Smart phones, social media, traffic, fashion, work, advertisements, video games – our culture is full of distractions, noise and hurry. Much of the culture, even much of religious culture, is superficial. The purpose of meditation, according to Richard Foster (a Christian theologian and author), is “detachment from the confusion all around us… in order to have a richer attachment to God.” Meditation, like all of the spiritual disciplines, is not an end in itself. Foster says, “Christian meditation leads us to the inner wholeness necessary to give ourselves to God freely."
Rather than an attempt to empty the mind, Christian meditation is a pathway to enter into the presence of God. There are many methods of meditation. The most important element of any meditative practice is intention. One should begin with a prayer for the desire and grace to meditate and to draw close to God. This is reminiscent of the traditional Jewish practice of praying to be able to pray before entering the sanctuary for prayer. We would like to think that nothing could be easier or more delightful than to enter fully into God’s presence, but experience tells us that this experience is elusive – and ever more so in a world of increasingly abundant distractions. For this reason, an attitude of non-judgment is also important. Does your mind wander? Of course it does; that is the nature of the human mind. No judgment is needed.
At first, short sessions of five to ten minutes are enough. Many people find embodied (physical) practices helpful. Some people alternately turn their palms down, then up – down symbolizing the release and surrender to God of any immediate concerns, and up symbolizing the desire to receive from God what God has to give. Some people then focus on their own slow, deep breathing. Some follow a walking practice, which may include walking a labyrinth.
Some meditation incorporates Scripture. Lectio divina is a method of meditating on a short passage of Scripture, not for the purpose of study or exegesis, but for the purpose of internalizing and personalizing the passage. Usually, lectio divina involves reading the passage aloud several times over. When people practice lectio in groups, different voices take turns in reading and reareading the Scripture, with pauses for meditation between readings. In most cities, lectio groups meet regularly in a variety of locations.
Centering prayer, a practice favored by the twentieth-century theologian Howard Thurman, is practiced silently, alone or in community. This practice utilizes a word or a phrase that the individual can repeat silently as a way of bringing the mind back from the distracting thoughts that inevitably occur. Centering groups, like lectio groups, can be found in most communities. My own small centering group at Vanderbilt Divinity School has been an anchor for me throughout my years of study for the Master of Divinity degree.