MEDITATION: Learning To Be Silent by John Main

Learning To Be Silent by John Main

From Word Into Silence

We now need to take a closer look at the sort of silence that is needed for meditation.  Meditation is not the time for words, however beautifully and sincerely phrased.  All our words are wholly ineffective when we come to enter into this deep and mysterious communion with God whose own Word within us is before and after all words.  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord.

In order to enter into this holy and mysterious communion with the Word of God dwelling within us, we must first have the courage to become more and more silent.  In a deep creative silence we meet God in a way that transcends all our powers of intellect and language.  We are all basically aware that we cannot apprehend God by thinking about him.  What the philosopher Alfred Whitehead said of human investigation of time could apply equally to human thought of God.  He wrote: “It is impossible to meditate on time and the mystery of the creative passage of nature without an overwhelming emotion at the limitations of human intelligence.”

The experience of the “overwhelming emotion” at our own limitations leads us into a silence where we have to listen, to concentrate, to attend rather than to think.  The mystery of our relationship with God is one that embraces such a vast canvas that only by developing our capacity for awe-filled and reverential silence will we ever be able to appreciate even a fraction of its wonder.  We know that God is intimately with us and we know also that he is infinitely beyond us.  It is only through deep and liberating silence that we can reconcile the polarities of this mysterious paradox.  And the liberation that we experience in silent prayer is precisely liberation from the inevitably distorting effects of language when we begin to experience God’s intimate and transcendent dominion within us.  Anyone who has experienced this liberating work of the Spirit knows exactly what Saint Paul means when he writes to the Romans in Chapter 8: “It follows, my friends, that our lower nature has no claim upon us; we are not obliged to live on that level.”

He puts it with the same wonderful confidence in his letter to the Colossians in Chapter 1: “He rescued us from the domain of darkness and brought us away into the kingdom of his dear son.”

It is because this kingdom is established and is present within us that we can be made free of the limitations of language and thought.

Our attempt to achieve this silence may be difficult.  It will almost certainly be prolonged.  It is not just a matter of keeping our tongues still but much more of achieving a state of alert stillness in our mind and heart, which is not a state of consciousness familiar to most Westerners.  We tend either to be alert or relaxed; rarely are the two states combined in most of us.  But in meditation we come to experience ourselves as at one and the same time totally relaxed and totally alert.  This stillness is not the stillness of sleep but rather of totally awakened concentration.

If you look at a watchmaker about to perform some deft movement with a fine pair of tweezers, you will notice how still and poised he is as he scrutinizes the inside of the watch through his eyeglass.  His stillness, however, is one of complete concentration, serious absorption in what he is doing.  Similarly in meditation our stillness is not a state of mere passivity but a state of full openness, full wakefulness to the wonder of our own being, full openness to the wonder of God, the author and the sustainer of our being, and a full awareness that we are at one with God.

Here are some very simple and practical hints.  To meditate well you should adopt a comfortable sitting posture; it must be comfortable and relaxed, but not sloppy.  The back should be as straight as possible with the spine in an upright position.  Those who possess a fair degree of suppleness and agility may sit on the floor in a cross-legged position.  If you sit in a chair, make sure it is one that is upright with comfortable arm-rests.  Your breathing should be calm and regular.  Allow every muscle in your body to relax.  And then, put the mind in tune with the body.  The interior dispositions you need are a calm mind and a peaceful spirit, and it is here that the challenge of meditation lies.  It is easy enough to sit still, and we must learn to sit quite still, but the real task of meditation is to achieve the harmony of body, mind, and spirit.  That is what we mean when we talk about the peace of God, a peace that passes all understanding.

The Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna, who lived in Bengal in the nineteenth century, used to describe the mind as a mighty tree filled with monkeys, all swinging from branch to branch and all in an incessant riot of chatter and movement.  When we begin to meditate we recognize that as a wonderfully apt description of the constant whirl going on in our mind.  Prayer is not a matter of adding to this confusion by trying to shout it down and covering it with another lot of chatter.  The task of meditation is to bring all of this mobile and distracted mind to stillness, silence, and concentration, to bring it, that is, into its proper service.  This is the aim given us by the psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God.”  To achieve this aim we use a very simple device.  It is one that Saint Benedict drew to the attention of his monks as long ago as the sixth century by directing them to read the Conferences of John Cassian.

Cassian recommended anyone who wanted to learn to pray, and to pray continually, to take a single short verse and just to repeat this verse over and over again.  In his Tenth Conference, he urges this method of simple and constant repetition as the best way of casting out all distractions and money chatter from our mind, in order that it might rest in God.

When I read Cassian on this, I am immediately reminded of the prayer that Jesus approved of when he tells us of the sinner who stood at the back of the temple and prayed in the single phrase: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner; Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  He went home “justified,” Jesus tells us, whereas the Pharisee who stood at the front of the temple in loud eloquent prayer did not.  The whole of the teaching of Cassian on prayer is based on the Gospels: “In your prayers do not go on babbling like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say, the more likely they are to be heard.  Do not imitate them.  Your Father knows what your needs are before you ask him.”

As I have suggested, prayer is not a matter of talking to God, but of listening to him, or being with him.  It is this simple understanding of prayer that lies behind John Cassian’s advice that if we want to pray, to listen, we must become quiet and still, by reciting a short verse over and over again.  Cassian received this method as something which was an old, established tradition in his own day and it is an enduring universal tradition.  A thousand years after Cassian, the English author of The Cloud of Unknowing recommends the repetition of a little word: “We must pray in the height, depth, length, and breadth of our spirit, [he says] not in many words but in a little word.”

As this idea may be a novel one, and indeed even sound rather strange, let me repeat the basic technique of meditation.  Sit down comfortably, relax.  Make sure you are sitting upright.  Breathe calmly and regularly.  Close your eyes and then in your mind begin to repeat the word that you have chosen as your meditation word.

The name for this word in the Eastern tradition is mantra.  So from now on I will use the phrase, “saying the mantra.”  Choosing your word or mantra is of some importance.  Ideally, again, you should choose your mantra in consultation with your teacher.  But there are various mantras which are possible for a beginner.  If you have no teacher to help you, then you should choose a word that has been hallowed over the centuries by our Christian tradition.  Some of these words were first taken over as mantras for Christian meditation by the church in its earliest days.  One of these is the word, “maranatha.”  This is the mantra I recommend to most beginners, the Aramaic word, “maranatha,” which means, “Come Lord.  Come Lord Jesus.”

It is the word that Saint Paul uses to end his first letter to the Corinthians, and the word with which Saint John ends the Book of Revelation.  It also has a place in some of the earliest Christian liturgies.  I prefer the Aramaic form because it has no associations for most of us and it helps us into a meditation that will be quite free of all images.  The name Jesus would be another possibility as a mantra, and so would the word that Jesus himself used in his prayer, namely, “Abba.”  This is again an Aramaic word which means, “Father.”  The important thing to remember about your mantra is to choose it, if possibly in consultation with a teacher, and then to keep to it.  If you chop and change your mantra you are postponing your progress in meditation.

John Cassian speaks of the purpose of meditation as that of restricting the mind to the poverty of the single verse.  A little later, he shows his full meaning in an illuminating phrase.  He talks about becoming “grandly poor.”  Meditation will certainly give you new insights into poverty.  As you persevere with the mantra, you will begin to understand more and more deeply, out of your own experience, what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  You will also learn in a very concrete way the meaning of faithfulness as you persevere in fidelity to the repetition of the mantra.

In meditation, then, we declare our own poverty.  We renounce words, thoughts, imaginations, and we do so by restricting the mind to the poverty of one word, and thus the process of meditation is simplicity itself.  In order to experience its benefits, it is necessary to meditate twice a day and every day, without fail.  Twenty minutes is the minimum time for meditation, twenty-five or thirty minutes is about the average time.  It is also helpful to meditate regularly in the same place and also at the same time every day because this helps a creative rhythm in our life to grow, with meditation as a kind of pulse-beat sounding the rhythm.  But when all is said and done, the most important thing to bear in mind about meditation is to remain faithfully repeating the mantra throughout the time put aside for it, throughout the time of what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing called, “the time of the work.”

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