A Short Interfaith Guide to Meditation Practices

by Jim Garrison and Jim Burklo

Jim Garrison, retired head of the Fine Arts Department at Crystal Springs Uplands School, is a member and meditation teacher at College Heights Church, UCC, in San Mateo, CA.
Rev. Jim Burklo is the Associate Dean of Religious Life at USC. He is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor, and is the author of the books Open Christianity and Birdlike and Barnless.


We live much of our lives as if in a dream state, responding to events and to people in nearly automatic, routine ways. It is very easy to forget ourselves, to be spiritually absent while physically present. Our lives can go on without us, it seems! Meditation and prayer help us to reclaim the lives that God gives us. They are ways to live life from its center rather than from its edges. And at that center point, according to the mystical traditions of many religions, we will encounter God.

Often, prayer is associated with talk addressed to God, usually in the form of requests for help for one’s self and others. But this is only one of many practices of prayer. Meditation gets associated with Eastern religions, and specifically with some of the more popular approaches like “TM”. But there is a very long tradition of meditative practices in each of the world’s religions. Many of the historic Christian meditation disciplines are strikingly similar to those used by Hindus and Buddhists, for instance. For many people, prayer and meditation have become synonymous terms; in a mystical union with the divine, the distinctions between the two practices are blurred.

The techniques of prayer and meditation outlined here are intended for use in silent contemplation of 15 minutes or more at a time. But these practices have great utility in everyday life outside of contemplation, as well. What we gain in daily prayer and meditation can help us to live the rest of our lives from our spiritual center points. Here we present four ways to meditate and pray.

Contemplation on Writings of Saints and Seekers

First, get ready for a period of at least 15 minutes of silence and stillness. It’s better not to meditate on a full stomach; a recent meal will be likely to reduce your alertness and make you drowsy during the silent period. It’s best to get your body into a position that is comfortable but which will make it more likely that you’ll remain alert. In the Hindu tradition, yoga was developed as a physical exercise to get the body ready for prayer and meditation. Yoga or other simple stretching exercises can help make you alert and comfortable during meditation. It is especially helpful to sit in a position in which your spine is upright. This can be achieved by many means: sitting on the floor in the lotus position is only one of them. It does not matter which position you take — whether on the floor or in a chair or sofa — as long as you find one that works for you. Tucking a pillow under your tailbone, but not under your thighs and legs, may help in keeping the spine erect. Practice positions until you find one that allows you to be relaxed and yet prevents you from getting lethargic. Conscious breathing can help get you ready for silence, also: pretend that as you take in a breath, you are filling your stomach with air first, and then your lungs. When you exhale, think of pushing the air out of your stomach first and then out of your lungs.

Pick a short paragraph or sentence for contemplation, and either memorize it or put it on a card in fron of you so that you can glance down at it. Personal favorites are the Prayer of St. Francis, Psalms 8, 100, and 139, and Romans 8: 18-28. The passage you choose will reveal more and more of its layers of meaning as you repeat it over and over, silently, thoughtfully, and slowly, for at least 15 minutes.

Other thoughts will arise as you keep repeating the passage. It is normal for disturbing thoughts to come up, some of which may seem overwhelming or even frightening. Don’t resist them: simply acknowledge them and go on with the repetitions. Such distractions can become meditiation teachers. They reveal how little control we have over our thoughts, most of the time. And in the silence, the dark side of ourselves is often revealed, a darkness to recognize and to explore. Meditation gives us a chance to discern spirits within us which we otherwise ignore or avoid, but which have great influence on our lives, nonetheless. Meditation may reveal issues for which counseling, therapy, or other interventions may be helpful.

Continue with the meditation, and don’t be concerned whether or not you are doing it “right”. Meditation is not a competitive sport — even if you try to play it against yourself!

Mantras and Chants

Similar to the use of longer passages, chants and mantras are means of meditation. In silence, take 15 minutes to repeat, over and over, a single chant or mantra, either aloud or in silence. Chants are simple phrases of music that can be easily memorized and repeated over and over, both in song and in the mind during the silence. Chants and mantras may have meanings, but they are different than contemplation. The repetition itself is a way to focus the mind, quite apart from the meaning of the chant or mantra. Indeed, some mantras are “nonsense” words or phrases intended to interrupt one’s usual train of thought to allow a deeper awareness to emerge.

Singing a chant such as “Kyrie eleison” — “Lord have mercy” — over and over can invoke the direct experience of the mercy and grace of God. The “Om” or “Aum” of the Hindu tradition is a physical as well as mental or spiritual experience. The sound is expressed first at the lips, then at the back of the mouth, then in the sinuses. It not only focusses the mind, but clears the throat and nasal passages as well! In the Hindu tradition, chanting the “Om” is making a sound that is God. “Om” is not only a name of God, but the sound itself is a manifestation of divinity. Chanting “Om” is prayer, and it is the answer to prayer, as well.

Mantras are simple phrases, sometimes without definite meanings, which, when repeated aloud and then in silence, can have similar effects to chants. Some mantras are simple statements, such as praises or utterances of the names of God. Others have an intercessory content. The Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me” — is an ancient Christian mantra. Repeating a mantra can be helpful in staying focussed in the meditation and at the same time staying open to whatever experience is appropriate in the course of the silence. The Rosary, in the Catholic and the Islamic traditions, involves repetition of mantras while fingering beads. Gandhi’s mantra was “Rama, Rama” — one of the names of God and also the root of the word “to rejoice” in Sanskrit. “Baruch atoh Adonai” — “Blessed art thou, O Lord” — and “Ribono shel olam” — “Lord of the Universe” — are Hebrew mantras. In Islam, “Allahu akbar” — “God is great” or just “Allah” are mantras. “Om mane padme hum” is the Buddhist mantra meaning “the jewel in the lotus of the heart”, referring to the radiant divinity at the center of every person. Eknath Easwaran, a meditation teacher, suggested that this kind of mantra, while it can be used for meditation, can also be used at odd moments during your day — while falling asleep, when doing a repetitious task, or when sitting in a waiting room. Or you can use it in times of stress or anger to call upon God. Eventually, the mantra can surface spontaneously, unconsciously, fulfilling Paul’s challenge to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). In the book, “The Way of the Pilgrim”, a Russian monk repeated the Jesus prayer continuously for years, and it had a profoundly positive influence in his life and in the lives of the people he touched along his path.

Other mantras are sentences such as “The splendor of God is a human being fully alive, and life of a human being is the contemplation of God” (Irenaeus). Or you can make a mantra of something you specifically desire, as a prayer of petition: “Grant me patience and courage” or “Help me get through this crisis” or “I want my friend to be healed”.
In using a mantra which is a prayer of petition, try to make it an “I” statement, an honest expression of your most heartfelt personal desire and need. Again, in prayer and meditation, a deep acceptance and forgiveness is available to us. Our desires and needs can be respected in prayer, no matter what they may be. Sometimes these mantras are called “affirmations” when they are statements of your intentions. Let your affirmations reflect the reality of your current position while expressing desires to which you have committed yourself.

If your mind wanders while you repeat your chant or mantra, you are in good company! There is no need to be hard on yourself. Acknowledge your distractions gently and return your attention to the chant or mantra.

The act of invoking God in the chant or mantra can induce a direct experience of divine presence. This is the experience called mysticism: the union of God with the seeker. It is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer to God for his followers in John 17: “The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.”

The Bubble Meditation

In silence, observe your thoughts as they arise spontaneously and naturally. Don’t resist them. Meditation is not so much about clearing the mind as it is about becoming mindful. In this meditation, imagine that each thought is enclosed in a bubble as soon as it arises. The bubble floats upward as you, with loving acceptance, observe the thought or image. The bubble floats away and the next thought arises in a bubble that rises slowly and passes.

After a while in this meditation, you will discover that you have become the observer of your life as well as the subject of your observation. This is the divine perspective. As Meister Eckhart, the 14th century German priest and mystic, put it: “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me.” In this meditation, your loving, accepting attention toward your life, as it arises and floats past your, is God’s love and acceptance of you. Enjoy this unconditional love as you let the bubbles form and rise and float away, one at a time.

In the Hindu tradition there is a description for our everyday consciousness. It is called “the monkey mind”. It leaps wildly from thought to thought, seemingly at random, like a monkey playing among the branches of a tree, with little intention or direction. In this meditation, you can watch the monkey mind at play, and enjoy its antics. As you watch, you may not be completely released from the monkey mind, but you will become something in addition to it. You will be the observer, and not just the monkey you are watching swing from the branches!

Counting Breaths

In this meditation, count your breaths as you sit in silence. Breathe from your gut, pretending to fill your stomach with air first, and exhale from the stomach first. This is called “yogic breathing”. This meditation, by focussing on an automatic physical process, centers your attention on the here-and-now. It interrupts the usual pattern of your thoughts, and enables you to attend to the most basic realities of your existence. Again, it teaches you how far your mind is out of your control most of the time. And it reveals how much of your attention is ordinarily focussed on other people, other places, other times than the present. It isn’t that your ordinary way of experiencing life is so bad: it is just that you don’t usually notice that there is any other way of experiencing it. Counting your breaths for at least 15 minutes can convince you that the present time, the present place, and your present state of being is worth noticing. It is another way to gain the divine perspective of the loving observer of yourself as you actually are, in the here-and-now.

Meditation, Prayer, and Everyday Living

Meditation is a discipline which can have profound effects on your everyday life. Assuming the stance of the observer is a means to experience God in prayer, but it is a very useful stance in relationships, as well. If you can be not only a participant in the daily human drama, but an accepting, insightful observer also, you will be less likely to become a victim of your drama, and rather be more likely to pick and choose your roles in it. And when you lovingly observe others in the midst of the drama, letting them know that you accept and honor them, you manifest God’s presence in our world.