Finding a spacious place in life for meditation

I was preparing this column when the Ottawa shootings took place, throwing Canada into a dark place of fear, confusion, and grief. The following day I received word from my brother in England that our stepmother had just died, ending a long and deeply ambivalent relationship within my family of origin.

I’d been planning to write about meditation – what it is, how it’s practised in the Christian tradition, and what the benefits are. It would have been an inspiring spiritual piece. Then all this happened.

My first impulse was to scratch the piece about meditation. It seemed so starkly in contrast to the violent deaths that had taken place in Ottawa, and the dying of yet another person in my life from cancer. What does meditation have to do with any of that?

But in fact it has everything to do with death and suffering. Meditation isn’t about retreating from the pain of life to a blissed-out place where it’s all sweetness and light. It’s about seeing clearly what’s happening, and finding a quiet, grounded spaciousness deep inside where the darkness doesn’t overwhelm. It’s about finding what Christians call “the peace of God that passes all understanding.”

Meditation is often associated with Buddhism, and many have travelled East to find enlightenment and that elusive inner sense of peace. But it has always been part of the Christian tradition too, taught as a form of contemplative or centering prayer. And it has the quiet power to draw us closer to each other and to the mystery at the core of our lives.

The human heart is like an ocean with storms that blow up, sunshine and rain that come down, and tides that pull below the surface. Much of the time we bob about at the mercy of the elements.

When a tragedy hits we often react to that surge of pain or tempest of anger. When family issues wound us, it’s as though we’re being pulled along involuntarily by a powerful tide. But below it all is a still place, like the ocean floor, where it’s possible to feel what we feel, see the world for what it is and people for who they are, and not get swept away by it. Astonishingly, in that place there is also deep compassion.

Whether Buddhist, Christian, or secular, meditation is a practice that opens the heart to a quiet, spacious compassion that can deal with life in all its pain and complexity. Learning to meditate means learning to create a space between action and reaction, events and judgments. It means seeing clearly with what some call the eyes of the heart, and others call the gaze of God. It means discovering that life is not, in fact, all about me.

The very simplest form of meditation is mindful breathing: not chanting or reciting or visualizing, but just breathing, right there in the midst of the chaos and catastrophe of life. As the body rests into the breathing, so the mind starts to settle, and the heart to open. That’s where I sense God, and begin to trust myself to God’s all-embracing presence.

Jesus said, “Forgive. Don’t judge. Be compassionate. Love your enemy. Follow my way.” None of that makes sense or is in any way achievable without the grace that comes from the breath or spirit of God within us, anchoring us in a still place of wisdom and love. But it takes practice!

So join others who are practising on this path. Meditation takes place at St Aidan’s Church on Wednesday evenings from 7:30 to 8:15 p.m., starting on Nov. 26.

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