The Art of Listening
If prayer is the act of speaking to God then meditation is the act of listening to God.
Meditation has been a unique human spiritual practice for thousands of years. Originally coming from the Eastern religious tradition, primarily from Buddhism, meditation is now practiced by people from all around the world and all walks of life. It is essentially an experience of a mental space between waking consciousness and sleep. If you think this experience seems strange or unfamiliar, you may be surprised. Every day, whether we realize it or not, we engage in a form of meditation. Every time we lie down to sleep and begin to surrender into it, we enter a meditative state. This quiet, fluid state of mind lasts until we fall fully asleep.
Meditation is incredibly simple. It involves nothing more than centering our attention in a single place without concentration or focus. Allowing your attention to become centered, and thus surrendering to the present moment, is the meditative experience. Hence, the experience of deep surrender is at the heart of all meditation: I surrender my expectations, my judgement, my anxiety, my attachments, my suffering to quietly listen and feel the present moment. The eternal present is the moment in which God speaks to us.
Centering your attention is an act of mental balance. Like all balancing acts, it requires practice. However, the harder we try to remain balanced, the more difficult and off-balance we become. Like riding a bicycle, if we struggle with the steering, we tilt to one side or the other. If we try too hard…we fall off. Gentle pedaling and gentle hands allow us to keep our balance whether the road we’re on is smooth or bumpy.
There are many types of meditation, but all of them point to the same place. Mantra meditations, flame meditations, loving kindness meditations, guided imagery meditations, Zazen meditation—all flow toward a balance of consciousness. As your balance develops, the experience of the present moment opens to you. Meditation then is an experience, as opposed to a thought. As an experience, it is always available to you.
This experience is not something you actively achieve, however. There is nothing to achieve. You are already there. Meditation is the practice of awakening to what is already there.
The practice of mindfulness meditation uses the gentle rhythm of your breath to center your consciousness. Through conscious breathing, you become aware of—and stay aware of—the rhythmic expansion and contraction of your body with every in-breath and out-breath.
Like I said: simple, right?
Well, so simple it’s actually hard. It’s hard to keep your awareness in a single place, especially a rhythmic physical sensation. Hard because your thoughts inevitably, and without fail, enter the meditation experience.
If you’re like so many others, your initial reaction to this is concern, worry that these thoughts are intrusive distractions, difficult to clear. This is untrue. Thoughts are just neural activities conditioned by circumstance. The brain is an organ like the heart or liver or kidneys. Each organ has a separate function to sustain life, to keep us alive. The brain’s function is to think; to ruminate about the past and worry about the future. To wonder, to question, to answer, all in an effort to help us survive the present.
All of which is to say, thinking occurs outside of your control. Telling your brain not to think is the equivalent of telling your hair not to grow or your heart not to beat. The brain is part of your physical presence and so part of the natural world. When we sit to meditate and surrender, we surrender to the natural world as it is. Thinking is part of what IS. As thinking enters the meditative state, we allow the thoughts to flow in and out, like a stream passing by.
As you watch your thoughts appear, bring your attention gently back to the rhythm of your breathing. You are not deliberately “clearing” your mind; your mind will clear itself. You are allowing your consciousness to stay with the rhythm of your breathing, to find balance in the ebb and flow of the physical world. Like a child in a candy store, your attention will wander from one distraction to the next. Instead of getting upset or trying to resist this, simply acknowledge that you have wandered and bring your attention gently back to the safety of your breathing, the source of your life. Do this without struggle or focus. You bring your attention back to your breath. You allow yourself to simply experience this rhythmic state, pedaling gently, steering gently.
In the present moment, whatever is happening is God speaking to you. The deeper you surrender, the more apparent this is. The cars are passing by, the birds are singing, the hot or cold feeling of the moment, the itch on your face, your thoughts entering and leaving—all are expressions of God’s voice. God is speaking to you now and always now. In this way, God is the natural world, a world in which you are a part in the fine balancing act of life.
While meditating, everything that happens becomes part of your attention. We react emotionally to these events in unique ways. We often interpret them as apparent disturbances in the field of our consciousness. But our emotional reactions to apparent disturbances are also part of the natural world and thus an expression of God’s voice. So, awareness of our reactions is also a part of the meditative practice. Thoughts and feelings occur in a fluid stream of consciousness and have no reality in the external world. The inner world of the mind is illusory in that there is no substance to it. Like clouds passing and changing shape as they move across the sky, thoughts and feelings change. We are not our thoughts, though we identify with our thoughts, and we attach to our thinking. The practice of meditation allows us to separate from our thinking and gives us perspective to witness the stream of our thoughts and feelings. With perspective, we can allow the illusion to pass.
All things pass, including thoughts and feelings. Nothing is permanent. To paraphrase Buddha, attachment to the illusion of permanence is the cause of all suffering. Meditation is a practice of awakening to impermanence, uncertainty, and the fluid-like movement of now.
I have used a word repeatedly which requires explanation . . . GOD. This is a word that ministers, priests, and rabbis are not afraid of and expect everyone within hearing distance to understand. ALLAH is the same word in a different language (Arabic). Buddhists also use this word, God. I think of God as the higher power of the natural world. The natural world of sub atomic particles and super novas make up part of it, as well as mites and dolphins, specks of dust and Jupiter. All told, everything in existence makes up the natural world. Things are also in motion: fast, intermediate, and slow motion. The movement and subsequent interaction of things makes up the natural world. There are physical laws governing the movement of things in the natural world, and the world is an expression of those laws.
The movement of things occurs in ever-changing rhythms. The rhythm of the heart, the rhythm of electrons circling an infinite number of atomic nuclei, the rhythm of the seasons, the tides, the spin of the earth, the revolutions of the moon, the movement of the sun circling the outer rim of the galaxy, and the movement of the galaxy through space are all part of the natural rhythms in the universe, both very fast and very slow. Your breathing is another natural rhythm, an expansion and contraction of your body as your inhale and exhale engage in a rhythmic two-part dance of oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. Quiet awareness of natural rhythms has a profound psychic effect, relaxing the illusory grip of “control.” Conscious breathing, then, is essentially the practice of surrendering the false pretense of control.
Becoming aware of the rhythm of breathing without exercising control, by simply witnessing and feeling the body expanding and contracting, opens your consciousness to the ever-changing movement of living. Your breathing is intimately available to you for the practice of surrendering control. Because breathing is both voluntary and involuntary, it is an ideal center for our attention. We can alter our breathing and exercise control, but we generally pay no attention to it. You breathe just fine when sleeping, when working or playing. We do not need to attend to breathing because it is automatic, involuntary . . . an involuntary rhythm which connects you to life. What is God if not life?
Ha, back to God. The rhythm of God . . . always in the eternal present moment and always changing, manifested in the natural world.
A belief in God is not required for meditation. No belief, idea or concept is required for meditation. The atheist has the same ability to practice meditation as the theist. For the atheist, this treatise should be called “Listening to Nothing.” Nothingness is the same meditative experience. Beyond the notion of separate things, there is no thing, only harmonic rhythms.