Observations of the light and the dark of what is, was, and might be in the Pagan community's expansion and evolution.
Beginning & Continuing
This is the third in a series of blogs that will focus on meditation and contemplative practices in Paganism. If you have not read the previous parts, I encourage you to do so.
It is easy to find excuses to avoid adding meditation to you regular practices. The most common one I hear is that there is not enough time in the day for meditation. I have a hard time imagining how that could possibly be true, unless the person has a very rigid idea about how much time is required to gain benefit from meditation. Certainly if you can give 15 minutes to an hour of time to meditation a day it would be wonderful, but it is still beneficial even if you only have 5 minutes a day or even just several times a week. If you're reading this blog post, you probably have time to meditate. I hope you have the understanding that time is much more flexible than the units that we measure with clocks. Within a deep meditative state, five minutes can easily stretch to have the benefit of 20 minutes or more. The closer that you get to your center, your stillness, and your connection to beingness, the closer you get to eternity.
The other great excuse I hear is that people have tried to meditate and they just can't quiet their minds. They try and try and it simply eludes them. If I handed you an unfamiliar musical instrument and told you to play it, would it be reasonable to expect you to produce perfect music? If you are not an athlete and I asked you to finish a 10k run within a short time frame, would that be reasonable? Although it is possible to gain great benefit from meditating even a short span of minutes each day, the real value of meditation is gained cumulatively. In this regard meditation is very much like learning to play a musical instrument or conditioning the body for an athletic event, improvement takes repetition and perseverance.
It is very normal for people who are trying to develop the practice of meditation to find that when they attempt to still their mind it becomes filled with chatter. Sometimes this chatter and noise presents as thoughts in the forms of words or images, and just as often as physical or emotional sensations. Many people judge themselves harshly when they find that it is not easy to come to a still and quiet place within themselves. Instead of relaxing into meditation, this self-criticism can lead to trying to place a white knuckled grip of control upon their consciousness. Using willpower to squelch the chatter and the noise defeats the whole purpose of stilling the mind to meditate.
Have you ever had a friend who was bubbling over with a story that they needed to tell you and you didn't want to listen because you were busy with something else? Imagine that you tell them that you will talk about it later and they do manage to stay quiet for a short span of time. Then when it seems to be the most inconvenient moments, they try to tell you the story piecemeal in between your activities. Have you ever been made uncomfortable by someone's crying and tried to dry the tears and comfort them as much for your sake as for their sake? Until all the tears have been shed, the process is blocked and is creating an obstacle. Sometimes it is better simply to let it all flow out rather than trying to block it out. In beginning your practice of meditation, if you allow all the chatter, noise, and feelings to run their course, then stillness will emerge on its own. Because you are a spiritual being, the stillness is inherent to you and simply needs to be allowed to unfold.
Paying attention to your breathing is a time-honored way to move into meditative state. There are numerous approaches to breath work that range from the very simple to very elaborate. My suggestion is that you try four-fold breathing. This technique encourages synchronization between all the rhythms in the body and in so doing encourages the finding of stillness and your center point. Most of us only think of breathing as inhaling and exhaling, but if you add fullness and emptiness to your concept of breathing it becomes four-fold. Each of us differs in our lung capacity and in what feels to be a natural rhythm, so you will need to adjust the instructions to match your body. To begin, take a deep comfortable breath and silently count how long it takes for you to inhale. The goal will be to have equal durations for the four beats of breathing. For example, inhale to a count of five, hold with full lungs to a count of five, exhale to a count of five, and hold with empty lungs to a count of five. Even two or three minutes of repeating this process of four-fold breathing will have a marked impact on stilling and synchronizing your internal rhythms. After whatever feels to be a long enough period of four-fold breathing, stop the counting and simply pay attention to the motion of your breath. If you find that you have dropped out of your meditation and back into normal waking consciousness, use the four-fold breathing is a way to reenter the meditation.
In addition to the capacity to be open and clear, many meditative and contemplative practices also require focused concentration. This is an exercise that will help you improve your powers of concentration. Place two small bowls before you with one empty and the other filled with small pebbles,beans, or the like. Pick a target thought. This can be an internally generated image such as a triangle, a circle and dot, etc., or an external image such as a candle flame, a crystal, etc. Set a timer ( egg timer, watch alarm, etc.) for 5 minutes. Clear the mind and focus on only the target thought. Every time that your thoughts stray, take a pebble and place it in the empty bowl. When the timer goes off, count the number of times your thoughts wandered. For the first month, keep the timer at 5 minutes. At the beginning of the second month increase it to 10 minutes. Halfway through the second month increase the timer to 15 minutes. This schedule is a suggestion and you may modify it as you please. Try not to obsess on on the number of pebbles from each session, instead look for the trend of improvement.
During many types of inner work such as pathworkings, meditations, and contemplation, there can be a tendency to drift from the visionary state into sleep. Sometimes this is all well and good but sometimes it is important not to drift to sleep. One easy way to prevent sleep is raise the forearm with the elbow sitting a solid surface. This does not cause too much muscle discomfort so that it does not interfere with the work. If you begin to fall asleep the forearm will drop and wake you up.
I meditate almost everyday although some days it is a scant five minutes and other days a full half hour. I've been doing so for quite a few years and I find that it is a very important part of both my magick and my spirituality. There are numerous books, and recordings, and centers that teach meditation, and I encourage you to explore and to find the style that best fits your temperament. In my next post I will share my ideas about how and why meditation and contemplative practices are different when viewed through a Pagan perspective.
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