Meditation through prayer?

As some of my readers will know, I have been increasingly interested in the Buddhist traditions. Over the last 18 months, I have read a lot about this philosophy; learned about meditation; and increased my meditation practice from about 15 mins every few months, to about 1 hour every day.

Last Sunday, I was listening to Radio National’s “The Spirit of Things” podcast while gardening. The podcast I listened to was an old one, from the 3rd of June, 2007. Halfway through the program, the presenter discussed a mediaeval mystical text called “The Cloud of Unknowing”. This book has been used by the World community of Christian meditation, an organisation I did not know anything about until last week. Rather than re-write about the central message of this book, let me quote from the Podcast:

“You have first a Cloud of Forgetting, which means forget all the thoughts that have to do with your own personal life, in fact do what Jesus said, leave self behind. That’s the Cloud of Forgetting, because all our personal thoughts are ego thoughts, are in a way a veil, a cloud between us in God. We’re so caught up in our own thoughts that we cannot see beyond the reality of God that completely envelops and penetrates us, we can’t see that.

But then when you go on, you then come to the Cloud of Unknowing, and the whole idea is that God cannot be known rationally. Our brains are much too limited. We are very proud, quite rightly, of our achievements of the mind, but they are nothing compared to God, and we cannot conceive of God. So it is the cloud of Unknowing is coming to that acceptance that God is more than we think, that God is limitless, cannot be caught, hence the Cloud of Unknowing. And it’s also to go back to what I said to Jung, it’s going from the rational knowledge of the mind, into the intuitive knowledge of the heart where you actually know intuitively. So it is a way of letting go. Of one way of knowing and entering another way of knowing. In my book, I explain that very much in brain terms. But it is the early desert fathers, very much talked about moving from the mind to the heart, which is exactly what The Cloud of Unknowing is saying again.”

Having just read a number of books on Buddhism , I was flabbergasted to find so many similarities between the messages in ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ and some of my recent reads (such as ‘Buddhism for busy people’). In both cases, there is an argument that we must let go of our ‘mind’ / ego in order to reach spiritual realisation. In both cases we are told to stop the incessant chatter of our brains, and to move our attention to our centre: our heart.

At the end of the podcast, I was left wondering: Is there really that much difference between a buddhist monk and a christian monk in a monastery? Are they not using similar techniques (mantras and meditation for the buddhist; prayer and reflection for the christian) to achieve a state of high consciousness and spiritual enligthenment?

For the first time in my life, I looked at some of the traditional practices of life in a monastery with a very different eye. It no longer seems like the practices of individuals that are trying to punish themselves. Instead, I started to understand that the practices of some of these priests are designed to achieve the same level of detachment and acceptance sought after by meditating Buddhists.

Am I going too far? I am a total amateur at comparative religion, so this post will look positively childish to anyone who is well versed in these topics. But as a child that wonders in amazement at the simplest discoveries, I have enjoyed the experience of discovering new interpretations to some simplistic ideas I have held on to for a long time.

, of christian origins.

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One response to “Meditation through prayer?

  1. I’ve asked myself the same question a number of times—and given that I’m an interfaith dialogue right now, they keep coming up! A book you may be interested in is William James’ Varietes of Religious Experience, where he essentially suggests that there are certain psychological “types” of religious people, who are very similiar to each other across traditions. Mystical experience, he argues, tends to be the same (or at any rate, similiar) regardless of one’s religion. So is devotion—compare the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Latin America and the veneration of Bodhisattva Guan Yin in East Asia. Another compelling read is Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy, where he takes the idea of a “universal mystical core” to all religions and runs with it.

    I’d also suggest checking out St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart, both Christian mystics whose experiences bear more than a passing resemblance to the experiences of Buddhist and Hindu mystics.

    Personally, speaking as somebody who is neither a Christian nor a Buddhist, I can find an immense amount of spiritual treasures in both traditions that enrich my own practices.

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