Teenagers have the highest auto crash rate in the United States. Nearly one million drivers aged 16 to 19 were involved in crashes in 2013. These crashes involved 383,000 injuries and 2,865 deaths. Nearly 6 out of 10 of these crashes involved driver distraction: interacting with one or more passengers, using a cell phone, looking at something inside or outside the vehicle, are the most common forms of distraction (reported in AAA Horizons, June 2015). These tragic statistics are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the toll that distraction takes on lives today. We may be the most technologically advanced human beings in history but we are also the most distracted. Meditation teaches us to pay attention and to be mindful of the present moment, practices that are desperately needed today. Children and teens might learn meditation as a basic survival skill these days.
When people start to meditate distraction is usually the first roadblock they meet. The problem of distraction is universal and it does not go away. “Grant me an undivided heart” prayed the psalmist (86:11). The psalmist knew about distraction and asked for the singleness of focus that guides into God’s stillness and mystery. We should approach God in silence and humility because this is no petty god we seek. A PBS Nova documentary about the Hubble telescope reported that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on the earth combined! When we meditate we are seeking the God who made all this. That should reduce us all to silence.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote in his prayer, “To will one thing”:
So may you give
To the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing
To the heart, sincerity to receive this and this only
To the will, purity that wills only one thing
In prosperity, may you grant perseverance to will one thing
Amid distraction, collectedness to will one thing
In suffering, patience to will one thing …
Only one thing, to know God.
Notice that “to will one thing” is the gift of God. An undivided heart and mind is not something we can achieve. We will not rid ourselves of all distractions by our own efforts. Mystics have always taught that the state of contemplation is the gift of God. There are some things we can do to prepare ourselves to receive the gift: be faithful in our daily practice of prayer and meditation; be faithful in the saying of our mantra or prayer word; turn towards compassion and mercy, and turn away from behavior that hurts others. But in so doing we never earn the gift.
Distractions drive perfectionists crazy, when they try to meditate. That is because the perfectionist is trying to get it right, and when we approach God that is not possible. The Good News is that God does not ask us to get it right, just to keep trying and not take ourselves so seriously. Christianity is not a religion for perfectionists, but just for those who keep trying because they believe God loves them. (I should add that I do not consider myself an “expert” on meditation – just a learner who keeps on trying!)
Kindness and mercy are the salve. Contemplation is always a gift, a grace. You cannot earn it by your work of meditation. But if you meditate because you love to, you are on the way. It is not working your way – it is like breathing your way. Proverbs 3:5-6 advises us: “trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” Practice kindness and mercy to yourself and others. Too many folks give up on meditation because they experience it as hard work with little success. That’s the wrong approach, reflecting the success driven obsession of our culture. Some kindness and humor is needed to give balance.
Annie Dillard in her lyrical book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial, 1999, p.35) provides a striking and humorous metaphor about distraction:
The world’s spiritual geniuses seem to discover universally that the mind’s muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash, cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness. Instead you must allow the muddy river to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights; you look along it, mildly, acknowledging its presence without interest and gazing beyond it into the realm of the real where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance…”
The repetition of the mantra heals the divided heart. The Benedictine monk, John Main, writes in Monastery Without Walls (p.175): We see reality divided into inner and outer worlds because our mind is divided. Meditation heals this wound and helps us see reality as a seamless whole. It seems a most simple thing to repeat one word over and over (certainly an exercise in focus) but it is a very challenging thing to do, especially in this world of great distraction. The spiritual path requires loving discipline and determination in an ever-deepening path to the center of all where there is stillness and silence. John Main constantly emphasized the need for twice a day meditation, as does his successor at the World Community for Christian Meditation, Laurence Freeman. A week-long “detox” process of seven times a day meditation to detach ourselves from the monkey mind of our culture is described in my blog, A Silent Retreat.
John Main describes the stages of the mantra as saying, sounding and listening. “Maranatha” is the mantra in this tradition, the Aramaic prayer word meaning “Lord, come”. Saying is the stage of repeating the word in four equally stressed syllables. The repetition gives the brain a way to manage the “muddy river” of distracting thoughts. At this level meditation is in the head. At some point the mantra begins to sound deep within, within the heart. The mantra sounds itself rather than the meditator saying it. From here onwards we are to listen to the mantra as a sound within, and give it our full attention. We quiet our mind so we may listen to our heart. Gradually we are led into the silence of God.
Meditation with a mantra bring focus to one’s life and a greater awareness of the Spirit within us. The test for whether we are on the right path is whether we and others are experiencing the fruit of the Spirit: Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law”.