What a noisy world we live in! The outside noise too often translates into having noisy minds. When I read in Pam Blackwell’s book, Christ-Centered Meditation about achieving a “quiet mind” I felt a yearning to experience that rare condition! That particular use of the word “quiet” means far more than absence of sound; it means peace, calmness, stillness of soul.
In our society we are barraged with images that detract from stillness of the soul; in movies, TV, and video games the images change by the millisecond. They appear and are gone so quickly we have no time to analyze or recognize the impact of them on our spirits.
Quiet reflection seems a thing of the past. But it better not be if we have an earnest desire for spiritual things. The still small voice never yells! Things of the Spirit require time and attention. Generally speaking, spiritual depth, understanding, and communication comes from the wellspring of a quiet mind.
Calming the Monkey Chatter in Our Minds
My most constant deterrent to spiritual communion is what author Pam Blackwell calls “monkey chatter in our minds.” You know the kind . . . the voices we can’t turn off when it’s time to sleep, the voices that spew out worry, excessive to-do-lists, criticism is self and others. Monkey chatter also tells me that no matter what I’m doing I should be doing something else, and doing more.
The key to turning off the “monkey chatter” is focus on spiritual things. It means following the constant counsel we receive in church to spend time in scripture study and prayer. There is a price to pay for being spiritually in tune. In addition to avoiding wrong choices, it involves some time each day dedicated to closeness to the Lord.
Sometimes I’ve allowed the pressures and demands of daily living to crowd out that time. Little by little, without really realizing it, I’ve become a spiritual dropout, still longing for the blessings of spiritual diligence, and wondering what happened. So much of the problem is feeling the pressure of too many options, too many good causes, too many obligations. We all tend to live complicated lives, juggling many balls and keeping our minds constantly in motion.
M. Catherine Thomas, in her book Light in the Wilderness, talks about the dangers of living with our minds in high gear—a state that prompts us to live superficially, not spiritually. She suggests that if we don’t practice “letting the mind down peacefully in a quiet time” we won’t be able to do it in the busyness of life, when we need spiritual help the most.
But how do we do that? How do we keep “quiet times” from being nothing more than times to compile more lengthy to-do lists? The very word “meditation” has sent me into a defensive mode since the first time I tried sitting and thinking of nothing for ten minutes. I couldn’t do it! I still can’t do it. How can I find practices that work for my individual personality, and that will help to quiet my mind?
Getting Down to Specifics
Just when I was experiencing another time of real frustration in this regard, I experienced the tender mercy of Pam Blackwell’s new book, Christ-Centered Meditation: Handbook for Spiritual Practice. I was motivated to look beyond that threatening word “meditation” because of the rest of the title. If a meditation is going to be Christ-Centered, that means you are allowed to think of something, right? And that something is someone: Christ! That gave me hope that her ideas would work for me.
Pam Blackwell, Ph.D., is a psychologist, author, and teacher who has been a meditation teacher and workshop leader for over forty years. She wrote this book because so many of her students asked for it and needed it. Apparently I’m not the only one who has trouble quieting the chattering monkeys. More and more people are turning to meditation practices in an effort to find a calm center and a spiritual connection.
Pam shares the following experience: “I had the wonderful opportunity to see an exhibit of Carl Bloch’s work. The Danish painter had a remarkable ability to translate some of the Gospel’s most poignant moments into altar pieces, large paintings and etchings. I found I could only stay for just a few minutes. In the presence of such artistic mastery, the desire to actually be with Christ grew with each passing moment, and I left in tears. The last painting I stood in front of before leaving was “Christ and Child.” I looked not only at Christ, but the child. To have His hand on my cheek. To have him point at me….”
She concludes, “This humbling, this stripping away of ego, is what I am trying to provide for the reader. Techniques I have experienced and teach–from Christian contemplative and Eastern meditative traditions–all focus on leaving the conscious self, entering into child-like state, to merge into a oneness with God and Christ.”
I’ve spend nearly a month applying the ideas in Pam’s book, Christ-Centered Meditation, and I have to say that it offers some of the most usable, practical ideas I’ve ever found for quieting the mind.
A unique feature of her book is the format. In the extra wide outside margins on each page is placed a quote from the actual words Jesus said. Words of comfort, words worthy of deep contemplation. On the preface page, the quote is, “It is I; be not afraid.” On the last page, the quote is, “Come near unto me.” I see significance in those quotes: when we are focusing our thoughts on Christ, we need not fear being led astray. And if we follow some of the suggestions in this book we can indeed draw closer to the Savior.
Not only does Pam’s book offer a wide variety of meditation and visualization practices, it gives ideas for meditating as couples and families. The idea is that seeking a quiet mind in the company with those we love most can draw us closer, not only to the Lord, but to each other. I remember my husband telling me how the bishop drew a triangle with God at the top and husband and wife at the bottom corners. He showed how, as husband and wife draw closer to the Savior, they also draw closer to each other. I know that is a true principle.
My favorite meditation practice in the book is the Thirty-day Contemplation of Christ. Pam gives for each day questions to contemplate and write about and scriptures to ponder. I have found this guided contemplation extremely helpful and beautifully effective to calm my mind and renew a refreshing closeness of the Spirit.
To validate the need for this kind of practice, Pam likes to quote David O. McKay who said, “Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord. The greatest comfort in this life is the assurance of having a close relationship with God. It has been said that ‘consciousness of God is the highest achievement in human experience and is the supreme goal of human life.
This is true religion. It is a mental, spiritual experience of the highest order.’”
A New Look at the Mary/Martha Story
I think the Mary and Martha story in the Bible is a good place to end this discussion on quieting the mind and spending time with the Lord. Brent Top, in an audio talk defined the phrases “cumbered about much serving” (harried, harassed) and careful and troubled about many things (“”careful” meant full of cares. “Things” referred to dishes. ) He suggested that the Lord was not comparing Mary the learner with Martha the homemaker, but was, instead, kindly telling Martha that she was doing too much, more than necessary to provide a nice meal for him. That one dish would have been sufficient and left her time for what He desired more than a fancy meal: for her to spend time with Him. Brother Top suggested the underlying message for all of us is to avoid doing more than necessary, to avoid being distracted from spending time with the Lord by tasks and pursuits of lesser value.
To accomplish this, we must give up our misguided tendencies to perfectionism. Most of us are constantly on the run, doing a lot of things for a lot of people, and often becoming physically and emotionally ill in the process. In Patricia Holland’s On Earth as It is In Heaven, she tells a beautiful story of how the Lord taught her to let go of her Martha-like over concern.
“On a pristinely clear and beautifully bright day, I sat overlooking the Sea of Galilee and reread the tenth chapter of Luke. But instead of words on the page, I though I saw with my mind and heard with my heart these words: “(Pat, Pat, Pat) thou art careful and troubled about many things.” Then power of pure and personal revelation seized me as I read “But one thing—only one thing—is truly needful.” The May sun in Israel is so bright that you feel as if you are sitting on the top of the world. I have just visited the spot in Bethoron where the sun stood still for Joshua and indeed, on that day, it seemed so for me as well. As I sat pondering my problems, I felt that same sun’s healing rays like warm liquid pouring into my heart, relaxing, calming, and comforting my troubled soul.
Our loving Father in heaven seemed to be whispering to me, “You don’t have to worry over so many things. The one thing that is needful—the only thing that is truly needful—is to keep your eyes toward the sun—my Son.” Suddenly I had true peace. I knew that my life had always been in his hands, from the very beginning!”
Pam suggests that the elements of Pat’s meditative experience can be instructive for us. First, she took herself away from her daily activities—nature is helpful–and sat quietly, clearing her mind. A line from scripture seized her consciousness. She became single-focused; she pondered. Doing so, she released the hold her problems held on her. Then the true single focus of her religious life became clear.
Making Time with the Lord Our Top Priority
Not many of us can travel to the Sea of Galilee to to our pondering. However, we can get up early, stay up late, or lock ourselves in the bathroom in the middle of the day: whatever it take to draw ourselves apart to ponder and to pray, to spend time with the Lord. It is the best and surest way to find quietness within, to tap into our inner strength, to connect with the Spirit.
Nothing could be more important than quieting our minds so the sweet, quiet voice of the Holy Ghost can be heard, than spending time seeking and enjoying the sweetness of feeling the Lord’s Spirit. I’m excited to know that in the coming months I will have Pam’s book as a guide for doing so.