Prayer of Being (1)

© Jacek Bolewski SJ

Introduction: Meditation in the West

Our reflections are devoted to prayer and more precisely to one type of prayer, which is best described by the title “the prayer of being”. It requires some explanation to which we will arrive gradually. Our starting point will be yet a different term used for prayer, namely meditation.

I.1 Meditation is in fashion

Meditation has become fashionable, which is testified by a great number of books devoted to it. Even more than from book titles and covers, the word “meditation” attracts us from posters and adverts put in public places in our cities. Passers-by who do not really pay much attention to the content of these adverts remember the word written in capital letters: MEDITATION, sometimes with one or two words added, such as: TRANSCENDENTAL, EASTERN or ZEN… And when a passer-by stops, curious, and reads the rest of an advert, he can learn about a meditation course and meeting places where all who are interested will be initiated and further instructed.

The popularity of meditation has come to us, like many other phenomena, from the West. The above-mentioned names used to describe meditation suggest that meditation is frequently associated with the religions of Far East, especially with Hinduism or Buddhism. The interest in the East is not new. It dates from the period of Enlightenment when Europe started to turn away from Christianity searching for other, more attractive religions. In some intellectual circles, there was a craze for Confucianism and later the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism. The latter grew very popular over the previous century in the USA, where Buddhism Zen in particular seemed to enjoy a revival in a new form manifest for instance in the title of one important book on meditation: “Zen: Dawn in the West” by Philip Kapleau (1979). Eastern masters organized various meditation courses, which achieved immense popularity among intellectuals from Western Europe and the USA. Soon, there were also Christian Zen masters. One of them was a German Jesuit, Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, who spent most of his life as a missionary in Japan, where he was recognized as a master by Buddhists and later organized meditation courses in various western European countries, incorporating Buddhist and Christian elements into them. I took part in some courses run by him in Germany at the turn of the 1970s and 1980s. One of his books entitled “Zen Meditation für Christen” (Meditation Zen for Christians) was published in 1995.

All fashions entail the risk of focusing on the external and the passing and therefore all fashionable trends are constantly changing. Is it the same with meditation? It seems that with time a new opportunity appears to understand it in a deeper and better way also thanks to encounters between Eastern and Western traditions. Eastern masters, however, warned against superficial understanding of meditation. One of them, Gopi Krishna, during a meeting with young German people, said: “The more I listen to Europeans talking about meditation the more I feel that I should tell them not to practice it. They don’t understand what it is about. You should read your Scriptures and you will find the same that is written in our sacred books: you should love your neighbour, you should love your God, you should love your neighbour in God. Everything else is redundant. Nowhere is it written that you should meditate. But if you want to love your God and your neighbour, and you will discover the great truth that meditation may help you in this love, that it can become significant help on your path then you should meditate; otherwise you should leave it alone”.

The testimony of the Hindu master referring to truth and Christian practice means not only that the main point of meditation is ultimately in leading us to greater love of God and neighbour but also it corrects up all misconceptions created by the popularity of meditation. Let us have a closer look at that.

I.2 Meditation misconceptions 

The most common misconception, frequently referred to by the opponents of this “fashionable” practice, is that it is an escape from reality. It is true that some forms of meditation may create such an impression. However, a similar accusation could be formulated against many other forms of religious life, which differ from ordinary lives led by the majority of us. From this point of view, monastic life, especially in a contemplative order, as well as participation in a retreat or a longer period of time devoted to prayer could be perceived as an escape from reality. Therefore, a closer look needs to be taken.

First of all, the very term “meditation” is of western origin. It comes from the Latin word meditari, which could refer to any practice meaning repeated exercise, acquiring certain attitude or learning by heart. In terms of the prayer practice of the first hermits and monks, meditation initially meant reciting a part of the Holy Scriptures, usually aloud. The aim of such repetition was not only to learn the words by heart but also deeper and existential acquisition of the words uttered. In this sense “meditation” of the Scriptures was compared to chewing food by animals so that they could assimilate it better.

This initial meaning differs significantly from the later one, popularized in the medieval times in Christian treaties on prayer: “meditation” became the synonym for mental prayer such as contemplation of or reflection over various issues. Nowadays, when we say that someone meditates, we are frequently asked: “on what?” The conceptual equivalent of “meditation” in our language, also referred to by St. Ignatius Loyola in his “Spiritual Exercises”, is contemplation and consequently mental prayer. However, not only the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, but also his practice of prayer show that the Saint aimed at looking at meditation and prayer in a more holistic way. It is shown in notes to “Exercises” in which he stresses the need to include in meditation not only thoughts but also will, senses and body posture, in short the entire man. The fact that Loyola talks about meditation and contemplation at the same time may signal broader understanding of meditation which is not reduced to contemplation but, drawing closer to its original meaning, but becomes a simple prayer leading to even greater simplicity through the integration of the entire man.

Such a simpler understanding of meditation is close to eastern understanding of this practice, where not only contemplation counts but also simple, holistic attitude of focusing on one thing. It turns out that meditation understood in a deeper way does not mean escape from reality and is not a negation. Quite contrary – its sense is positive as it leads to the complete acceptance of reality, which, according to the Hindu master, might be called love comprising God, neighbour and everything.

Many misconceptions about meditation are connected with contrasting eastern and western understanding of meditation. In the light of the above, it seems that in order to recognize common features one must look deeper to the source. Apart from simplicity and holistic focus on one thing, stressing the role of practice, a persistently repeated exercise, seems to be a common element. Frequently, eastern practice is defined as a meditation “technique”, contrary to western exercises, but in both cases exercise is a more appropriate term. What is important is not what one does, as suggested by the word “technique”, but their spiritual attitude, which could be defined in a different way depending on a given religious tradition. We have talked about focusing, about love – we shall return to these issues. At the moment, however, we shall concentrate on meditation as prayer.

I.3 Meditation as Prayer

Prayer is connected with the faith in personal God with whom a personal relation can be established. It seems that we can talk about prayer only in the context of religions which understand God in a personal way. However, from a Christian point of view, God’s personality is nothing obvious, it is a mystery as it cannot be said that God is “a person” but rather He “is love” (1 John 4:8-16) in which more people participate. Therefore prayer is something more than our human addressing the Divine Person. If we fail to remember about it then we might understand prayer in a simplified way. When we imagine prayer as our turning to God, just like we turn to other people, then we treat prayer as an action to which God “should” answer. We might be surprised or even appalled that He does not answer when we ask Him for various things. The truth about prayer is that primarily we do not turn “to” God, as if through our actions we could grow closer to Him, but from the very beginning we pray “in” God 'For in him we live and move and have our being' (Acts 17:28). That means: the foundation of prayer is not our activity but the activity of God in us which enables us to act properly, also when praying.

Let us reflect on it a little bit more before we move to the practice and theory of meditation. For now, the feeling that prayer is something more than turning “to” God is enough. That opens us to a deeper understanding of meditation, where holistic focus on one thing matters. This one thing, as will be seen, could be any part of reality but what is important is our spiritual attitude towards the unity of the entire reality (to one reality embracing everything) in various forms. This opening, viewed at as the essence of meditation, might be referred to as prayer, not necessarily as request or thanksgiving, but rather as entrusting oneself to the mystery which embraces us and gives us everything we need. Our commitment constitutes a personal act, opening to what is the most significant inside us, what is rooted in transcendental mystery which surpasses the man and constitutes the foundation of our personal human nature.

When we call meditation a prayer we complement the eastern perception of meditation with Christian understanding. The complementation means that in meditation understood as a complete focus on one thing we stress personal and dynamic dimension of opening towards the mystery, which is not an “indifferent” and static background to meditation but acts in our actions, as if maintains this action, gives sense and direction to it. The attitude of prayer means our awareness that in meditation we are not alone but instead we are embraced by the mysterious and divine reality towards which we try to open ourselves. We do not focus on ourselves or on our problems, about which we need to inform God so as He could help us. We give ourselves to Him thanks to meditation, bearing in mind that the most important thing is not that God grants our prayers because He always does that, but that we hear Him and listen to Him in a meditative, prayerful way. We hear His reality in which He is present.

Meditation as prayer starts with exercises, with a certain action, but beneath that there is an attitude that is to penetrate all our actions gradually. Such an attitude could be defined in Ignatian terms as remaining contemplative in action (in actione contemplativus). In other words, this is what Jesus encourages us to do saying “Watch therefore and pray always” (Luke 21:36). Unceasing prayer is described as the attitude of mindfulness, which is remaining mindfully open towards reality and towards God acting in this reality. Paul the Apostle also encourages us to practice this type of prayer, saying: “Pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This is what we learn in meditation, in this simple and complete concentration on the One.

II Meditation Practice

We start from the practice of meditation and from some tips on how to train oneself in meditation. This attitude aims at simplicity; therefore it is simplicity that constitutes a starting point. Further, I make reference to a description which was introduced some years ago in my book entitled “Prosta praktyka medytacji” (Simple Practice of Meditation; Wydawnictwo “m”, 1992). The practice presented there is of universal character and can be followed not only by believers of other religions but also by non-believers searching for a deeper experience of reality and its mystery. However, in the description of the practice itself, I shall be referring sometimes to the Christian language in order to present stronger reasons for this type of practice in the last theoretical chapter.

II.1 Simplicity – focusing on the One

Because meditation leads us to being contemplative in our actions, let us start from a well-known scene from the Gospel, which is usually interpreted as an opposition to action and contemplation but which I believe shows the path of unity. There are two different attitudes exemplified by the sisters Martha and Mary. The older one, Martha, is ready to act. She prepares food for the Guest, whereas Mary just sits next to Him and listens to his preaching. We remember well the words spoken to the older sister: “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one” (Luke 10, 41:42). Jesus does not tell us what He means by “one thing”, but it might be assumed from the context, that what He has in mind is the attitude of Mary, who listened attentively to His words when He started to speak. Jesus did not mean to put the two attitudes in opposition, as what Martha did was also needed. However, she lacked concentration. Instead of focusing on one thing, in that case on her work for the Guest, she was at the same time thinking about something else. Not only was she absorbed in various worries, but also distracted by the dislike towards her sister, who was doing something else. Jesus admonished her and praised the attitude focused on one thing, contrasting it with the attitude distracted by many things and worries. Ultimately, the concentration on one thing, either in prayer or at work, is the path leading us to the One, to oneness, in which the difference between “one” (as a part) and “the One” (as the whole) is completed.

How does it happen in meditation as prayer? We should remember that originally meditation concentration on one thing referred to the word of God, not pondered over but quietly recited in order to be assimilated. Even if there were more words of the Gospel that were recited, only one thing mattered – the word of God included in them. Understanding and assimilation of the word required full concentration, without escaping to images, thoughts or associations. It was listening attentively with full concentration, just like Mary when she was listening to Jesus. Hermits who started practising meditation, finally understood that it was enough to recite one word, the name of Jesus, as according to Gospel there is “no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The simplest form of meditation requires gradual preparation. Our path of prayer goes through various stages and changes as we develop. As children, we concentrate on words or images, later we include in our prayer our thought, reflections or feelings. Ass adults, we have difficulties in concentration, especially in controlling our thoughts. Also feelings, especially the negative ones, connected with dislike, reluctance, anger or frustration, disturb us, which in turn discourages us from praying. Nevertheless all these thoughts and daily experiences should be included into our prayer if we are to develop and open our entire life to the acts of God. We might try to integrate our interior with the attitude of prayer. However, such integration will never take place if we try to combine many elements of our interior into one by ourselves. Meditation shows a simpler and more effective way.

Meditation concentration on one thing starts from what we frequently forget about in our prayer. We try to concentrate internally, but we forget about our body or see it as an obstacle. Concentration which is detached from the body is not complete and will not lead to true oneness. The body must be included and accepted and this will lead us to a better control, different from forced domination. That is why the path towards concentration should not include any tension of muscles, clenching of eyelids and teeth or puckering your forehead. All this leads to additional tension and tiredness and makes it difficult to remain still and to quiet our thoughts. They may disappear for a short while, but then the tension that is within us will create new thoughts and distractions connected with unnatural posture.

How do we include our body in meditation? As it seems that various thoughts and their activity are the biggest obstacle to concentration, we should not look for help in thoughts. What might be helpful, though, is to try to “tie” your thoughts by concentrating on the body. Instead of surrendering to new thoughts, concentrate on the stillness of your body which will let you focus on one thing. At the beginning of the practice, the body might be this one thing. Straightening your back is the most important element of a proper posture, which should be comfortable enough for us to remain still during meditation. It is not important if we focus on one part of the body or on the whole body. The “embodiment” of thoughts matters. However, some kind of order might be useful: first notice the parts of your body which are pressed and tense. Then gradually move your attention to other parts, starting up along the straightened back and then down to your legs. It is important to focus your attention for a while on a given part, absorbing feelings present there (pressure, warmth, and contact with clothes). If there is any tension or pain, we shall try to accept them as this is what will ease them and make it possible for us to remain in our position for a set period of time.

There is more to the concentration on the body. Not only because concentration as such is the activity of our spirit, but when we concentrate on our body we must notice its unity with what surrounds it. Impressions that we experience when our body touches clothes or ground make it impossible for us to remain locked in our bodies. Also other sensory impressions, not only connected with touch, but especially auditory sensations, always remind us that we are not alone in our bodies, that we are immersed in a bigger, multi-shaped world. We look for unity with our body but not against the multitude of the world, in remaining open for even greater unity with it and in it.

The prayer of the body leads us further and further. The next concentration exercise goes inside the body, towards breathing. Remaining still, internally and externally, we concentrate on “one thing”, which is now a certain element of our earthly life – breath. It seems that breath is the least bodily element and most spiritual element of our body. In the Bible’s description of the creation of man in God’s image, breath is selected as a bodily sign of this likeness. When God formed the first man, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The breath of life, our breath, is the sign of life of God himself and of His Spirit. Our exercise could be described as follows: when concentration embraces the entire body, united with its surroundings, then we may start concentrating on our breath, which is an additional sign of unity of body and spirit with the outside world. The way in which we link our concentration with this one thing, with our breath, is important. Breath has always been inside us, even before we noticed it. Now, we become open to its presence. However, we should not control it, make it longer or unnaturally change it by the very fact of “observing” it. We should rather look at it they way it happens. We should not change it, but join in its natural rhythm: inhale – exhale. Nothing more.

 However, more awaits us in the breath itself. Its two stages create a mysterious unity, caught in the never-ending movement of breathing in and out. Inhale gives us air which we need to live. For a moment, it is enough, and then our body breathes out what is harmful to it. We concentrate on this movement, on this recurring moment of “stillness”, on saturation with recurring gift – life. We concentrate in the best way when we look at our breath as if it was the last one, bringing not temporary but permanent satisfaction, transition to the fullness of Life.

So far, we have discussed two stages of concentration – the first one on the body and the second one on breathing. This prepares us for the last stage, in which we join breathing with reciting the name of Jesus. In many religions, the repetition of the God’s name is a way of unification with God, who is present in his name. In Christianity, we could recite the word Abba, Father, following the Holy Spirit praying inside us and testifying that we are God’s children. However, in the tradition of the Desert Fathers, the name Jesus (YHWH saves) is recited… There is no other name given to us that saves…

Pronouncing the name of Jesus completes the earlier concentration on the body and breath. This is meditation in its complete, Christian dimension, connected with Jesus Christ. When we start our meditation, it would be good to spend even a short moment at the beginning concentrating on the entire body and then the breath, as if getting ready to focus our attention on the name of Jesus. This “additional” element appears again just like before, when we “noticed” the breath itself. Reciting the name of Jesus “internally” we do not do it with our own voice. At this moment we notice the “spiritual” presence of the Name inside us, although it had been within us earlier. We repeat the Name linking it with breathing. The practice shows the simplest connection of the inhale with the syllable Je and the exhale, which is usually longer, with the next part of the word – sus. There is nothing more than this one thing – the concentration on the name of Jesus.

It should be remembered, that the original form of the name of Jesus is Aramaic Jeshua. This must have been the name that Mary heard in Annunciation (Lk 1:31). Three syllables and two words meaning YHWH saves - Jeshua – with the stress on the last syllable… When we repeat the word in unity with Jesus Mother and in the rhythm of our breath we open up to God and His salvation.

Mary, who first received Jesus, helps in the prayer which focuses on Him. After initial preparations, concentrating on our body and breath, we can start with the first part of the prayer: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. At this point we stop and remain within in the Name. When meditation time is over, we recite the rest of the prayer: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Undoubtedly, Mary prays with us “now”, in our prayer, in which we repeat after Her: Jeshua. In this name, the present moment opens to God’s eternity. With each minute that passes we come closer to the last moment of the eternal “now”, of the Presence that will make us happy forever. With each breath, a moment of stillness comes, which fills us with life. In concentration we experience each breath as if it was our last. Finally, there will come the moment when with our breath we will start saying Je but the rest will be completed when we get to the other side, to life, where our exhale will mean resting in God.

II.2 Non-action – opening to deeper action

Meditative concentration on one thing means that we must reduce our action and activity to minimum. However, this minimum comprises various forms of concentration (breath, body, Name). Concentration itself does not come with action or extra effort. Whether we concentrate on breathing or on the Name, we should open ourselves to the impact of the breath itself and the Name itself. The only thing that we need is not extra action but keeping vigil and concentration on what is happening inside and outside us. We should not concentrate on “everything”, but on one thing, ultimately on the name of Jesus in unity with our breath.

This kind of non-action means opening to the deepest action which takes place inside us. It is our “being”, and not only our but also the “being” of our Source, our Beginning. We shall come back to this deepest dimension of meditation but now let’s concentrate on non-action. Let’s look at meditation from a negative perspective, which means at everything that we need to leave behind.

There are difficulties in meditating. As a form of concentration on one thing it seems to be a simple practice, but difficulties that we encounter show us how far we are from simplicity. Non-action in meditation is difficult because in our lives we are focused primarily on acting, which is difficult to “curb”. Of course action is important but most important is the spirit that gives it life. There are mane egoistic elements in our actions and that is why we need purification. It sounds discouraging, though. When we enter the path of meditation we must prepare for difficult “purifying” experience, for purgatory. However, purgatory always leads to heaven, to complete unity with God. This is testified in various testimonies of saints and mystics, people who experienced purgatory here on earth and consequently, when dying, they could go to heaven.

Let us quote Kierkegaard, who would say that it is not the path that is difficult, but the difficulties which are the path.  Difficulties in meditative practice are like signs on our path pointing to everything that separates us from simplicity.

Let us start from external difficulties connected with body posture. For some people remaining still, even for a short time, is a torture. There are many who cannot keep their back straight. There are also various pains in the body, muscle tension, numbness, cramps – the list could be made longer. Some are the result of improper posture so the solution would be to find a comfortable position that makes it possible to remain still during meditation. Frequently, however, there are somatic pains connected with internal tensions. In this case, changing the body posture will not help as we experience such pains even after meditation. The only solution is to accept such pains and then they can show us the path forward. In our concentration on the body, the perception of pain may show us not only where the pain is but also how we should concentrate, receiving it and accepting it as a part of our body and the tensions present in it. Such an attitude will help us “bear” pain. The “acceptance” of pain comprises two stages or two senses. It is not only enduring pain and suffering but also overpowering it. If we accept pain, we no longer strive to soothe it. Spiritual tension connected with the desire to soothe pain disappears. It is no longer important whether we experience pain or not. At that point, it stops…

Such experiences give us extra motivation to continue meditation. However, when there are no longer discomforts connected with body posture, we start to experience other problems. Once the straight body posture is no longer a problem for us (at least during meditation), the major obstacle is the attitude of our spirit. First of all, there are various thoughts and distractions connected with our reaction to what is going on inside us and around us. It is obvious that impressions and sensations cannot be avoided as they are the manifestation of our corporeality and sensory communication with the outside world. Distractions are not the sensations themselves but our spiritual reaction to them, especially thoughts and images that we create as an “addition” to sensations. We notice our lack of concentration when suddenly we realize that it is not the body, breathing or the name of Jesus that draw our attention but something else – most often various thoughts and images. Often we do not notice when they start to draw our attention. We seem completely absorbed in them. Luckily, there are moments when our consciousness shows us that we have forgotten about the breath or the name of Jesus. We will frequently experience the situation when we want to focus on one thing but there are so many thoughts and images that disturb us.

What is the purification that happens to us in meditation? It is not “calming” or “stillness” thanks to which we are not longer disturbed by worries or distractions. Of course, we may focus our concentration on trying to escape from thoughts, but by renouncing them or curbing them we manipulate them in an unnatural way. For a brief while, we might experience “pleasant” states and regard them as the fruits of meditation that we have been looking for. But concentrating on such states and indulging in them we lose sight of the true aim of meditation. Our only guide is the name of Jesus. Only by reciting it and by renouncing these “enchanting voices of Sirens” can we come closer to a deeper peace.

Anxiety caused by meditation can be another sign of purification. Thoughts and images that start swirling inside us do not mean that meditation is less fruitful. They should be perceived as a difficulty given to us as a sign to go further. The appearance of thoughts and images is the sign of progress. As meditative action is limited to one thing (clinging to the name of Jesus) everything that is normally suppressed and strangled by our activity must come out. The first thing that comes out is thoughts and images… But there is something more to it. As long as we surrender to thoughts and follow them with our mind we will not be able to see what is behind them. However, when we let the Name guide us, clinging to it and not letting the sensations and thoughts distract us, they will go away showing us the reasons behind them. Then we might experience even deeper anxiety that is present beyond thoughts, in the realm of our emotions.

Calming our thoughts is not enough since their source is in a complex attitude of our spirit. The difficulties that we experience in meditative concentration show us how far we are slaves to our feelings, which overcome us and our actions although we are not aware of it. Let us take a closer look at what happens during meditative distractions. When we experience anxiety, it comes out through various thoughts. We start remembering matters that disturb and worry us. We become uncertain about our future and then with this uncertainty we create various scenarios of possible course of events. We are lost in our thoughts, we reflect on our problems but we do not realize that the thoughts will not calm down as long as there is a deeper anxiety inside us, which is hidden behind them and manifests itself in them. A similar situation happens when we experience the feeling of dislike or anger. Then the thoughts through which these feeling start to come out appear in our mind. It can be manifested by dislike of certain people that come to our mind or even the dislike and unwillingness towards meditation itself. We start wondering whether meditative exercises make sense and whether it wouldn’t be better to devote our time to something “more concrete”. And so on and so forth.

The process of meditative purification must be looked at as moving along the path between thoughts, images or simply “things” that appear in our mind and feelings that are inside us and try to come out. This distinction is important and explains to us why our prayer can be defined as “devoid of things”. Although there are some “things” in it, thoughts and images of people or objects, our concentration goes beyond them. We are not absorbed by things but go further, towards the One. The first step is to try not to get absorbed in thoughts. The second one means that we should try not to focus our attention on feelings that come out, both the pleasant and unpleasant ones. Feelings, at first hidden behind thoughts and sensations, may become the object of our attention and “a pure” state freed from thoughts and images. No matter whether such states are pleasant or not, we should not focus on them but rather turn to the Name. The name of Jesus is the only “object” of our concentration. It is the sign of what is “objective” and “non-objective”, the human and the divine united without turmoil and separation.

The difficulties experienced during meditation are of ambivalent character. They contain both good and evil elements. They are the manifestation of the confusion present inside us and in our entire life. However, in meditation we should not make any distinction between good and evil as our task is not to concentrate on the “objective” but exclusively on the name of Jesus. There is only one thing that we must constantly recognize: do we cling to the name of Jesus or is our attention focused on something else? In this sense, the objects that distract us in meditation are not evil but what is evil is the fact that they distract us from holding form to Jesus. We are so far from simplicity that even for a short period of meditation we are not able to concentrate on one thing. Although we recognize Jesus as our Master but when we try to surrender to Him then it becomes apparent how much we are controlled by other things. We are not truly free. We do not have the true freedom that comes from Christ. Only Jesus can free us if we remain by His side and let Him purify us.

Staying rooted in Jesus in His Name does not mean calling Him and turning to Him. It is rather stating His presence, the fact that He is inside us and next to us. JESUS, JESHUA. Meditation reminds us that He in His Spirit abides inside us and that through Him all things came and through Him we live (1 Corinthians 8:6). In meditation one action is enough – staying rooted in Him and constantly surrendering to His actions which purify us and make our “being” in the image and likeness of God.

II.3 Being – in mindfulness and in presence

Now we come to the deepest dimension of meditation. Concentrating on one thing in stillness and non-action as opening to the acts of Jesus is the opening to the being itself, our being and the being of the One in whom and thanks to whom we live.  We spoke about meditation as listening to the breath and to the name of Jesus. We referred to one sense, the sense of hearing. However, it is not only about hearing but also about looking, or a vigil concentration of all our senses, our entire attention. We can define this attitude as mindfulness. I shall further make references to reflections and contemplations of Franz Jalics, a Jesuit, whom I consider my spiritual master. When he talks about meditation he means the practice that has been described above and most of all the time devoted to this practice. In this sense he uses the phrase “half-an-hour meditation” or he thinks about “what was happening during meditation”. However, he prefers to call the very prayer contemplation. Therefore his great book is entitled “Contemplative Exercises” (Kontemplative Exerzitien, 1994). The idea of Jalics is of Ignatian character – meditation in its simplest, primary form leads to contemplation.

The Latin word contemplari is connected with observing, noticing, regarding. In his description of contemplation, Jalics starts from some reflections on noticing. He reminds us that the way people behave takes place in three steps: noticing, thinking and acting.

The first step is noticing – in the general sense of perception. There is sensory perception, such as listening, touching, tasting, looking and smelling. Spiritual perception is referred to as realization. It is connected with the Latin word perceptio and means that we comprehend some part of reality.

Then there is thinking. It is our first reaction to what we have seen. We frame the reality that we have noticed through discursive thinking: reflecting, comparing, analyzing, planning and selecting or deciding.

The third step is acting. We turn our thoughts into actions. We become active and we act.

These three ways in which we behave happen one after another and their structure cannot be changed.

In our modern and hasty world this process is losing its balance. We focus more on the second and third step, gaining ascendancy over noticing. The moment we notice something, we immediately start to think, consider, assess and dwell on. Then we come to a conclusion that we disagree with many things and we would like to change everything. In that way we uncover a “great activist” inside us. There is no room for mindfulness.

But it is mindfulness that ultimately guides us to God. Contemplation is observing. In eternal life, we will not be thinking about God, we will be observing Him. We will not be engaged with God in some external activity, but we will be observing and loving Him. The only activity that we will be doing in heaven starts on earth. At the beginning, however, we fail to notice God as our mind is troubled and our feverish activity distracts us from mindfulness. In order to prepare oneself for the grace of contemplation, we have to learn to notice.

Being thoughtful and attentive means being aware. Mindfulness is a spiritual matter; it is the activity of awareness. To remain attentive means to remain in presence. We move to the past and to the future through thoughts and wishes. What is happening at this particular moment is presence. The past is gone and there is only memory of it. The future is not yet here. Staying focused on the reality means being in presence. God is present only in the moment. In the Benedictine spirituality the aim of a spiritual path is to “stay in God’s presence”. But because we live in the past or in the future we have to learn to remain in the present moment. Constant attention in the presence leads us to God’s presence.

Noticing, being aware, being present now – these are synonyms.

Mindfulness never gets tired, like thinking or acting. When we work with our hands or mind, we must rest. Mindfulness is the highest form of rest, otherwise we would need to plan holidays in eternal life so as we could rest from looking at God. Mindfulness is refreshing and regenerating. Those who truly rest gradually reach contemplation. And those who contemplate, rest.

We learn mindfulness by trying to be present in a given moment without thinking or acting. This is also the difficulty of our learning. Sooner or later, everyone notices that after a split of a second our mind starts working. We move from being attentive to focusing on our ideas. We must learn to remain in mindfulness.

It is a great turn in our life. In meditation we are invited to leave thinking and acting behind so as we could turn to noticing. When we realize that we surrendered to distractions and got immersed in the world of thoughts we immediately return to noticing. It is a tiring work which requires our absolute devotion. It is a task that is never completed.

Jalics’s reflections help us better understand meditation as concentration on one thing, as non-action and as contemplation in which attention and non-action are manifest in the attitude of mindfulness. Noticing does not only take place before thinking and acting, but it constitutes the basis for cognition as it opens us to the being itself more deeply than thinking or acting. Being is what we notice and thanks to contemplation. We recognize what is present and what surrounds and penetrates us. We notice the reality itself and ultimately we notice God. We do not think about Him, we do not try to image Him but we simply are in unity with the One who IS. This kind of attitude is practiced in meditation in a very concrete way – our attention is focused on noticing the name of Jesus connected with the breath. Jalics pays greater attention to noticing the name of Jesus in connection with hands put together in prayer and then with experiencing other part of the body, symbolizing the spiritual centre of the man. What is always most important, however, is mindfulness, which is not drawn into any thoughts, any actions apart from one – opening to Jesus and His Name.

Mindfulness connected with the name of Jesus is like opening to God’s presence, which is the complete action (in God being and acting are one). We remember from what has been said so far about the practice of meditation that first we should leave all thoughts behind. Then, if any deeper feelings come out, we should follow the same rule – leave them and concentrate on the Name. However, it is more difficult to leave feelings as they lie deeper and have stronger impact. At this stage of meditation, our attempt to leave feeling behind needs to be supported by our readiness to suffer and accept them. All attempts to act on feelings lead to denial and this does not solve the problem. Feelings which are denied do not disappear but hide themselves and still have influence on us. What is helpful, though, is to try to notice them with readiness and to accept them, surrendering to Jesus who has the power to free us from them.

When during meditation we reach the realm of feelings, especially the dark and negative ones, then our spontaneous reaction is thinking and acting. We ask ourselves where they come from, why they are and how we can remove them. We become active and fall into our old habit of thinking and acting. Contemplative meditation shows us a different and more effective way. We need to stick to noticing in unity with the Name. Then, we go deeper inside ourselves, into the dark layer which causes suffering. We have to accept and bear this suffering and if we do so with Jesus, it will never return. From the depths of our being comes so much light and strength that we become brave enough to move forward.

At the end of this practical section, let us attempt to theoretically justify meditation, making references to Jalics’s reflections. Our being, to which we are led not only through thinking and acting but also through meditation, is the most primary part of our essence. This is how Jalics describes it.

In the Biblical creation story we read that God created the human and He saw that all He had made was very good (Genesis 1:31). The human lived in harmony with God and all creation. After same time, Adam and Eve sinned and were banished from heaven (Genesis 3:1-24). Of course, we should not understand it directly as two people in the past being banished from one particular place. It is a description of the human condition. In this story of creation our present reality becomes a description. It tells us that every one of us has a good core inside, where we are completely, where we are in health and where we are aware of God’s love and support. This is where we experience who we are in God. This primary state is exemplified by the image of heaven or the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:4b-25).

The following sinful fall shows the dark layer that forms around the good core. (Genesis 3:1-24). But it is a second reality which covers what is deepest in us, our good core. It does not belong to our essence. The Garden of Eden was not destroyed, only the human was banished from it. An angel with a sword of fire blocked the entrance to heaven so as the human could not return to it. The future place of the man was described at the pace of thorns, efforts, pain and death. The man had to work hard through the hardships, which meant that his life was full of unbearable suffering. This living space is human’s reality. It is the dark layer which covers our good core and which we have to experience every day.

In order to suffer less pain, we cover this tiring state with a shell, which is manifested in our resistance to suffer the darkness. It is a defence mechanism par excellence. This shell is like concrete plate put onto our dark layer and on our feelings. Without removing it, we cannot reach our feelings and consequently our good core. We live on the surface of being, without any access to our good core, to the Garden of Eden, which is still present inside us.

Contemplative meditation is a simple observation of everything that gradually leads us to the good core. Most of all, it teaches us a proper attitude in the face of the layer that blocks us from the core. It teaches us to keep to this attitude once we notice the layer and go through the dark side of negative emotions. We do not have to act; we only need to remain in concentration. At that point, everything that is happening to us is the works of God to which we open.

III. Vision – the theory of meditation

We have paid a lot of attention to the practice of meditation, because only through constant practice we can reach what is the most sacred inside us, the Divine, and transform ourselves on this path thanks to God acting in us. Now we shall concentrate on the vision, on theory (theoria in Greek means most of all looking at with great attention), which will help us justify the meditative path. As in the previous sections, we shall make references to Biblical-Christian vision so as we could explain its universal dimension.

III.1 The beginning and the centre of man in the image of God

Let us start again from the vision of Jalics as a summary of our present state. We have the good core inside us through which we can experience who we are in God, who is the God within us, how we are loved and carried by Him, how we are God’s children, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the members of Christ and the abode of the Holy Trinity. Above this healthy core, there is the dark and painful layer of sin, which blocks the way to our good core. Escaping from the dark layer, we have constructed a barricade, which we call the shell. It is to protect us from our darkness and help us lead a pain-free life. The price that we have to pay for it is our separation from the real internal being, fro our deepest identity in God.

We shall add that the Biblical description of the human creation is not only a theological vision of the first people, but also the vision of our centre, of what is the deepest inside us. The good core of the man is his “being” in the image of God. The Holy Scripture speaks the words of God himself (Genesis 1:26). There are two important things. The first one is the plural form in God himself, which is the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the mystery of the One in personal community. The second thing is the phrase “in the image”, which means more than the fact that the man is the image of God. “In the image” means “according to the God’s image”, which is according to the image hidden in God himself. Therefore, in one God that is the image according to which He formed the man. The first people were merely the copy of the image, but God manifested himself in the Man, in Jesus from Nazareth, who as the only-begotten son of God is the visible image of God (see Colossians 1:15; Romans 8:29). It is enough to look at Jesus and follow Him, to do what He tells us to do in the Gospel. However, following does not mean copying His lifestyle or His attitude. It is rather uniting with the living Christ in unity with Holy Spirit and the Father so as in this unity we might become a new and personal image of invisible God. The Old Testament did not allow to create any images of God as God himself created His own image in the real man. According to the New Testament, that this image is realized in its fullness (incarnated!) in Jesus.

In the centre of our being, to which we are led in meditation, what is human opens up to its source in God. We join in the mystery of God-Human, in the mystery of the unity between the human and the divine, which has been described in Jesus as the unity without separating the God’s nature from the human nature. Definitions and attributes have negative character. They tell that such a unity is neither duality, which separates the Creator from the created, nor pantheism, mixing the two realities. What is the positive side of the unity? It is certainly a mystery, beyond human words, thoughts, imaginations, feelings… It is simply our being immersed in the Being in which “we live, we move and we are”. This Being defines the One who IS as a person and who can say I AM. This Name comprises all definitions that appear later, including the most important one which says that “it is love”. Love manifests the mystery of Being in unity of many people, whose community is not “annihilation” or “dilution” in unity as a drop of water or a wave in a sea, but completion.

Let us remember that in God being and acting are one. It means that the divine fullness of Being is a dynamic unity, not in time, however, when actions happen one after another. In the eternal Being, everything happens simultaneously, as if there was no action. The Biblical vision of the creation as God’s action, which is complete in rest, is a perfect description of this truth. Since we are formed in the image of God, our action should come from the centre in which we rest in God. Thanks to meditation, we become contemplative in action.

III.2 Egocentrism and distraction

The Biblical vision presents not only the formation of the human and its sense, but also sin as human action that turns against him as it separates him from God. Through sin, the man moved away from his original, deepest centre, from God and from himself. The human interior, created in the image of God, has not disappeared completely, but we have lost access to it. Consequently we think we are “autonomic” because we fail to notice the source, the Being itself. We want to be “ourselves” thanks to what we do and think, not realizing that every time we try to stand out from other we are still dependent on them. We life and act superficially. We try to reach our centre with the help of psychology or other sciences, but we never reach the depth because we are no longer interested in being and its mystery.

Our turning away from the centre after the first sin is not so much an “exile” performed by God, but our own migration, movement in which we place our centre in a different place – inside us or in the world but not in God. This situation connected with the consequences of the first sin could be compared to the appearance of a new centre in human life – apart from the original one, in which the core focused on God, we have a new one filled with egocentrism focused on ourselves.

In meditation, we experience many faces of egocentrism. Instead of focusing on the Name, we revolve around our own matters, thoughts and feelings. Our worries make us focus on ourselves. They express “my” concern, “my” burden that “I” have to carry. We create the world of worries in which our ego takes the most prominent position, as if it was god. A similar thing happens with our dreams which create a world in which I am the centre and everything must be created according to my wish. Our desires are food for egocentrism, which is manifested in a stubborn “having it my way”. A stubborn man is the one who judges everything from his egoistic perspective and wants to force his own interests. Finally, we have negative feelings which are another form of egocentrism. A person who feels fear sees only his threatened ego. A person who feels fury is helpless, as he cannot satisfy his own ego. A person who feels contempt thinks he is better than others or knows more than the person he scorns. Our egocentrism is manifested in every negative feeling.

Jalics reminds us that the Holy Scripture and theology divide egocentrism into three groups: greed, the desire for power and the desire for praise. Jesus only wants to save us by opening us to the theocentric worldview. He moves us away from our greed, desire for power and for praise towards giving yourself away and praising God. Such an attitude is clearly described in the prayer “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9-13). The requests in this prayer start from a certain attitude. Jesus calls us, greedy people, to say: “Thy Kingdom come”. By this we say – not my kingdom but yours, my Lord. Let your kingdom develop among us. As people who are filled with the desire for power we impose our own will on others. Jesus teaches us: “Thy will be done” – not mine but Yours. Most of all, however, we pray “Hallowed be Thy name” – not my name but Yours. In this way we reject our own glory and worship God. And there are three more theocentric elements that we recite: “It is Thy Kingdom, Thys power and Thy glory”.

We should also notice that the egocentric focus on ourselves takes us away from the theocentric order in which unity is open to multiplicity. After we sinned, this multiplicity also turned away from unity, creating divisions as we became separated from God. People were dispersed. This is also one of the reasons why we are troubled by distractions during our meditation. It is a sign that we cannot cope with multiplicity because we are far from unity – the unity with God, our personal centre and consequently with other people. 

III.3 Through feelings to the love of God

Following the pathway of meditation we return to our true centre. We leave behind everything that distracts us from the Name and we turn to It with everything… What we need is the One, therefore in meditation we try to express it. Our egocentrism might be present in the very intention of our meditation. Many people look for “peace”. They are tired of running around, and they want to distance themselves from it. Others decide to meditate hoping that it might improve the quality of their work or because they search for clear thoughts and right decisions. Some people want to gain healing power. There are also many who want to settle their past, change the ways the act or think about their future. Sometimes meditation becomes some kind of therapy. This could mean that we look for God’s gifts but not for God Himself. Meditation as contemplative prayer means looking for God trusting that He will give us everything we need (Matthew 6:33). This search is not an action but giving yourself to God completely. Being for God is the deepest sense of meditation.

The very being as our core from which all action comes out is closer to the being of God. God simply IS and He is the love. His Being is reflected in the perfect image, in Jesus of Nazareth. We, as created in Christ, not only exist but we are loved. We know the words of St. Paul from his famous hymn to love, in which at the beginning he states that without love “I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). We frequently experience this truth in a negative way: we feel lack of love and with it comes the feeling of senselessness: there is nothing to live for. But this negative side includes the truth that we are to uncover. Of course, without love I am nothing, but I am nothing. I only am, and I am loved. In other words, my being in the image of God, who IS, and is the love, is the being wrapped in love, coming from love and completing itself in love.

Meditation which leads us to the core also leads to love. Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical letter Deus caritas est distinguishes between its two types – Greek eros and biblical agape. He does not contradict them, but states that eros, comprising our desires and feelings, is complemented by agape, which is giving yourself away in love to the other person. We cannot stop on feelings, though, because there are also negative ones which make it difficult to give yourself away. The path towards agape leads through purification of feelings by giving them to Jesus so as He could purify them. The man renewed thanks to meditation, i.e. the man contemplative in action, IS fully and it means that he is open to agape, he accepts God and passes this love on.

Meditation is closely connected with love. We see it in Jesus when he tells us which is the most important commandment of all (Mark 12:28). He says: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). Jesus says nothing more than what has already been said in the Old Testament. But on the other hand, we seem not to pay enough attention to the way how this love is described – as focusing on the One which includes everything.

Everything starts from the word: “Listen…” Listen attentively, like Mary absorbing the words of Jesus. Concentration which is manifested in this attitude is like saying “Our Lord is one”. The unity of God is a fundamental truth present not only in the Old Testament but also in the New one. And although we notice in the New Testament that the unity of God does not exclude multiplicity in Him, as love is His essence, the Old Testament shows the reflection of this truth in the human as the image of God. The love of the neighbour is shown as unity in multiplicity, as integrating everything into what the human really is, into love “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”. These four expressions lead to one: you must love your God completely, concentrating on the One. The rest is the consequence of this behaviour. When we concentrate on God in unity and love, we unite in love with ourselves and with other people.

This explains the connection between meditation and love mentioned by a Hindu guru. Both attitudes are in fact the same: concentrating on THE ONE, in whom the entire man is immersed. When we adopt this attitude, we enter into a relation with God: He comes first. He deserves my entire attention and devotion. However, true love as described in the commandment covers both God and man. In fact this is one love, as ultimately God inseparably connected with the man and became our neighbour in Jesus Christ. That is why everything that we do in complete concentration is the concentration on the One, the God incarnated in Jesus, and in the light of His truth – in every man.

Fr. Jacek Bolewski SJ

Krakow, February 28, 2007 (translation and publication with the agreement of the author)