I am always looking for practices that will help me stay centered. In the meditation community it is common practice to find one technique and to stay with that. I find that I can do that for a time, but the practice becomes stale. As a result, my prayer life becomes stale. Although some devout meditators would frown upon me encouraging one to find different techniques, I have found in my own life that it has kept me honest about staying true to the act of meditation.
In my travels across the country and around the world, I’ve acquired practices that have served me well in an active prayer life. I have discovered what works for me. Every spiritual aspirant must do this. Some find that the physicality of yoga helps them more than meditation. If that’s the case, then “so be it”. Others may find that praying a rosary works. Great. Still others may not be able to sit still and a good Buddhist “circumambulation” or walking meditation is helpful.
In a Buddhist temple in Sedona, Arizona, I tried the Buddhist practice of half closing the eyes, focusing on a point on the floor and staring directly at that point for a significant period of time. By the end of meditation, I was concerned that I had gone cock-eyed and would never be able to reclaim “straight” vision again. The hour I spent meditating was great but the hour of panic I felt afterwards was equally enlightening. Although the Buddhists encourage you to close your eyes half way, I prefer to close my eyes completely and focus my attention just above the brow to maintain focus.
Best practice in meditation is to use a mantra to help focus your attention. Some may use the word “Love”, “God”, or “Peace” and spend the next twenty minutes focusing on that word. In Christian circles the word to use in meditation is “Maranatha”, which is Aramaic for “The Lord is coming” or “Come, Lord”. This is the language that Jesus spoke, so it holds a special understanding for Christians. Broken down into a meditation it is recited as follows: (inhale) Ma- (exhale) Ra- (inhale) Na- (exhale) Tha. Repeat the process for the entire sit.
This invitation on the part of an aspirant encourages a person to invite God into the process of relationship. Father John Main, the father of the modern Christian meditation movement proposed this as the ideal word to use as a point of focus.
Father Main realized that the early Christian followers incorporated meditation into their daily prayer lives. The practice of daily meditation was lost throughout the ages. There were taboos associated with the act of meditation because meditation opened the portals that allow certain spirits to manifest, good and bad.
In the Buddha’s story of meditation under the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha comes face to face with Mara the God of illusion. Mara taunts the Buddha, but he remains steadfast and holds the center thus dispelling Mara’s temptations to succumb to the interests of worldly attachment.
In the Christian tradition St. Anthony of Alexandria in middle to late third century and early fourth century, meditated in the desert and like the Buddha was tempted by desire and demons. We learn about him through Athanasius who wrote his biography. Like the Buddha, he conquered because of his devotion to Christ.
When one goes deeper and journeys to find the center of one’s being, he may face the demons that stand in his way. Holding the center in facing ourselves is critical in allowing us to find a deeper spiritual reality. We must not be afraid of what we encounter and know that when we dedicate ourselves to being present to God magnificent gifts will manifest in our lives that will strengthen us and empower us in greater ways. We must stay true in our intention to being with silence and seeking God in new ways.
A spiritual teacher once told me, “Meditation is a way of emptying the mind, but an empty mind can be a dangerous place”. This “emptying (the self emptying of Christ)” is called kenosisin Christian terms. When we clear a space for spiritual understanding, we must decorate the space in a way that compliments our lives. It is important to realize that if you empty yourself through the process of meditation, you must also compliment the act by filling yourself up with spiritual understanding that can help you in your process of growth. Some people empty themselves and there is a deep void. They don’t know what to do with it.
The intention to reach out to God is the key to maintaining your mental health and good spirits. Jesus relied on multiple aspects of spiritual discipline in helping others. He saw the importance of fasting, scriptural study, ritual enactment and prayer as critical to deepening the act of worship. This rounds out the individual and helps him become a more complete spiritual aspirant.
Although twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening is optimal. A good five minutes stilling the mind can carry you throughout the day.
A Crash Course In Meditation Practices
Meditation practices vary, but the goal in every faith tradition is the same – to train the mind to focus on a point. The point of focus will help align your self to your being in a way that you find the center. In finding the center, the student is aspiring to attune to life in a manner that will help him evolve. This conscious evolution helps him relate to the complexities of life in a way that can serve him and the greater good through his understanding.
“For wisdom will come into your heart and knowledge will come into your soul; prudence will watch over you and understanding will guard over you”. (Proverbs 2: 10-11).
The Buddhists say it another way:
“These awakened ones,
Dedicated to meditation,
Striving actively and vigorously,
Attain nirvana, the ultimate security”. (The Dhammapada)
The Center of Being:
It is believed in many traditions that the center of your being is the place where an understanding of truth resides.
“Brahman is immutable and independent of any cause but Itself. When we consider Brahman as lodged within the individual being, we call Him the Atman. The Creative energy of Brahman is that which causes all existences to come into being.” The Gita (VIII).
“She who is centered in the Tao can go where she wishes without danger. She perceives the universal harmony even amid great pain because she has found peace in her heart.” (Tao saying 35).
It is truth that holds the key to our unlocking the potentialities in the world. It helps us in our conscious discernment of issues and helps us distinguish between right and wrong. A quest to find the center can reap tremendous benefits in developing confidence and conviction.
Consider whether you are a more visual person or audial person or tactile person. This may help you in finding a practice that suits your needs.
For those who are visual learners, it may inspire you to allow the word to work into your imagination and penetrate your understanding in a more profound way.
Spiritual disciplines have a way of bringing us back to the center. Throughout your day, if there is something to ground you in your spiritual understanding, you are able to steady the boat as it were.
I once attended a meditation at a Jewish Synagogue and learned a technique from the Jewish tradition. The Hebrew language has beautiful characters. Take a phrase and sit with it. Read the phrase and visualize it. Stay with it for the entire sit.
Shalom means peace. Shalom is spelledשלום
* Peace in other languages:
Pace سلام שלום Hasîtî शान्ति Barış 和平 Мир
To image a word is to recognize the deeper meaning of the word. In John 1, it is written “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God”. A single image of a word can elicit a meaning that can take us deeper. That single word is a point of focus. It can train our minds to being present.
To imagine a word:
Chose one of the languages above and learn the word. Trace the word in the original language. Familiarize yourself with it. Learn it. Take it in. Close your eyes and internalize the word. Open your eyes and go back to it if you lose perspective of it and need to refresh the word in your mind.
Audial and Vibration therapy:
In Eastern traditions, it is believed that the world was created with a vibration. Attuning to the vibration of the world can attune one to the cosmic beginning of life. That is why the Aum symbol is so important in eastern thought.
The Aum is a four syllable word. The first syllable Ah- the open mouth, the beginning of the world; the second syllable, “uh” – the center of the mouth means “coming into being”; and third syllable “mm” – the closing of the mouth, signifying dissolution and the end of things; the last syllable is silence, which is all pervasive.
Some people find that listening to the flow of the ocean, the lapping of waves and crash of the tide is soothing and puts them in another frame of mind. For others it is the sound of birds in a forest that elicits calm. For still others, listening to Buddhists monks chant the Aum is a powerful connection to the understanding of a transcendent sound.
In space, Apollo 10 astronauts talked about hearing whistling sounds that sounded “out of spacey” and musical in nature. For some people, sound therapy can work wonders in helping people heal. It has proven to work wonders in people who suffer from mental problems and has brought peace and calm to those who have utilized its benefits.
For those who cannot hear, sometimes touching an amplifier that is resonating sound can inspire something greater.
Returning to watching your breath during the day and slowing down your heart rate is also a great way to manage stress.
This is a very tricky technique to master. If you can do it, though, the benefits are tremendous. If it is done wrong, it can lead to colds and sickness. Alternate breathing can help you with good health. If you force it, you can disturb your balance.
The Sufis talk about the four breaths. The earth, water, fire and air breaths. There is also a fifth breath in some Sufi practices and that is ether. I work with the four breaths every day. Seven breaths for each breath is enough. Sometimes you can work with one breath or the other.
Earth: In through the nose, out through the nose.
Water: In through the nose, out through the mouth.
Fire: In through the mouth, out through the nose.
Air: In through the mouth, out through the mouth.
The Sufis say the last breath is ether and it is in through the nose and out through the nose. What distinguishes this from the earth breath is the “fineness” of the breath. Shanna Devon Beckett, a student of Sufi master Pir Zia notes that divinity is breathing through you. This is communion with God.
Eastern Traditions of pranayama:
Hindu and Buddhist:
In the East the practice of the breath is pranayama and this is a science.
There are many different schools of thought on forcing breath. Some teach the idea of holding breath and forcing breaths in order to change one’s consciousness. Others say that one should never force a breath and just pay attention to the act of breathing. I rarely force breath. I am of the school of thought that watching the breath and going with the flow of it helps one find the rhythm of life.
* Bhastrika has been known to have positive impacts in changing the breath. In this technique, one explores the inhalation process and exhalation process in order to maximize efficiency in intake and outtake of oxygen. It is the act of forcing air out and taking deep breaths and holding for a few seconds.
The goal in eastern practices is to raise the energy of the kundalini at the base of the spine. The energy (Shakti) is raised up the spine. It is a barometer going up and down your spinal column. By recognizing the various chakras or energy centers in the body, an individual is able to energize parts of the body and inspire a change in conscious awareness. The act of doing this inspires the aspirant to change his consciousness from recognition of the worldly to a consciousness that recognizes higher planes of awareness. The intention is to “ascend to the secret place of the Most High”.
Eastern traditional practices note that forcing the kundalini too fast can be problematic. Like the breathing practices stated above, one must be aware that a change of conscious awareness is an evolutionary practice and something that will not necessarily happen over night.
A student is patient and the Lord gives him no more than he can handle. A student attempting to understand something before his time is like a baby attempting to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. The information is useless to him and the application of the information has no purpose. Things need to be in place before the child can begin to understand complex concepts and apply them in more meaningful ways. One needs to be patient and learn what he needs to learn and evolve into new understanding with an eye on the poetry of life. This is why practicing the presence daily in life helps us understand the complexities of life. Such is the way of the kundalini.
Yoga engages the full body in the experience of prayerful physical mindfulness. It can serve as a reminder to engage fully in the act of spiritual practice. It combines breathing, intentional movement, chakra work and physical exercise in a way that grounds us in a foundational aspect of being. There are plenty of websites attending to the gifts yoga produces. Suffice it to say, a yoga practice before a meditation can elicit powerful results.
Attuning to your physical, mental, emotional needs through various techniques in world religious disciplines, can expand your consciousness. A one minute break into the world of mindfulness can be as effective and productive as one hour. It is not the time one spends in meditation, it is the intention of being present to the sacred that makes all the difference – a difference that is badly needed in this secularized illusory grinding machine of a world.
*Art Miccio contributed to this article.