Déjà vu

Back in my B.C. days in the seventies, I took up transcendental meditation. I paid my $50, attended a few initiation meetings, and then received in private my mantra. The mantra was to be personal to me, not shared with other people. (It was “ohm.” Right. Very personal.) Basically, one sat up straight and systematically relaxed one’s muscles, then systematically emptied one’s mind; and then, for 20 minutes, twice a day, silently spoke one’s mantra, repeating the mantra if any thought, image, or feeling interrupted. Very restful.

Anyway, I practiced T.M. for quite a long while, and found it to have the positive effects that were advertised: my life was more peaceful, I felt more equanimity. I did not pursue the practice beyond that point as some others did, like following a guru, or pursuing Buddhism, etc. The experience was practical and effective, not religious, rather (I suspect) like yoga, which can be practiced to strengthen muscles and gain flexibility—or it can have a “spiritual” purpose. Anything can be spiritual if you want it to be.

I’ve just returned now from a retreat on contemplative prayer at a Trappist monastery. One monk explained and discussed Lectio Divina. He was Christian, Catholic, and he was intelligible. The other two talked about “centering prayer,” as taught by Trappist Thomas Keating in the eighties. It is the same transcendental meditation I learned and practiced in the seventies. It isn’t similar—it is the same in every way. The only difference is that the term “prayer word” is substituted for “mantra.” And like T.M., centering prayer disallows all thoughts, images, feelings, including thoughts of Christ, the saints, or the Father, because, like T.M., one should not think. If thoughts intervene, they should be dismissed by returning to the mantra—I mean, the prayer word. I had stopped my practice of T.M. at the point of “believing” in it as a religion. Centering prayer does not stop there; it’s a religion, and it’s not Christian. One monk habitually began some of his comments by referring to “the buddha.” Another dismissed Mass attendance as unimportant.

Disappointed, saddened, I returned home. I don’t regard the Buddha as an authoritative reference on Christian spirituality. Beyond the body of knowledge I gained in my very good liberal arts education, I have no interest in pursuing non-Christian spirituality. That same education also protected me from believing one monk’s comment that the Church forbade laity from contemplative prayer right up until Trappist Thomas Keating came along in the 1980s and taught it to everyone. I already have a faith. I seek to deepen that faith, amazingly rich, which has had in its spiritual treasure for two thousand years, the contemplative prayer of the desert fathers and Jewish mystics even before that. How sad to find that treasure ignored, especially by those who have vowed to spend their lives learning it. I practiced T.M. ten years before Keating “discovered” it, re-named it, and taught it as “prayer.” But even I had the common sense to know it was an effective psychological technique for the relief of anxiety and depression. Nothing more.

I did a brief google search when I came home and found comments somewhat more charitable than my own at this address:

http://www.spiritualdirection.com/2015/09/28/can-i-trust-father-thomas-keating

Dena Hunt
Dena Hunt is the author of the award-winning historical novel Treason (Sophia Institute Press), and The Lion’s Heart (Full Quiver Press), as well as several short stories and reviews, online and in print, at Dappled Things, StAR, and The Pilgrim Journal. She also writes for FaithCatholic, a liturgical publication company. She is currently working on her third novel. She is the book review editor of St. Austin Review.

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