Questions and Answers

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

Q&A Categories

The Practice

1. Fr John, what are the best times to meditate, in the morning and in the evening? Is it best to meditate first thing in the morning when we get up? And what about the evening?

John Main:

That depends very much on individuals, but the general rules about times of meditating are: the quietest time of the day in your own life or your own heart, always before a meal if you can rather than after it, and the early morning and the early evening are the best times to meditate. The best time is probably early in the morning before breakfast and when you are at your freshest, perhaps a cold shower too might be part of the prescription. And then in the evening, probably the best time is before your evening meal. But that probably isn’t always very possible for everybody – if you’re coming home from work and your wife has got the meal ready, you know. It depends very much on the circumstances of your life. Those are probably the optimum times, but what is of supreme importance is that you do meditate every morning and every evening.

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

2. We were taught to listen to the sounds near and far and then to listen to our heartbeat. Is it just an initiation or is it helpful?

I think that little technique would be an initiation. It would be a preparation for meditation. If we are teaching from the richness of the Christian contemplative tradition, then we have to make a distinction between preparation for meditation and meditation itself.

You can prepare for meditation the way we did it with some stretching, some physical preparation; or reading of scripture, or some other form of awareness exercise where your mind calms down; or music. You can use different ways to prepare for the meditation, but don’t confuse the preparation with the thing itself.

We have to go into the thing itself, into the meditation, this is what people want. We have to give the full meal of prayer to people. So we have to make this distinction between preparation and the meditation itself.

What explains the meditation itself is simplicity. This is a very simple method. It can be practised by a child, by an old person, by somebody on their deathbed, by a prisoner in prison, by somebody recovering from a cancer operation, or somebody raising a family in the middle of their life. It can be practised by anyone and it is simple, not easy. I’m not pretending that it is easy, but it is simple. And as soon as we start – we only have to start – as soon as you start, the Lord comes to help you and teaches you.

(Laurence Freeman OSB, Meditatio Talk Series 2013-C, Meditating as a Christian)

3. How can we overcome falling asleep during meditation?

It is very natural. Everybody falls asleep during meditation from time to time; you can get drowsy.

The best cure for falling asleep in meditation is to have a work to do, and that is your word. Say your word and keep returning to the word, and that will help you to stay awake. Secondly, get enough sleep at night. Thirdly, don’t meditate after a meal and fourthly, choose a good time that is good for you and your body and your schedule, to meditate.

Early morning is usually good for most people. The evening meditation may take you a little longer, but keep trying, and even if you are tired at night try to do the second meditation.

When you begin, you may find you are doing one meditation once a week. After a few weeks, you may find you are doing meditation three times a week. Keep going and keep aiming at doing it twice a day.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes you; just keep going. Eventually, your own experience will teach you the value of it; and you will see that the discipline of the morning and evening meditation gives you energy, gives you joy, gives you peace, which go into your life. You learn that from your own experience. So, just start as I said, and if you fall asleep just wake up.

There is a Buddhist saying, I think the Buddha said that no one is enlightened while they are asleep, and Jesus tells us to stay awake and pray, doesn’t he? Don’t worry about failing; just be faithful. Keep coming back to it.

(Laurence Freeman OSB, Meditatio Talk Series 2013-C, Meditating as a Christian)

4. Is it right to give reflection or thought to the people while they are doing the meditation?

The simple answer to that is ‘No’. During meditation, we are silent so there should be no music or words allowed during the meditation.

If you are having a lectio group with a group of people, then of course you will be using words and you will be guiding them perhaps in how to read the scripture, but in the time of this meditation, we let go of all thoughts. Remember the meaning of silence: It is even letting go of our thoughts, and entering into the prayer of Jesus.

The music, for example, or chant, can be a nice way to go into the meditation, but then, stop the music or stop the chant and stop the words, then ring the bell or have some way of going into the meditation. Somebody needs to time it, so the leader of the group will time the meditation – I suggest twenty minutes. Then ring the bell again, and you could have some music or chant. Then you could have a short reading of scripture and time for sharing. So, it is not guided meditation in that sense.

(Laurence Freeman OSB, Meditatio Talk Series 2013-C, Meditating as a Christian)

5. Would it matter if you have to change the time from day to day, if you had to?

John Main

If you had to, no, not at all. The really critical thing is to put in those two meditations. When I was in Ireland a couple of weeks ago, I met a priest friend of mine who started to meditate about six years ago. And he said that when he started, he listened to what I had to say and said, “Well this guy is a monk, nothing to do all day, sitting around, it’s very easy for him to meditate twice a day. But I am a busy parish priest, therefore I will read his signal for me as once a day.” And so, he said, for about a year he meditated once a day. Then he said, “This is not working,” and came to me to complain about it. And I said, “It’s extraordinary. You meditate every morning and every evening do you?” He said, “No, no, just the morning.” “Well,” I said, “you meditate in the evening and then we’ll listen to the complaints.” And he said that he couldn’t describe to me the qualitative difference, once he began his day and, as it were, prepared for his day out of that peace and inner rootedness in his essential being, and then bringing the whole day together at the end, as it were gathering all the strands into the same essential reality. He said that the qualitative difference was astonishing to him, and he said, “You know, I’ll meditate every day, twice a day, for the rest of my life now, as much as I possibly can.”

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

6. How about more than twice a day, say three times? Or should we stick just to two?

John Main

What I would recommend you to do when you’re starting is to start with a morning and evening meditation. And when you’ve got that absolutely regularly built in, if you wanted to and the circumstances of your life permitted it, to put in a mid-day meditation would be good. But I wouldn’t come to that for maybe a couple of years or something like that.

You have to start very gently, being very compassionate to- wards yourself. All of us I think find that we start, we give up, we start again, we give up, and so you’ve got to be very gentle and understanding. What you’ll find is that the experience itself is self- authenticating. You’ll just find that the more you meditate, the more your day seems to come into shape, the more purpose you have in your life, the more you begin to see the meaning in everything, and the more you will find that love grows in your heart. It may be there’s a good deal of meanness there as well, but the love is growing. That’s the real test of meditation; you can’t put any sort of test to meditation like “Do I get fantastic visions when I meditate?” or anything like that. The real test is the love growing in your heart.

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

7. You recommend specific periods of time for meditation, 20 minutes, 25 minutes, or 30 minutes, but isn’t it distracting to keep on having to check the time?

John Main

It’s probably better to have a timer of some kind. People use all sorts of devices. Some people for example take a 45-minute cassette tape and record on it half an hour of silence and then at the end of the silence put in some quiet music so that you press the button when you start to meditate and when the music comes you know that your half an hour is up. Other people use their kitchen cooking timers. You’ll want to use a fairly gentle ‘ping’ that won’t give you a little shock at the end. It’s an important practical question to know how to do it, because the really important thing is the discipline of meditating: that you do choose a specific time, 20 minutes, 25 minutes or 30 minutes, and always meditate for that time.

When we’re starting, the temptation is, if things are going well and you’re approaching cloud nine, to prolong the meditation; or if things are going badly (such phrases really have no meaning but that’s what we feel when we begin) if things are going badly we’ll say, “This is a total waste of time; might as well cut this out and go and cut the lawn or something.” The important thing is to stick at it, whether it’s going well or going badly or however it’s going. There is only one way for it to go, and that is that you say your mantra from beginning to end.

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

8. At the end of the meditation should we get up straight away or can we linger on in the silence?

John Main

That’s a delicate balance. I think that you’d want to try to understand your meditation as a discipline and therefore, it’s very, very, useful to take a specific time: if you’re beginning, maybe 20 minutes; and if you have some experience, 25 minutes; the optimum time is about half an hour. If you feel like meditating for longer, it’s much better to stick to your specific time; and when your meditation is completed, the thing to do is to then get on with what you have to do. It’s a delicate transition. Obviously you’re not going to feel like dancing the hornpipe, I suppose, just as you finish your meditation, but on the other hand it is possible to become somewhat self-indulgent about it and try to perhaps prolong the meditation beyond the half an hour.

So I think that whatever you have to do, for example if you’re a student and have to go to a lecture, when your meditation is over, get up and go to your lecture, or if you’re a mother of a family and you have to give your children or your husband their breakfast, get up and give them their breakfast. That’s the thing to do, but I think there will be a certain quietness in fact. For example when I ask you “Are there any questions?” very often there are no questions, because everyone feels like being rather quiet or rather in the mood of the meditation for longer. Again, it’s the delicate balance between the discipline of the meditation and the responsibilities of your life.

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

9. Is it necessary to play some music before the meditation period?

John Main

We use it here before only to try to forget all the words that have been used. The purpose of the music is the transition from words to silence, and from silence to words. But certainly never music while you’re meditating. Meditating must always be the greatest silence.

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