In the discussion period following the meditation there may be questions. Respond as best you can.
If you can’t think of an answer, just say `I don’t know’ or ‘I’ll think about that.’ But more than likely, you can respond very adequately from your own experience and reading, in your own words. The following are merely some frequently asked questions with adequate answers. How would you respond using your own words?
Why do we use a mantra? What is the role of the mantra and how do I choose one?
The purpose of the mantra is threefold. Firstly, it helps to deal with distractions. The mind needs a point of focus, something for it to be absorbed in so distractions can be ignored. Secondly, it leads to a condition of simplicity. Thirdly and most importantly for us who meditate as Christians, the saying of the mantra is an expression of faith in Christ who lives in our hearts.
The mantra is chosen with care. It is an expression of our faith. Meditation is Christian because of the faith of the person meditating. The mantra is our expression of this. While it is acceptable to choose your own mantra, in the ideal a teacher gives the student a mantra. The Spirit is the inner teacher, so the inner teacher can inspire a self-chosen mantra.
The mantra that Fr John Main recommended is the word ‘maranatha’. It is an Aramaic word, the language Jesus spoke. It means ‘Come Lord Jesus’ or ‘The Lord comes’. As it is not in our own language it does not have any thoughts attached to it and does not encourage us to think. It is a balanced rhythmic word, with the long ‘a’ sound. It fits well with the rhythm of the breath and it is one of the oldest Christian prayers. Abba or the name of Jesus or the Jesus Prayer or part of it, or any short phrase of Scripture can be used as a mantra. The ‘formula’ that John Cassian recommended was the Psalm verse: “O God come to my aid, O Lord make haste to help me.” Choosing your word is important. Once you have chosen it is important, in this tradition, to always stay with the same word. Thus it becomes rooted in the heart and becomes a way to praying always.
Is it necessary to meditate twice a day? I find it possible to fit in one period, but the second is often impossible.
Once someone complained to Fr John that he could not find time for the second period of meditation. He expected Fr John to sympathise with him. While recognising that it is not always easy, Fr John’s response was simply that if he really wanted it enough he would find the time. The man went home and revised his schedule and found the time. However, once is better than not at all. One should do what one can and the commitment will grow with continuing practice.
Is the length of the meditation period important?
Yes, you have to give it a fair shot. You can’t just take a minute here and a minute there. It’s like baking bread; you have to leave it in there a sufficient amount of time for it to rise. Twenty minutes is pretty well the minimum amount of time. It takes us almost that length of time to come down to any level of stillness and peace or mental quiet. Thirty minutes is the ideal time but it my take some people a while to build up to a thirty-minute period twice a day. What is important is that you set your time and then stick to it. It is a good idea to have an external signal so that you don’t have to be looking at your watch. It is also helpful to meditate with others fairly regularly. You will often find that people who begin meditation in extreme situations of their lives, tend to get there pretty quickly. A sense of urgency speeds it up because they want to waste less time.
Is the way of breathing important?
The first aim of this form of meditation is to say the mantra continually, and that is what we have to learn to do. We should breathe naturally. Don’t concentrate on your breathing. Give all the attention to the mantra. You will find that quite naturally the mantra will integrate itself with your breathing. Sometimes it coordinates with some other bodily rhythm like the pulse or heartbeat, but many people say the mantra to their breathing. A simple way might be to say the mantra as you breathe in, and breathe out in silence. Or ‘ma-ra’ as you breathe in and ‘na-tha’ as you breathe out. Learning to breathe well, using the abdomen, is highly recommended for health not only for meditation. Proper breathing is an important aid to relaxation and goes with posture.
Father John did not stress breathing, as he was concerned to keep the discipline simple and not to emphasise the method too much, because then that gets turned into technique. When you get too interested in technique, you forget the purpose of it.
Is posture important when meditating?
Yes. The most important rule of posture is to keep the spine upright. If you use a chair, find one of the right height that gives your back the kind of support it needs. If the spine is held erect and relaxed it is possible to stay alert. Slumped posture leads to drowsiness or even sleep.The ideal posture is the lotus posture as this keeps the spine automatically in its natural upright position. This is not possible for most of us; therefore finding a good posture cross-legged on the floor can be almost as good. However the most important thing is that you are upright and alert without being in unnecessary pain or discomfort. A physical practice like yoga can help greatly with both posture and breathing. Because meditation involves the whole person, body, psyche and spirit, what we do with our body during meditation is of very great importance, and learning to sit well is a vital ingredient in learning to move deeper into the silence, stillness and simplicity of meditation.
I like to meditate but it is a very private thing for me. Why should I meditate with a group? It is distracting for me. Why should I go to a group?
It is important to meditate on one’s own and most of the time this is our situation. However, many people find it difficult to keep up regularly on their own, especially in hard times. John Main believed in the importance of the community that meditation creates. The silence in a group can often be deeper than when we are alone. The group gives support and encourages people to keep on practising on their own. People who meditate together find the experience bonds them to each other at a deep level even when they do not know much about each other. Thus groups have all these functions, but there are some people who do practise regularly on their own without the support of a group. They also know that whenever they meditate they are never alone, but are united to all other meditators around the world.
How is this different from other forms of meditation, like Transcendental Meditation, or prayer? How does meditation help us to relate to other people?
The answer to both questions is ‘unity.’ First of all it is important to see what meditation, in the Christian tradition we are talking about, shares in common with other traditions as well as how it may differ. The unity in meditation is most important. What makes meditation different as a spiritual practice is that it is not practised as a technique. There is a world of difference between meditating as a technique and as a discipline. We are technologically conditioned and so we think that it is a great technique to discover. We think, “I will use this and see what I get out of it, improve my performance, and I can let go of it if it does not help.” However, as a discipline we bring a dimension of faith and perseverance to meditation. This is why it is important that meditation is taught as a spiritual discipline rather than a technique because you’re more likely to get the best results from it as a spiritual discipline, simply because you are more likely to persevere. With faith as your motive there is more reason to persevere.
What makes meditation Christian is your Christian faith. It isn’t the technique that makes it Christian, Buddhist or Hindu. It is the faith you bring to it. That is why it is such a marvellous way for each person, whatever their faith, to fulfil their faith journey and personally verify the truths of their faith while at the same time sharing deeply a spiritual experience with people of other faiths. The terrible error is saying, “Well, I believe in my faith, and that means that somebody else’s faith must be wrong.” Logically, intellectually that is where we get stuck. At the level of the spirit we experience unity, and unity is where meditation leads. This becomes quite a perceptible reality as you meditate in a group. You don’t communicate through language or through the body when you meditate. But there is a deeper communication at work. You will find too that when you have meditated with someone you relate to them quite differently and more easily, from a deeper level of personal unity.
Do some people come to meditation without being taught?
Yes, they do. In teaching meditation you can make it sound as if the mantra is something that has just been discovered, but it is a very natural conclusion to certain states of consciousness that people enter naturally: that we do restrict our consciousness to one word and that one word leads on to full silence.
When I meditate I get a tingling sensation in my hands, is this all right? (A thumping heart, feelings of heat or cold or any other physical sensation)
When we are meditating the integration and harmonising of our whole person is gradually taking place. This is positive. Sometimes it takes the form of various physical sensations. These are not of any spiritual significance. They simply need to be ignored and they will pass when they have done their work. These sensations are connected with the movement and flow of energy through our system. The relaxation created by meditation allows the energy in us to flow more freely and this can cause physical sensations.
When I meditate I see
colour; this is very pleasant.
Should I enjoy it?
(This can be light or
sensations of love, peace etc)
The important things to remember is that none of the experiences we may have along the way are the goal of meditation. They are all part of the integration process. The vital thing is not to become attached to them, or desire them, but to just allow them to come and go and continue to pay attention to your mantra.
I have been meditating for some time, but it seems to be making me worse! I often experience a lot of anger when I meditate. At other times I feel very sad and cry a lot. What is happening?
When we meditate we have to pass through all the layers of our consciousness, as we move towards God in the depth of our being. There is no way to the depth of union with God except through the layers of our being. Actually what you experience is the healing of your emotions. It may not feel like this when you are experiencing it, but it is the release of old wounds, grief etc. Again the important thing is to try to just allow things to release, as it were allow the firework display, while you gently try to keep your focus on your mantra. If at times the pain or other emotions become intolerable then you may need to seek some help or advice or counselling outside the time of meditation. Other outlets can also be sought such as painting, writing, etc. Whatever other helps you need at times like this, keep meditating. The combination of meditation and other forms of healing work can be very powerful.
I find that sometimes in the meditation, I am saying the mantra and I become at peace and it seems to me, at that moment that the appropriate thing to do is to stop saying the mantra and to remain at peace. If I continue to say the mantra at that moment, I am interfering with this open window of peace. I am forcing my head to keep thinking. What is your teaching on this?
John Main taught that at a certain point, maybe after many years, the mantra would lead us into complete silence, maybe just for very brief moments, during the period of meditation. But this is an experience, which we should neither anticipate nor desire. What does complete silence mean? You are not in complete silence if you are able to say ‘I am silent’ or ‘I am resting’ or ‘I am enjoying this’. Then you are already thinking. This is a very subtle, but essential part of the teaching.
Saying the mantra continuously leads to a change in the way you say the mantra. Over the weeks, months, years you say the mantra with less effort, less force, it becomes more faithful, but also more gentle. John Main taught that at first we say the mantra in the head, with effort, then we sound it in the heart with greater ease and greater self-acceptance of the distractions; and then we listen to the mantra with whole-hearted attention. When seen in this way saying the mantra is not thinking, it is listening. The fourth stage would be silence, which is something that we cannot anticipate.
(This is a very important question. Any group leader or anyone teaching meditation needs to listen to this aspect of the teaching, which is fully explained in Word into Silence and the Introduction to Moment of Christ. They should test it against their own experience and then they will be ready to express it confidently in their own group or when teaching.)
What is the relationship between meditation and social action?
It is a consequence of our prayer that we should be involved in the world. Every action we do should be a consequence of our prayer. In meditation we are purifying our inner life in order to go out to others. The one should flow from the other.
The end of our prayer is communion with the Body of Christ and to be in union with the Body of Christ has to be with our brothers and sisters throughout the world because that is where the resurrected Christ is present. If prayer does not help this outreach, then it is not true prayer. Love of God and love of neighbour are the essential truths and all prayer should lead us to that community that is the world. It is not just to think about it but what we can do, the thing that Christ did, since we are now in union with the liberating presence of Christ in the world.
We must be careful not to think that our meditation is a passive occupation. It is a pure act, to sit down, to practise meditation, to spend that time. Everything that it includes is active and it is about attention, not non-attention. If we really meditate, whatever we do in our life, we do it differently because we meditate. We do it with more attention, at a deeper level - with more sensitivity and compassion. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we all are called to go out and do certain things that come under the umbrella of social justice. Everyone serves humanity in different ways. Sometimes these may appear to be inaction but may at the same time be very deep and very meaningful.
If we are doers and we have always been doers, e.g. in social justice issues, the parish, politics, once we start meditating, we find that we are called be very discriminating about what we do, how we spend our time. It can also lead to a deeper understanding of why we make the choices we do with regard to service.
Meditation changes our whole attitude to action. The fruits of meditation become quite apparent as you live your life. You become more compassionate, more loving, and gentler. You will become less possessive about your work and see how it is God working through you.
Sometimes when you are on holiday, family members may be all together in one room and it can be difficult to get the time or quiet for meditation. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle that situation?
How many of us are intimidated or reluctant to say, while we are socialising or on holiday with someone, that we have to go aside to meditate. How do you approach that? Do you feel free enough to say that this is your way and for them to accept that you are not being antisocial, that this is your discipline and you need to take the time?
We have to do what we can and not what we cannot. Not meditating should in no way be another reason to feel guilty! While strongly stressing the importance of regular meditation, John Main, was equally strong in stressing the importance of not letting meditation become another thing to feel guilty about.