In the preface to Benedictus, his book of blessings, John O’Donohue, philosopher, poet, priest and author, writes that: “There is a quiet light that shines in every heart. It draws no attention to itself though it is always secretly there. It is what illuminates our minds to see beauty, our desire to seek possibility and our hearts to love life.” He is pointing to the divine spark within every human heart which, in times past, found expression in traditional religious communal services. However, it is clear that in Ireland now, as in the Western world generally, formal attachment to religion is being replaced by looser, individual forms of spiritual expression.
It has become increasingly difficult to find opportunities for personal or communal spiritual expression today, especially in the media. As attendance at weekend religious services continues to decline, we are in danger of losing our capacity to give expression to our deepest essence of who we are as human beings, of giving voice to our spiritual nature. Even if this were not so, it is a simple fact that the inner landscape of the human heart often lies unexplored for long periods of our lives as we get lost in the busyness of everyday life. We all experience, albeit in different ways, the call to explore that landscape, to befriend that uncreated element within, but our response to that call ebbs and flows through our lives. It rises to the surface naturally in times of great joy and great sorrow. But meditation, as a daily practice, illuminates it also.
For many people today the initial appeal of meditation is that it is a holistic, universal practice which has gained widespread recognition in modern society, in both religious, spiritual and secular contexts. The modern mindfulness movement promotes meditation as one of a range of mindful practices that have gained widespread acceptance in secular health and education contexts. Over thousands of years, the wisdom traditions of the world have voiced the capacity of meditation to re-awaken the one who meditates to the depths of their hidden selves, to their innate spirituality. The popularity of mindfulness today opens a door for those traditions that speak to the deeper fruits of meditation. It creates an opportunity for showing how meditation, as distinct from mindfulness, can give rise not just to psychological benefit but also to inner flourishing in the spiritual realm. Meditation has the capacity to satisfy the hunger for ‘something more’ in society today.
It is helpful, then, to appreciate an essential difference between mindfulness and meditation. Both are similar in that they call the practitioner to pay attention to the present moment. In mindfulness the attention remains on the self, on whatever thoughts, sensations or emotions arise – paying attention to each in turn before moving on to whatever arises next. By contrast, in meditation, the focus of attention is on the repetition of a word, often referred to as a mantra. The ‘man’ of ‘mantra’ relates to ‘mind’ and ‘tra’ to ‘rescue’ or ‘liberate’ – and focusing our attention on the mantra, rather than ourselves, helps us to free the mind of thoughts, distractions and obstacles. In Christian meditation the word recommended by John Main is ‘Maranatha’ – the penultimate word in the bible and which means ‘Come, Lord’ or ‘The Lord has come.’
Meditation and mindfulness are not opposed to one another but they are distinct; in mindfulness, the attention remains on yourself while in mantra meditation the attention is taken off oneself. This makes meditation more challenging but more rewarding in the longer term because it is centred on something other than ourselves. It is other-centred and, in contemplative traditions that have faith in the Divine, ultimately other-centred. Christian meditation is Christ-centred, acknowledging that the Spirit of God dwells in every human heart.
Some find that mindfulness practices, such as focusing on the breath, are a useful preparation for meditation. And mindfulness is a natural fruit of meditation. Returning to our mantra over and over again in meditation makes us keenly aware how our thoughts and emotions tend drive our actions; it results in greater presence of mind in the moment and helps us to become more responsive than reactive. Meditation changes our relationship with our thoughts and, because it grounds us in our deepest sense of who we are, it transfigures our way of seeing and being in the world.
The modern world tends to be intolerant of silence but internal silence is vital to our wellbeing. Silence is not so much the absence of sound as the absence of self. We all need to develop a tolerance for silence. It is in the silence of meditation that we discover how to access the wellsprings of life inside of us. Meditation opens a door within; it reveals and illuminates the depths of our true spiritual potential.