Friday 27 October 2017

Prayer and Meditation

When I first became interested in the spiritual world I, like many of my generation, did not enter through Christianity but through meditation of a roughly Eastern sort. I say roughly Eastern because my meditation was not based on any particular practice but was a generalised emptying of the mind and sitting in silent awareness. In fact I started meditation by just staring out of the window. But I soon moved on to sitting cross legged, eyes closed, and trying to still thought. There was not much sense of God or anything other than to reach a higher state of consciousness. All pretty amateur and self-centred, I must confess. But despite this fairly hopeless method I did have certain experiences that seemed to indicate to me that there was something real to it all. Beginner's luck, I suppose.

Eventually I honed my technique and learnt to meditate by stilling thought (or trying to, this was never easy for me) and attempting to focus my awareness in the heart which, spiritually speaking, is not the physical heart but a more central point in the chest. But still God was not invited to the party. I was young, only 22, and keen but very inexperienced and ignorant. My motive was mostly self-centred but there was also the sincere attempt to discover some kind of higher reality because I felt it must be there and that's what a person should do. So I did have a real sense that a human being was supposed to search for the highest truth that he could and not waste time in materialistic pursuits. My motive was a mixture of self-interest and genuine aspiration to something higher.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I learnt before too long that there was more to the spiritual path than just the attempt to enter into a state of passive bliss which was probably my initial goal. I used my periods of meditation to try to become more aware of God within and I began to appreciate that the spiritual path was not just about higher states of consciousness but the attempt to put oneself right with one's Maker. I went from simply trying to gain something for myself to trying to attune myself to the real. In a way that remains my aim.

Nevertheless, despite my change of attitude, I continued to regard meditation as superior to prayer with the latter not really necessary because it was addressing a being out there while meditation was concerned with realising the truth within oneself and that was a more advanced thing.  But I was brought up short when I was told in no uncertain terms by someone whose spiritual knowledge and experience far exceeded my own that I did not pray enough. He told me that meditation was necessary for me but I also needed the humbling experience of prayer. Did I think myself above it, he pointedly asked, adding that even the greatest saints prayed. This was a wake up call for me and ever since I have combined the two. Actually nowadays I sit in formal meditation relatively rarely but I begin and end each day with a spoken prayer and also try to align my thoughts to God throughout the day with little prayers.

Prayer has various forms. There is the petitionary sort in which you might ask God for something, perhaps his help for yourself or others in difficult circumstances, or else just his grace. Then there is prayer as thanksgiving in which you express your gratitude to the Creator for his blessings and his bounty and his love or maybe just for the fact that he has given you life. But I tend to think of prayer above all as a way of remembering God. Let's face it, as we go about our daily business we often, even the most devout among us, forget God. Much as we might wish to we simply don't consciously live and move and have our being in him. We are frail creatures and we forget. Prayer is important as an act of remembering. It is a way of practicing the presence of God which in my opinion is the most important of spiritual exercises.

Then there is the fact that, as I had been told, prayer is beneficial as a humbling experience. We are on our knees before our Maker, metaphorically as well as physically.  We don't have to kneel physically in order to pray but that is a position which encourages an attitude of humility. We are humbling ourself before something greater than ourselves but doing so in a way that, unlike other postures of prayer, is not abasing oneself like a slave before its despotic overlord. Humility does not mean making yourself insignificant and worthless. God would not create a thing without worth, and if you think you are worthless then you must think everyone else is too. But it is recognising the fact that you are a created being and acknowledging your Creator appropriately. With humility there is the possibility, even likelihood, of love but with self-abasement fear is much more probable.

If prayer involves addressing oneself to the transcendent God then meditation is more to do with the God within. Again there are various types of meditation but I would reduce them to those with and without form. Meditation with form might involve focusing on an image of deity, the figure of Christ being an obvious example, in the attempt to draw close to him and absorb something of his spiritual quality. It could also be contemplation of a symbol that has spiritual significance, say a lily for purity or pink rose for selfless love, but the sun as an image of the God within could also serve. These act as a focus to still wandering thoughts as well as attuning the meditator to an inner spiritual reality.

The stilling of thought is one of the principal purposes of meditation. The constant movement of the mind should be arrested so that silence can be known and peace found. Such is meditation without form. However this is not in itself a spiritual thing and theoretically a non-believer can do it as well as a believer. That is why there needs to be the sense of dedication to a higher power in order to change a psychological act to a spiritual one. Motive is all important. It is not like a scientific experiment in which the intent of the experimenter is irrelevant. The intent is crucial to lift meditation to a higher plane. Otherwise it remains in the realm of therapy, effective on one level but unable to bring its practitioner closer to the true God.

Prayer is remembering God. It is aimed at God Transcendent. Meditation is contemplation. It is directed to God Immanent. Christian meditation is contemplation of God or Christ with the idea of entering into the divine presence. It must be accompanied by an attitude of love and humility which is what I think marks it out from other forms though I realise practitioners of these other forms, of which I was one, would not necessarily agree. But I do feel there is a qualitative difference between theistic meditation and non-theistic kinds and, though the latter can bring many profound rewards and realisations, it is the former that takes one to a higher reality, one in which the meditator can arrive at a real relationship with God rather than remain resting in his own soul. Let us say that the active union of the soul with God in love is a greater thing than that of the soul simply resting at the deepest level of its own being.

Prayer and meditation exist as spiritual practices in all religions and there are broad similarities between them even if they are not identical. In Christianity until recently meditation or contemplation was largely restricted to the monastery, that's to say those individuals who wished to develop a deeper relationship with God. For the layman prayer was generally enough and even then it was mostly the petitionary or thanksgiving sort. But while prayer enables us to speak to God and remember him as our Creator it is meditation on him or his qualities that can bring us into closer communion with him. For by silencing the worldly mind, whether through focus on a sacred image or otherwise, God's holy presence can begin to percolate into our conscious existence and transform us from a creature of this world to one who will one day be worthy to take his place in the kingdom of souls in heaven. 

You might say that prayer orientates our mind to God but proper contemplation invites him into our heart.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Thanks, a useful discussion. And it shows how individuals differ in such matters, because I would make different emphases.

In particular, I have a much larger definition of meditation. My personal meditation is associated with reading and noting; William Arkle's was associated with painting and drawing.

The external activity serves the function of holding attention, which (I find) frees the mind somewhat - because in sitting types of meditation my mind needs to be more fully split between the purposive and the free-associative.

But if meditation is to be restrictively-defined in terms of quite inactive contemplation - then it is inessential, even to mystics. But esepcially when primary thinking is the objective - since this is an active, conscious, purposive kind of activity which is difficult to sustain without some external stimulus - without movement I (personally) tend to become passive and sleepy, to imagine/ dream rather than think. And to concentrate on something simple e.g. breathing is still to allow consciousness to become passive, associative, receptive, dreamlike.

I think your conceptualisation of prayer in terms of Remember The Creator is helpful and accurate - However, for prayer to go become active, and go beyond this remembering I think it requires an element of the meditative. For example, first prayer, then 'listening' for personal revelation, for a response.

Composed prayers (eg from the Book of Common Prayer) seem to have an intermediate function - partly prayer and partly (an, ideally, poetic) attuning type of meditation - although the attuning is inevitably more generic, groupish and 'passive' than when meditation is individually-tailored and performed. Such prayers seem helpful in inducing a particular, desired, frame of mind; and of calming, stilling, shaping.

In general, my sense is that there is a destined change in emphasis from prayer towards meditation in this era (the era beginning with Romanticism, circa 1800) - I feel that a life of only prayer, without any meditation (in my broad definition), is likely to be a temporary phase, or else regressive.

If the future is that we are being compelled to be more spiritually autonomous (not least because of the corruption and insufficienies and institutional biases of chuurches); then some kind of meditation (in the broad definition) seems to be all-but essential; however exactly what kind of meditation must be the result of trial and error and individual-tailoring.

William Wildblood said...

I would not disagree with anything you say, Bruce, which only goes to show how you cannot really restrict these things to one definition only. Perhaps your type of meditation would fall into my category of meditation with form. What I describe is more contemplative. Both are valid. I probably have a more passive character than you! Hence my early attraction to Eastern paths though that sort of thing certainly exists in Christian monasticism too.

Truth be told, my current way of meditation, if I can call it that, does fit in more with the way you describe, reading, writing and brooding on whatever it might be. Sometimes letting thoughts lie dormant and then seeing what floats to the surface. In fact my chief meditation nowadays (now I actually think about it, I hadn't consciously before)comes when I go out walking and ponder problems as I go along, preferably in a natural environment than down a busy street though I do that to.

I'm a great believer in the idea that we do different things at different times depending on the need of the moment. So my early adult life was focused on the sort of passive meditation I describe above but since around 2000, and even more so over the last 10 years, the focus has shifted to a more active way. It depends what one is meditating for. To deepen understanding, to attune oneself to a form of being that is less tied up with this world, to find peace or whatever it might be. I still think that practising the presence of God through engaging the imagination is about the best thing anyone can do. The purpose of all this is surely to become more aware of the reality of God.

Michael Egan said...

@Bruce Charlton
I agree in that I've always seen focus on some earthly figure like Jesus or Muhammad as odd. The focus should not be on the prophet, but the God himself. The messenger is much less important.

"If the future is that we are being compelled to be more spiritually autonomous (not least because of the corruption and insufficienies and institutional biases of chuurches); then some kind of meditation (in the broad definition) seems to be all-but essential; however exactly what kind of meditation must be the result of trial and error and individual-tailoring."

Prayer won't ever be replaced by meditation as they are two different concepts, if you believe in an external higher power that is. Meditation places the ability to calm ones mind in oneself, while prayer places that ability on God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Michael E - My personal view is that I am not restrictive about who is being prayed to: God the Father, Jesus, the Holy Ghost, Mary or the Saints...

Nor about the subject matter of prayer - asking is fine (although thanking may do us more good).

But I do think we should be careful that we are praying to a loving personage whom we know wants what is best for us and will grant us that, as much as possible.

And Not implicitly begging for mercy from a being conceptualised as a malevolent tyrant, a being that demands worship and slavish obedience as a condition for Not tormenting us...

Because some ways of praying certainly seem like such a deity is being implied.

In other words, prayers by Christians may be, often have been, a projection of some of our own worst qualities onto God; rather than an extrapolation of our best qualities.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - It strikes me that I am perhaps covertly expanding the definition of 'meditation' in my comment (and in my practice) - mainly because I would regard traditional 'immersive' (and passive) meditation as mostly appropriate for traditional (original participation) societies - and that we need something active, purposive and conscious (ie primary thinking/ final participation).

But perhaps this is more a case of primary thinking being *analogous* to meditation than meditation itself.

Traditional meditaton is not ruled-out by my analysis, esepcially in this era when we are just beginning to get clear what we need to do and just beginning to do it; but traditional meditation does get 'demoted' to a subordinate position in the Spiritual Life.

William Wildblood said...

Well, the word meditation does have two meanings. To meditate in the Buddhist sense, as in to empty the mind of thought, and to ponder something deeply.

As I say my approach to it has changed over the years though whether that is because I lead a more active life now or not I don't know.

I think a bedrock of traditional contemplative meditation is a good thing because it renders the earthly mind more sensitive to impression from above but then it may be time to move on to the sort of approach you describe in order to put into practice what you have learnt and actively combine the two worlds, spiritual and material. And this does seem to be more or less what Jesus himself did so it's not a bad example to follow.