Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: An Interview

Dr. Donald Woodside is a recently retired psychiatrist with whom I worked closely for many years. But more than that, he has been a valued friend and spiritual companion. His spiritual journey draws together Christian faith with Buddhist meditation practice lived out within a Quaker fellowship.  If you feel some tension emerging within you at the thought of holding these things together you are not alone. Don has lived these tensions for many years, struggling to understand how his Christian faith fits with drawing insights and practices from another religion.

Christians are sometimes nervous about learning from other religious traditions.  This is surprising given the Biblical assertion that Jesus is the light that enlightens all humans (John 1:9) and that God has left evidence of the Divine Self in all cultures and religions (Acts 14: 17).  But what I wanted to talk with him about was not these more abstract possibilities of interfaith learning but  his own journey as a Quaker who loves Jesus and whose spirit has been shaped by decades of practice of both meditation and contemplative prayer.  What follows is longer than my usual blog entries but I think you will find our conversation interesting.

David: To get us started, tell me a bit about your early religious background.

Don: I grew up in a liberal Christian church, attended regularly, and was influenced both by my mother’s more emotive faith and my father’s rational and critical views. As a teenager I struggled with the idea of the physical resurrection of Christ, eventually decided I couldn’t believe in it, and abandoned any religious faith. I did, however, have a vague interest in Eastern religions stemming mostly from literature, especially such writers as A. J. Cronin, Joseph Conrad, and E. M. Forster.

David: Can you get back in touch with the appeal of Eastern religions at that age?  What parts of you were not satisfied by liberal Protestantism that seemed to be called to life by Eastern religions?

Don: Eastern religions touched me in ways that are hard to describe. Perhaps it was the possibility of being changed personally – a transforming experience that would give a different relationship with everyday life. It seemed like the Eastern religions held the promise of wisdom and a connection to the divine. A highly moral life was about as close as we Westerners seemed to get.

David: When did you first begin the serious practice of meditation, and how do you actually meditate?

Don: I began to meditate on a regular basis in 1978 when I joined a local meditation group which I still attend. I also began attending 9 day retreats at a Buddhist meditation centre in Massachusetts.  My basic practice is often called ‘mindfulness’. I start by watching the breath. When my mind settles, I let go of the breath and relax into choice-less awareness. Mindfulness is the basic tool.  It’s a kind of unattached awareness of each object of consciousness – such as a thought, sensation, or judgment – as it arises and passes, without identifying with it as ‘I’ or ‘mine’. Beyond this I also use the practices of loving-kindness and compassion to open my heart. If I am feeling distressed or angry, I may spend the whole time on loving-kindness.  Whatever practice I use, thinking frequently intrudes! On a longer retreat I reach a point where thinking is less and less of a distraction, and there are longer periods when the mind settles and becomes quiet and transparent.  I find this really quite similar to the Quaker practice of stilling the mind. The main difference is that in a Quaker meeting we are always available to be a vehicle for spoken ministry if we are sufficiently moved by the Holy Spirit, and we are listening to each other – either literally or in spirit – whereas meditation is more do-it-yourself, even in a group setting.

David: How does your practice of meditation relate to more explicitly Christian approaches to meditation?

Don: I think meditation is very similar to centering prayer.  It is allowing the mind to rest in God’s peace, and gently returning each time one is distracted. In both we aim to see ourselves as part of the whole of God’s world, not separate.  In meditation I don’t use a sacred word, although there are forms of meditation that do. One important difference, however, is that in prayer I don’t have a sense of effort to become something different. Prayer is about silence, waiting and listening in a relationship with the divine.

David: I want to come back to this, but I see that I suddenly got you talking about Christianity.  Let’s back up a bit so you can tell me how this once again became part of your journey.

Don: In the spring of 1980 I suffered a lengthy and disabling laryngitis, and needing complete silence went to an Easter retreat at Loyola House in Guelph (Canada). I was stunned by the realization that the passion of Christ was ongoing – that somehow it was going on through me, and it was calling on me to respond. It touched my heart very deeply. I returned for most Easter retreats for the next 20 years, each year a different aspect of the passion becoming prominent.  In 1980 my wife and I also started attending a Quaker meeting. We were looking for a spiritual home for ourselves and our children and were drawn by the spiritual seeking and companionship.  We felt we had come home. We gradually became involved in the life of the meeting, the prayerful manner of doing business, and in the peace witness. Being mentored by more seasoned Friends inspired me to become a conscientious objector to military taxation, and the meeting supported me in this.  But the real connection with Christianity occurred when I did the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in 1986. I had the sense of God knowing my innermost thoughts; no secrets, no difference between inside and out. And I experienced the presence of the indwelling Christ as my companion.

David: Say a bit more about that.

Don: As you know, the Ignatian Exercises involve a lot of imaginative dialogue with Christ, much of it stimulated by passages from the gospels. The language of the Exercises was from 16th century Spanish Catholicism.  This was pretty foreign to me.  But I did understand the focus on feelings, especially the consolation of a connection with God.  After engaging in these dialogues daily for several months, I had the sense of talking to a presence who was both historical and past, inhabiting some sacred space, as well as timelessly present and indwelling.  Christ was God’s human face – God’s presence. I felt identified with Christ in some mysterious way, and was touched deeply by his teaching that “I am the vine, and you are the branches”.  When I prayed, I sensed that God was listening in on my thoughts even as I formulated a prayer, so there was no room for hiding.

David: How do you decide when to pray and when to meditate?

Don: On one level, I experience them as the same. Both are responses to the divine in ourselves and in others. Both are movements of reconciliation with all of life as God’s world. Both embody surrender of the self.  But there is a choice to be made. Most of my daily practice is meditation. I have a range of techniques that I use to focus my mind and settle into a mode of receptivity. Sometimes this turns into prayer, this involving waiting and listening. When I awaken at night and just want to get back to sleep, I meditate. But when I feel distressed, overwhelmed, and anxious, I pray. I express my need, and I recall Isaiah, where God says, ‘I have carved you in the palms of my hands’. I then feel held in love.

David: You say that prayer involves waiting and listening. Does this make prayer more relational than meditation?

Don: I have always experienced prayer as relational. I recall being on a 2 month meditation retreat some years ago, and spending an hour a day in prayer rather than meditation. It was the first time I had  felt a clear difference. There was a sense of movement in prayer, out of myself into something unknown and vast but loving. This felt different from the unfolding stillness of meditation. Now, if I am feeling fear or despair, I drift towards a more relational, verbal “someone-out-there” kind of prayer. Sometimes I use the Jesus prayer. However, over the years my sense of God has become less of a person or power, and more a divine presence, an embracing mystery, in which I and all creation have a home. One effect of both the Ignatian exercises and Buddhist meditation has been to soften the boundaries of self, so that God, as I said earlier, is experienced as both inside and outside me.  A Korean Christian I once read described Buddhism as emptying and Christianity as filling.  For some years I practiced that way; first I would empty, then I would fill. These two things are no longer different for me. When I am empty, it means self is in abeyance, and I am filled by all things which are present. These things exist for themselves, not for me, and are sacred. So emptying of self is the same as filling with the divine.  But still I feel a difference, and yes, prayer is more relational.

David: Cynthia Bourgeault describes contemplative prayer as “wordless, trusting openness of self to the divine presence” and suggests that this is something that is known to children and needs to be recovered by adults. What do you think of this?

Don: Becoming children is a natural part of our development, and includes a deep capacity for unstinting trust. But becoming as children is not so easy. We all suffer from what Bourgeault calls “a case of mistaken identity”, by which she means our identification with the self of thought and action, of doing and having, which is a necessary part of our development as functioning adult human beings. To have a contemplative relationship with God, we have to clear the chatter and the selfish wishes, and even surrender the self feeling and images of God we have.  Reading Bourgault’s description of centering prayer as a surrender method of meditation was an aha experience for me. I recognized it as a fine description of what I have done in Quaker meeting for years; sitting in silent expectation, open to others and to myself, constantly returning to the stillness; sifting through arising thoughts without being averse to them but also without being attached. There is no question that it is often hard work. But sometimes, when self has calmed down, it is entirely natural and effortless to rest in the Spirit.

David: I sometimes think of contemplative prayer as simply being with God.  How does this relate to your own understanding and practice?

Don: I too understand contemplative prayer as being with God, surrounded and infused by the energy of the Holy Spirit. My part in entering this relationship is to let go. One of the things I let go of is any notion of who or what God is. I surrender, I rest, I am held in a gentle embrace. I sometimes have the feeling that the Holy Spirit transports me outside of time and space, into an eternal time in which Jesus is as present now as historically. This sounds dramatic, but it isn’t.  It is subtle.  My mind certainly can run on about God. When it does, I simply allow such thoughts to pass through, content with not knowing.

David: I know that you are very active in the peace movement and are a conscientious objector to the use of your taxes for military purposes. How do contemplative prayer and social action relate to each other?

Don: When I was in India, a Gandhian teacher told me a story about the Mahatma.  Gandhi was asked, “if you are so interested in the holy life, why  are you not in the Himalayas meditating?” He answered, “My Himalayas are in your feet; if your feet are in Delhi, I must be in Delhi also.” I was taken by that statement.  Contemplative prayer brings the eternal inside. It moves from a prayer of supplication or adoration of an external God, to a relationship with a divine presence which does not respect boundaries. If God is everywhere then everything we do, everyone we interact with is in some sense a home to what is holy.  As a result, I have a responsibility and a desire to respect what Quakers would describe as “that of God in all persons”. If your eyes have  been opened, you can’t be complacent; you have to act on what you see.

David: OK, but let’s now go back to the question I am sure many of those listening in on our conversation have been wanting me to ask for some time now.  How does Buddhist meditation fit with Christian prayer?  Aren’t Christianity and Buddhism incompatible?

Don: It was painful for a long time to feel divided loyalties. The scripture which posed the most direct challenge to me was, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me”. But when I looked deeply at this teaching of Jesus, I saw that it could be interpreted as “faith in me is a gateway to the Kingdom of God”, that we don’t get to God except by love and surrender. Allegiance to Christ is allegiance to the force of love penetrating him and ourselves. That teaching isn’t in conflict with teachings of the Buddha. We can get to selflessness by different routes. But there is only one God. Buddhists talk of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma (the truth and the teachings), and the Sangha (the community). I take refuge in God. Who or what is God?  My understanding of this is best reflected by Christians theologians such as Marcus Borg and John Spong.  For me, God is not a person, but neither is God impersonal. We are like fish in the sea, which cannot know the sea they are immersed in. We humans are immersed in God and at least from our vantage point this makes God indescribable.  Buddhism has given me a framework for understanding how human beings fall into error or sin, greed, hatred, and the “illusion  of self” based on basic phenomena of consciousness. It has given me a method for investigating  this consciousness, for validating the teachings for myself – a way of waking up and opening my heart. This path has been a blessing to me. On the other hand, in Christianity God meets me where I am, says I am acceptable, and comes to me as the risen Christ. I don’t have to achieve anything. I don’t have to believe that I will ever escape my limitations. This unconditional acceptance has been a great relief and a great sense of coming home, turning daily life into an opportunity for devotion.  It would be easier to have allegiance to only one, but I can’t turn my back on either. I don’t know exactly where all this is going, but I trust it is for the good and I no longer struggle. I am reassured by a quotation from the early Quaker, William Penn, who said, “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here make them strangers”.

David: What a blessing that you can now rest in God’s unconditional acceptance of you and no longer struggle with the need to understand how your life and its streams of influence fit together.  Everything belongs, doesn’t it?  It all comes together in God. Thank you for sharing your journey.

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