URC :: Spirituality

broadening and deepening prayer
United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:


Mark Argent
4 August 2018

Slightly confusingly, the terms “meditation” and “contemplation” get used in a variety of ways. Some treat them as interchangeable. Some make a careful distinction, though it can still end up with one person’s “meditation” being another’s “contemplation”.

So, with apologies to those who use the words differently, this article picks up practical ways of meditating — coming to a place of inner stillness and clarity by turning off the inner chatter of the mind.

Sometimes it’s helpful to use one of these techniques as a preparation for another form of prayer, perhaps engaging the imagination, creativity, or the slow reading of scripture. But it is also a profound form of prayer in its own right, and trusts that God is working in us as we come to a place of stillness, and that stillness itself brings an openness to God. It’s not a way of praying that specifically asks for something: this invitation is instead to go deeper than the words that might express our desires.

It’s usually best to begin by sitting in a position where you will be comfortable to remain still for a while, preferably with the spine vertical. If you’re sufficiently supple, sitting cross-legged on the floor can be very beneficial.

It is possible to imagine going straight to a place of stillness, but this is rarely as easy as it sounds and it usually helps to do something repetitive until you pass from repetition into stillness. Many things can be used for this. Three widely used techniques are:

  • To take a word or short phrase and repeat it over and over again. The phrase should be short enough to be repeated without effort, and be reasonably gentle, so that it does not encourage strong feelings or thoughts.
  • Breathing gently, count your breaths. When you have counted to ten, start from one again.
  • Be sensitive to the sensations either in your nostrils, or in your torso, as you breathe in and out.

If a thought comes along, or an outside distraction, acknowledge it and gently let it go.

Just occasionally a thought or association arises that seems worth hanging on to. For those moments, I find it useful to have a piece of paper to hand so that I can briefly write it down down before returning to the meditation: this is less distracting than trying to meditate and hold onto an idea.

It doesn’t matter whether the eyes are open or closed: do whichever feels more natural. If you prefer to keep your eyes open, try to relax your vision rather than giving too much attention to what you can see. If you fall asleep, that doesn’t actually matter: it disturbs the meditation more to put effort into fighting the urge to sleep than it does to allow God to be present in sleep as in wakefulness.

It’s good to spend a reasonable amount of time in the meditative state: if possible, start with half an hour and aim to increase that time over successive meditation periods.

Which way a person uses to meditate hardly matters — they are all routes to the same place — but it is often best to stick to the same one so it begins to feel like a familiar path to stillness. On a good day this doesn’t matter, but a familiar path can be helpful when things make meditation harder.

One subtlety here is that, if you use a mantra, it is a good idea to pick one that feels relatively neutral. The reason is that the mantra in itself doesn’t matter — its role is to help the path to a place of stillness. A mantra like “God loves me” can sound appealing, but on days when it doesn’t feel like that, the words become an obstacle — yet these are the days when simply trying is most important.

It sounds as if meditation is about achieving a perfect stillness. It’s great when that happens, but actually what matters is making the choice to be still and open to God for a period of time: some people find that, when stillness is elusive, it is because there is a lot going on, so the fact that they have chosen to try achieves something.

Meditation can feel like a waste of time. Being too specific about what it might “achieve” usually puts the achieving in the place of the meditating. Having the generosity to meditate with no particular expectations maximises the scope for it to be a benefit that’s surprising.

That said, it is worth paying particular attention to thoughts which come along immediately after periods of meditation as this is often a time of heightened focus and creativity. Some people sometimes have a sense that “something” is going on, out of sight, even as they try to disengage from thinking, and gifts from that tend to appear among stray thoughts afterwards.

My second reason for having a pen and paper to hand while meditating is that sometimes things arise immediately after meditating. Like writing down a dream on waking, this is needs to be done before moving. Also like dreaming, you can’t make this happen, but it helps the process to chose to be in a place to co-operate with it if it does.

Something that’s easier on retreat than at other times, is to go for a walk, or do something relaxing immediately afterwards and then spend reflect back over that period. That creates space to get in touch with what might be released by the meditation. My experience is that this shows in stray thoughts which, like all stray thoughts, seem natural, but might be different from what would have come along if the meditation hadn’t happened.

But the primary purpose is not to get specific benefits which are obvious immediately afterwards. The sense is that there is a generosity in creating the space for God to be at work without human busy-ness getting in the way, and that reflecting on the experience afterwards is to chose to receive any gifts that might come along, rather than push them away by immediately getting on with something else.

And if the day is busy, and the meditation is a short period grabbed first thing, it is still worth being open to the possibility of being surprised: God is around in the busy-ness of the day as much as in stillness, even if our thoughts get drawn elsewhere.