It may be a nice idea to say that experiencing and encountering Reality is more important than trying to understand it, but how does that actually happen? How does one encounter God?
I feel like I’d like to address this in two ways. First, I think that Reality is experienced on some level by everybody all of the time. When that piece of music moves your heart, God is in that somehow. That feeling of grandeur and transcendent beauty that one gets when one looks up at the night sky, there is an experience of God in there somewhere. He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. Reality is available to be experienced on some level in the most mundane places at every moment for every person. This means that truly letting oneself experience the beauty of life is on some level experiencing God.
However, I think there are also more intensive ways of experiencing this infinity that is God than just everyday experience. There are those among us who walk closer with this Reality than others. Jesus walked so closely with this Reality that he described it like this, “when you see me, you see the Father.”
Surely, you have encountered people who just seem to be enlightened or enmeshed with God in a peculiarly strong way. I think the keys to this kind of a life are spiritual disciplines.
Lovers of God through the ages have practiced different disciplines that have helped them experience and encounter God. Fasting, prayer, worship, celebration, study, meditation, simplicity, solitude…etc When used correctly and in a healthy way, these disciplines are not intended to try to gain favor or escape the wrath of a god or gods. Instead, these disciplines put the person engaged in the discipline in a frame of mind and heart that allows him or her to experience God or “Reality” in a deeper way.
For me, different disciplines have taken a prominent place and importance in my life during different seasons. For instance, in high school, study and fasting were hugely important disciplines for me. They helped me get some control of my raging teenaged emotions and hormones, and helped my mind be rooted in things other than just girls and video games. A few years ago, celebration became an important discipline for my wife and I. Things had gotten so busy, and we were filling all of our time with duty and ministry and responsibility. We felt we had started ignoring the sacredness of rest and joy and play. So we started taking celebration and Sabbath more seriously as a discipline, and it was hugely rewarding for us.
Assisi helped me discover a new discipline for me that I can’t believe I had gone so long without. Meditation.
I had tried meditating a handful of times before, but it never really did that much for me. So I stopped. But in Assisi, we would get up every morning and meditate with each other for an hour. Than we’d do a movement meditation, then we’d go and meditate on our own for most of the day, and then we’d get together at night one more time and meditate for another half hour before going to bed. That’s a lot of meditation.
And I finally got it. Now I understand why people from pretty much all religions do this.
To be honest, when I first considered trying out meditation, I was a little nervous. I had some lingering little superstitions from my childhood about meditation floating around in my mind… As a kid, I was pretty much taught that if you meditate or do yoga or anything like that, demons are going to come in and take over your brain, and next thing I know, I’ll be bent over screeching like Emily Rose or something.
If any of you have similar superstitions that have been inculcated deep into your psyche, I sympathize with you and I recommend just telling God about it. Something like, “Hey, I want to open my heart to you in this discipline, but I’m a little nervous about it for some reason. Help me out would you?” That’s a formal prayer from the Gungor Common Book of Meditative Prayer that you can memorize if you’d like.
Anyway, for those of you that don’t know how to meditate, I’ll tell you what I do, and maybe it will help you if you are interested in trying out this ancient discipline.
First, get in a position that is comfortable enough that you won’t be distracted by how uncomfortable you are, but not so comfortable that you will fall asleep. For instance, sitting upright in a chair with good posture, without your back touching the back of the chair, would be a more desirable position than, say, laying down in your bed…
Second, decide an amount of time that you are going to meditate for. This is something I hadn’t done when I tried doing this before Assisi, and I think it was a big part of the reason that the discipline never really stuck before Assisi. In high school, I was part of the fundamentalist type Christians that tell you that you need to read a certain amount of the Bible and pray a certain amount of time, and I had long since rebelled against such silly regulations on spirituality. But I think I may have thrown out some baby with that bathwater. In Assisi, the clock was actually my friend. I didn’t stop when I felt like it. Instead I stopped only after the point that I had decided that I could stop. That’s a good discipline and it lets you push past the emotional side of meditation into doing some really good work in your soul. So pick a time and don’t quit early. 20-30 minutes is a good place to start. An hour is pretty hardcore.
(hint: I use a little white noise timer app that fades to silence after whatever amount of time you set it to. I keep it quiet, and you barely notice it until it’s gone, and then you know you are done.)
Third, offer. This is what St. Francis used to do. He would sit there and meditate in and whatever came into his mind and heart, he would simply offer. If you don’t even believe in God, just offer that. If you are annoyed at trying this exercise, offer that. If you are bored, offer that. Don’t judge yourself or your thoughts. If something dark comes into your mind, don’t get worked up about it, just let is slide out of your hand. Don’t hold on tightly to anything. All of your thoughts and emotions are just chemicals happening in your brain, don’t let them control you. Instead, just see them as what they are. And then just offer them. All the fear. All the doubt. The pain. The bitterness. Just let it go. Don’t think about it, just hold out your hand and offer it. Let it go. Let go of your attachments. Let go of your desires. If specific people come into your mind, just hold them before God in love, and offer them as well.
This leads us to the goal of these exercises, which is simply to be. Like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. We just are there. With God. Breathing. Just. Being. If you are American, this might feel unpatriotic or something. We are so used to feeling this overwhelming need to be productive. We are so used to needing to fill every second with something that we think is “useful”. This is time set aside to purposefully not do anything but just be, with God. It’s not even time for active prayer necessarily. Of course, there are no rules, and you can do whatever you want. But there really is value in taking this time to do nothing but simply be as you are with He that is. God.
A couple more hints…
1. Stick with it long enough. At first, this will not be very fun. Your mind will race. You will think of very random things. Your brain is not used to slowing down like this, and it might put up a fight for a bit. You gradually get better at controlling your brain though rather than letting it control you. Where this discipline can lead you is to a place of total peace in God. It is very worth the fight. I remember the first time I tried to do this with my wife, we tried to do a half hour, and after 20 minutes, she exclaimed “that had to be 30 minutes already!” The next day, it was much easier for her. J
2. Find an anchor. It’s helpful to have some sort of anchor for your brain while it’s trying to whirl out of control. Breath works well. Just focusing on your breathing helps you slow down and be thankful for every single moment. Maybe you could imagine that you are breathing the very presence of God in and out of your lungs, or perhaps imagine inhaling light into any darkness inside, and then breathing out even more light into the world. You can try anything… A friend of mine counts sometimes and it helps him get his mind to slow down a bit. Sometimes I’ll go through the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace…etc) and just imagine them filling my heart with every breath. I’ve tried praying one word of the Lord’s prayer at a time; one word per breath. Really, it doesn’t matter; you’ll find things that work for you. Remember, there are no rules for this. Your goal is to get to the place where you are holding on to nothing, not striving for anything, just… being. You’re there with God. And that’s good enough.
Be still (cease striving) and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10