If the image of traffic was too stressful for you last week, here's a gentler way of viewing the distractions that arise during our time of meditation. You'll especially like this image if you are a fan of fall (like I am)!
Picture each distraction, whether it's an external noise or an internal thought, feeling, memory, image, or bodily sensation, as leaves floating down your stream of consciousness.
As we close or lower our eyes in meditation, we turn our attention from engaging what is going on outside of ourselves to an awareness of what is going on inside of ourselves. And guess what? There's usually plenty going on! Should we be surprised?! Besides the movie reel of images, here's a peek at what floats down the stream of my consciousness:
This quiet is so nice!
Is that a leaf-blower?
I need to figure out how to...
I need to email ____, ____, and ____ as soon as I'm done with meditation.
I forgot to drop that card in the mail!
Yes, that's what I'm going to fix for dinner.
Oh, that's how I can do...
Am I breathing deeply?
Why do I feel anxiety right now?
I need to get that event on the calendar.
Should I scratch that itch on my face or wait until it goes away?
I am still angry about what happened last week!
I wonder what they thought about what I said.
He had such a great idea, I'd never thought of that before!
Here's an idea as to how to open that class...perfect.
Why didn't I think of that last week?
That author's theology is way off...
This theological issue is a tough one...
I need to get snacks for the baseball game tonight.
I need to use the restroom, should I just wait or pause the meditation timer?
I'm really enjoying the changing shadows and light from the sun through the trees.
She's really hurting, how can I help her more?
Why didn't she text me back?
My hands feel hot, wonder what that means.
I'm still laughing about what he said.
Why can't I be more peaceful today?
I'm not good at meditation at all!
I should be better at meditation given I'm a teacher of it!
I just felt completely calm for a minute there.
Why can't I have more than a minute of my mind at rest?
And that's just a peek at one 20-minute session of Centering Prayer!
Now some days I let those thoughts, feelings, images, and bodily sensations just float on down the stream of consciousness.
But other days I lean over and pick a leaf out of the stream and begin examining it! Pretty soon, I've left the present moment of calm awareness and am meditating on and mulling over whatever that particular thought or feeling presented.
In that moment, instead of consenting to God's presence and action in my life, I've picked up control again! I'm running back to the past or into the future. My ego mind does not believe I have time for meditation. It does not trust I can survive (or perhaps the deeper issue is it doesn't feel I will be loved) without doing, planning, figuring out, being hyper-vigilant about, actively seeking a solution to, or at least evaluating how I am doing with something...even if it's meditation!
When I become aware that I've left the time of calm awareness and consent (sometimes it takes a few moments before I notice), the noticing itself acts as a release. Setting that leaf back down in the stream, I often "come home" to being with God by gently saying a sacred word. This sacred word or phrase might be Love, Jesus, Peace, Breathe, Thank You, Be Still... For me, my sacred word happens to be Home. This word grew out of a year of reflecting on the Prodigal Son and my own mind's tendency to run away. Other times I "come home" by listening to the sounds in the room or even my own breathing.
My practice looks different every day. The stream may be pretty crowded with leaves while other times I am aware of just a few floating gently by. Some days I find myself leaning over and picking up leaf after leaf. Other days I find there are only a couple of leaves grabbing my attention.
No matter! The leaves and what I do or don't do with them don't represent success or failure (such evaluation is an ego/conceptual mind game!). This is just how my practice looked on a particular day. I may have had forty-seven opportunities to come home again...what a grace! Or, I may have received the gift of contemplation. Resting in front of the deep hearth within, gazing out the window at the beautiful fall leaves floating downstream.
Once you close or lower your eyes during your time of meditation, you're bound to deal with inner traffic! What are you to do?
Do you yell at it for existing?
Just as you wouldn't literally stand on a sidewalk and yell at traffic for existing (although sometimes it's tempting), there's no need to yell at the traffic within you for being there! It's simply doing what it normally does. Having inner noise with it's plethora of racing and honking is part of being human.
Do you run out into it?
We tell kids not to! However, sometimes in meditation it may indeed feel like we're caught up in a dizzying array of thoughts and feelings whizzing past us or we're trapped in the middle of a traffic jam with no way out!
Whether it feels like there's no way out or you've got internal vertigo, allow yourself to come back to center through your body. You might gently return your attention to your breath, listen to the sounds in the room, relax your eyes, or ever-so-lightly correct your posture by dropping your shoulders or straightening your slumped spine. Very simple body awareness can return us to a state of noticing the traffic rather than being one with it!
Do you try to jump in one of the cars or climb on the bus?
If it's moving, it can be especially dangerous! Whether parked or already in motion, during meditation this is what is called "finding yourself engaged in a thought or feeling". At this point you've not just noticed the cars moving across the highway of your consciousness, someone yelled out the window inviting you to hop on in and the next thing you know, you're in the passenger's seat! You may have even taken the wheel!
No worries, though. You're not being forced to go anywhere against your will! Simply return to your sacred word (if engaging Centering Prayer), your calming/meditative image, your breath, or what you hear in the room. You may find yourself doing this again and again, during your time of meditation, especially when traffic is heavy! That's okay. Each time you do, you freely choose the way of life by coming back to the present moment rather than speeding off into the future or heading back to the past.
When it comes to inner traffic, meditation invites us to simply be aware of it.
Let each taxi, moped, jeep, and minivan come and go. Know that some days or times of day you may be in the middle of rush hour. Other days may be lighter traffic. Some vehicles may take longer to drive by than others. No need to lose heart. God's love is boundless, encompassing you and every thought, feeling and bodily sensation that arises, endures, and passes away. And there is nowhere these cars, trucks, vans or buses can take you that God is not!
One day last week, I had just begun my twenty minutes of silent meditation, known as Centering Prayer, when I began to hear the sound of a synthesizer from 1986.
Not long after, I heard the voice of El DeBarge sing out, "Who's Johnny? she said and smiled in her special way..."
I was not smiling.
I couldn't even remember the last time I heard this song. Maybe you can't either. For a refresher, I've posted the video below so you can better imagine this scene with me...go ahead, have it playing while you continue to read. I certainly didn't expect to hear it during my time of Centering Prayer!
My husband had no idea I was downstairs in silent meditation. I had no idea why he was listening to El DeBarge in the room beside me (especially early in the morning)! I was just about to yell, "Hey, what in the world are you doing? I'm in the middle of centering prayer!" when suddenly I remembered some words from author and former Trappist monk, James Finley.
I had been reading his book, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God and he repeatedly addresses external and internal distractions that occur during silent meditation. When they come (as they always have and always will because we're human), Finley advises that we:
Here was an excellent opportunity to enter more deeply into Finley's words and into my meditation practice! So I internally gave El DeBarge permission to endure and returned to an inner meditative awareness. What was I aware of inside? It certainly wasn't a peaceful calm! It was anger and annoyance!
I wanted to yell out, "Hey! Enough of El DeBarge already!" Perhaps a deeper, inner curiosity won out because rather than resist them, I decided to allow my feelings of anger and annoyance to arise, endure, and pass away. They endured a long time.
When the feelings did pass, a thought took their place. This thought pointed out how much I want (even demand) things to go my way...or else! I expected silence with no distractions for 20 minutes and the moment I did not get what I wanted, my anger surged to the surface!
I don't know about you, but when I have an expectation, I tend to expect it to turn out like I envisioned (perfectly). And if it doesn't, I just know it will be ruined (or at least that's how my thinking goes). Have you ever considered how much you internally (or externally) demand things go your way? One of the benefits of meditation is one becomes more aware of things like this!
Though insightful, this thought wanted me to cling to it and spend time mulling it over, perhaps devise a plan for transformation or soak in shame. Instead my time of meditation was inviting me to let ALL arise, endure, and pass away. In specific Centering Prayer language, the moment I notice I'm engaged with (clinging to) the thought, I gently return to my sacred word, the symbol of my intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
Entrusting all of my responses and reactions (and plans for transformation) into God's hands, I allowed myself to return to the deepest truth offered in the present moment--I am fully loved by God just as I am. The humbling thought about my expectations eventually passed away and there was a brief calm (but even that is not to be clung to!).
I would like to say I continued to neither cling to nor resist any distraction, that I allowed every external sound and internal feeling, thought, memory and bodily sensation to arise, endure, and pass away. BUT, half-way through Scritti Politti singing their 1985 hit, "Perfect Way"...
Who are you not being or what are you not doing because you fear how you will appear in the eyes of others?
What reputation are you trying to uphold?
I've spent tons of energy on my good, Christian girl image for as long as I can remember.
And being in ministry my whole adult life has not provided relief. At times, this has intensified the inner critic that reminds me that I have a reputation as a Christian leader and spiritual guide to uphold.
Quite frankly, I've given way too much thought as to how things like changing my theological stances to not-every-Sunday-church-attendance affect my reputation (case in point, I just gave way too much thought in writing this sentence!).
I have often chosen rule-following over following my heart. And the many times I have boldly followed the still, small voice within, my inner critic who abides there as well, has often stolen, killed, and destroyed the freedom found in the following. Fearing outer criticism causes such unnecessary inner turmoil!
Some say we begin to care what other people think in middle school.
My daughter started middle school this year. She told my husband and I that she wanted us both to be at the bus stop with her. I thought after the first day or two she would probably like us to remain at a safe distance. I was wrong.
She wants us there everyday and even wants a hug before she climbs into the bus! Part of me loves this. And I have to admit, even though she feels not a hint of embarrassment, a part of me feels a twinge of it for her as I see the other middle schoolers looking out the window of a full bus. Maybe I'm feeling over-protective (if she won't protect her image, I will!) or maybe it's the middle school girl in me still caring what others think. Why risk it?
One morning last week I sat at the kitchen table after an all-night headache with little sleep. I told her, "Your dad will have to go with you to the bus stop, I don't think you'll want me along." She said, "Why not?" I said, "Look at me, I'm still in my pajamas!" She replied, "You had a hard night, of course you are, but I don't care, it's not like I have a reputation I need to defend!"
I looked at her bewildered. Have I ever not thought I had a reputation I needed to defend?!
Then I held up my hand and said, "You need a high-five because you'll be good to go if you can keep that sentiment through middle school." She laughed. Oh the freedom to authentically be who you are and do what your heart desires no matter what others think!
We both walked her to the bus stop (although I did change out of my pajamas).
After she climbed on the bus, I looked at my husband and said, "Who is that child?" Then I told him how her response immediately ambushed my weary heart, speaking into my own life of places where I've been overly concerned about how I appear in the eyes of others.
If a middle school girl can wholeheartedly choose what is inside over what others think of her on the outside, then perhaps I can, too. Oh the freedom! God knows it's time.
By the way, the next morning she pointed to us and said, "I may not have a reputation to defend, but let's not do this again!" We had unknowingly put on matching t-shirts to walk her to the bus stop! I appreciated her authenticity. Both of us cringed as the bus drove past.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.