I was speaking to my Mam yesterday, when she bemoaned the fact that many of the young teachers she sees on a regular basis are spending money on meditation courses, and meditation retreats, when to her mind, prayer is just as good for quieting the mind. Now, Ma comes from a staunchly Catholic background and is very devout (as, to be fair, is Dad!) It was hard for me to articulate to her what the difference between the two states is – for me anyway. I also had to remind her that for those of us who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, with all the church scandals in this country, prayer is intrinsically linked to said church (in Ireland, when we say “church”, we tend to use it as shorthand for “Catholic Church” – the privilege of having 90%+ of the population baptised into that entity)
I had to say to her that really, for people of my generation, prayer is something too closely linked to that horrible institution and that the Church represents that God. Now here I have to say that there is a difference between the Church and the Faith. I still believe in God – or a Divine Power at least, but that’s a whole different blog post! I still describe myself as Catholic, even if there’s a “Pagan” in front of it now. I still go to Mass, even if not as regularly as I used to. But “prayer” is a word linked in our minds to the morning prayers in school. For context, in Ireland, even now (although there are signs it’s changing) children prepare for Catholic sacraments in school – First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation. Of the 6 sacraments available to lay people (non-priests/nuns/monks), half of them happen in primary school. (Yeah, separation of church and state in Ireland is observed more in the breach…. Thanks Dev!)
But to come back to meditation vs prayer. There is still a fundamental difference between meditation and prayer in my head, and it is this: in meditation, we quiet our minds and listen; in prayer, we quiet out minds and speak. One is receptive, the other not. One is opening ourselves to our chosen entity, the other is asking our entity to listen to us. They are, fundamentally, linked but opposite. But, in my mind, we need both and we may swing from one to the other even within one session.
I have a daily meditation practice. OK, I listen to a guided meditation most nights, to help me fall asleep. That isn’t part of my devotional practice, that’s me just trying to get to sleep. And it mostly works. (for the record, I find Jason Stephenson is the Youtuber I use most often, with Michael Sealey a close second) But my morning meditation practice is something different. My morning meditation practice is where I’m setting myself up for the day. I set aside 15mins in the morning to sit and quiet my mind.
It’s important to note that what I said above about swinging from meditation to prayer in the one session happens to me quite frequently. It can turn in to almost a conversation between myself and herself. But when that happens too often, it isn’t as quieting to my mind, so I need to watch that. There are also frequently mornings where it turns into a litany of what I need to do that day, imagining conversations I need to have, issues I need to resolve… OK, this happens. But this is the thing – I call it a meditation practice. That’s what I’m doing, I’m practicing. And I’m likely to be practicing for the rest of my life, however long or short that may be. So when those daily, earthly, human matters come into my meditation time, that’s ok, and when I realise it, I refocus my efforts.
I use a mantra to help focus my thoughts sometimes, I use imagery sometimes, I use many things to help focus and quiet my mind. It’s whatever works. It’s not meditation in any given tradition, other than to be quiet and allow time for my deity to tell me what I need to know. Or indeed give me a slap up the back of the head because I’m not doing something I’ve been asked to do. It doesn’t happen all the time, but sometimes we need to open ourselves up (within limits, don’t be opening yourself up to just any auld entity coming into your thoughts, not everything is beneficial to you!) and listen to what we’re being told.
Prayer on the other hand, with me, tends to be a bit more on the fly. I rarely use set prayers. Most of the time, a prayer for me is a request for help, whether immediately for patience, endurance, or something else in the moment or else less immediately but certainly still off the cuff. Prayer as a method tends to be quiet the mind, form the request, form the intention, release the intention in the direction of the entity I’m asking, pull myself back into the world. So, for example, during a particularly strenuous meeting in work, I might close my eyes or take a deep breath (quiet the mind), realise whether I want the meeting to finish quickly or just this particular speaker (form the request), visualise for myself how this would look in a concrete way (form the intention), speak or think the outcome I want (release the intention), then open my eyes again or release another deep breath (come back to the world).
That’s for something straightforward of course. For something more complicated, I will spend more time about it – in fact, I could spend days thinking over the intention sometimes before I move forward with the rest of the process. There are times for something complicated, I might ritualise the process, writing out my intention, writing out a means to thoroughly focus my mind before I release that intention. Those times are rare though. Most often, it’s a “Please grant me patience to get through this!” type affair.
Also, this “process” of mine isn’t really mine. It’s not really anyone’s as far as I know. It’s just something that works for me and most often, when I speak to someone about prayer (as in asking, making a request) this is roughly the form they use. There are other types of prayer of course: praising our deities is a big one, and for some people this is hugely important. It’s not a major part of my life at the minute, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never say never. Things change.
Now, some Catholics use prayer as meditation. The rosary is probably the most common form, the repetition of the words acts the same as a mantra, soothing the mind, quieting the mind, focusing the mind on God (or possibly Mary in the case of the rosary). The language isn’t important though. Giving ourselves that time in our day to quiet our minds is hugely important – particularly in the modern world where so much clatters and clamours to gain out attention. We need that time to allow ourselves to be awake but also quiet.
15mins might not seem like a lot to some people. If you can manage an hour, go for it! Work with what you need. Right now, in my morning routine, 15mins is what fits and works. And it sometimes drops to 10 or even 5mins. I use the Insight timer for settling me in and pulling me out on time. (No affiliation there, it’s just something I find very useful). I also light a candle when I meditate. Currently it’s my Advent candle, but usually it’s just a normal tealight. (Meditating at 6am in Ireland means for much of the year, it’s dark so the candle has a practical purpose as well)
In the end though, the label we put on these activities doesn’t really matter. Meditation and prayer are both important, in my opinion, in any relationship with deity/ divinity. This is important. It’s also important for our mental health. Constantly being on the go, mentally or physically, isn’t good for us, any of us. So even if you currently don’t meditate, give it a go. And remember, it’s a practice, not an achievement!!