Meditation & Restoration
I came to the practice of meditation in a time of desperation. It was the fall of 2013, during the hardest period of my doctoral work. I had already been working on my dissertation for a number of years, had already written and rewritten various chapters several times and still felt like I wasn’t “getting it.” My response was to trim at all other aspects of my life, tightening the belt in order to redouble my focus on what I felt was important work toward the highest goal I had set for myself: to get that Ph.D.
I stopped exercising. I stopped going to church. My husband, John, made dinner most nights. I only socialized when necessary – and then only tolerated the excruciating minutes spent away from mastering my biggest challenge in life. “Having fun” became a totally foreign concept.
Worse, I felt trapped in a mix of destructive personalities. It’s well known that graduate school is no picnic, and I was not among the lucky ones to escape the merciless stew brewed by big egos. Those charged with overseeing my project were absent when I needed help, undermining of my confidence when I needed encouragement. With their power over my future, I felt I had no recourse but to simply lump the swings from disconcerting silence to drenching criticism in order to survive. Ironically, the more I honed my expertise, the further I journeyed into a dark place of feeling utterly incompetent, unworthy, irrelevant. The more focused and determined I grew in my attempts to clear this highest academic bar, the worse I felt I got at my craft. I was in the heart of wilderness without an orienting sense of progress or destination. I was isolated, fearful, and stuck.
I reached out to my friend and former pastor, Diana, who had once mentioned her practice of meditation. She recommended a book called Passage Meditation and accompanying anthology, God Makes the Rivers to Flow, whose pages brim with beautiful and uplifting sacred passages from ancient traditions of the world. I took the books with me as armor and refuge to a big academic conference where I was afraid even to show my face, and I devoured them. They immediately began to feel much more urgent than any academic point to be made.
Thus began a time of deep spiritual and psychological healing for me as I grew into a practice of memorizing these beautiful words, instilling them deep in myself through daily silent meditation. I also slowly began adopting allied disciplines: slowing down, practicing one-pointed attention, putting others first, training the senses, and repeating my mantram (a short prayer featuring the “Holy Name” of God) throughout the day.
What initially felt like a barely justifiable self-indulgence (time away from “work”), I now embrace as fundamental to my health, spirit, and connection with the world. It put a platform under my freefall of self-doubt and continues to calm my mind from obsessive negativity. Though I am still very much a novice, these disciplines have vastly improved my ability to make healthy choices, help me to be more patient, save me from the enervating habit of trying to “multitask,” elevate my appreciation of other religious traditions, and gradually increase my awareness of interconnectedness such that I don’t have to see others as “antagonists,” but instead view them with compassion for our mutual brokenness. Even better, I can more easily see and celebrate others as manifestations of God’s image. In so many ways, meditation has restored me to my life.
My own path of suffering and healing may be unique, but as we all know, it is not “special.” In fact, as psychiatrist Mark Epstein has written, trauma is part of everyone’s “everyday experience.” We are the walking wounded. That is the plight of our mortality. Meditation offers a way to detach, observe, reflect, and choose healthier thought patterns and healing actions toward ourselves, others and the world. The wonderful secret, I have found, is that the isolating behaviors I retreated into – the excessive self-preoccupation – actually mired me in fear; letting go of the selfish part of me that overly criticizes and demands immediate satisfaction enables the security I seek.
As we walk this Lenten journey, preparing ourselves for Easter through restorative rituals taken up in this wilderness season, I offer my own discovery of the reparative practice of meditation – this very simple, yet very difficult discipline of training the mind. Each week I will share some practices, which I offer as ways we can actively work to repair or enhance the well-being of our relationships with ourselves, loved ones, neutral others, “enemies,” the world, and God.
We begin first with ourselves – the practice of self-compassion – this coming Sunday. Anyone interested is invited to join me in the Parlor during the Sunday school hour for a brief introduction to and practice of self-awareness and self-compassion exercises. (If you’re interested but not able to attend, materials will be available at the reception desk in the church narthex.)
Although what has brought me to this place in my life was regrettably painful, I can now say that I do have a sense of gratitude. Without my crisis of self-concept, I would not have searched for healing. I would not have discovered the elevations of peace nor depths of meaning that a contemplative practice fosters. I’d still be subject to the whims of my mind. I’d miss out on all the fun that happens outside of my little study – the greatness to be seen (and done!) when we finally get over ourselves. I have new goals in life now. I can appreciate this moment of becoming, too.
Want to begin NOW? Simply find a relaxed position. Set your timer for one minute. Close your eyes and single-mindedly pay attention to your breath. As you inhale, say to yourself, “Breathe in.” As you breathe out, say to yourself, “Breathe out.”
There – you meditated! Well done.
Jennifer Gattis has been a NorthPark Presbyterian member for 10 years and is an ordained elder. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary and an M.A. in Religion from Yale University.
Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg
Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault
For more on meditation and to access additional links related to questions about starting a practice, visit Lion's Roar.