Questions and Answers

Answers to questions about Christian Meditation that may be useful for members of the community.

Q&A Categories

Distractions and the Question of Progress

1. If everyone could be detached from all thought and imagination so easily, then meditation will be very easy for us to focus and concentrate. (I believe that is the biggest problem for us). When I meditated at the Church of St Ignatius guided by a fellow meditator, I noticed a few were falling asleep, I also did fall asleep sometimes. I thought it is a good sign that we are totally surrendering to God‘s presence and relaxing. But John Main teaches us to stay awake when saying the mantra, which I cannot fully understand. Please advise.

Meditation is not easy to understand It takes time to learn the wisdom and the deep truths of this radically simple teaching. If you read John Main’s The Way of Unknowing, it took him a good part of thirty years to understand with crystal clarity the teaching which can be summed up in three words: ‘Say Your Mantra.’ He tells us another important lesson in learning to meditate, the necessity for stillness. You must learn to be completely still, choose a really alert posture with your spine upright. Then stay absolutely still. It is a discipline, the discipline of the disciple opening to the Master, alert, present and reverent as we come into his presence.

To fall asleep occasionally is not a problem. It could mean that you came to meditation very tired and are resting in his presence, as you said. But when you realise you have dosed off, simply, humbly, without guilt or frustration, continue saying your mantra. In saying the mantra faithfully with undivided attention, and sitting still. we are surrendering our whole self to God, body, mind and spirit. In this way, we make ourselves available to God so that he can do his transforming work in us and bring us into union with him, which is the ultimate purpose of meditation.

To meditate without falling asleep requires a healthy balance of diet, sleep, and exercise. Don’t meditate after a meal, especially a heavy meal. Regular and enough sleep is important. Yoga or Tai chi, Chi Gong are good forms of exercises. They help us to pay attention and stay alert during the time of meditation.

Finally, the discipline of the twice-daily, 20-30 minute saying of the mantra is the essential teaching of Christian meditation. Be patient, persevere, and say your mantra faithfully with humility. When the Master appears, you will know... and maybe all your questions disappear. Gregory of Nyssa says if it is God we are finding then we never stop finding, which also means we never stop seeking.

WCCM Core Team responds to a question at a weekly group meeting.

2. What should we do if sometimes the environment is not conducive to meditating, such as not having a quiet place or a quiet time or when we are sick or tired?

John Main

Yes, I think it’s certainly much more difficult to meditate when you’re tired, when you haven’t a great deal of physical energy. I certainly found a couple of years ago when I was in hospital recovering from an operation that, particularly when I was very, very weak just after the operation, I would say the mantra maybe a couple of times and then I would be in a very deep and reposeful state of sleep perhaps and I would wake up and say another couple of times and be asleep again. But I think that we have to be very careful that we don’t rate ourselves for success.

I think you have to do the very best you can in the circumstances that you’re in. For example, ideally it is useful to meditate in a very quiet place so that you can be as recollected as possible, but if your next door neighbour starts using a steam hammer and that recollection is lost, it’s much preferable to keep on meditating rather than to say, “I haven’t got the ideal circumstances, therefore, I’ll give up.” For example, when I was coming home from Ireland last week on the plane, I decided that the time had come to meditate. The airhostess decided that it was a good time to have a chat with a passenger who seemed to be looking rather lonely or rather quiet, so she came and sat down beside me, so I chatted with her for a while. It was on Air Lingus, Irish International Airlines, and she was rather more than usually loquacious and it took me some time before I could politely return to my meditation. So, you have to do the best you can in the circumstances. And I would always advise you not to give up; even though you are tired or you haven’t a lot of energy, to do your best to put in the evening meditation.

(John Main OSB, Meditatio Talk Series 2012-D, John Main OSB & Laurence Freeman OSB respond to Questions on Meditation)

3. What is supposed to happen during the meditation? Are we supposed to have experiences; are we going to get signs of God’s presence during the meditation? Are we going to see visions of the light? How do we know that we’re making progress in our meditation?

Laurence Freeman

John Main said once that nothing happens in meditation, and if anything does, ignore it. That might not seem a very exciting invitation, but actually it’s the wisest teaching you can find on how to grow spiritually and how to deepen your prayer. We’re not looking for anything to happen, we’re not looking for a text message from God to solve our problems, otherwise you would have had the solution for the Euro crisis by now, it would have come to you. So that isn’t how God communicates to us, by text messages.

So we’re not looking for special revelations or even special experiences. I think that’s very important to face and accept as early as possible in your journey of meditation, because otherwise you get really distracted and side-tracked because you’re looking for something to happen, and you either imagine it’s happening, or you get upset because it doesn’t happen. But what happens is of course that you are allowing God to work in you, transform you, and it will be in your life above all that you see the fruits. This is why people meditate. They don’t meditate because nothing happens, they meditate because everything happens. We just have to know where to look, where to see the results.

Obviously we have some meditation periods which are wonder- ful, very peaceful, very calm; other meditation periods, a complete waste of time it seems, hard work, no feeling. And you don’t know when that’s going to happen. If I were to be honest with you, sometimes I’d be sitting in the middle row of the back seat of economy class on a 12-hour flight, and I’d have a wonderful meditation; at other times I go on a retreat for a few days of quiet and my mind is all over the place, I have to catch up with all the distractions that I’ve had.

So you don’t know. And that reminds you that this is all about God’s gift; contemplation is a grace. The more simple we are, the more present we are, as children, the easier it is of course to receive that grace. Even though your meditation might be very distracted, don’t evaluate it in that way, but just learn where to look for the results. You’ll see it in your life.

(John Main OSB, Meditatio Talk Series 2012-D, John Main OSB & Laurence Freeman OSB respond to Questions on Meditation)