I was asked by a commenter if I had any suggestions for starting meditation. (See my prior post for a detailed list of resources, with URLs.)
First and foremost, I am certainly not an expert on meditation, but a mere beginner! However, I’m a *successful beginner* in that I now have an established daily practice of Passage Meditation which has had valuable benefits, and which I enjoy very much. Passage Meditation holds my interest in several ways (which will be the topic of another post, another day). I’ve tried other meditation methods in the past but they didn’t take – they were boring. I think one reason that Passage Meditation has succeeded for me is its interest; I do not find it boring.
I have also recently started Centering Prayer (in addition to Passage Meditation, i.e., one session of each per day). I’m having trouble managing two sessions per day, but I will keep trying until it becomes easier with practice, as most things do. I like the method itself, it’s just finding the time that is a problem.
The method of meditation which I have happily used daily for a year (yes, every day, with very rare exceptions) is called ‘Passage Meditation’ and it was taught in the USA by Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999). It is suitable for Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and people of every other major faith. It is also suitable for BaHa’is, Taoists, and Sikhs, atheists, and everyone else. (I know that at least one BaHa’i will be reading this – Hi, Lisa!) Basically, one meditates on previously memorized, inspirational passages.
Students of Sri Easwaran operate a website which has lots of terrific information on Passage Meditation, including a free (and excellent) online course. On the website is also the entire text of Sri Easwaran’s book entitled ‘Passage Meditation’, plus many passages which can be used for meditation.
The website also sells Sri Easwaran’s books, DVDs, and MP3s. His students realized that his teaching was special and started filming him back in the 1970s, possibly even in the 60s. So there are also free video clips and MP3s, as well as the full-versions for sale.
Sri Easwaran wrote other books as well, I recommend them all most highly (except two*). He also translated India’s scriptures from Sanskrit into English (The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada). These translations and Sri Easwaran’s books are published by Nilgiri Press, run by his former students at the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, which Sri Easwaran founded. The books are all available on Amazon, as well as at the Blue Mountain Center, and elsewhere. Sri Easwaran’s books and translations have been translated into many languages, I think 28 at last count, and have been printed in many editions.
* OK, Pat, which two books *don’t* you recommend most highly? ‘Strength In the Storm’ and ‘Take Your Time’ – they were both compiled by others after Sri Easwaran’s death. To my mind, they do not begin to compare to his other books. I would still recommend them, but I cannot honestly say ‘recommend most highly’ about these two. On the other hand, the most recently published book by Sri Easwaran entitled ‘Essence of the Bhagavad Gita,’ is also posthumous and it is wonderful! In this case, the editors had the benefit of detailed directions given to them by Sri Easwaran, and his notes and tapes of his talks pertaining to the book. I think it’s one of Sri Easwaran’s best books, perhaps even the very best. Sri Easwaran’s books improved right up through his 80s, by the way, a testimony that his methods worked.
Meditation is the heart of an 8-Point Program taught by Sri Easwaran – it is part of an integral whole, and I don’t believe many, if any, benefits would derive from meditating alone. I had started following the other seven points as best as I could many years ago, so I just needed to add meditation now. (And to brush up on the other seven points, which is a continuing process for me.) The entire program is, again, suitable for people of any, or no, faith.
The ideas in the 8-Point Program are not new, Sri Easwaran didn’t invent them, but he has done a marvelous, in fact I believe unsurpassed, job of teaching them to people in the modern world. The 8-Point Program is also covered in the basic book, ‘Passage Meditation,’ which is free in its entirety online, as mentioned above.
For those who learn best by listening, there is a terrific 3-part series of videos on YouTube by Professor Michael Nagler (Emeritus, Berkeley) entitled ‘How to Meditate’. (Prof. Nagler was one of Sri Easwaran’s students.) Prof. Nagler is also an authority on non-violence, by the way, and the founder of a center promoting non-violence (www.mettacenter.org).
Passage Meditation is what is called a concentrative method of meditation. During an actual meditation session, you go through the words of previously memorized passages slowly in your mind.
Incidentally, my doctor was very pleased to hear about this when I described it to her: she declared it to be terrific for keeping one’s mind active and alert. And so I believe it is. It certainly tests your short-term memory (as well as your longer-term memory) as you keep adding new passages.
If you find memorization difficult at first, please don’t be discouraged: with practice, you *will* improve unbelievably! Just as physical muscles need exercise to strengthen, mental muscles do as well. Don’t try to memorize even a short passage in one gulp: memorize one line per day (if necessary) until that’s easy. Then memorize two lines per day, then four, etc. Even very long passages can be managed in this manner, if you are just a little patient.
Easwaran.org also has available many passages from Sri Easwaran’s book entitled ‘God Makes the River to Flow’ but if you like this method of meditation, you will probably want to buy the book. You can also buy a digital version of the book: a good idea for aging eyes. (I don’t have vision problems, but I’m mindful that my mother had macular degeneration. Certainly it’s a possibility for anyone.) The digital version could, of course, be read by a text-to-speech program as some people learn better by listening. (Another post, on another day, will discuss tips on how to memorize.)
I have recently learned, and added to my program, another method of meditation called by its originators ‘Centering Prayer.’ This, although originated by Fr. Thomas Keating and other Christian (Cistercian) monks, and taught by them (and others) is also suitable for those of any, or no, faith. In spite of its name, it is a method of meditation; no prayer, as most of us think of it, is necessarily involved, although it can be.
Centering Prayer is a practice in ‘letting go’ and since old age consists (or so it seems to me) largely of letting go, I can use the practice. (We all can, of course, regardless of age. Our consumer society fosters unfortunate attitudes of grabbing and clutching.)
Centering Prayer was based on methods used by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the very early days of Christianity, and on an anonymous document entitled ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ which dates from 14th century England. It is a receptive method of meditation; so the two methods I’m using should complement each other well.
Fr. Keating wrote several books on the subject; the classic one, I think, is ‘Open Heart, Open Mind’. He also founded an organization which distributes his (and others’) books and tapes, and holds courses and retreats – the Contemplative Outreach Network. There are many videos by Fr. Keating on YouTube.
For me personally, Cynthia Bourgeault’s book entitled ‘Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening’ is the clearest explanation of Centering Prayer, and I have learned the most from it.
Cynthia “has studied and taught in a number of Benedictine monasteries in the United States and Canada. An Episcopal priest, she is well known as a retreat and conference leader, teacher of prayer, and writer on the spiritual life. She is the author of a number of books….” (from Amazon.com).
I was given a scholarship for a DVD-presented course from Contemplative Outreach Network and I found that to be very helpful as well. I also fell madly in love with Father Keating (an 89 year old Cisterican monk who lives in Colorado – my husband won’t mind a bit!).
Again, see my prior post with details for finding the resources discussed here.