Meditation, a word that once was unfamiliar is now common currency, and as is the way with words that become ‘everyday’, they become a kind of blanket term where individual differences are obscured. We think we know what other people mean when they use the word but our interpretation may not match theirs at all. If we consider Christian practices, Eastern religious practices and the newer art of Transcendental Meditation (T.M.) which is derived from Eastern models, and the use of meditative practices in medical settings, we have four quite distinct broad categories which each have their own variants.
The commonalities to all models are relaxation, stillness and focused attention; the purpose of the practice is different in each setting. The end result, as experience, may indeed be very similar, though the meaning we give to our experience will resonate with our purpose. For example, if we find ourselves being calmer in our daily life, managing stress and feeling more at ease our interpretation of the changes will be consistent with our initial purpose.
A Christian woman may interpret this new found serenity as God working within her, answering prayer, giving her grace; a Buddhist might describe the calmer life in terms of greater freedom from illusion and a medical patient might simply rejoice in feeling better.
These three examples illustrate some difference of purpose of meditation and also bear on the various methods used in the diverse settings. Although one may lay out the theories behind the practice the average person engaging with meditation may well not be interested in the finer details and if, as a Christian, a Buddhist method works for them, so be it.
Likewise a Christian suffering from hypertension may be recommended to take up meditation, never having heard of it in their church situation so they will not necessarily use a Christian form to gain the specific benefits they are after. And many people probably try anything that comes their way and take from each what feels right and ‘do-able’.
In broad terms the methods used for stilling the mind are similar in that there is an object on which one focuses attention. It may be, for a Christian, a verse from the bible, an icon, a candle or a crucifix, a visualisation or something of a similar religious nature. It may also be the simple definite attention on the breath. This concentration on the breath is the most common object in all forms of meditation. Christians often use a text from the bible or a brief prayer, the Jesus prayer, for example, to hold the attention.
Eastern meditation often makes use of mantras, words or phrases repeated slowly, with attention, to concentrate the mind. These phrases are not usually words with common or rational meaning because they are designed to take one’s mind away from rational thought. It has been proposed that to sit quietly focused on ‘Mary had a little lamb’ will do as well as any other more esoteric phrase; the point being that stilling the mind is the essential purpose.
There are differences as well as similarities in the various models; some of these, of course, arise from the cultural backgrounds from which they derive. In formal Christian teaching meditation is a way of preparing the mind for prayer and bringing one closer to God. Eastern meditation is a way to freedom from illusion which is freedom from suffering.
Medical meditation is a means to improve one’s physical and mental health. In the latter three forms going beyond discursive thought to a state of ‘mindlessness’ is the aim, but in the traditional Christian form, though this empty- mindedness may be the result, it is not the conscious aim. In this model meditation is the name given to practices used to still the mind and bring it into a more centred state in order to pray with greater concentration and less distraction. For the Christian, meditation is indivisible from prayer and a thoroughly ‘satisfactory’ prayer-time can be had without any transcendent experience or diminishment of rationality; in other words an empty mind is not the primary aim
Indeed, historically, for the lay-person keeping the mind attending to something godly was seen as less risky than an open-ended meditation or silent prayer where there is the possibility of the mind straying outside the bounds of orthodoxy. The church has traditionally discouraged the faithful from meditative or contemplative practice without the guidance of someone of experience and authority, just in case the lay person came to unorthodox, erroneous or (horror) heretical conclusions.
Seriously, it was long held that meditation for the laity, without proper control, could endanger the soul. (In some Christian circles meditation has always been seen as the work of the devil.) On the one hand there is the element of church domination in this stricture but on the other it is also true that in all the great faiths people who would be adepts in the spiritual life have always been advised to be under the direction of a wise and experienced guide, lest they get lost in illusion. (We might say ‘overwhelmed by the Unconscious’)
Under the influence of Eastern religions meditation as the practice of silent attention in and of itself has become for us the more familiar usage. For the dedicated Christian this sometimes raises the awkward question of whether it is really prayer. If you find this method of spiritual attention works for you and you are bothered about it being ‘proper prayer’ you can refer back to the traditional model and see the stilling of the mind as the preparation for prayer.
When you have had your time of meditation, with a still, quiet mind you can remember those people or concerns for which you want to pray. Frequently the establishment of quiet will lead naturally into a contemplative state where any form of discursive thought is unnecessary and intrusive; one is simply resting in the Divine and then you know beyond any words the truth of your experience. Resisting the urge to analyse, grade or make any judgement at all is obviously the best way to go. Concluding with gratitude, or Thanksgiving, is always a good idea no matter how comfortable or not you feel with the time spent.
To meditate and not ‘take’ it anywhere else; to spend 20 or 30 minutes in silent stillness, attending to the breath, without necessarily giving God a thought may not seem like prayer. One solution to that, if it troubles you, is consciously to call to mind before you begin that no matter what, you are in the Presence of the Divine. Another variant is to place yourself in the vast continuum of people the world over who are engaging in similar practice and feel the sense of silent, unseen community of which you are a part then spend your time thoughtlessly, and be grateful. That is enough. Trusting in the process will bring you to new and precious insights you might otherwise never have received.
If you brain works best with images, you might enjoy using natural images such as a tributary stream running into the sea; reaching the sea it cannot be distinguished or separated. Likewise, with light streaming through several windows, the room is full of light, not differentiated, but absorbing. One is within the light. These are classical kinds of images used by St Teresa, for example, and she was a great womanly teacher of the spiritual arts.
Many people want to engage with the practice of meditation and many people find it too difficult to focus in the prescribed ways. If you cannot reach stillness of the mind by the usual recommended methods you might find questions such as these help to clear your way a little:
Are you thinking too much about getting it right?
Do you have some ideas about what you should, could or wish to experience?
What are your expectations about meditating?
If you do not have any sense of the Divine do you take that to mean you are not getting it right?
What is your purpose in meditating?
Are there other ways to achieve that purpose?
Of course there are no right and wrong answers to these questions they are simply to help you open up to what is going on for you.
In the beginning the art of meditation was developed for and taught by men, to men, in various religious milieux. Speaking within Christianity, women took up the practice and, outside of the Religious Orders, prove to be more devoted to it than the laymen. As with so many tenets of religion, the basic teaching is designed for men, to meet men’s way of being in the world and to correct men’s types of self-will. When women adopt the practices they are in danger of going against the grain of their nature in ways that are not necessarily conducive to spiritual progress.
When we consider what the current brain sciences have to tell us about the difference between men’s and women’s brains this begins to make sense. Much of the data from recent scientific studies of meditators tend to read as though there is only one gender; one is struck by the assumption that meditation is a ‘boy thing’. Generally in the tests quoted there is no indication whether the subjects are men or women and there is no evidence that the researchers have considered that the gender of the subject might alter the findings. The more refined studies take on subjects who are proficient in the art, which is the only sensible way to go, and often use Buddhist monks, with telling and impressive results. Only occasionally are women subjects observed.
The capacity to think of one thing at a time is natural to the male brain; multi-tasking is famously what women do. It would seem obvious from this that men will accept the discipline of focused attention with far greater ease than women, not out of virtue but simply because their brains are made that way. A woman may not get to a regular routine of genuine ‘one-pointedness’, though she may sometimes be highly focused, likewise this is not inadequacy but because of the way her brain is structured.
This could mean that women need to discover a different way of meditating that is not dependent on the male model, but I question whether we have the ability to step so far out of our cultural milieu. Are we like goldfish? How can we imagine something completely outside of the known environment in which we swim? Maybe it is a sign of my embedded culture but I cannot imagine not having that silent awareness as part of the fabric of my life. On the whole I think it more likely that the silent meditative attention is a human need and desire, though the way it is promulgated may owe much to masculine bias.
Women can be too self-critical about the paucity of their efforts and their constant lack of concentration. Accepting the difference of brain structure may let them off the hook to some extent but there are other factors to take into account. The writers of the classical tradition, East and West, were predominantly men, monks. They had nothing else to do. In the monasteries there were lay brothers to do the daily tasks, while the monks were about the Opus Dei, God’s business. They were living this life for years before they had the wisdom or the discipline to write a treatise on prayer or meditation.
Think about that as you are juggling your life to take half an hour to yourself. Given the conditions of their lives it was a pretty poor show if they did not become adepts. St Teresa led a very full and busy life but still had the benefit of ordinary daily tasks being someone else’s problem so she could immerse herself in ‘higher’ pursuits. She did not have to fit in the washing, thinking about what to have for tea then shopping for it and cooking it. Nor did she nurse cut knees, check that the homework is done, double as a taxi driver and all the rest that goes with bringing up a family
Perhaps, to encompass the contingencies and ease the way in we need to extend the meaning of the word, ‘meditation’. Since Eastern practices have become part of the Western way of life ‘meditation’ has already expanded beyond its home-grown Christian terms of reference, so it might not be stretching language too far to include other practices and describe the whole bunch under the general heading of meditation time. I would say that for a woman to take half an hour a day and make it sacrosanct, for her own well-being, call it what you will, it will be life enhancing, and for some women, life-changing
A big problem is the self doubt and criticism that women put themselves through. Even if you can imagine or experiment with something that feels very different to the regular methods as taught there is the horror of self-doubt that ‘knows’ this must be ‘wrong’ because I am not doing it the ‘right’ way. For women who have been solidly indoctrinated in the church, the highest hurdle to jump can be to have faith in themselves.
To find this faith may take an extraordinary leap but without it one labours under a serious disability; with it it is not hard to find other ways of attaining inner peace. The first step is to make the decision, for your own good, to engage with activities that are calming and beneficial. This is the choice women seem to find so hard to make, the word ‘selfish’ seems to come too easily to mind.
When you make this choice for your own well-being whatever route you take, traditional ways of meditation or following your own path, spending time regularly, alone and in quiet stillness is going to be good for your health, your work and your family. Giving yourself half an hour a day, as a priority in your life, is ‘getting it right’ and you will only know that is true when you do it regularly for while.
In that time you might meditate according to your lights; you might consciously pray for yourself and others; you might do some journal writing; you might ponder your own troublesome or delightful feeling responses; you might read something inspiring and helpful and you might explore new and different ways in which to manage the difficult bits of life. It is best, as I’ve said before, to include gratitude. In these ways you will be nurturing your womanly soul, becoming a more rounded person and growing in love and wisdom; you will feel more ‘together’ and have a sound basis on which to meet the issues life throws up. This is a womanly way to go and it does not have to match up to any other standard or any formal language.
There are some aids to help you on the way, like finding inspiring books, articles or CD’s. You have to spend a bit of time on this, it takes exposure to become discerning. Sometimes other people’s recommendations are a help, but have a care that you don’t choose them because you think the other person knows better than you. Another great help is having a soul-friend, spiritual mentor or guide; this can be a really good choice then recommendation or advise from the guide should be carefully considered.
Keeping a journal, for many people, is a great aid. There are various ways of doing this, some people sketch rather than write, or pen poems; it doesn’t matter, what works for you is the rule. The great thing is to be able to read it back from time to time, so of course, dating your entries makes good sense. Traditional or non-traditional kinds of retreats give you a great lift. They are a fantastic restorative and the presence of other like-minded, silent women creates a wonderful sense of communion and companionship.
The thought of the communion of other people, known and unknown, the world over is a great incentive; to know that you are not alone, however solitary your time may seem. Actually you are part of a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ whose quiet, constant times of recollection are doing so much for the peace of the world and the well-being of the planet.
In conclusion, do not be dismayed or disturbed if focused attention eludes you. Remember that when the sea is stormy, there may be turmoil and noise on the surface but underneath all remains calm. It is a bit like that for us! You are a woman with a womanly mind; be still, refrain from judgement. Continue in your times of quiet and you will find a new, expanded awareness creeps up on you, peace descends more frequently and love, or Love, becomes your dominant theme
Through the Unknown Remembered Gate was the perfect title for the recent retreat I gave. We were attuning to the ways in which our psyche is shaped by forces outside of our control. Our primitive inheritance, foetal life and infantile experiences are largely unknown to us in consciousness but remembered by our bodies.
These forces determine significant aspects of our lives but are outside of awareness, unless and until we make the effort to understand them, to bring them into awareness and thus to change them. T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets provided wonderfully appropriate pegs on which to hang the different aspects of the theme. It occurred to me that some of the frustration we feel with ourselves, constantly or from time to time, could be mitigated if we took these forces into account as facts of life.
The process of evolution determined that we were built primarily for survival, not happiness, the desire to be happy is a later arrival. We have an automatic flight, fight or freeze response, because in primitive times human beings had to recognise swiftly whether that was a bear or a beige rock beside the bush. If it was a bear and I ran, I‘d be dead because it can run faster than me. (Of course if it was a beige rock and I ran like the devil and anyone saw me fleeing it I might ‘die’ of embarrassment anyway!) There is no point in trying to fight a bear, best freeze. These days we don’t often encounter rogue bears but our primitive brain does not know the difference between a danger outside or a danger from within, the scrunch we get when anything troubles us elicits the flight/fight/freeze responses.
A big difference between the primitive and modern responses is that in primitive times when the danger was passed the body went back to harmony much faster than it does today. We are so good at re-hashing bad stuff in our brains and each time we do our system recalls the threat and acts accordingly so we can be on red alert most of the time – and that is very stressful for the system and may in due course result in physical symptoms of distress and sickness. We must take seriously the fact that our brains and our reactions do not know the difference between out there reality and fantasies inside out heads.
And we have phenomenal memories for danger, so a voice tone or a grim look that put us on edge when we were two, if perceived in an authoritative face when we are twenty-two or even sixty-two can prompt the same response. To make sure we are safe these responses ‘go global’ so anything remotely akin to what has frightened us in the past will be hedged round for our general safety.
The Law of the Tribe
Another way in which primitive life could be endangered that still affects us today is commitment to the tribe. To be outside of the tribe was life threatening; survival depended on community. This alienation anxiety is still inherent in us, though we may not recognise it as such. We have this twin conflict: to be part of the tribe or to be an individual in our own right; either to remain true to the values etc. of family, school, church etc. and resist the urge towards adult personhood or to become all that we want to be and risk being ostracised by the group.
Our emotional responses are programmed in us very early on, before we have any control or awareness. As Candace Pert (Molecules of Emotion) and others have shown, our emotional lives are formed and the foundations are laid (and will remain largely unchanged) in the first 18-24 months of life. This means that our emotional responses are instinctive and infantile, based in early responses devoid of any mental activity. Furthermore there is a decent body of material suggesting that a significant part of our personality is formed in utero. A mother’s emotions are flowing through her cells, which inevitably mean also through the unborn child therefore the mother’s emotional state may impact on the personality of the child. There is also, of course, the determining effect of the mother’s condition, post-natal. The gender of the child and his/her position in the family are further contributing factors shaping our early life.
As infants and toddlers we are curious about, but ignorant, of the world. The big people who surround us are ‘better’ than us because they can do things we can’t; they can make themselves understood and make up our minds for us. It is touch and go whether it dawns on them that we are feeling beings as well as eating, crying and eliminating things. All of this can contribute to the result of a well-adjusted, self-affirming person or one with an inferiority complex, large or small and all this has happened before we know who we are!
The Second Part
The second part of the retreat looked at the implications of all this for spirituality and our belief in or understanding of God. The take up point was a couple of quotes from the late Dom Sebastian Moore OS.B. “The sense of human worthlessness makes God unbelievable. A sense of human greatness is the threshold to belief” and the rather intriguing suggestion: “If God is not pressing on me to know myself, God does not know me.” Both quotes are from his book Let This Mind Be In You (London 1985) But that is a blog for another day!
Luke 15:4 Matthew 25:1
There is a reciprocity between historic cultural norms and the expression of the same in Christian teaching, though the cultural norms go back to the beginning of time, or if you like, back to Eden! Because they have been normalized for so very long, we don’t notice the fearful anomalies that never get set side by side, nor questioned. The evolution of human consciousness being what it is this is not surprising nor is it something to grunge on about but it is fun at the present time to give the bible stories a new twist.
Would you rather be a lost sheep or a foolish virgin? On the one hand you would get sought after, lifted up by a loving Master and be brought home to great rejoicing; on the other, while there is great rejoicing going on inside, the door is slammed in your face and you are virtually told to bugger off.
Bad sheep, silly sheep, sheep are meant to stay together and each do what the others do. That’s what it means to be a sheep. The one who strays from the common herd, though a dangerous thing to do, will be looked for even if it takes all night. When found he will be brought back into the fold and encouraged not to go off on his own track again.
Virgins on the other hand are supposed to be thoughtful, prepared for any emergency, to think for themselves and make sure that their light shines brightly. If they don’t there is no help for them. No-one is going to make sure that they are safe and no-one gives a toss about their fate.
Two lessons we take from these two stories can be summed up:
Lesson One: It is not a good idea to be an individual and go off exploring on your own but if you do your needs will be understood and you will be gently brought back to the collective way. There is no gender specified for the sheep, rather it is the staying safely in the fold that is significant.
Lesson Two If you are a woman, you must do what is expected of you or there is no hope for you.
What might these lamps signify? What makes a young woman go forward brightly and confidently in the world? Clearly, a sense of being of value, having self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence, call it what you will it is an inner flame that lights her way. We know that that light does not come from an ego decision but from the experience of love. So, the fortunate end of the Happy Virgin is the result of a happy beginning. Conversely the Rejected Virgins are doomed from the beginning. They have no resources to keep their lamps even flickering and their attempts to find what they lack are futile. Jesus said “To those who have more will be given and to those who lack even what they have will be taken away”. Not a statement of judgement, perhaps but a statement of fact.
This is a truly terrible story from a present-day perspective. Granted comparatively few people now read, hear or think about these things but the biblical teachings form a significant layer in the bedrock of collective consciousness and have validated cultural attitudes down the generations. Dusting them off and having a fresh look at them could serve us well.
As for the poor Rejected Virgins, Hafez, a lovely Persian poet of the 14th century has a word for them:
I wish I could show you
When you are lonely and in darkness,
The Astonishing Light
Of your own Being.
Selfhood begins with walking away
C Day Lewis
If one comes to this story symbolically there is a wonderfully positive side to it. The foolish virgins are turned away, but from what are they dismissed? Supporting the bride at a formal, patriarchal marriage, the implications of which are, agreement with the procedure and more importantly, being available to the possibility of following in the bride’s footsteps to find (or have found for them) a husband? Maybe NOT going in is their salvation. They are adrift to make their own decisions. They can walk away and find, instead of a husband, themselves, or not.
But about the Foolish Virgins I am, of course, being fanciful because in reality these women would most likely have been rejected by their families, have no means of support and in be every way bereft. My interpretation is symbolic rather than natural. Even sixty years ago an unmarried woman in Western society, who was above the poverty line, was pitied, often shamed and frequently became the family drudge; not ‘doing the right thing’, not having a husband and family of her own she was bound to make herself useful for those that did and so earn her keep. Below the poverty line her fate would have been much as it has been for poor women from New Testament times onwards even to the present day, in some parts of the world. The concept of equality as a cultural norm does not yet cover the globe.
The Foolish Virgins have been shut out, they are on their own, they are no longer acceptable, obedient daughters of the patriarchy. Who are they? Do they know? A woman has to learn to be herself because the cultural norm of being a possession, of having no rights, are deep and strong. Many women, below the level of daytime consciousness, secretly hold to the knowledge that they have to earn their place on the planet. We have achieved a great deal in changing attitudes and in material reality but the deep psychological implications of historic forms are difficult to name or to relinquish, because they are hardly seen and rarely recognized. That a woman might entirely please herself independently, have a career, have several lovers, have children without marrying. prefer to live without men intimately in their lives, etc. etc. these choices are very recent accomplishments for women in the Western world.
And there is still the question of what is a virgin, foolish or otherwise?
It seems that my work, retreats, writing etc. is and always has been designed for and directed to assisting in the lamp trimming for foolish virgins of any age, creed or gender. My second book was originally entitled Even Unto Virgins. This was ironic, it was a quote from an ancient prayer, from the Monastic Diurnal: O God who among other miracles of thy power has bestowed the victory of martyrdom even unto virgins. The same missal has a special section of prayers for women who were not virgins! Some time I am going to write on what Harry Williams called ‘the ecclesiastical obsession with virgins.’
It is not that I have anything against fig trees but I have problems with the concept of Jesus being ‘fully human’ and then being presented as though he weren’t. To quote the late Fr harry Williams, “It is heresy to make the divine nature of Jesus swallow up the human” It was an early heresy known as Monophysitism. However, from the earliest times this story has been moderated and given a more holy twist; as it stands it is offensive to the idea of Jesus as the perfect man. That he should behave petulantly and use his power to give expression to his irritation sounds so human, and there’s the problem. We are encouraged to believe that Jesus never got anything wrong. Human beings learn from getting things wrong.
If Matthew and Luke had not written the Nativity stories (stories that were of no concern to the other New Testament writers) we would not have known of Jesus until he was an adult who came to be baptised by John the Baptist, a known and acknowledged prophet in the old and recognised style. It is not surprising that we do not have any facts about Jesus’ childhood and growing years. He was known locally as the carpenter’s son, and the Gospels seem to suggest an ordinary kind of background with a normal dose of sibling rivalry. When we fantasise an idealised childhood of perfection we are denying his humanity; did he never fight with his sibling, argue with his dad or get grumpy with his mum? Was there no shadow to his human nature? Obviously if there was not then he was not fully human. Human shortcomings, mistakes, black holes etc. are not just the sad results of Adam’s or original sin, they are part of the fabric of a developing personality. Sometimes this goes awry; in the vast majority of humans it doesn’t. We grow up and do the best we can.
A ‘perfect’ human upbringing is surely one in which love prevails, where responsibility is encouraged, where each person feels met, affirmed, forgiven, challenged even. It is not a state of pastel purity where there is never a cross word, disobedience, being peeved or plainly bloody-minded. That kind of image may be OK for stained glass windows but does it encourage people to believe in the full humanity of Jesus?
That’s why I love this story of the fig tree that crept into the Gospel in spite of every effort being made to turn it into an example of the benefits of faith. Somehow the follow-up verses make things more not less startling and disruptive to our flawless image of him. Ancient and modern commentators seem to prefer to concentrate their commentary on the preaching opportunity of faith ‘that can move mountains’ rather than on this wonderful lapse of Jesus who was hungry and grumpy.
When reading the gospels we have to bear in mind that they were written as teaching texts to proselytise and to encourage the faithful to be virtuous, kind, careful, loving etc. as proof of the validity, truth and benefit of following in the steps of Christ. The texts don’t serve the same purpose today and we do not do them a favour by acting or preaching as though they do. Changing the attitude with which we come to the texts is the first step to breathing new life into them and, one might hope, into the church to whom they belong.
Imagine a distant, very distant, ancestor crouching behind a rock, terrified: that big black shape over there, is it a bush or is it a bear? This is a life or death situation, but it might not be, perhaps it is a bush after all, but the fear remains. That was all a long time ago and the ancient part of our brains still operate on this model. It is our immediate survival mechanism which is always on the lookout and comes into play at the first hint of danger. None of us is immune from this, however there are useful and less useful ways of managing it; to still our anxieties or keep them topped up and dangerous. There’s nothing like anxiety to depress the immune system.
Rational argument, telling oneself to be sensible or not to be stupid doesn’t often work as the fear is not rational. There are simple techniques we can use to calm the system, rapidly; here is a good one: As you feel anxiety clutch at you, stop what you are doing, stay still and take a couple of deep breaths, bring your attention back simply to where you are, to your body, to the present moment. Be totally aware that at this moment I am okay, I am safe, I can let go and breathe deeply and be at peace. Every time you do this you are changing your brain in a new direction. This pattern works because though fear is in the here and now what we fear isn’t. If we are unwell, that’s here and now and we deal with it, making our best choices. If we are not unwell but anxious our anxiety is of what might happen, it hasn’t happened so it is kind of unreal, a fantasy of a possible future state. We can only live in the present; the past is gone the future hasn’t come, so it makes sense to keep our attention on where we are, thus we come back to reality where we belong and out of which we act.
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