Come and Sit: A Week Inside Meditation Centers224
Come and Sit: A Week Inside Meditation Centers224
The meditation experience demystified—an essential guide to
what goes on in meditation centers of many spiritual traditions.
Today's would-be student of meditation is confronted with such a wealth of available traditions from which to learn that it can make the prospect intimidating. Where should I start? Which one should I try? Come and Sit is the perfect companion to guide you on your way.
From Christian centering prayer, to Sufi dhikr (chanting the names of God), to Zen Buddhist zazen (formal silent meditation), this book demystifies both the kinds of meditation practiced in different spiritual traditions and the places people go to do them—and gives you a real feel for which method might suit you best.
- Why do people meditate?
- How might meditation affect my life?
- What kinds of meditation are there?
- What do people do in each meditation tradition?
- Do I have to be a member of a specific religion topractice meditation?
- Where should I start?
Meditator and journalist Marcia Z. Nelson addresses all of these questions as she takes you on visits to meditation centers of seven different types—Christian, Zen, Insight (Vipassana), Tibetan, Hindu, Sufi, and Jewish—representing the wide range of spiritual traditions that can now be found throughout America. She shows what a typical visit to each is like and talks to the teachers and the people who go there to discover how they got started, why they keep going, and what benefits they derive from the practice.
A list of further resources for in-depth exploration of each tradition, a directory of centers, and a glossary of terms make this guide exactly what you need to start meditating.
Come and Sit is not only a handbook for the beginning meditator, but also an excellent resource for anyone who wants to know more about the world's great meditation traditions.
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About the Author
Marcia Z. Nelson is a meditator, freelance journalist, teacher, and writer specializing in religion, whose articles have appeared in Utne Reader, Publishers Weekly, and the Chicago Tribune. She is also the author of The God of Second Chances: Stories of Lives Transformed by Faith (Sheed and Ward).
Wayne Teasdale was a lay monk and best-selling author of The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World's Religions, Bede Griffiths: An Introduction to His Interspiritual Thought, and A Monk in the World. As a member of the Bede Griffiths International Trust, Teasdale was an adjunct professor at DePaul University, Columbia College, and the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Wayne Teasdale was editor of Awakening the Spirit, Inspiring the Soul: 30 Stories of Interspiritual Discovery.
Read an Excerpt
Come and Sit
A Week Inside Meditation Centers
By Marcia Z. Nelson
SKYLIGHT PATHS PUBLISHING Centering Prayer: Resting in God's Presence
Copyright © 2001 Marcia Z. Nelson.
All rights reserved.
When we experience the presence of God, if we can just not think about it, we can rest in it for a long time.
THOMAS KEATING, OPEN MIND, OPEN HEART
This is the bridge that it's time to cross, now that I've come to it. The white wooden structure is right in front of me. It's dark, and the lights in the building just ahead look inviting.
Narrow as a creek, the DuPage River flows under the bridge. The river's current hustles along, visible in reflected spots of light on water. Gleaming punctuation marks, the lights define the stream's surface and penetrate the water's depth. But their waterborne reflections are an illusion, teasing likenesses of the real things, mounted lamps glowing like sentries at either end of the bridge.
Here at the Cenacle Retreat House and Spirituality Center, located in the suburb of Warrenville, just thirty miles west of busy downtown Chicago, they call this the Bridge of Hope. Many who come to this forty-two-acre place of peace and quiet are immediately struck, as I was, by the symbolism of the bridge. I came in the dark and crossed over to the light, my quick, silent steps swallowed by darkness, cushioned by the wooden planks of the bridge.
This place could be God's hotel. Several large commonrooms are comfortably appointed, offering spots for conversation or solitary reading or reflection. Up carpeted stairs, a long hallway is punctuated by many doors leading to small single rooms, provided for people on retreats.
At the end of the hallway is the Upper Room, named after the place where the disciples of Jesus prayed after his ascension. The second-floor Upper Room is a large windowed space, lit by a sanctuary candle and a subdued spotlight shining on a golden oak tabernacle, a small cabinet used by Catholics to house the consecrated hosts given out for Holy Communion. Both Jews and Catholics understand a tabernacle as the dwelling place of God.
One side of the tabernacle is inset with a rose-colored, sunlike mandala, a sacred symbol, rendered in stained glass. The purpose of the circular mandala is to invite the beholder on a journeyvisual, mental, and spiritualthat winds its way inside, to a center. The center symbolizes the sacred source from which all creation flows. Behind the tabernacle on the wall are three painted chevrons, tentlike and welcoming. The last of winter's blooming poinsettias, arranged here, are dappled pink, pale as the season. A hefty Bible is cracked open on a bookstand. A lectern is draped with a clerical stole. All the items speak symbolically, inviting reflection.
This is the room where a centering-prayer group gathers weekly to pray together silently, to journey within to sit in the Lord's presence. Five or six people are already seated in the quiet, dimly lit room, most of them sitting upright in chairs, feet flat on the floor. A few choose to sit cross-legged on the floor amid cushions, in traditional Eastern style. People hold their hands in different positions. Some rest their hands on their thighs, turning their palms upright, slightly cupped. Others rest their hands in their laps, placing left hand over right, palms up, thumbs lightly joined and pointed upward. The session begins, without signal or sound. The group prays for twenty minutes, and then does a five-minute contemplative walk, slowly and in silence. A second twenty-minute centering-prayer period concludes the session.
It is totally quiet for the forty-five-minute meditation, except for the unobtrusive sound of a small bell that marks the end of each sitting period. People in the group know one another, but the room is not a place for socializing. Talk is reserved for outside; this place, the Upper Room, is reserved for silence, which many mystics have said is the speech of God.
To Be Instead of To Do
For those steeped in everyday noisiness and chatty sociability, all this silence may take a little getting used to. But many of those who practice centering prayer say that they were prompted to begin by a craving for silence, a yearning that the practice satiates and then deepens. When I first came to the Upper Room, I felt a great sense of relief, as if I could relax and shed my everyday, functional shell. Settling into silence offers comfort: a chance to grow comfortable with being nowhere, with having nobody to impress and nothing to do. Just besit in God's presence, just as I would with a dear and accepting friend. Take off the maskcentering-prayer practitioners call it "the false self"and sit in the silence, without trying to accomplish anything, not even the perfection of the practice itself. Some would call this heretical suggestion "wasting time for God." Mary, a member of the group that gathers at the Cenacle, says that centering prayer is like climbing into her own bed, into a familiar sense of deep relationship.
"Here I am," she says. "It's like coming home to ourselves."
We know a lot more about doing than being. Doing is, well, going about our duties or whatever we have convinced ourselves needs to get done each day or otherwise regularly. From the viewpoint of productive society, being is pretty useless, even lazy. It does not contribute to the enlargement of the gross national product and an individual paycheck's worth of it. Giving ourselves permission to just be can be difficult. Many practitioners of centering prayer report initial resistance to the discipline until it begins to seem first natural and later necessary for well-being.
Centering prayer brings a brief period of withdrawal from the world's busyness, a practice that dates back to a time when the world was a lot less busy than it is now. Rooted in the Christian monastic and contemplative tradition and developed to fit within today's active lifestyles, centering prayer fosters the experience of God through interior journey. Centering prayer not only takes us away from the world but also stills personal, habitual, continual mental chatter, in order to behold the sound of God within inner silence.
Many scripture passages associate God with silence:
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. (Psalm 37:7) Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10) After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. (1 Kings 19:12)
Like any form of meditation, centering prayer is a method for silencing ourselves by stopping the usual stream of thought. Consistent with Christian belief, it takes God as its focus, seeking to raise awareness of divine indwelling presence in all things. It does not use images, thoughts, or traditional formal prayer or words, with the exception of a single, short "sacred word," which is chosen by the practitioner and uttered silently to initiate centering prayer, and which may be used periodically during prayer time to return the mind to God, should it begin wandering. It is not concentration, which implies effort and use of the will; rather, it is a way of directing and increasing inner attention. Centering prayer makes a person a disciple relaxed in the presence of the master, or a child resting securely in the presence of a parent. "Resting in God" is a common description used by centering-prayer teachers.
You don't have to do anything. Just rest in God's arms. It is an exercise in being rather than doing. (Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart)
Many people lose a sense of time and place during centering prayer. When I close my eyes and progressively loosen my grip on habitual thought flow, I have an intimation of being alive but being nowhere, being nothing but my breath, breath of life replacing stream of thought.
Maura, who began centering prayer eleven years ago when she was pregnant with her youngest child, experiences it, she says, "as a resting in God, letting go of concerns and words and sitting still with Godno more, no less." She adds, "Sometimes that's difficult, sometimes that's easy."
What Practitioners Say
Mary: "keeping in touch with God and myself"
Practiced habitually, centering prayer certainly yields practical byproducts, like cutting down on fidgeting and fuming in lines and traffic jams. It lengthens patience, abridges boredom. It brings the white light of clarity, unbidden, to the mind at other times throughout the day.
"We have these moments of clarity as a result of those moments of quiet," says Mary, a ten-year practitioner of centering prayer. "I know that's ideal, but I do believe it's tree."
But that's not why she does it. Mary practices it because it keeps her in touch with God and with herself. To know herself is to know more about who God the Creator made her to be. It gives her "a felt sense of faith," an experience of the presence of God.
Mary, a fifty-nine-year-old business owner, part-time spiritual director, and mother of four grown children, has blonde hair, and her blue eyes wrinkle up when she smiles. Her face has experience lines. She wears a thick black sweater against the chill that can steal up in the stillness of silent prayer. She coughsright now she's battling a seasonal coldbut centering prayer is important to do regularly. Doing it with a group helps her discipline.
"It's a gift to want to do it," she says. Her wanting began with a little reading, with going to conferences where she heard Christian teachers and writers like Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, and James Finleyexplorers of silence, of prayer, of disciplined development of faith. That helped nurture her desire. But doing was better than reading. She didn't read the books of Thomas Keating, one of the founders of centering prayer, until she was on her way to a workshop at the Colorado monastery where he lives. "I don't think I read it through till I was on the train that night," she confesses. To retain her motivation and refresh her practice, once a year she treats herself to a quiet retreat.
She looks at her own life for evidence of the resultsthe fruitof centering prayer. "In retrospect," she says, "I could see a lot of things change in my life. Do I know it at the time? No. It's part of a process that enables me to grow."
Kathy: "hungering for God's presence"
Kathy, who is fifty-six, has been coming for three years to centering-prayer meetings at the Cenacle. "I've always had a deep calling or attraction to the contemplative life," she says. When she was younger, she spent six years in a Carmelite order, but left. She also studied dance and art; today, she continues to paint. One of her works, an eleven-foot-tall picture of the risen Christ, hangs in her home church, a Catholic parish.
"There's a tension," says Kathy, who is now a home-care nurse, "between being busy and taking the time to do nothing useful but sit in God's presence. I hunger for that now."
Like Mary, Kathy has begun to enjoy the fruits of her practice at times in her day that have little to do with being quiet. It shows up when she's driving to work with greater calmness. It's changed the way she washes the dishes, makes the bed. "It's all connected to centering prayer."
Bob: "developing a discipline"
Bob is a beginner at centering prayer, learning it through a five-week class that he happens to be in charge of because the class is offered through the parish he works for. He comes to it out of interest in exploring this form of prayer, which is so different than the more typical active forms of prayer. His first taste of centering prayer is good enough to make him want to pursue more following the five-week class in order to develop a discipline. "As you explore different possibilities or modes of prayer, some will appeal to you, some won't appeal," he says. "I'm surprised this does." He guesses with a laugh that its quietness is more appealing to him because he is aginghe is forty-six. Keating has suggested that centering prayer "takes" better among older people, who have accumulated, or suffered through, more experience.
Elizabeth: "Struggling is part of growth"
Elizabeth does centering prayer in spite of herself. "I'm fifty-seven," she explains. "It's taken fifty-seven years for my mind to get where it is, and it doesn't want to let anyone in to change it, not even God."
Elizabeth "blames" Ted, the rector of her Episcopal parish in downtown Chicago. "Ted made me do it," she says with good humor. "He said, 'This would be good for you.'"
And it is, she concedes, but it's a difficult discipline. She is aware of her resistance to the practice and has taken steps around that resistance. "I find any excuse not to do it, so I've arranged to lead it three times a week," she says. She and a friend have a centering-prayer "buddy system," exchanging calls daily as a gentle reminder to sit for centering prayer.
Centering-prayer practitioners encounter and acknowledge resistance and try to work with it. Struggling against that resistance is part of the growth within the practice, Elizabeth believes. "Every time we fight the resistance, some change happens," she suggests.
Elizabeth, who describes herself as a spiritual director and grandmother, began centering prayer two years ago, and early in 2001 attended a ten-day intensive centering-prayer retreat at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, where Keating now lives and works.
"It was just otherworldly," she says. She participated in five hours of centering prayer daily. "It's quiet. It puts your whole soul in a different place.... You leave saying, 'That's how I want my world to be' but that's not how it is."
Renewing Christian Tradition
Centering prayer was developed in the 1970s by Trappist monks Thomas Keating, William Meninger, and M. Basil Pennington, all then at St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Blending aspects of Eastern meditation with traditional Christian belief and prayer form, centering prayer represents an attempt to draw new attention to Christianity's own mystical tradition in order to feed contemporary spiritual hunger for a direct experience of the Divine.
While the current form of centering prayer is contemporary, it is rooted in centuries of Christian contemplative practice. The practice represents a response to the perennial spiritual question: How shall I pray? For Christians, the answer begins with Jesus, who offers this instruction:
When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. (Matthew 6:6)
Jesus' answer to the question is the basis of the teaching and prayer of church fathers and other thinkers who followed the path of prayer as a means of connection with God. In tracing the history of this practice, Keating, Meninger, and Pennington reach all the way back to the desert fathers, monks of the fourth and fifth centuries who lived, taught, and prayed in the deserts of Palestine and Egypt.
In the monastic scheme of things, contemplation was the climactic step of a divine ladder of processes that built a relationship to God. Four separate but related practices made up lectio divina, meant to provide an encounter with the Divine through sacred text. Lectio divinareading of the sacred scripturebrought the reader a small portion of divinely inspired word, meant to be read slowly, ruminatively. Reading led naturally to meditatio, thoughtful reflection stimulated by the scripture passage just read. Meditatio could involve simple repetition of the passage in order to assimilate its meaning. The gradual interior movement toward God then led to oratio, understood as prayer, a felt response to the growing understanding of God that naturally produced praise. The final step of the process was then contemplatio, contemplation, or coming to rest in the presence of God.
One important work within the Christian mystical tradition is prominent in the history of centering prayer. The fourteenth-century text The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an unknown author, takes the form of advice given by an experienced monk to a younger pupil who is eager to develop his spiritual life. The older teacher gives his student specific instructions for prayer. The writer advises his disciple to sit quietly, center his attention on God, and use a short, simple word that will help attention stay centered on God. The word is intended to represent God, and it is also used to return the mind to the presence of God when, almost inevitably, the distraction of thoughts starts.
(Continues...) <! copyright notice >
Excerpted from Come and Sit by Marcia Z. Nelson. Copyright © 2001 by Marcia Z. Nelson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.