How strange is it that the U.S. military is spending millions to teach Marines how to meditate?
Still within churches and religious institutions we find enormous reluctance or suspicion around meditation. It’s an “Eastern” thing. To many American Christians, the notion of sitting there and “doing nothing” seems almost dissolute (even though Jesus praised Mary, who “did nothing” except sit and soak up the divine presence, and chided Martha, who had a Protestant work ethic and knew the virtue of “staying busy”). Meditation—the wordless form of prayer—is a tough sell even for religious types. So what does the U.S. military know that we don’t?
Amishi Jha, a psychologist, was recently sent to Hawaii on a $1.7 million, four-year grant from the Department of Defense, to teach U.S. Marines how to meditate—not to bring them into union with God, but to improve their mental focus on the battle field. “We found that getting as little as 12 minutes of meditation practice helped the Marines to keep their attention and working memory—that is, the added ability to pay attention over time—stable.” But, Jha added, “If they practiced less than the 12 minutes or not at all, they degraded their functioning.”*
Meditation, or the practice of mindfulness in its many forms, is a way of transcending the endless loops of the mind that always drag us into the past or project us into the future. It is a way of staying grounded in the present, which is the only place where the eternal One is to be found. Practitioners of this kind of prayer have always experienced heightened focus, clarity and peace. These are the side-effects of divine union, and God gives them to anyone who will simply sit still for a few minutes. (In other words, prayer works.) What researchers like Jha are finding is that when people learn how to inhabit the present moment, they aren’t distracted by illusory trips into the past and the future. They are much more aware of what is happening now and can stay on task.
Every time I am in a discussion group about prayer, people will say that prayer is what we do for others and that it is selfish to pray for ourselves. I try, gently, to say in return that prayer is God’s gift to us. There’s nothing wrong with seeking prayer because it blesses and heals us, because—quite frankly—it feels good! When we stop to recall that prayer is an entrance into the Presence of Love, what else could we expect?
There is an important place for the prayer of words, but if that is the only kind of prayer you know—words set end to end by the power of your mind—consider spending something like 12 minutes today giving your brain a rest, doing nothing, saying nothing, simply resting in the Presence of Love. (For more information on one form of meditation, Centering Prayer, go to contemplativeoutreach.org.)
*“Breathing In vs. Spacing Out,” by Dan Hurley in New York Times Magazine, January 14, 2014.