For years I’ve struggled with meditation. I’m faithful about taking time, getting still, and waiting; I’m disciplined if nothing else. But the spiders of my thoughts begin crawling, and none of my methodical attempts to corral them (attending my breath, reading poetry, reading scripture, practicing zen meditation, practicing centering prayer, kneeling, walking, walking the labyrinth, repeating a mantra, reciting psalms, chanting, toning) seems to help. These failures nonetheless lend a sort of focus to my days. I know that research shows physical and mental health benefits of meditation, and I believe relationship with mystery needs tending much like every other relationship. So I soldier on, determined but painfully aware that as a modern contemplative I’m disastrous.
Cynthia Bourgeault, teacher of centering prayer, says every thought during meditation is an opportunity to practice release. Thoughts are weights in the gym of the soul. Each time we lift them to place them back on the rack, our surrender muscles get stronger. I find this an optimistic spin on a Sisyphusian task.
This morning I stumbled on some contrary advice from Teresa of Avila, that light-hearted, contrarian mystic. Don’t try to still the mind and create a contrived state of recollection, she chides. Such attempts are likely to backfire. “To keep the soul’s faculties busy and at the same time keep them quiet is foolishness. The very effort the soul makes to try to stop thinking may awaken thought and cause it to think a great deal.”
My experience exactly! What, then, to do? “The important thing is not to think much, but to love much. Therefore, do whatever most arouses you to love.”
I sit at Teresa’s feet. The soul’s journey is through love to love within an all-encompassing love, and whatever facilitates this movement is worthy. It’s funny that this priority is clearer to me when I’m teaching, playing with Gwyn, cleaning the house, and going about the ordinary tasks of my day than it is during meditation. “The more we come alive and awake, the more everything we do becomes prayer,” David Stendl-Rast wrote. “Eventually even our prayer will become prayer.” I’ll continue to practice and likely fail, but I’m curious now to sit with this notion—to let my mind do its wily work while I attend to what’s most important. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
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Two upcoming opportunities to write with Elizabeth: Four Sacred Arts with Emily Jarrett Hughes at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality and Alone Together: Write that Book at Madeline Island School of the Arts.