I have been a meditator for over forty years, which matches the length of time the Hebrews spent wandering in the wilderness. My journey was not as momentous but feels somewhat similar in terms of searching for a Promised Land. Forty years later, the Hebrews made it but I am still searching. But allow me to tell you my story of searching in the hopes it might be helpful.
My journey began rather inauspiciously as I was looking for a way to maximize my productivity as a student in college. Having hit Emory with not the best study skills, I had to burn the late night oil in terms of getting through all my assignments. Out of frustration, my fraternity brother, Ken Leetz, and I went to a Transcendental Meditation class held in a business office across from Lenox Square. I remember a brief introduction to the meditation method of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the same dude that the Beatles consulted in India. For Ken and me, it meant a morning of introduction, followed by a private session in which a secret mantra was given to us individually, supposedly matched to our personal psyche.
It was a two syllable mantra that one would recite mentally as one focused on breathing out, then breathing in. Immediately, I found it relaxing, hoping it would assist my focus on school work and allowing me to get by on less sleep. I employed this method for the rest of my college career and found it effective in assisting my concentration.
Later, I was introduced to a very similar method of breathing, but this time from within the Catholic tradition of Centering Prayer. It is an ancient practice going back to early Christian monasticism but recovered by some Trappist monks outside of Boston, namely Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating. I was fortunate to meet and study with both of these spiritual leaders but had my own spiritual guide in the Georgia-based Trappist monk, Tom Francis. Tom was patient with my fickle devotion to the practice, gently and patiently encouraging me. The practice is almost identical to TM, but substituted a Christian based word for the two syllable mantra, using a word like Jesus.
Centering Prayer has continued to be the foundation of my meditation practice. I have experimented with other forms, finding them helpful, and at time alluring, but I have tended to dance with the one that brought me.
For a time, I was enamored by the Hescyhasm tradition of the Jesus Prayer. This uses a longer formulary of a set of words: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Again, the focus is on the breath, and the words come to have an almost hypnotic effect. The words repeated over and over, timed with the breathing, centers one’s focus and calms the mind.
Similarly, I was fortunate to come across the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with its rich heritage of meditation. I was taught by Dr. Lobsang Tenzin of the Drepung Loseling Center, which is associated with Emory and links to His Holiness the Dalai Lama….so I have that going for me….which is nice!
Seriously, the variety of imagery and meticulous mantras make for a veritable Disneyland of meditation which allow for an adventure of exploration of the psyche. I am deeply grateful for the monks of Drepung who received my spiritual quest with such loving and accepting embrace. I learned much from them that I continue to employ forms and practices in my meditation.
Dr. Tenzin has developed a more secular form of meditation, Cognitive Based Compassion Meditation, that is being taught in a variety of settings, including elementary and high schools. Notably, it is being offered as an elective in the Emory Medical School to assist training physicians find a relaxation method for use in the midst of the stressful and urgent medical world.
While there are all kinds of meditation that are being offered, both from Western and Eastern traditions, the simple meditation of mindfulness is providing a simple and accessible way to calm and center one’s self in the middle of a regular life that is buffeted by stress and distraction.
I have taught seminary students, clergy, physicians, nurses, and business people a simple method of mindfulness that is quick to learn, easy to use, and brings about the calm and centeredness that is desired.
The key is just beginning. Simply beginning. Start. Now.
There will never be a better time to begin than today, now.
I recommend people start simply, for a short period of time, five minutes. For some people, they like to begin the day with a time of mindfulness. Some prefer a time at mid-morning, some at lunch. Every one finds the time that best fits their personal rhythm. My suggestion is to not do it late at night as it tends to awaken one’s senses, making it hard to go to sleep.
Start with taking three deep breaths, simply breathing in deeply, followed with a full exhalation. I suggest that people do a quick body scan, looking for sources of tension and seeking to relax that part of the body. Then, focus on your breathing, in and out, breathing normally, centering your self in the present moment. Thoughts may arise,in fact, it’s entirely normal to have distractions enter the mind. Simply return to the focus on the breath. You will find that the focus will increase through practice. You may find using the words, “in”, “out”, gives you something to focus on, Or you may use any two syllable word to help you focus, keeping distractions at bay.
Try this simple method to center. You may want to increase the time as you get more comfortable with the method. The folks that have used this simple method have found it relaxing, bringing them a sense of centeredness. After awhile, you may want to try some other methods but the key is just starting.
If you want, let me know of your efforts, your questions, I would be happy to respond as you try on this practice of mindfulness. And I would value hearing of your experience of this mindfulness practice that I refer to as Centering.
Be patient, and be kind to your self. This is really way of investing time and energy in your self.
You are worth it.