It sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? But this is what a staff writer of a prominent magazine has recently decided. It’s there in his article, “An Ode to Not Meditating.”
Strange because, like most of you, I can hardly go a moment without stopping to contemplate. What was that sighting in the sky last night at 12:45 pm, and what does it mean? (sorry, I am still a bit fixated on UFO’s). How will this person respond to my difficult email today? My mind can’t seem to stop thinking about it. Paddling upriver yesterday, I found myself wondering why God has allowed me to live a part of my year in this Washington wilderness, where I have a front seat in the theatre of God’s glory. It could have been my destiny to be some Nepalese pastor in a remote village hoping to survive Covid. And yes, there are moments I go deep in my pondering, wondering why we ever bought a wire-fox terrier.
The meditation this author is speaking to, however, is different. He has decided to be done with the sort of mental exercise that concentrates each morning on one’s breathing, repeats some mantra, and spends lengthy moments contemplating oneself. It apparently has not led to the heightened level of spiritual awareness he expected. Instead, his practice has immersed him into “the rawness and chaos” of his nature—”the whirling thoughts, the howling needs, the funky wiring,” as he puts it.
His warning to potential contemplators is this: “Light that stick of incense by all means, but it’s the hell-smoke of your personality that you’ll be smelling. Making the decision to be done with the practice has liberated him. No longer is he observing his thoughts as they arise, one by one, “unbidden, from the ever-bubbling bed of the brain.” Instead, he is thinking his thoughts. Good for him.
I say this because I too am not so captivated by my thoughts as they ascend. The ever-bubbling bed of my brain is less inclined to ponder the meaning of life and purpose for my existence. If caught in a trance like moment, I am usually wondering what the latest Costco ad might include, if iron pills will cause my nails to grow once again, or whether the Trailblazers will go only so far in the playoffs (again!!). Left to myself, it’s hard to have a sustained thought.
One of my favorite admissions is that of Raymond Spruance, the WW II naval commander who led the US to victory at Midway. He was reserved and quiet, considered an intellectual warrior by most. Speaking to this in his later years, he remarked, “Some people believe that when I am quiet that I am thinking some deep and important thoughts, when the fact is that I am thinking of nothing at all. My mind is blank.”
I can’t say for certain. I don’t know the author of this article, but my guess is that he never received the memo that true mediation is not about focusing on self and one’s thoughts. This can only lead to a certain despair, as well as to an occasional disgust. The deeper I look within, the more aware I am of my own inherent dysfunctions. There is no “god within,” only a depraved soul in need of God’s ongoing grace. Go very far, and I see the same rawness and chaos—petty resentments, insecurities, egoism, and ungodly desires. Were I to have an ongoing conversation with myself, I would soon become bored. I would write a similar ode. I too would be looking to be set free.
True mediation is different. It begins—not with searching for self—but searching for God. And in the search, we find that it is actually God finding us. He is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. In his book, Prayer, von Balthasar describes meditation as “looking inward into the depths of the soul, and hence beyond the soul toward God.” In finding God, one forgets self, and in the forgetting discovers oneself in him.
I am learning that reading my soul begins with reading his word. True meditation is not about emptying the mind but saturating it with God and his wisdom. In the process, we move from the rawness and chaos within to the centering words from above. The impulse is to respond in contemplative prayer, a dialogue that transforms one into the humanity we were made to become.
We find ourselves compelled to write our own pensive composition, one that sets us free. More than free—we flourish. This is what the Psalmist discovered—
“Blessed is the one…whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law, one meditates day and night. One is like a tree planted by streams of water…always in blossom.” (Ps 1:3)
(note that this post is part of a larger one that comes out each week in my weekly email reflections. Go to drjohnejohnson.org and hit Subscribe).