This week’s lesson in my ward’s Priesthood and Relief Society meetings was number four, “The Elements of Worship.” As we talked about reverence, meditation, and communion, I was reminded of a talk President Hinckley gave when, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, on one of many visits to Korea, he spoke to the missionaries. I don’t recall the topic of his talk, but I vividly recall him talking about the need for meditation. I doubt that I ever thought about meditation before that moment. I wasn’t sure what he meant. But it was clear that he thought it was important and I wanted to find out.
I tried sitting just quietly before my prayers, thinking about what I wanted to say in them, and found that was, indeed, helpful to my prayers. I tried reading and pondering scripture, but that was less successful. That there was no particular time of the day set aside for pondering was one problem. Something else always seemed to take whatever time that would have taken. But more difficult was the fact that I didn’t really know what to do.
In graduate school, as I learned to read scripture with a Jewish professor who condescended (and that is exactly the right word to describe what he did) to work with me, I came to understand better what pondering the scriptures could mean, and it became an important part of my life. But I didn’t think about it as meditation until today.
We have very little in our tradition that would count as advice about how to meditate, though we occasionally recommend it, and we regularly provide opportunities for it, such as the Sacrament and the Temple. Indeed, meditating during the ordinance of the Sacrament was clearly what President McKay had in mind. However, that he was using a vocabulary foreign to Mormons–”meditation” and “communion”–created difficulties for the teacher. Speaking of meditation, various class members challenged the teacher, asking “How do we do that?” “Is it the same as prayer?” “Does that just mean ‘thinking about things’?”
As I heard the lesson and realized that I have been meditating for a long time without calling it that, and as I remembered President Hinckley’s advice and reflected on President McKay’s teachings, I thought I might have something to say about meditation. But I wasn’t sure just what because I’d not thought in those terms before. Besides, even had I had a completely thought-out understanding of meditation, I wasn’t teaching the lesson.
I thought about meditation this afternoon and while fixing dinner, and I think I can begin to say something. Of course, what I have to say is based only on my experience and no more. I’ve done a lot of scripture study, and I once spent time meditating in a more Eastern way for several months on the advice of a doctor. (I didn’t quit because it wasn’t working, just because I kept finding it hard to find the time.) Neither of those qualify me as an expert, just someone with some experience that may–or may not–be helpful. And I would like to say that I take my advice daily, but I can’t. I study the scriptures quite regularly, and sometimes that becomes meditation as well. I still plan on doing the other kind of meditation sometimes because it did make me feel better. But that continues only to be a plan.
Faulconer’s weak advice about meditation
I think of meditation in two ways, as deep pondering and as a practice in which a person makes herself open to the whisperings of the Spirit. The latter, which I will call “open meditation,” is something in which there has been renewed interest in recent years, as Christians have encountered Eastern religious meditative practices, but it is not foreign to the Orthodox and Catholic Christian traditions. There is considerable overlap between these two, so let me begin by saying something about what they have in common and then describe each briefly.
1. As far as I can tell, all who teach meditation recommend as preparation what Christians call “mortification of the flesh,” in other words, self-discipline. Sometimes this means moderate exercise before meditation. It certainly includes moderation in eating and drinking. As a rule, it is best not to be hungry or thirsty before meditating, nor overfull. However, many see fasting as a way to prepare for meditation, as another kind of mortification. If you meditate when fasting, however, I don’t think you can do so effectively while you are feeling hunger pangs. The point of self-discipline is that you can’t meditate well if you are thinking about your body.
2. Meditation is a bodily as well as a mental exercise, so bodily position is important. Most meditate sitting, but being comfortable and alert is the most important thing. Wear loose fitting clothing and find a place where the temperature or noise won’t distract you, and where there also won’t be visual distractions. If your meditation is going to be done by studying scripture, sitting in a good desk chair at a desk or table of comfortable height is essential, as is having good reading light. If you are doing open meditation, the lighting should be neither too bright nor too low. As with everything else about the setting for your meditation, it ought not to be a distraction. Some use music to meditate by, but the same rule applies: it must not be a distraction.
3. Prepare for meditation with prayer. Focus on praying sincerely and meaningfully. Roger Keller (of BYU’s religion faculty) said this week that some Christians use the acronym “ACTS” to help them understand the order of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. That acronym has helped me think about my prayers in a new way.
4.a. Though the preparation for meditation is the same in each case, they differ after that. Consider deep pondering first.
4.a.1. Read a passage, usually from scripture, though other books that you find spiritually inspiring may also be appropriate. Read it aloud slowly, perhaps several times. As you read concentrate on the words you are saying to the exclusion of everything else.
4.a.2. After reading, reflect on that passage by asking questions. You may ask about specifics as a way to open the passage up to you in a new way. Some of the questions I pose in the materials for Sunday School are the kinds of questions I might ask. You may ask questions about what this teaches about the gospel. Or you may ask questions like “Does this imply anything about my daily life?” or “What does this teach me about who I ought to be?” The important thing is that you ask your question rather than someone else’s.
4.a.3. Don’t rush the questions or insist on answers to them. Allow them to hang in your mind as questions, waiting for insight. Some of the techniques for open meditation, such as 4.b.3 below, may be helpful at this point, or you may just repeat the questions slowly in your mind. If your meditation session ends without answers to your questions, don’t be concerned. Meditation is the point, not answers. Answers will come in their own time.
4.b. Now consider what I am calling “open meditation,” in which the goal is not to think deeply about something or other, but not to think, to empty your own mind and will so that the Spirit can fill it. There are lots of methods for doing this, across all major religions. Many, however, involve focusing on breathing as a means to empty the mind. Here’s what I’ve done.
4.b.1. Begin breathing deeply and slowly. For the first few minutes, as you breathe, repeat the same nonsense phrase–some recommend “so – hum” or the Indian mantra “om.” I tried “in – out,” but it wasn’t as effective for me, I think because it continues to have meaning, describing my breathing. The point is that whatever you choose should have no meaning because that will help you stop thinking meanings. Say the first half of the phrase as you breathe in and the second half as you breathe out. (If you use “Om,” say “o” as you breath in and “m” as you breath out.) Try to fill your lungs completely when you breathe in, relaxing the diaphragm completely when you breathe out.
4.b.2. After a minute or two, the actual meditation begins when you substitute something meaningful for the nonsense phrase, such as a short prayer or a short passage of scripture.
4.b.3. As you repeat that prayer or scripture, listen to yourself saying it. Do not try to think anything; if thoughts and images comeâ€”and especially in the beginning they willâ€”just refocus on your prayer or scripture.
4.b.4. Some people, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy, substitute an image of some kind for the prayer or phrase. I think that is more difficult to do since, if you use a picture or other image, it is more difficult to remain concentrated on the picture without having your mind wander to other things. Other people use music not only as background to their meditation, something to help keep out other noises, but as the focus of their meditations. I have the same difficulty with music that I have with images, but there are people for whom either may work well.
5. To end your meditation, return to prayer. The ACTS acronym may be helpful at this point, too, though you may wish to focus your thanksgiving and supplication on what you have learned or are beginning to learn–or on what you’ve felt.
It is difficult to do either of these kinds of meditation well in less than thirty minutes, but they can be done in that kind of time. For both it is important to have an unobtrusive way to mark the end of your session. An alarm clock will startle you and may undo some of the benefits of your meditation, but something like the quiet beep of a watch alarm may do the job well.
The biggest obstacle to meditation is, of course, finding thirty minutes in the day for it. Children who arise early and need to be ready for school make it difficult to do it in the morning, and it is difficult to meditate if you are exhausted. Sleep isn’t meditation, but it will overtake anyone who has spent the day chasing children or a job all day and then sits down in a quiet place for more than two or three minutes.