life’s attachments as concurrent to our travels here. You only got one shot and this life continues after death. So, remediation via a Savior becomes a necessity if eternal unity is the reality, the only release being some version of perdition (which we don’t want — since it seems to be encumbered with attachment to pain and anguish not just release from attachments/obligations).

    So, ought not meditation to culminate in some form of communion? Or could that at least be a desired Christian destination of a meditative practice? In other words, might the euphoria of a stillness just be evidence that God our Father is good or that he exists concurrent with the good that is? Would not the natural progression be then: I’ve touched the veil, now might I be worthy to commune?

    Comment by David Gonzalez — December 16, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  17. David, thank you for the time you took to expound on this idea. I went into meditation hoping to just be able to get better and recognizing and controlling my thoughts. You (and Blake and others) speak of touching the veil and coming to know God through the practice. I’m so inexperienced with the practice that I’m not certain how to approach God in that space, but I definitely will be working on it by quieting my mind on a regular basis.

    I’m still trying to reconcile either a contradiction or a paradox related to the concept of attachment. I want attachment to Christ, is it truly an impediment in the Eastern approach to meditation? I really haven’t been thinking too much about attachment as much as just focusing on my train of thought and becoming mindful of the present. Can I just skip the issue of attachment and enjoy the practice with no other goal than to become mindful and control my thoughts?

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 16, 2009 @ 8:49 am

  18. 13 …I will cease to transgress/sin and then what need will I have for a Savior.

    Meditation helps us “hear” the Spirit and when we follow him we are no longer sinning. The combination of repentance and meditation can lead you toward Alma’s changed heart making you more Christ like.

    Comment by Howard — December 16, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  19. I too have started a practice of meditation in the past weeks. I have had similar experiences of euphoria that you mentioned. Well, maybe not as euphoric as you describe, but my body felt incredibly light and clear–almost a tingling sensation.

    Thought I’m barely a beginner and am in no position to give advice, I see the focus and mindfulness exercise as a way to prepare the mind, a kind of step one. Once in that state, I try to feel–without force to analytic thinking–love and gratitude for God, creation, family, etc… It’s that step that, for me anyway, moves it from a relaxation technique to a kind of spiritual communion or prayer.

    Though the title doesn’t sound cool and mystical, I recommend “Meditation for Dummies.” It provides a nice overview of the major traditions and practices and doesn’t advocate a single school of thought. It also recommends a lot of books for more specialized reading.

    Comment by Sheldon Lawrence — December 21, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

  20. Thanks Sheldon! I definitely will check the book out.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — December 22, 2009 @ 9:43 am

  21. Philip McLemore wrote two excellent articles for Sunstone about the Yogic tradition, meditation, and Christ. They’re very interesting to bring together these two traditions, and brings out several incidents from the New Testament that seem to link Christ’s teachings with Eastern thought.

    Comment by no-man — February 5, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.