Tuesday, April 08, 2008


One of the primary spiritual disciplines within Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions is meditation. I have found meditation described in different ways, with slightly different goals, but ultimately through meditation we sharpen and strengthen our minds.

Eastern religions abound in metaphors describing our minds as fish flopping and thrashing about out of water; as a busy, chattering monkey that can't sit still even for a second. The mind that has been trained in meditation, however, is like an archer who can aim his thoughts and hit the mark; all others struggle to hold the string taunt, their arrows going in all directions.

Try it for a second. For just two minutes, try to think of one unmoving thing. If you get more than 10 seconds down your path, I'm impressed. The image of the monkey is potent to me, because my mind is indeed prone to race all about. Most of the time I'm busy enough that I don't even notice; but try to sit and stop it and this problem becomes all too clear.

Proponents of meditation remind us that our thoughts and minds go deeper than we will ever dive. Deep below our consciousness, our subconscious is doing much of our choosing. Have you ever gotten more angry than you wanted? Have you ever felt out of control of your emotions or your actions or your responses? We all know first hand that our minds are as fathomless as they are fidgety.

In order to live a healthy life then, we must somehow gain self-awareness, gain wisdom, gain strength over the chattering monkey that is our thoughts. In developing the ability to hold ourselves in silence, we slow down, developing the ability to hear, to know, to gain wisdom and insight. Insight into who we are and why we act and choose as we do - which allows us to live with a greater level of intentionality. Insight into how things are, wisdom as we quiet ourselves and can hear the voice of life around us and even, all religions suggest, the quiet and loving voice of God. If I can slow myself down enough to realize the events in my life that trigger a reaction, and then choose how I will respond - wow. And if I can focus my thoughts, I can focus them on God rather than on a multitude of distractions. If I can quiet myself, I can sit before God and not drown Him out with rambling chatter.

This is not a major focus of Christianity as we know it in most Western forms, but meditation is certainly in agreement with Christian Scriptures and teachings. 2 Corinthians 10:5 says "we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." How are we to not only take captive every thought, but make them each obedient to Christ, if they are coming a mile a minute, and out of our control? In 1 Kings, Elijah learns that the voice of God is not in the roaring wind, or the earthquake, or the raging fire...but in the gentle whisper. How are we to hear God's voice when our lives are so very noisy? In Psalm 46 we are exhorted to "be still, and know that I am God." In Isaiah 26 we are told that he who trusts in God will be held in perfect peace if his mind is steadfast. Jesus implores us in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 and Luke 10 to love God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. In Romans 8 we are told that those who submit to God will set their minds on what the Spirit of God desires. Again and again we are told to set our thoughts on God. How are we to do any of this if we have not disciplined our mind as athletes or musicians discipline their bodies?

Here in the West, our society is set up with the very opposite goal in mind - never, ever to be alone with our thoughts, to have as little silence as possible, to fill our mind with as many things at as fast a pace as possible. Radios and DVD players in the car; ipods and cell phones to our ears when we walk or run; television and internet always on at home. I recently saw a high chair with a DVD-player option. Our innovations are making it more and more possible to be plugged in at all times, to interact with fast-paced media input constantly. Our minds are being trained not to quiet, to focus, and to submit to our instructions, but to race ever faster down countless bunny trails that something outside ourselves is dictating.

As I study meditation and the importance of developing one's mind as one would any atrophied but pivotal muscle, I've thought with irony about our society's insistence in being ever stimulated. What does this do to us, I wonder? What are we losing control over, what are we losing period, that we have not even realized was at stake or might be attained?

My own thoughts are especially fidgety. This blog is in large part an attempt to relieve my weary mind by placing some of my constant ponderances outside of my head. Ever since I was a toddler, my thoughts have made falling asleep difficult. For about 15 years I would go through rigorous mind exercises, attempting to both clear and control this incessant monkey. I would walk myself through the alphabet, allowing myself to focus only on things which started with the letter I was on. I would imagine my mind as a large cluttered room that a man with a broom was slowly, steadily, sweeping clean; when we finished the room, I would force myself to hold the nothingness that was left. I would focus my inner eye on an imaginary orange, and concentrate on not letting it roll, on not let my mind peel the orange, or change its color, or thinking of something else. Some nights, I would succeed, and sleep. Other nights, I was forced to listen to my own chit-chat until dawn.

I realize now that these late-night exercises in my early life were the very rudimentary exercises of early meditation - learning to somehow control one's mind, rather than being controlled by one's mind. Keeping the tail from wagging the dog.

Why are we not doing this? Why are we giving so much control over who we are to something admittedly quite out of control? There is no need to convert to or even study an Eastern religion (or any religion for that matter) in order for us to begin exercising our thoughts.

And there is literally everything to gain.



Suki said...

That could not have come at a more right time for me.
I have been trying to meditate, and just breathe for quite a long time, but tension has been keeping me from it.
And today is the first day of study leave after the college semester ends. For me, that is a time to just let go of all the stress the semester has brought rather than attack my exam syllabus with vigour and stress.
I plan to spend the day absolutely quiet, in meditation, of several kinds - be it singing, be it yoga, be it breathing exercises.

I believe that mental discipline, no matter how it is achieved, is essential to happiness and success. What is success anyway, except happiness?
Your post came at the perfect time, I read it on the perfect morning to help me settle down quietly and spend time with myself and my inner being. For once, I shut down Google Reader leaving posts unread - not because I had to, but because I want to.

Thank you, Catherine :)

Chaotic Joy said...

Oh how I love this post! It has really opened my eyes to, not so much my need to control my thoughts and reactions, but ways that I can practice doing so. And I do believe that if I sit in the quiet places and be, that I will find my God there.

Oh and I do mental exercises at night when I can't sleep as well. Counting back from 1000 (visualizing each number in my mind and watching it fade away) to try to still the monkey.

Great job on this Catherine.

Singing Bear said...

Catherine: I've been trying to develop a meditation routine for years. I really believe it is a basic necessity for Christians as much as any other belief system. For a few years I dabbled in Buddhism and learned a few good, basic techniques; now I need to learn to appy them to my recent Christian homecoming. I agree with all you say. It's hard work!

Anvilcloud said...

At sixty, this is pretty new to me, but in watching Eckhart on Oprah and reading his book, I am remembering to be present more often. My mind is a constant swirling fog. I can drive/walk without seeing much. I am beginning to do a little better -- sometimes.

Julie Q. said...

Thanks for writing this. I've been thinking about meditation lately (not exactly meditating about meditation yet, but at least hoping to make time for it). I'll admit that my interest was sparked by Eat Pray Love (Gilbert says some powerful things about stilling the mind). I really have a hard time turning off the chattering monkey in my head. Sometimes I just make things worse by feeding him (I wear my iPod all the time now, even when I'm having a hard time falling asleep).

thailandchani said...

I have to be honest in that I haven't found deliberate meditation to be useful. I think of it as a focused "quiet time" which is the very time I've found it important to not be focused. I use a "walking meditation" which means I just walk around and think about things, experience things, become aware of my environment and allowing a connection between me and what's "out there". In some ways, it's almost prayerful (in so much as I 'pray' anyway). That is when the universal mind communicates more openly.

I think it's all about *not* controlling.

This could just be an issue of style though - and not substance.

Dedee said...

I agree with Thailand Chani. (I agree with her a lot of the time.) I think the focus is quiet. In reference to the verses about "Be still, and know that I am God." the LDS religion is turning towards those ideas. I even heard it recently in our conference in a talk addressed specifically to mom's. The leader recommended taking quiet time for mom in order to feel the spirit more fully.

The voice of God surely isn't in the wind or the upheaval. He truly is in the quiet. It's easy to be distracted.

I like the monkey analogy. I've always thought of my out of control thoughts like a garbage bin on disco night. On the days when it's worst, that's what I visualize. And, (This may sound weird) I visualize myself opening up my head and scooping the garbage out, leaving fine white sand in it's place, sand that can fall through the holes in the seive. Strange, I know, but sometimes it just has to be done.

I've also found it helpful to learn some relaxation techniques. I recommend the Alexander Technique. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Technique

Happy days to you. Thank you

Literacygirl said...

When going through the alphabet, Cath, you know that "D" is for __________ ? (Hint: Not David, Dale, or Dan!)

Lori said...

Just yesterday I attended a short class on Thomas Keating's method of Centering Prayer. I think his style of contemplative prayer is another Christian alternative similar to meditation. Gregory the Great (6th century) summarized the Christian contemplative tradition as "resting in God."

One thing I thought was interesting is that we were specifically taught that "the principal effects of Centering Prayer are experienced in daily life, not in the period of Centering Prayer itself." That was a new thought for me. That the benefits would arise as we move through our day, not in the midst of prayer itself.

trudymorgancole said...

Very powerful thoughts, that resonate with a lot of what I think about meditation.

painted maypole said...

chattering monkey. oh, me, too.

i have long been fascinated with, and totally intimidated by, meditation.