We live in a loud, busy world. We are surrounded, connected to, ipods, cell phones, blackberries, and the scrolling headlines of the 24 hour news cycle.
Even when we turn everything off, our minds are still jangling. Nagging lists run through our heads, and we are vaguely uncomfortable in the quiet. We feel anxious, antsy. We feel the need to do something, hear something, tell someone something, anything to not feel empty.
This world is not conducive to contemplation, to meditation. We are encouraged to read the scriptures, fast, pray and meditate. But how do we meditate?
Ensign » 1975 » March. Prayer. Dr. Chauncey C. Riddle, professor of philosophy and dean of the Graduate School at Brigham Young University
The helpmate of mighty prayer is meditation. In meditating, one tries to minimize his involvements with the physical world for a time in order to concentrate on something inner, on ideas and feelings. As a person prays sincerely with the Holy Spirit as his guide, that Spirit will bring to him many thoughts and feelings. This is part of the process of revelation. To take full advantage of this revelation, one would do well to mull over the matter under consideration, piecing together what one already knows with the new insights received.
It is one thing to have a revelation. It is quite another to understand and obey. Understanding comes in the process of careful, prayerful reflections of meditation upon what one has received. To pray is often like asking for food and then being blessed with a sumptuous meal. What would you think of a person who, when thus honored, merely took a sniff, then put the meal on a shelf and left it? Though greatly blessed, he would not be nourished.
So it may be with those who pray and do not meditate. They may have much but may be little edified.
Ensign » 1976 » January. Before Praying. Dr. Arthur R. Bassett, assistant professor of humanities at Brigham Young University
If we stopped talking so much in our prayers would we hear more? What does he have to say to each of us individually? What does God want—for us?
we need to divorce ourselves as much as possible from the noise, the confusion, and the cares of the world. We need to remove all turmoil, outside or inside ourselves, in order that we can be perfectly still. The Lord’s counsel to David is perhaps even more appropriate in our day: “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10.)
Initially, this silence may be disturbing to us, and perhaps even frightening. Few seem to be totally comfortable with quietude. Somehow, in our busy society, we have come to be uneasy with quiet moments of inactivity; some even equate silence with waste. Who among us, after an extended period of silence in a fast and testimony meeting, has not heard some brother or sister rise to their feet and exclaim, “I hate to see the time going to waste.” We have designed our meetings for activity; we instruct rather than meditate. Our hymns are filled with metaphors centering in work and activity. We speak of a person’s spiritual status in terms of his or her activity in the Church, i.e., are they “active” or “inactive” in the Church?
It seems significant to me that the leaders of the Church have counseled us to let the time of the sacrament service be a time of complete silence. Such has not always been the case. Earlier in our history, sermons were delivered during the passing of the sacrament dealing with its significance, or devotional music was played as part of the services.
Stillness, however, is essential to inner peace—that peace which opens the way for the Lord to speak in our soul. God speaks much more commonly and effectively to the inner recesses of the soul than he does in open vision. We need to prepare ourselves to listen more when he speaks.
President David O. McKay:
“I think we pay too little attention to the value of meditation, a principle of devotion. … Meditation is the language of the soul. It is defined as ‘a form of private devotion or spiritual exercise, consisting in deep, continued reflection on some religious theme.’ Meditation is a form of prayer. …
“Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord” (Man May Know for Himself, comp. Clare Middlemiss [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1969], pp. 22–23).
Fasting is an example of a meditative practice. By fasting, we are deliberately manipulating our bodies so that we are more likely to receive insight and revelation. Food deprivation (or abstinence) results in certain empirically observable physical responses. People all over the world have used fasting as a way to approach the divine. (India, Native American spirit quest, Catholic mystics)
As a mother of young children, my fasting is necessarily limited and requires a great deal of preparation. I have to have the house clean, food prepared in advance for the children to eat during the fast and for breaking my fast. Everything must be in order. I know from experience that I have significantly less patience when my blood sugar drops. This is not an issue if you get to spend the day in quiet reflection, but quite different if you have to herd and referee small children, my own and those I serve in Primary.
Some people, due to medical issues, are not able to fast at all. These may include pregnancy, nursing mothers, diabetics, and a number of other conditions.
But there are some simple steps we can take on a regular basis to clear our minds, without fasting. Some of these meditation techniques are borrowed from other traditions.
Joseph Smith, Jr., the founding prophet of the restoration of our church said:
The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation…when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same. (Letter to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, published in Times and Seasons, Feb 1840. TotPotCJS, p. 264)
Our body is a gift, a tool that can be used to focus our minds through breathing exercises, deliberately slowing breath and pulse, in effect, consciously lowering blood pressure. (Some people use chanting to do this.) I use techniques from yoga to engage in a meditative state for myself and the occasional Relief Society activity.
Sit up straight.
Roll shoulders back, take a deep breath.
[Neck release exercises]
[Tense and release legs, arms, hands, face]
Roll shoulders back once more.
Roll neck once more.
Rest hands on thighs, palms up and open.
Breath in through the nose, out through the mouth, barely audible.
Find your heartbeat.
Count the beats as you breath in 1-2-3-
And out 1-2-3-4-5-6
Feel your body become still.
As you focus on your breath, you heart, your mind becomes quiet.
When you are quiet, open you spirit to God. Pray.
I like the quiet moments in Testimony Meetings. It is a wonderful time to sit quietly and feel the spirit, rather than feel awkward in the silence.
If you don’t have the time, or it would be uncomfortably conspicuous to do neck rolls and shoulder rolls, just settle into your breath. Focus on the breath, the controlled, slow inhale and exhale. With this focus, all distractions drop away, and your heart is open to feel the Spirit, to approach your god.
* Something of this example is lost in print form. Imagine a strong, soothing voice talking you through the exercises. And if this exercise doesn’t help you, feel free to ignore it. I find it useful, but my husband does not.