“Don’t get so busy that you don’t have time to meditate. Take the time…. Christ may be nearer than we have knowledge. ‘I am in your midst, but you do not see me.’” –Harold B Lee.
Meditation is one of the most important and sacred things we must learn how to do in this life. President David O. McKay taught: “Meditation is one of the most secret, most sacred doors through which we pass into the presence of the Lord.”
Virtually every living prophet since then has said the same thing in different words. But what is meditation? How does it work? How does one meditate? And how can a practice of meditation assist us as we conceive, bear, nurture and raise children?
There are many different understandings of what meditation is, such as calming the mind, releasing ego, etc. Meditation can be all those things, but according to modern and ancient prophets, meditation is something more. Simply put, meditation is seeking and communing with the Spirit of the Lord.
Meditation is a form of prayer, but prayer is not necessarily meditation. In the Bible prayer and meditation were often written synonymously, but today most of our prayers are more like a monologue, or as President Hinkley said, like we are ordering groceries.
I believe that the reason so many prophets have had to remind us of the value of meditation is because we not desperate for Spirit. Many of us feel the Spirit somewhat regularly and spontaneously at church, and because of this, we think all is well.
Philip McLemore, a retired LDS Institute director and meditation teacher shared this in his article Mormon Mantras: “I was having periodic, if not regular, spiritual experiences, which had to mean that I was on the right path and progressing. It took a long time before I realized that having spiritual experiences often has little to do with spiritual transformation.” (p. 20)
I came to the same realization a few years ago. Despite all I knew and all my spiritual experiences, I was not becoming more Christ-like. I was not able to call forth compassion or other Christ-like behavior in difficult circumstances. However, when I was led to and started a practice of meditation that worked for me, I slowly transformed.
I believe the difference between prayer and meditation is the attachment to an end result. We are so used to praying and waiting for the answer to our problems or questions. This is because we believe and know that God answers prayers. That is right. But meditation is not about answers, per se. As Jesus taught, attachment to outcomes or goals only causes suffering. A better word is intention. Let’s say your intention is patience, or compassion or greater understanding of answer or enlightenment you have already received. If you meditate every day with openness to that intention and to whatever else may come or not come, over time you will find that you have more patience—or whatever your intention. Other benefits of meditation include: radiance, better health and happiness, increased capacity to love, increased unity with God and others, and much more.
How does it work?
Neuroscientifically speaking, every time you think a thought, or do an action, it creates a neuropathway. The more times you do it, or the more energy you attach to certain thoughts or actions, the deeper that pathway becomes. Think of a hose left one, cutting a deeper and deeper rivulet in the dirt. Let’s say that deepening rut is your negative thoughts. Pretty soon other related thoughts and feelings start to fall in that track—which means that you increasingly get into a similar state. Meditation creates new neuropathways which will eventually become new feelings and thoughts.
Hypnotically speaking, it works on the same level as hypnosis. By pondering on a loving God, regulating the breath, repeating a mantra, holding a mudra (or however you meditate), the mind accesses the Theta state and the new thoughts/intention are able to bypass the critical mind and reprogram the unconscious scripting without resistance. See last week’s post for a detailed explanation of this.
Spiritually speaking, it is the power of the Atonement. The neuroscientific and hypnotic findings are just proof of the mind/body/spirit connection.
How does one meditate?
There are many different ways to meditate. Even in the scriptures there are many different words that describe meditation (ponder, consider, study, treasure up, muse, rest upon your minds, think, pray). Elder Chauncey C. Riddle said, “meditation can not be taught, because it is something personal and private: it is the venturing of the soul into the unknown.”
Thus, you can see the challenge of writing about meditation. What works for me may not work for you. I like manta meditation, Rebecca prefers mindfulness, President Hinkley’s father used to sit on a wall in the thinker position. President Hinkley has recommended pondering the stars, or enjoying good culture. These are all good, and we might write a blog post on each different kind of meditation that we can think of at some point. No matter what you chose, however, there are several elements that meditation should include.
Desire/Faith –This seems obvious, but I still need to mention it. Faith can be as simple as a hope or a desire to believe.
Intention or Selective Focus – Remember the hose cutting a trench. It’s easier if you stick to one spot for a while. Examples of intention might be openness, patience, understanding, peace. When you meditate, continually bring your mind back to your intention. This will get easier.
“Focused attention begins to build new neuronal circuits that, once established, will automatically activate those parts of the brain that involve motivational activity. And the more that activity is repeated, the stronger those neural circuits become.” (Newberg, p. 32)Repetition – Daily repetition is important. Think about doing exercise. I used to be able to do 3 pull ups, but I stopped practicing and now have to build back up to that. Cognitive studies show that you need to exercise your brain daily to maintain the benefits achieved. It is the same in hypnosis. The more you do it, the faster you can get there.
Regulated Breathing – Our breath is our life. In some religious metaphors, breath is equated with spirit. So when we deepen our breath, we increase our spirituality. Also, regulating your breathing decreases metabolic activity in different parts of brain—such as the brain’s center for fear and anger. Thus, but regulating our breath we can control our mental and emotional states, which is essentially the core of our spiritual pursuit.
A Sacred Grove - Joseph Smith set the pattern. President Monson taught,
“Every [person] needs a sacred grove to which he can retire to meditate and to pray for guidance. Mine was our old ward chapel. I could not begin to count the occasions when on a dark night at a late hour I would make my way to the stand of this building where I was blessed, confirmed, ordained, taught, and eventually called to preside. The chapel was dimly lighted by the streetlight in front; not a sound would be heard, no intruder to disturb. With my hand on the pulpit I would kneel and share with Him above my thoughts, my concerns, my problems.”Does it matter how long or what time of day? - Yes and no. Most yogis rise early. And the same schedule is followed by the general authorities of the church. Elder Kikuchi recommends rising before 6:30. Scientific and behavioral studies back that up. It is a naturally hypnotic time, as is just before bed. But any time of day can work, especially if done at the same time every day. But I have been known to fit it in whenever and however. Just as long as I don’t miss a day. The longer you do it the better (I’m talking minutes here), but I would start small and gradually increase. Start with three minutes a day and add one minute every few days. Some say the magic number is 12 minutes. Some say it is 18-20. But 3 minutes of focused meditation has more value than 20 minutes of unfocused meditation. If you can't get time alone, you can even incorporate your child into it. Babies and toddlers love meditation. My daughter often lays with her head in my lap while I meditate.
How can a practice of meditation assist us in pregnancy, birth and motherhood?
I listed some of the benefits of mediation above, including an increased capacity to love and increased unity with God and others. It also lowers anxiety and depression, enhances social awareness and empathy, improves cognitive and intellectual functioning, buffers you from the effects of aging and stress and gives you better control over your emotions. I can attest to this. It has enabled me to have compassion in unlikely circumstances, which has helped me in motherhood. Meditation also helps us find answers to daily problems. Even though I said we should not get attached to finding the answers, insights often come when our minds are calm. Meditation can also heal and fill in any residual emptiness in our hearts that come from being mortal. Here is a story about a mother from an August 2009 Ensign article by Elder Kikuchi:
“I know a good member of the Church who has a successful marriage and six beautiful children. She is trying to be the best companion she can be to her husband and the best mother she can be to her children. She is an effective Young Women leader in her ward. But sometimes she feels she isn’t good enough. She becomes discouraged and feels an emptiness of soul.
She came to me one day with her husband and described the powerlessness she feels at such times. She had discussed her concern with her priesthood leaders and especially her husband but had yet to find relief. I suggested that after her husband left for work and their children were in school, she find a place in her home and there reverently and humbly visit with Heavenly Father. I suggested that she express her gratitude to God for her blessings and then wait for His holy inspiration. She committed to do this daily.
Sometime later I received a letter from her. She said that as she went to her knees in those quiet moments each day and dropped her burden at Heavenly Father’s feet, He took her concerns away. She felt of her great worth to Him and learned more of “the healer’s art”4 as He healed her soul.”
A 40 Day Challenge
Most studies on meditation and the brain have been done on long time meditators, but in a recent scientific study, researchers took people who had never meditated before and gave them a meditation to do for 12 minutes/day. They gave them baseline tests and brain scans and then scanned and tested them again after just 8 weeks. The results surprised them. They saw marked changes in the scans as well as the motor skills and memory tests of the subjects. In just 8 weeks! That is fantastic. I suspect that they would have found the changes as early as 40 days. As anyone who has read my Babymoon post knows, 40 days is a significant number. It is the number of change.
Romans 12:2 says, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
I challenge everyone reading this to start a 40 day meditation today. Pick a meditation—or if you are totally at a loss, email me about what’s going on in your life and I will help you come up with one. Then do it every day for 3-20 minutes per day. If you miss a day, you have to start over. Be open to what comes. I can’t tell you where it will lead you. As Nephi said, “I was led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which I should do.” (1 Nephi 4:6.)
Call for Stories
I would love to hear about your experiences with meditation, past, present and future. You know where to email them to me. I am especially interested in stories for the book, so if you have any that relate to conception, pregnancy, birth or mothering, please send them my way.