How to Meditate - Part 1

H O W  T O  M E D I T A T E - Part I

Be still and know that I am God (Ps. 46:10)

It may not be an exaggeration if we state that there is a great hunger for prayer in our people. More and more people pray. We are taught to pray and one can pray in any way one chooses, still to have a systematic method to lean on would help a lot for oneself and also when one wants to teach others to pray.

The Anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim wanted to pray always following the injunction of St. Paul in I Thes. 5:l7. He went in search of a teacher but it was not easy to get one. One of them tells him: "Pray often and fervently and prayer itself will reveal this mystery to you, how it is possible for it to be continuous" (Image Books, Double, New York, p. l4). May be this type of instructions to beginners in prayer is not very rare.

The latest OCD Extraordinary Definitory says: 'It is one of the yearnings of people today, in search for security, who cannot achieve satisfaction for their restless hearts. Here lies one of our challenges, as states the circular letter of the O. Carm and OCD Superiors General: "It is not difficult to see in this new climate the need to meet men and women who can speak of God from experience and learning, able to spread the fragrance of His presence"' (Juxta fontem Eliae, Mount Carmel, l999, # 8).

Again in the same message: 'The Rule, obviously, does not speak of the apostolate of spirituality, but "the Rule instructs us in a spirituality which aims at being wisdom of life"' (#l2).

One of our Carmelite sisters in her autobiography Before the Living God speaks of her struggle how even the method of our Holy Mother St. Teresa "remained 'outside-prayer' and I longed for 'inside-prayer'. I had to wait many years before I found an answer to this problem and could give myself wholly up to Jesus 'in' me" . . . "There was no one to teach me how to pray. If only someone would come along who knew both the way to God and my own heart" (Ruth Burrows, Dimension Books, New Jersey, l98l, p. 80-8l)

"No one to teach me, no one to whom I could look and say: 'You know the way. I see what Carmel has done for you. Help me'"(Ibid. 94). To quote her once more "Prayer always presented enormous problems. I was utterly confused about how to pray. As I have said earlier, I yearned for inward prayer, to find my God in uttermost intimacy, and was faced with nothing. If I tried to be quiet in prayer I was conscious only of myself. Introspection was a tyranny and I felt this was my fault. At the same time I vaguely knew that, if I could find myself, I would find my God. I did not know how to 'enter within myself'" (Ibid. 96f).

It may be just that the feelings and struggles of Ruth are those of many of us. Did not our Holy Mother St. Teresa say: "I did not know how to proceed in prayer or how to be recollected"? (Life, Trans. Kieran Kavanugh, ch. 4, 7). We are in search. There are many schools of meditation and prayer, old and new, good and not so good, which answer this need of our people. We have the Yoga, Sadhana, Reiki, Vipassana, Zen, Cloud of the Unknowing, Centering Prayer, The Way of a Pilgrim, Transcendental meditation, the methods taught by Fr. John Main, Deepak Chopra, and a host of others. Most of these methods overlap with each other and will easily bring you to concentration. With the method of discursive reflection and meditation taught by persons like St. Teresa of Jesus, we can easily come to the prayer of active recollection and even of quiet, a sense of constant awareness of God's presence in love.

St. Teresa after her initial lethargy and struggle used different methods. In Chapter 4 of her Life she writes two way of meditation, one of which was more predominant. "I tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ, our God and our Lord present within me, and that was my way of prayer..." (Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, Vol. I, p. 43). This is the "way of inability to work discursively, with the intellect, this way is nonetheless most laborious and painful" (ibid. p. 44).

Teresa also speaks of discursive reflection. It consists in things like thinking "on what the world is, and what one owes God, and how much God suffered, and on how little one serves Him, and what God gives to anyone who loves Him, deduces doctrine to defend oneself from thoughts, occasions, and dangers.... Discursive reflection is so very arduous" (ibid.). Also "thinking of how I have offended God, and of the many things I owe Him, and of what leads to hell and what to glory, and of the great trials and sufferings the Lord endured for me" (Ibid. 68) are parts of discursive meditation.

Whichever way of prayer you follow you require concentration. Both the methods given above and the discursive consideration, we could say, are not prayer in the strict sense of the word. We could say with St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) that meditating is not really praying, as union with God. Speaking on the Spirit of Carmel she writes: '"To watch in prayer" - this is to say the same thing that Elijah said with the words, "to stand before the face of God." Prayer is looking up into the face of the Eternal . . . "To meditate on the Law of the Lord" - this can be a form of prayer when we take prayer in its usual broad sense. But if we think of "watching in prayer" as being immersed in God, which is the characteristic of contemplation, then meditation on the Law is only a means to contemplation' (The Hidden Life, Ed. Dr. L. Gelber & Michael Linssen,OCD., Trs. Waltrant Stein, Washington, 1992, p. 3f).

If I be permitted to quote the OCD-O. Carm. General Superiors addressing all the Carmelites in the world: 'The Rule instructs us "meditate on the Word (sic; original is 'legem' i.e. law) of the Lord". Teresa of Jesus and other Carmelite mystics repeat this teaching. It is a preparation for prayer as a dialogue of friendship with God and contemplation as union with Him, who is the Word of God incarnate' (Passing through the Holy Door, Rome, l999, p. l2). So we can say that techniques and meditation, reflection, consideration are prayer only because of motivation and not prayer in the strict sense of the term.

St. Teresa would do it by visualizing Jesus or conceptualizing the presence of God, learning to be silent. But how can we do it without concentration? There are people who can meditate without much difficulty or distractions. For such people concentration exercises may not be of special use. However, those who have vivid imagination or imagination without control could profit a lot by learning to concentrate on breathing or Vipassana and methods taught by ancient Christian monks.

Teresa writes: I have written to you about... how you cannot begin to recollect yourselves by force but only by gentleness" (Interior Castle, II, I, l0). Is it what Apostle Peter meant when he wrote: "Keep sane and sober for your prayers" (I Pet. 4:7 RSV). For Teresa the method of recollection or concentration is same as discursive prayer. Many of us would simply exclaim "oh that I could make real concentrated reflection".

She has other terms and phrases to express this idea of "recollect yourselves". It is to "be at rest within", "to enter within themselves"(I.C. II, l: 9, ll). This is an important technique that we have to learn - how to "recollect yourselves.... by gentleness". We have very many ways and means and have more and more books, not only of the East of today, but also of the West of the years past. Fr. Nicolas Caballero puts it thus: "2 types of meditation are defined:

  • One by the predominance of one's activity, basically discursive thinking;

  • Another by the progressive silencing"(The Way to freedom, Claretian Publications, Bangalore). Fr. Caballero gives all the steps that are required to silence oneself.

We need to make effort. We are prepared to make the effort and determined to put our best in it, but we don't see what am I to do, what can I do and what I cannot. Here we give a few techniques both of the East and the West which are meant to help us to come to silence and quiet.

1. Determination: It is not easy to pray nor is it pleasant. We should be really determined and make sincere effort.

2. Place and time: Any place and any time is o.k. for prayer at a later stage. In the beginning, as far as possible, choose a place free from external disturbance and distractions. Try to be alone. It would be better to choose the same place and same time every day. Fr. Basil Pennington would go so far as to disconnect the phone, and keep an alarm to signal the end of the prayer, lest you should be constantly distracted about the next programme. Vipassana and St. Teresa insist on one hour each in the morning and evening, while many others would say at least 20 minutes.

3. Posture: Lotus posture (Padmasana) is considered to be the best posture for meditation. Vajrasana is also helpful. Those who can't follow these could sit on a chair; its height should be such that your feet should be well placed on the floor, neither hanging in the air, nor the thighs pressing the lower part of the abdomen. The palms be placed on the knees cupping, or facing upward and holding the thumb and index touching each other. You could kneel down or stand, with palms joined on the chest. Whatever be the posture taken, keep the spine and neck straight. Learn to be quiet, without moving or fidgeting, etc.

4. Eyes: "The eyes close without one's wanting them to close" (Life l8: l0) in the contemplative stages of prayer. Closing the eyes gently or fixing them on the tip of the nose is a great help for concentration.

5. Invocation (Prayer word): Choose an ejaculatory prayer that is most appealing to you. Though it could be simple and short, like God, Love, Jesus, Alleluia, etc. you could also choose prayers like 'Jesus son of God, have mercy on me a sinner' or 'Come Lord Jesus' or 'Sacred Heart of Jesus, I love you' etc. It would be better to choose this prayer with the help of your director. (You may choose a prayer or japa according to your faith). Continue with the same invocation. Return to this prayer during your daily chores.

6. Breathing: Learn to breathe rhythmically and gently. This is not a breathing exercise like pranayama. Recite your ejaculatory prayer to the rhythm of your breathing, so much so your breathing goes on praying.

These are a few techniques that could help you to reach active recollection. But no methods or techniques are a guarantee to reach contemplation, which is a pure gift of God.


Fr. Walter Lobo, Parish Priest

Fr. Walter Lobo, OCD,
Carmelite Fathers
Fatima Chapel
Shellim,  Loliem-Polem post
Goa-403 728
Ph: 0832-2640363
Cell: 94233313151



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