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
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