Dear Donagh, I took up meditation about three months ago and I'm finding it very helpful. I do it every morning as soon as I get up. But the very minute I sit down I find distractions pouring in. I start thinking about my husband and my children and their problems, about the future, about the washing and the wash-up. What can I do to stop these distractions? I used to find it very peaceful, but now I don’t know. Is there something wrong with me? Please tell me something that would help me. Liz.
Dear Liz, thanks for putting it in a nutshell! We’re all like you! That's the way the mind is. Then we work on it. In terms of that work, your question is much more important than my answer. At the heart of your own question you will find the answer that is right for you. A question is like a door opening, an answer is like a door closing. What I offer you is not really an answer but some kind of encouragement to keep going.
The fact that you want to meditate, and that you do so every day, is the clearest possible commitment; it’s a kind of love. You want to be there, even when you don’t feel that you are getting anything out of it. That fidelity is something perfect. Every day you are there for your husband and children: that’s already a way of being there for God. Now, in the last few months, you want to be there for God in this very explicit way. That wanting is the main thing. What goes on in your head after that is secondary. That's how it is in family, and I hope that's how it is with God! Meditation is a little like marriage, I suppose: you take it on for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part! Ideas such as ‘success’, ‘progress’, ‘perfection’, are enemies of meditation (and perhaps enemies of marriage too!). They are only ideas and judgments; don’t put your meditation in such company. Put it with things like brushing your teeth, eating, cooking, putting out the rubbish…. It has to become a part of your ordinary day. It has to become nothing special. Special things are only for special times or special people or special places, but meditation is for always.
During meditation our defences are down: we are just there, a sitting target for whatever comes to us. The first thing we are aware of usually is how restless and noisy the mind is. There is a lot of ‘static’ when we are not tuned to the present moment. Below a certain level of presence there is just static and a confusion of sounds. But behind all that noise there is a background of silence. This silence is at the back of everything: it is the absolute background. We don’t have to go searching for it; it is there all the time, but the noise is concealing it.
If only we could turn off that noise, that compulsive thinking! If only there were an off-button! Well, in a way, there is! Here is the best advice I ever got on this point: “Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: ‘I wonder what my next thought is going to be.’ Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole? Try it now.” (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now). What we find is that we have to wait longer than we expected! During those moments when we were just alert and waiting, we were meditating. That’s the off-button. Now we know! But let’s not be disappointed when thoughts sneak in again (disappointment would show that we were working out of some idea of ‘success’). We just become alert again - and again, and again…. That's the work of meditation.
Some thoughts are just vaguely hovering and they happen to get sucked into the mind, but other thoughts seem to have an energy of their own - sometimes very powerful - and they come straight at you. Thoughts that are shaped and driven by anger, or fear, or a habit of greed, tend to be very powerful and they try to force their way in (or is it that we powerfully attract them?). These have something to tell us, or rather show us. If we lose our sense of presence we are away over the hills with them, rehashing the story of them, adding new thoughts to them, identifying ourselves with them, rationalising once again the fear or the anger or the greed…. But if we can just look at them without identifying ourselves with them, if we can let ourselves experience the feeling without going into the story yet again, if we can regard them just as traffic that is passing while we hold our station, then their visit will have been turned to good. We will have experienced that feeling directly, without self-defence, without projection, without a drama or a story; and that is probably what it needed most of all! That is what is came for!
We won't feel that we have ‘done’ anything (meditation relieves us of the idea of ‘achievement’, as it relieves us of ‘success’, etc.). We may get up from our meditation, feeling that we have gained nothing (it relieves us of the idea of ‘acquisition’ too). But later on when we meet the person who triggered our anger or fear, etc., we just may see a difference, or the beginning of a difference! That is the fruit of meditation (as long as we don’t look for it!).
‘But where does God come into this?’ one may ask. I would reply that God doesn’t ‘come into’ anything, because God is already there. God is in everything, all Christian teachers have tried to tell us. We go searching for God as if God were lost. In the 5th century St Augustine put a shape on this searching for God. Let me quote you this famous paragraph from his Confessions:
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! And behold, you were within me and I was outside, and there I sought you, and in my deformity I fell upon those lovely things of your creation. You were with me but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you, and yet if they had not been in you they would not have existed at all. You called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke through my barrier of deafness. You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight. You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for you. I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me and I burned for your peace.”
In this translation there are 146 words, but in the original Latin there are only 82 - and 26 of those are words of two letters or just one! It is a beautiful piece of writing, and notice that it includes all five senses! The search for God is not a search for a formula or an answer or an explanation to satisfy the mind…. It is a search that involves us in our entire being: body, soul, and spirit, and every faculty. No one was more conscious than Augustine that it is a two-way search: the real search is God’s search for us; we are the ones who are lost. Or rather we think and feel that we are lost, though we have the Christ-nature in us. We are just to lay our hearts open and uncluttered: then we may occasionally catch a hint of the One who is searching for us.
God bless the good work, Liz!