These days I read more and more posts which hail the importance of having a meditation practice in our lives. Here in white bread America, prayer has been the one acceptable means of invoking the divine and generally for quite specific purposes: praise and thanksgiving, requesting divine guidance, or in our cruder moments, just asking for what we need. Sometimes, just asking for stuff.
Now I am exaggerating pretty grossly here to bring home my point which is this: That until rather recently nowhere in religious practice has there been a recognition of prayer as simply sitting quietly, without petition or praise, in the presence of pure Being. All this is rapidly changing, happily, as the church has welcomed back its own ancient practice of contemplative prayer.
My purpose here is to offer up my experience of what led me away from prayer in the first place and what, in the end, led me back.
Growing up in a churched household it seemed that prayer was always involved a lot of talk, a beseeching of this and and asking for that all in the name of God or of God’s Son. As a young person this was enough. Life had a sort of rosy glow to it. I always knew who was there in the wings when the going got tough which it certainly did with the long illness and eventual death of a parent and the various trials and tribulations amidst adolescence with the gap left in our family from that loss.
Before long, prayer ceased to have much meaning. It brought me neither solace nor peace. Just as Paul Tillich’s “god is dead” slogan started being misinterpreted and flung across the college campuses of the sixties. Like most undeveloped young people, who take their abstractions and metaphors straight up, I had no way of understanding Tillich’s meaning. The words to me were then, as they are now, quite shocking. With age, learning, and maturity I have come to hear them differently. (I'll save that for another post.)
But at that time, sadly, I took him at his word. For me, anyway, God was dead and leaving me empty and alone all over again. These were my atheist years and glum and grim years they were.
Then one bright day, almost by accident, I wandered into a lecture on Transcendental Meditation. On a lark my friends and I decided to learn. That was it. Presto. It seems that overnight I had found my calling. Settling into this simple silence with my shiny new mantra and clear instructions on how to use it, a deep well of peace and a feeling faintly akin to joy began to open and grow within me.
I knew without question that something of huge value and importance had entered life. Would I call this God? I wasn’t committing. But I knew everything had changed. Without my willing it or asking for it, my inner life had widened and deepened into something that felt like continual prayer and yet never was the word God or prayer uttered. I was filled with a new kind of peace.
I became a long time practitioner of meditation, Transcendental Meditation to be exact. TM was a gift that landed in my lap over thirty years ago and I have never doubted its essential importance in my life since. I have questioned whether or not I wanted to take the time for it. I have played around with not meditating to see if I could notice the difference. (I could and quite dramatically so if I went longer than a week or two without practice.)
I have had various gripes and groans over the years about certain organization policies of the sort that beset all large organizations. I have worried about what my family and friends would think about some of my life style choices. Such things as letting meat and alcohol, except in very limited doses, lapse from my diet long before there was such a thing as a vegan movement.
Meditating twice a day, each and every day, for anywhere from twenty to sixty minutes, depending on choice and circumstances. And, I guess, most of all I worried over what my family and friends would think when my husband and I chose to sell our lovely home in a coveted neighborhood in New Jersey and move ourselves lock stock and barrel to a small midwest town to live in a community with other mediators.
The years have passed and, still married, still involved in our practice, many changes have occurred--some on the level of consciousness (hard to describe) and some on the level of attitude (easier to describe). I no longer worry, thank god, what people think. Like most who chose and stick with a spiritual practice for many years, I know what it’s like to wrestle with the demons on the public square: those who approve, those who disapprove, and those for whom it is at best an exercise in futility.
I also am well acquainted with my own demons who can still, from time to time, grab me by the neck and have me nearly convinced of the futility of such non-doingness in the name of growth. None of this ever ends, not quite. Understanding and being okay with all I gain in return seems to be part of the so-called wisdom gained.
Meditation practice, after all, unlike prayer, can especially garner harsh judgment by those who would remind us that we might be being just a wee bit “self-indulgent,” a wee bit “narcissistic” -- the big gun from today’s pop psychology’s arsenal.
But despite all of this and, indeed, in the face of all, I have never questioned the efficacy and overall goodness of my meditation practice. Perhaps the most precious gift has been the way that over time, it has returned me to prayer and a natural and abiding relationship with the divine which, for lack of a better word, I once again can call God. For all of these I am indeed blessed.
(This I intend to be part of a four part series on the diverse nature of spiritual practice .)