I was recently asked to do a seminar on meditation for Christians who are preparing for Lent. The person asking knew that I am not Christian, and that I sit Zen style, so this was going to be interesting!
This is roughly what was in the event programme: Trevor Barton grew up as a Christian. He is now ordained in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition. Drawing on experience from both, and speaking just on his own behalf, he asks ‘what has meditation got to do with Lent’?
What you’re reading below is expanded notes given more or less as I said them (but not as I wrote them when I was preparing). I may have missed a few things out and I have certainly re-worded a few things since I said them – for better or worse!
I’m here on invitation from Carla Grosch-Miller, the Minister of St Columba’s URC in Oxford. I was specifically asked to speak on using meditation in preparation for lent, but I’ve turned that into a question – what has meditation got to do with lent? – because I think that’ll be more helpful.
Who meditates regularly? Who has meditated at all? Who thinks meditation doesn’t sound very Christian?
I don’t have anything I want to give you intellectually. Instead I want to point to something you will intuit yourself. Also we have to go beyond intellectual understandings when we are talking about spiritual matters. Experiential. Empirical.
What has meditation got to do with lent? Nothing! In a very real sense.
If you have an objective with it, that’s form/ideas. And meditation is about bringing forward what is beyond form within yourself. So in that sense, there’s no connection at all, and in fact lent would be a distraction from meditating – just like any other subject of reflection could be.
However, we meditate, and then a passion story inside ourselves takes place. And this creates freedom in life like we’ve never known it before. So I’d like to briefly explain what I mean by that.
The Passion is human story and it points to something (that’s why Jesus said take up your cross – he was pointing to something that we have to do, not him – and isn’t that deeply profound when you think about it because we spend a lot of our time thinking it’s just him who has to make that level of sacrifice, or only him who can maybe).
It’s true about life, about existing. True for Jesus. True for us. We all have to die. But moreover, we all have to die before we die, because if we don’t then we’re missing out on life. And this is what Jesus points to both in his life, in his teaching, and in the passion when he says, ‘take up your [own] cross, [dudes and live this way too – this isn’t about me]’.
Meditation sounds foreign. That’s because it is. My tradition is Zen and it’s from Japan. Before that, it’s Chan and it’s from China. Actually I think in the UK most of us think Hinduism when we think meditation. Maybe ‘cause of the Beatles. But also…hold on! Contemplative monastics! Where do contemplatives get their idea of stillness from? Ascetics, desert fathers. A long and proud tradition there. Very long. Over 1,000 years.
But we forget it, largely. I don’t know why. Maybe church history. So we have to look somewhere else for inspiration if we want to know what meditation has to do with lent; why it’s even useful. Why it’s not controversial. Why it’s bread and butter of spiritual life stuff. Not fringe activity.
The best authority for Christians is Jesus. So let’s look there: Jesus’ life. Retreating to the desert. Ducking under the crowds with every opportunity. It’s there. Retreating in gethsemane, of course. He withdrew a heck of a lot for someone who lived such a public life, certainly in his last 3 years anyway (both the public and the ducking).
And look at his answer to ‘how should we pray?’ This is often overlooked, but it’s crucial. How does it go? You said it just earlier: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be…’ (It boils down to this: God is great. God’s will be done. Give us what we need (not much). Forgive us.) It’s so simple we don’t want to believe it. There must be more to it than that?!
So we add detritus ourselves: ‘For thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, for Ever and Ever Amen…’ He didn’t say that. It’s not there. Look it up.
I say this as an illustration for something we all do; we add detritus. That’s not morally wrong. It gets in the way. It separates us from everything.
Quiet time you do ‘cause Jesus did, yes? Quiet means quiet in the mind. Less thinking. No detritus. We don’t need to/can’t stop our thoughts. But we can slow them down. With practice. It takes time. Then in the gaps is a beautiful everything – the source of all life. Our ego is crucified and we open out to everything else.
Anything else I say now will just be versions on this. I have nothing else to share. Here it is again another way:
We tend to hold retreating in high regard, recognizing it as something important to do in many traditions – not just Christianity, but we don’t know what to do with slience once we get it. That’s not a Christian problem – it’s a human problem.
The author of ‘The Power of Now’, Eckhart Tolle, talking on TV, said Psychologists have found that 98 or 99 percent of our thinking is repetitive. And also a lot of our thinking is very negative. People tend to dwell more on negative things than on good things. So the mind then becomes obsessed with negative things, with judgements, guilt and anxiety produced by thoughts about the future and so on. Many people live habitually as if the present moment were either an obstacle that they need to overcome in order to get to the next moment, and imagine living your whole life like that, where always this moment is never quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one, that is continuous stress.’
This is the dis-ease. This is the dis-order. It is from this that we must learn to extricate ourselves. It’s possible. Anyone can do it for themselves without spending a penny, despite west coast American authors say. Because the truth is that it is a return to a natural state – a way of being that is very natural. The source of all life is already intertwined with you in a beautiful line between heaven and earth, being and form. We have just forgotten it’s there half the time.
Eventually in the routine of meditating there is a panorama over life – my mind and thoughts no-longer possess me. I am separate from my thoughts because there is an observer. If I am the observer then I am not my thoughts. So already my thoughts have stopped possessing me.
This is step one. I continue to exist when my ego stops talking and making decisions for me. My ego doesn’t want me to believe it, but it’s true and I’m at the door to the kingdom of heaven when this happens. But that’s just the beginning. The beginning of the end of me. The beginning of everything else in me. That’s how this thing works.
So this kind of meditating is more like an emptying of the mind than a bringing to the front of our minds all our worries and concerns.
It’s very odd and very dangerous to me at least that we’ve started treating prayer that way. It hasn’t been the case for the first 1,000 years of Christianity, so why do we do it now? Our motivations might be pure, but is it actually getting in the way of the spiritual life being alive for us?
I’m not saying don’t pray the way you’re used to. I’m saying meditation is not prayer. Not that kind of prayer. Make sense?
Empty of our own discriminations, concepts, hopes, desires, fears, we surrender and then everythingness becomes clear. Not just everything. Everything. And a Lenten journey of the heart happens in that precise moment. It goes something like this.
If we look at the stations of the cross – the dramatic points in the Lenten story:
- Gethsemane and keeping faith when there appears to be no hope
- Betrayal and patient endurance when there is no peace to be found in our world
- Condemnation or denial and loyalty to the way we have taken
- Judgement and right action; not lying to protect ourselves
- Carrying of pain
- Carrying the pain of others
- Lamenting pain
- Mockery and humility in the simple way
- Death and Burial, and then when the laws of physics have dictated that should
- The promise of something much better
(Again, You could meditate to reflect on each of these things individually, and that wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s not meditation.)
I find so many parallels there between those steps and the steps I have to take in the spiritual life. Don’t you? For me it’s something like:
I come to meditation with faith that it will lead me to the divine, I endure with it when there is no peace, loyal to doing it when others condemn me for the light they see in my heart, I see my suffering much more clearly – even when it is pain shared with others, people of faith generally choose a simple way that’s easily mocked, and ultimately I die to my small self, my ego. And in that death lies the promise of something else. Freedom. The whole passion story is there. We don’t have to think our way through it like a check list. We don’t have to try harder and harder to be holy, and get irritated when we snap back to our routine favourite negative behaviours.
We just surrender our ego, our small self, through meditation or quiet time or whatever you call it, and then our inner quality changes and the whole passion story just happens automatically as a result of following the Way. Then we know what Jesus meant when he said we have to lose our lives in order to find our life, or when he said ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’. Dot dot dot. So many examples. Which one today? Wonderful. Examples are just examples. What do they point to?
The present moment is the kingdom of heaven.
Meditation really is a kind of inward death or surrender. It even feels that way to our ego. When this happens, I am fulfilling Jesus’ direction to ‘take up my cross’. An activity filled with inactivity: acceptance that I have to die to myself.
What does that mean? Repentance means turning around me: changing us. So unfortunately we have to do the leg work on ourselves. That’s what Jesus and Buddha both point to in fact. That’s why Jesus spent 3 years describing a way to be, the natural way to live, the best way in this reality we have. Washing each others’ feet, not saying much when we pray, ducking the crowd with every opportunity, and keeping watch, accepting the divine love that’s always there the same way children can do, beyond intellectual understanding or trying too hard…you know what I mean? How kids can have a very simple up-front presence with reality that’s just with things as they happen? I think Jesus meant that. And that’s it. It’s not a trick. You, God, no separation any more. Curtain torn down to the holy of holies and it’s not going back up. For you, for me, for right now, in this present moment. How? Let go. Stop thinking. Don’t try. He went to great pains to point to this in his life, and we know repentance means legwork, so let’s do it! How? We have to stop being possessed with ourselves, our own thoughts, our egos. How? Meditation! Silence! Retreating! Stillness!
Quiet time of the mind.
If prayer is talking to god, meditation is listening. I like this saying. I read it on the Internet. But I don’t think that’s quite right. It implies a God who is beyond and a me who is listening meditating. Meditation is you and god together. No separation. Where’s God? Where’s You? Hello. What’s this.
Regular stillness gradually shows this way to live and gradually life changes in quality of its own accord and takes on more luminescence. We start to become holy. Holy as in set aside. Exceptional. Lit up. Alive. Wiser. More satisfied. Loving. And so on. But never trying to be those things, never manufacturing those things out of our own mental constructs about what they are. That requires separation. Without separation, without duality, this stuff just emerges and pours out of us. Suddenly we are in the kingdom of heaven and we understand the good news viscerally, not cerebrally. It’s written on our hearts not in our heads – remember that saying?
That’s all I have to give.
Most people I’ve heard talk generally about meditating suggest 20 minutes, three times a week, and I would add “for two months at least”. Any less, and you may as well not bother. I’m serious. Discipline is not a popular word but, meditation eats it like a horse.
Just focus on the breath. Clear the clutter. Shut the door on moggies and iPads. Watch thoughts as they arise. Don’t judge them. Something urgent – write a note. Then forget it. Expect nothing. See what happens.
Sitting on a chair you can do some of the important parts of correct posture for meditation. Sit upright, don’t slouch. Make sure the chair is flat if possible. Crown of head pointing to sky clears the airways. Relax the arms. A posture you can maintain without much muscle control – this is why we do it a certain way. It’s not to look special. It’s very practical. If you’re going to hold a posture for any length of time, it needs to be a good one; one that relaxes as many muscles as possible while also maintaining stillness. The ancient Zen masters really are the experts on posture.
Cast your gaze inward and focus on the breath.
Sound of bell.
As thoughts arise, just come back to the breath.
Notice how you can watch your thoughts. If you can watch your thoughts, you are not your thoughts. You are an observer. So already, your thoughts are not possessing you. You are free to let go of your small self. That’s where everythingness reveals itself. That’s where God is. In the gaps. Here in this present moment, because the present is the only time we have to meet God. This is where a Lenten journey of the heart takes place.
Sound of bell.