For all I’ve talked about the importance of meditation over nine years of blogging, I’ve never written a post specifically on meditation.
It’s not my strongest practice. And the kind of meditation I do most frequently isn’t the kind people are most familiar with. But meditation is a foundational spiritual practice and it’s long past time I gave it a post of its own.
I have two interrelated definitions of meditation. Meditation is reflection, contemplation, and focusing your thoughts on a single point. Meditation is also listening, especially when we listen for the presence of the Gods and spirits.
This is the meditation our Buddhist friends teach, and that has caught on with people of many religions. Simply sit and focus your attention on your breathing. That’s all. When your mind starts to wander, gently bring your focus back to your breath.
Some traditions place importance on proper posture. Some say the goal is to empty the mind, while others say the goal is simply to sit. As a Pagan, I’m less concerned about Buddhist thoughts about meditation than I am about learning Buddhist techniques for meditation. I’ve taken two classes from local Buddhist groups on meditation – I could probably use another one.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation are many and verifiable. It can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and depression (though it is not a panacea), and there is evidence it can improve overall brain health. Mainly, it trains the mind to ignore distractions and focus only on the task at hand. This skill is extremely helpful in other spiritual practices.
It’s also a difficult skill to cultivate. It’s not like riding a bicycle, where once you’ve got it, you’ve got it for life. The “monkey mind” is always there, eager to latch on to the next shiny distraction. Mindfulness meditation requires constant practice.
This is the form of meditation I practice most often. In this situation, we are still trying to focus our attention on just one thing, but instead of the breath we’re focusing on a concept, an ideal, or a person – in particular the person of a deity.
I find it easiest to meditate in a darkened room. The dark hides many this-world distractions and makes it easier to focus on Otherworldly persons and what they have to say. I usually sit on the floor, in part because that’s what I learned from Buddhist meditation classes, but also because it’s convenient. However, I injured my back in 2016 and sometimes that makes it difficult to sit on the floor (actually, I can sit on the floor just fine – it’s getting up off the floor that’s the challenge). If I’m having a bad day I sit in a chair instead.
If I’m going to meditate on a deity, I’ll place Their statue or other representation in front of me. I light just enough candles to see the image clearly – usually one candle will do.
I begin with a couple of deep breaths to relax, and then I offer a prayer of invocation.
“Cernunnos, Lord of the Animals and Lord of the Hunt, God of the Forest and of Green Growing Things, I ask you to join me here and bless me with your presence. Great Hunter and Hunted, be welcome here.” If I’m doing this as part of a larger devotional ritual I’ll make offerings here. If this is just a meditation, this is the extent of my invocation.
And then I sit, gaze at the statue, and contemplate the deity of the occasion. In the case of Cernunnos, I may begin by concentrating on a mighty stag, or on a man with antlers on his head. Unlike mindfulness meditation where the goal is to empty the mind or to keep it focused solely on the breath, in this meditation I let my mind go where it will – but only within the limits of the object of the meditation.
So, if I’m meditating on Cernunnos, and I start to see a forest, I explore the forest. If an animal catches my attention, I watch it. I may smell the air, feel the wind, or drink the water. If my mind starts to wander from drinking water to drinking wine to the bottle of wine I want to pick up next time I’m out, then I bring my focus back to the statue and back to Cernunnos and all the virtues, values, and persons associated with Him.
This same technique works very well in Nature. Instead of using a statue or other image, go outside and focus on a tree, a rock, the moon, or a star.
These meditations tend to be much shorter than indoor sitting meditations. You can only stand looking up at the moon for so long before your neck or back or legs start to become an unavoidable distraction. That’s OK – I’ve had some amazing experiences of the night sky that lasted less than a minute… and some that lasted much longer.
If you’re watching the sunrise or sunset, it’s OK to move around a bit. It’s OK to sit in a chair and take in the whole landscape.
Some of the most powerful Nature meditations involve trees. Find a suitable tree, introduce yourself, and ask if the tree would like to speak with you. If you get a positive response (you’ll feel it, not hear it) sit on the ground with your back resting on the trunk of the tree. Now contemplate the tree, its roots and branches, the sap flowing through it, and the creatures living in it. See what it sees, feel what it feels. Listen.
Don’t expect the tree to “teach” you anything. Trees are persons who do their own things for their own reasons – they’re not here to serve humans. But like all persons, we can form relationships with them, relationships that when done right are beneficial to both parties.
This is my favorite and most frequent form of meditation. It can be devotional or contemplative or even mindful, but it’s done while walking outdoors (there are people who can do walking meditation on a treadmill – that’s extremely difficult for me and I rarely try).
I exercise before work most weekday mornings. Because of the hours of my job, that means I’m usually outdoors before dawn, but it starts to get light before I’m done. There is something magical about beginning a meditation in darkness and finishing in light – liminal zones are powerful times.
Some of my best writing is done while walking. Is that meditation? Not exactly, but the process is very similar. As with the contemplative meditation, I let my mind go where it will, within the boundaries of the topic at hand. If it starts to wander into the upcoming work day or next month’s vacation, I bring it back to what I’m trying to write about.
Mindfulness meditation builds skills in focusing. Contemplative meditation builds skills in listening.
Contemplate a deity and you will inevitably begin with the things you know about Them: Cernunnos is a God of the Animals. Continue the contemplation and you will start to realize that the things you know carry implications: if I’m devoted to a God of the Animals then I should make sure my home is welcoming to animals, or at least not hostile to them. These implications can be many and deep.
But after a while, contemplation morphs into listening. Now you “hear” things that are neither your thoughts nor the implications of your thoughts. Now you “hear” the voices of Others.
That always raises the question of how you know which thoughts are yours and which thoughts are communication from someone else.
The first clue comes from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: know thyself. If you know yourself well, it’s fairly easy to know which thoughts are yours and which aren’t. But knowing yourself is a continuous challenge.
Does what you hear tell you something you already know? Does it tell you something you want to be true? Does it tell you things will be just fine the way they are – that you don’t have to do anything? That’s probably you.
If it tells you something you had no way of knowing, something that challenges you to move out of your comfort zone, or something you don’t really want to do? That’s likely not you.
Compare what you hear with what’s known about the God, ancestor, or spirit who’s talking to you – is it “in character” for them? Compare it with what other practitioners are hearing – let UPG (unverified personal gnosis) become SPG (shared personal gnosis). Pull out your favorite divination tool… or better yet, contact an experienced diviner.
Is hearing from a God just too much for you? I’m a polytheist who has heard from Gods and spirits for so long I don’t think to question it anymore, but I know some of you do. If you can’t wrap your head around the idea of Gods and spirits communicating directly with humans, don’t worry about the source and concentrate on the message. What are you hearing? Does it make good sense? Is it in alignment with your values and your ethics? Then just do it.
Meditation is most commonly associated with Buddhism, but it is practiced in every religion and occasionally by people with no religion. Its regular practice has demonstrable benefits, and it builds the skills necessary for many spiritual experiences.
If you’re looking for a spiritual practice to begin this January, try meditation.