Beginners to contemplative meditation typically have plenty of questions. Here are some of the more common ones along with unofficial “answers” provided by one of our novices in hopes of helping other beginners. They are based on his personal experiences and participation in discussions during meditation meetings. For additional answers you are most welcome to join in our group discussions or to talk with Pastor Hee-Soon Kwon one-on-one. In any event, certainly don’t worry about it or expect to understand it all at such an early stage.
Am I meditating correctly? I don’t know what I’m doing.
This is the most common question. One of the best answers (YouTube video) is by Thomas Keating, founder of the modern Centering Prayer movement. He says that “the main thing is to do it. ”
So, the answer is “yes, you are doing it right.” Just keep on practicing and your meditation experiences will work out. Everyone is different so expect your path and experiences to be at least somewhat different from those around you.
What is Centering Prayer meditation?
There are many different variations of meditation including Centering Prayer meditation, Zazen meditation, Transcendental meditation, and Yoga relaxation. Different variations often involve focusing on different things … such as a blank wall, a sound or mantra, relaxing parts of the body, a candle flame, the rosary or a scripture, God’s presence, or simply focusing on your breathing. They often involve slightly different techniques as well.
Centering Prayer meditation is neither new nor an invention. It arises from the ladder of prayer from discursive to contemplative prayer known and experienced by all in a life of prayer. It is drawn from the Christian Contemplative tradition and has roots in the Bible.
Centering Prayer meditation uses techniques such as returning to a sacred word, taking meditative walks and welcoming prayer. It also emphasizes the spiritual benefits of meditation and includes seeking God’s presence directly. See here for further details. A good place to practice, discuss, and learn more is at CSUMC group meditations and trainings. Pastor Hee-Soon is a recognized expert on the subject.
You might also want to know that Centering Prayer meditation part of a rich contemplative tradition in Western religion. One of the best known modern teachers is Thomas Keating, a retired Catholic Trappist Monk and Abbot.
My mind is running wild during meditation. What’s wrong?
This is the second most common question. Don’t worry, nothing is wrong. You just begin to notice that you have many thoughts!
In fact this experience is to be expected if you are new to meditation and it can last for a long time. Several meditative traditions have even aptly described it as mind monkeys chattering inside your head. Even after meditating for several years you can expect to hear some chattering every now and then.
What to do is to just keep on practicing meditation as best you can. Definitely do not try to “force” the intruding thoughts to go away; that just gently return back to your sacred word. The process, as you become more experienced, involves gently releasing or letting go of the extraneous thoughts. In some ways this process is like the way you relax and release the awareness of your environment when going to sleep. Another analogy is that the process is like when you notice leaves floating by on a slow stream and then let them pass on their way out of sight.
Experiencing intruding thoughts is also part of the process as your mind clears out unconscious problems. As it gets more and more clear you can expect to eventually become calmer and more centered. Note, however, that this result may take several weeks or even months for those who can benefit the very most from it.
Some individuals even have truly scary thoughts or dreams while meditating. Just work through such thoughts as best as you can. If you keep on accepting and releasing such thoughts, as best you reasonably can, you will eventually learn to easily deal with them or they will just disappear. Beginners in the classes have vouched for this.
Also, don’t worry if you fall asleep. With practice this too will pass and your abilities to physically and mentally relax are developing as you go. As an aside, experienced practitioners usually have learned how to quickly, deeply relax and feel well rested after each session.
How to use a sacred word?
“Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.” … more
A sacred word is nothing magical or even religious. You select your own simple word such as “Peace,” “Truth,” or “Jesus” then get into the habit of silently repeating it every now and then. This habit helps remind you to mentally return to meditation in case you have been distracted by an extraneous thought (which is common). You don’t focus on the meaning of the word itself but only use it as a tool to remind you if you have been distracted. Then you mentally return to your “sincere intention to be in the presence of God and to be aware of God’s action within you.”
What are the benefits of meditation?
Meditation has been an almost universal practice of spiritual gurus through the ages and of many secular gurus as well. If such thought leaders, who have spent their lives studying the more important things in life, all personally meditate, then there is likely to be something to it even if nailing down clear benefits is challenging.
Here are some general comments on the subject of benefits of Centering Prayer meditation:
- The desert fathers and mothers named the state of spiritual perfection Apatheia. It is a state of spiritual freedom where life is unburdened by the emotional obsessions characteristic of the false self. Likewise contemplation leads to the Apatheia, which is the goal for every Christian after conversion. The love of Christ’s presence and action within us will be nurtured in contemplative prayer. We call it “sanctification.”
- Pastor Hee-Soon says do not expect big things to happen during the meditation process itself. Instead, look for examples of where your overall life is getting better in important ways for no obvious reason.
- It does makes sense that as the subskills improve (of purposely clearing the mind and focusing completely) many aspects of life would follow suit. If the unconscious mind is also slowly clearing itself of negative thoughts that too is another reason to expect improvements.
- Relaxing the body: Meditation tends to deeply relax the body. Many say that meditative relaxation is different from and far deeper and more beneficial than sleep.
- Relaxing the mind: Mental stress is a big problem in modern life. E.g., hurry, worry, and compulsively thinking about problems (like what keeps you up at night). Many scientific studies indicate that meditation relieves mental stress. Learning the ability to purposely clear the conscious & unconscious mind has got to help. And partaking, even if only for an instant, of deep inner peace is said to have a massive benefits.
- Quiet the mind: See Quiet The Mind and See The Truth for thoughts on this subject by a Buddhist. Practicing quieting the mind helps you better see the real truth and real priorities in your life. This naturally tends to reduce confusion and lead to more joy. While it may not show up during meditation practice itself the benefits do eventually show up in the quality of your life.
- Being here now: Meditation is practice in the important art of being (1) right here, in the present situation (2) right now in the present time. Developing your skill to focus at will is obviously an important general skill. E.g., you can focus better of making the most of life right now rather than distracting yourself with memories of the past or worries about the future. Wouldn’t that be a nice skill to have?
- Awakening Spiritual Attentiveness: Practicing the discipline of Centering Prayer leads to the mind being less dominated by external events and our emotional reactions to them. Through cultivating our spiritual facilities of intuition and of submitting our will-to-God, we begin to experience the awakening of spiritual attentiveness. (source: Intimacy with God by Keating, p.62).
- Exercising intention: Keating says that Centering Prayer is not an exercise in concentration nor of attention. It is an exercise of intention, of will, of our faculty of choice. The practitioner lets go of emotions, thoughts, and sensations, and consents to be, i.e., intends to be, in God’s presence. This practice is therapeutic, even purgative, to our subconscious from which strong emotions will sometimes well up. But this is part of the healing and growing process. See Keating interview for more on intention.
- Spiritual benefits: These benefits are really beyond words. Perhaps the best way to learn more about them is to continue practicing, to read some of Thomas Keating’s books, and to discuss the subject with Pastor Hee-Soon Kwon. Centering Prayer meditation focuses on connecting with the source within which many call God. Keating indicates that this form of meditation is not an exercise in concentrating, or focusing one’s attention on something (such as a mantra), but rather is concerned with intention. The participant’s sole occupation is to establish and maintain the will (intention) to “consent to God’s presence and action during the time of prayer.” (See here.)
- Scientific reasons: Here is a link to 20 scientifically validated reasons to meditate. Look at the source documents it refers to if you are of scientific bent.
Is meditating uncomfortable?
If you are new to meditation don’t worry about comfort at any of our sessions. Basically you sit quietly in a chair, in a comfortable position with your eyes closed, for 20 minutes at the most. Most people feel rested after a session. Of course you may silently get up at any time and walk outside for a quick break.
Clearing your mind in this manner does get easier with practice. You really don’t even have to know what you are doing (see next question for details). Effort is not required or even recommended … just “do it” as best you easily can. Experienced meditators can “sit” for hours and truly enjoy the experience.
How to learn more about contemplative meditation
Personal practice is the most important way to learn. Attending introductory trainings and group meditations is helpful too because they communicate feelings as well as words. Remember that “inner knowing” is the real objective rather than intellectual understanding. Every individual comes from a different place and follows a different path so don’t be surprised if some of your experiences differ from those of others.