How is Meditation Prayer?

How is Meditation Prayer? Daniel Helminiak, PhD

Editor's Note: Daniel Helminiak, author of the popular What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, was the very beloved Dignity priest in Boston, San Antonio and Austin. Now a "transcended Catholic," Daniel is a psychotherapist and a rigorous philosopher of spirit in the tradition of his teacher Bernard Lonergan. His most recent book is The Human Core of Spirituality (see review). Daniel has the ability to talk about spirituality from both a theist and a nontheist viewpoint This is a rare achievement. Perhaps it is his having worked through being gay that allows him to sort things out with such nuance and honesty. He is able to appreciate where belief in God can come in and also appreciate how people could do without it. (This article is abridged and edited from Review for Religious, 41(1982):774-782.)

The term "meditation" has become popular to name practices for transcending thought and feeling, and attaining, to various degrees, states of pure consciousness. This usage differs from that prevalent in the Christian tradition. There "meditation" refers to a disciplined practice of thinking and feeling about religious objects, ideas, images, and experiences. This "discursive meditation" was the prime form of "mental prayer" advocated in the West until recent years. The term "contemplation" was used to refer to what is now generally called "meditation."

Meditative practices can be grouped as two basic kinds: concentration techniques and insight techniques. The concentration technique aims at so-called "one-pointedness." It requires that one maintain in attention some object: a sound, sensation, image. When one becomes aware that attention has drifted, one acknowledges the wandering and returns attention to the object. The exercise is that simple.

A common form of this kind of meditation uses a mantra, a word or phrase that is repeated over and over, as the object of attention. Transcendental Meditation, taught by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Centering Prayer, developed by the Trappists at St. Joseph Abbey, Spencer, Massachusetts, are both more or less forms of mantra meditation. Both are generally to be practiced for twenty minutes, twice daily. This and all meditative practice is to be done in a quiet and congenial place and with a relaxed but alert bodily posture.

T.M. differs from other forms of mantra meditation, such as ejaculatory prayer (japam, in Sanskrit), in that it is not the words, but the memory of the sound of the mantra given by the initiator that is held in consciousness. In ejaculatory prayer, like the Jesus Prayer of Russian hesychasm, what is focused on is the repetition of the holy words repeated on the breath.

The insight technique similarly uses some object of attention. It differs from concentration technique in this: when one hecomes aware that attention has drifted, one acknowledges the "distracting" thought, image, feeling, or sound and then returns to the object of attention. Here the goal is not so much to maintain concentration on the object. Rather, through repeated observation of the mind's drifting from, and returning to, the object of attention, one attains insight into the workings of one's mind; one develops "mindfulness."

Chogyam Trungpa describes one such technique that uses the breath as its object of attention. In an appropriate meditative position one is to be aware of, to identify with, the breath each time one exhales, but one boycotts attention of the breath when one inhales. In this alternating process of attention and non-attention to the breath one has the opportunity to observe "thinking." Not only actual thoughts but also feelings, images, and sensations are considered to be "thoughts." When they arise, they are acknowledged, owned, and then all treated with equal concern (or indifference!) and labeled simply "thinking." Then one returns to one's breath.

In the practice of Centering Prayer, which had its basis in the fourteenth-century mystical work, The Cloud of Unknowing one allows a religious word to repeat itself in one’s mind, always restoring one’s attention to the word whenever attention drifts. Even pious thought about that word is treated as just another wandering of the mind. Through this practice one moves away from the concerns of everyday life. According to The Cloud one sets between them and oneself a "cloud of forgetting." Beneath this cloud of forgetting all thoughts and feelings, of whatever source and kind, are left. Then using the word as a dagger (like a Tibetan purba), one continues to penetrate the cloud of unknowing above, which separates one from God.

During meditation practice all thoughts and feelings are to be treated with equal indifference and be dismissed. Even thoughts about God are given this same treatment. They are a disruption of the meditative process. Before and after the practice itself, the theist meditator may dedicate the practice as a devotion to God. Likewise, before and after the practice itself, he or she might consider that what is being experienced during the practice-namely, the mystery of the created, spiritual self-is something from God. But all such thoughts are irrelevant to the practice itself. And though the explicit, God-oriented intention that initiated the practice may carry over implicitly in the ensuing behavior, explicit reference to God is clearly extraneous to meditative practice. During meditation the theist and the non-theist dedicate their efforts to exactly the same thing-fidelity to a practice that heightens the human spirit’s awareness of itself.

All meditation in some way consists of "the practice of the presence." For nontheists, it is the experience of contentless consciousness, open-ended and self-transcending human spirit, or, said otherwise, "emptiness" beyond all thought. For theists, it is all too easily identified with the presence of a personal God. The account that follows introduces more nuance. The hallmark of the theism is the acknowledgment of God as creator of all that is and, conversely, the recognition of all creation as somehow an expression of God. According to theism the created world gives some indication of what God is like. Indeed, the human intellect as such may know that God is, but it does not know what God is. An understanding of what God is must rely on created things which suggest something about God. More specifically, the theist believer recognizes the human spirit as the most subtle of God’s creations. It is the analogue par excellence for God, who is also spirit.

Theism acknowledges God as creator and acknowledges human spirit as the most adequate analogue for God. However, these acknowledgements do not add another factor to any experience in this world. The one who believes in God does not experience something different in this life from the one who does not believe in God. Belief in God adds a further dimension of understanding to human experience, but it does not add to the intrinsic factors that constitute the experience. Thus the non-theist and the theist in principle both have the same data at hand: life as it is given to us. The theist acknowledgement of God does not add to the data; rather, it provides a further explanation of the data.

In the specific instance of meditative experience, what is available for the experience of the theist and the non-theist is exactly the same. With continued practice, both can experience the ever further subtleties of human spirit. The theist, of course, relates this experience to God, recognizing God as the creative source of the human spirit and so somehow inevitably implicated in the experience of that spirit. But the authentic theist will not claim to be experiencing God during meditation. The theist would only claim to have a heightened experience of human spirit, as, indeed, the non-theist could likewise claim. Then how can meditation be legitimately called prayer, since prayer implies some kind of communion with God?

First, through meditation I dedicate myself to knowing and enjoying God’s gift to me, namely, myself as a created spiritual being. The joy of this experience is an indirect praise of God.

Second, during meditation I make a concerted effort to become my fullest possible self. I work to integrate my spirit into my psychic and physical constitution. In this I acknowledge myself as worthwhile, and I strive to be all that I can be. Thus, I implicitly praise God, who made me.

Third, during meditation I surrender all my thoughts and feelings about God. I strive to transcend my thoughts and my feelings, even though they are about God, for I recognize them precisely as my own and not God. Thus, my meditation is a form of self-surrender. I continue to strive ever beyond myself toward God, though, of course, I realize I will never attain God. In this I express a self-sacrificing desire and love for God. In this I worship God.

Fourth, during meditation I let go of my thoughts and feelings. I still the incessant activity of my own mind. Thus, I adopt a stance of humility and receptivity before God. I put myself in a position where I am more likely to "listen to the Lord," that is, to be more receptive to the signs around me that might indicate what is right and good for me before God. Thus I reverence God.

Fifth, knowing that human spirit is the closest thing to God that I have in this world, during meditation I allow myself to experience and marvel in my own spirit, which is something like God. Thus, I try to come as close to the experience of God as is possible in this world. Thus, I acknowledge God’s glory. Sixth, during meditation I still the wanderings of my heart and mind and allow myself to be present to the present moment. In this I am present to what is-not to what was or what might be-and so I am more present to God, who makes all be. In all those ways the practice of meditation can be understood as prayer.

By affirming that the divine Holy Spirit dwells in human hearts or by suggesting that the human spirit is really divine in itself, Western and Eastern religions both go even further. They suggest that in meditation I actually become one with God. But this suggestions opens up a whole other set of questions. Daniel Helminiak lives in Pittsburgh