May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Many of us have times when we our minds race. Our minds might randomly switch from one thought to another. Or repeatedly rehearse a future event. Or play a past event over and over. Sometimes our minds get fixed on one idea and miss everything else. Or our minds try to figure things out—as if by thinking hard enough we can make sense out of things that make no sense.
All of these mental gymnastics can keep us distracted and agitated. Very little of this mental activity is productive. In fact, it is often quite destructive. Whether we are playing out some future fantasy or disaster or getting lost in some mental maze, it usually increases our distress.
What we need in times like this is to bring our minds back to the present moment. We need to slow down our racing thoughts and experience the here and now.
Meditation is a spiritual practice which can help us do this. Meditation pulls us out of our spinning, obsessing minds, into our hearts, and from our hearts, eventually, into the sacred core of our being where our spirits know themselves to be held safe by the loving Spirit of God.
Most religious traditions encourage some kind of meditative practice and offer some kind of instruction on the various ways to practice meditation. Most of these approaches to meditation have a few basic elements in common.
Most meditative practices involve sitting still for a period of time. They also involve attending to our breathing as a simple way of quieting our minds and allowing us to bring ourselves back to our bodies here and now in this moment. And most meditative practices involve some kind of focal point—a word or a phrase or an image to sit with—to absorb or to be absorbed into.
This quietness and stillness of body and mind puts us in a listening mode. We quiet our internal and external voice and listen for the Voice of the One who made us, sustains us and loves us.
Thomas Merton, in his book, Contemplative Prayer, describes meditation as “an attentive, watchful listening of the heart.” He goes on to say that it “begins not so much with ‘considerations’ as with a ‘return to the heart,’ finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God who is the source of our being and our life.”*
The book of Psalms talks about meditation as a normal part of life. The psalmists describe meditating on God’s “unfailing love” (Psalm 48:9), on God’s “precepts and promises” (Psalm 119:78,148) and on God’s “wonderful works” (Psalm 145:5).
Meditation is a refocusing of our minds and hearts on a Power greater than ourselves, and that act of refocusing can have a profound impact on us—physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally.
Meditation moves us out of our obsessing minds, out of our self-reliance, out of our endless striving. It moves us into the wonder, the beauty, the love and the truth of God. It helps us move from a place of agitation to a place where we can rest.
Meditation does not need to be complicated. We don’t need to set aside many hours a day or learn some secret practice in order to meditate. We can begin simply. And we can continue simply. We might slow our breathing, come back to the present moment, and quietly, repeatedly bring our minds back to a word. I will sometimes do this, coming back to a word like “rest”. Or I might focus on one of the many names for God: Light. Peace. Comfort. Beautiful One. Healer. Almighty. Love. Goodness. Joy. Shepherd. Counselor. The purpose of whatever word we choose is to simply express our consent to rest in God’s presence.
The practice of meditation is actually simple. What is not so simple is what goes on inside our minds as we practice meditation. Most of us find that our minds quiet for a moment or two as we sit still and focus on our breathing and then on a word or phrase. But then our minds come right back at us with all kinds of ideas and suggestions and noise.
Part of the work of meditation is to expect this, to notice when this is happening and to accept it with humility and humor. When it happens we come back to the word we have chosen, expressing again our intent to rest in God’s loving presence. We need to breathe easily and refocus again. And again. And again.
Meditation can also be a guided experience. Before my cancer surgeries I listened many times to a meditation by Belleruth Naparstek.** It was designed to prepare a person for a successful surgery. She talks the listener through slowing their breathing and seeing themselves in a safe place with someone who loves them. As part of this meditation, she guides listeners through a process of visualizing the coming surgery. During this guided meditation I watched myself being wheeled into surgery where a loving and skillful team of professionals cared for me and where all goes exceptionally well. On several occasions these meditations led to significant spiritual encounters. On one occasion in the silence of meditation I saw myself on a deserted beach with Jesus. I felt completely safe, fully loved, filled with joy in this scene. And then, as I sat with Jesus and he reviewed with me the images of my upcoming surgery, I felt a growing ease and confidence and even gratitude about it all.
One of the most powerful things that I experienced during these guided meditations was an image of Jesus present with me in the operating room. He stood at the foot of the bed and gently placed a hand on my ankle.
It was an image I had seen previously—not in a scene about an anticipated surgery, but in a long forgotten scene of abuse from my childhood. This vision came to me several times during the years of remembering and healing from childhood trauma. Often when I would sit still, slow my breathing and invite God to show me whatever God chose to show me, I would see images of the abuse I experienced during childhood. I would sometimes see myself as a child being hurt, and all the while Jesus was there, with his hand on my ankle. Through the touch of his hand I could feel an energy unlike anything I had ever felt. It was, I concluded, the life giving energy of pure love. It would fill my heart and mind and body. Like an internal baptism, it cleansed me and strengthened me and healed me.
The experience of those moments was transformational. I came to know that God’s love, as expressed in Jesus, is far greater and more powerful than all the hate and harm I had experienced. I came to know that God’s love is far greater and far more powerful than all the hate and harm in the world.
I came to know that we can receive this pure, powerful love. We can be baptized with this love, we can be filled with this love.
It was love that healed me from the fear and shame I carried as a result of being hurt as a child. Love that flowed into me in many forms. Sometimes in the form of healing energy from the touch of Jesus’ hand.
And now, here it was again. That touch. That life giving love-energy coming from Jesus’ hand and filling me as I envisioned myself in surgery. I felt the gentleness of this love, the warm light of it, the life giving power of it again as I meditated.
Sometimes meditation, whether guided or not, leads to these kinds of sacred encounters, but sometimes meditation leads to other kinds of sacred encounters. Sometimes when I meditate, I encounter silence. There are times for me when that silence feels like a great void and I am aware of my great longing for God. Over time I have come to see that this, too, is a sacred experience. Sometimes the silence feels like the very presence of God.
We do not need to control our experience as we meditate. Rather, we can be open to accept whatever experience comes as the gift we are being given at the moment. In meditation we learn to listen to our own hearts and our own spirits, but we also open ourselves to the voice and the presence of God.
Bring your anxious, distressed mind and body into a place of quiet stillness. And let yourself be blessed.
When you don’t know what to do…meditate.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What experiences have you had with meditation?
2. Let yourself practice meditating. Sit comfortably supported, take a few easy breaths, invite God to help you quiet your mind and body and to rest in God’s presence. Choose a word that reflects some aspect of God’s character and gently bring your mind back to this word each time you are distracted. Allow yourself to relax into God’s love for you.
* Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (New York. N.Y.: Image Books, 1969), 29-30.
** Belleruth Naparstek, Successful Surgery – Health Journey. Available at www.healthjourneys.com.
This meditation is taken from Keep Breathing: What To Do When You Can’t Figure Out What To Do by Juanita Ryan. Keep Breathing is available for purchase at amazon.com
Scott Holman says
Such a wonderful post, thank you for sharing. I was thinking a lot of the similarity to what you’re describing to the “Centering Prayer” of Thomas Keating.
I so desperately need, throughout the day, avenues of resting in God’s tender love. The Lord has recently brought up previously undealt with trauma having to do with jobs that I have had, tied to my childhood experiences of being abandoned. I get “triggered” and start fending for myself before I know it. Practices like you are describing are the only thing I know of to keep the fear and shame at bay and before the healing presence of Jesus.
Juanita Ryan says
Thank you for sharing, Scott. What you describe is so much my day to day experience, as well. I do best when I keep returning (often as a little kid) to the loving, healing presence of Jesus. May we both keep remembering to lean into those Arms of Love.
Scott Holman says
Amen! It really helps to know I’m not alone in seeking healing, especially the level of deep need that I so frequently feel; sometimes I feel ashamed for being so “weak.” Less often than I used to, so that’s progress I think.
Elizabeth Cagle says
Thank you Juanita! On the money again this morning! for me and I am forwarding this to a new friend! Thanks for not allowing the enemy to take you out through the cancer. I am on the other side of two surgeries for colorectal cancer and believing that I am cancer free. I refuse to allow it to steal any more of my life than it already has… (one year). Many blessings on you and your work!
Juanita Ryan says
Wow, Elizabeth, you have been through a lot. Life does become rather “interrupted” when we are living with something like cancer. May you be blessed with many, many years of good health. Thank you for sharing and thank you for your words of blessings.