A Guide to Meditating with the Saints
Practice Before You Go
A peaceful environment is usually necessary for meditation. Unfortunately, with their many distractions, the shrines are not always the most suitable environments for focusing inwardly. But, with practice, you will learn to shut out most external disturbances. You also do not need to visit saints’ shrines to experience their grace. In fact, you should practice before going on pilgrimage by meditating on the saints you will be visiting. Because the large shrines are filled with many pilgrims and tourists, you will sometimes feel like you have connected to a saint better at home than halfway around the world in a noisy environment. Each way of experiencing the saints is valid. Even with a lot of noise, we have often felt the saints’ special presence pierce through the commotion and move us to tears by their sweetness.
At first, it is a good idea to start meditating at home for short periods of time (five to ten minutes), and then lengthen the time as your body becomes accustomed to sitting quietly for longer periods (half hour to an hour). With any new behavior, it is a good idea to form the habit of meditating at the same time of day or night. Good times to meditate are upon awakening, before lunch, after work, or before retiring at night. Make the time convenient for yourself, and when you won’t be disturbed.
When you are ready to meditate, find a quiet room, unplug the phone, and use headphones or earplugs if your surroundings are noisy. Dress comfortably or loosen your belt, and use a light blanket for warmth if needed. Sit on a straight-backed chair with your spine upright, and away from the back of the chair. Experiment with using a small pillow under your sit bones, to slightly raise and tilt the pelvis forward. Your feet should be flat on the floor. Put your hands, palms up, resting on the crease between the thighs and the hip. This will help keep your shoulders back and chest open.
If you are accustomed to sitting on a cushion on the floor, or you have special needs, experiment and choose the sitting position that works best for you. On pilgrimage, you will mostly be sitting on hard wooden benches or standing. So, even though you might not think that sitting with your spine straight is comfortable now, you will have less creature comforts at the shrines. That is why sitting for longer and longer periods will train your body to be accustomed to meditation, and after awhile it will not protest so much.
When you are comfortable, close your eyes and mentally relax each body part, slowly, one by one. Focus on relaxing your head, neck, face, and jaw and so on, all the way down through your body to your toes. You will be surprised how much tension you hold in the different muscles.
If you find it difficult to relax, do some yogic stretching that involves deep breathing and slow, conscious movements. A simple stretch is bending forward from the waist while standing, until your upper body is hanging loosely with neck and shoulders relaxed. Continue to breathe and relax a bit more with each exhalation, allowing your head and shoulders to sink toward the floor. Then, on a final exhalation, slowly return to standing, bringing your arms up over your head and slightly back with your palms together, bending the spine just a few inches in the opposite direction of the forward bend. Return to standing with your arms down at your side. Only go as far as is comfortable, never forcing the movement or bouncing.
Another easy technique for relaxation is to take a deep inhalation, hold the breath and tense the entire body. Then release the tension by forcing the breath out on the exhalation. Do this two or three times. When you feel relaxed, return to sitting upright with eyes closed.
In order to meditate, the body must be relaxed, or it will distract you with all its aches and pains. But you don’t want to be so relaxed that you fall asleep. That is why it is important that you remain in an upright position with your spine straight, shoulders slightly back and chin parallel to the floor. In the beginning, you might spend more time relaxing than focusing inwardly, but eventually you will be able to develop the habit of relaxation immediately upon sitting.
Sitting in an upright position, begin to be aware of your breathing by focusing on your breath going in and out of the lungs. Follow the breath from the nostrils into your lungs, then follow the breath out again. Instead of just breathing from the top of your chest, your chest and stomach should move in and out together, stretching the diaphragm. If your stomach is not moving in and out, practice breathing into your stomach by gently pushing it out on the inhale.
Eventually, your breaths will become longer and deeper, similar to when you are sleeping, which in turn will help you to relax even more. Check in with your body from time to time to see if it is relaxed, with a straight spine. If you continue to be tense, imagine breathing into that area of tension, and letting go of the tension on the exhale. Then return your attention to the breath.
Another simple technique to help you focus is to inhale through the nose to a count that is comfortable for you (6-8 or 8-10), hold the breath for the same count, and then exhale through the nose on the same count. Continue immediately with your next inhalation. You can practice this three or more times.
As you continue to watch the breath, you are learning how to focus. It seems like a very simple exercise and that not much is happening. But as you try to meditate on your breath for any length of time, you will notice how much your mind can wander. This can be frustrating in the beginning because the mind, like a wild horse, does not want to be tamed. But, with patience, and most of all practice, you will begin to notice that you are more peaceful and calm. Each time you catch your mind going hither and yon, gently bring it back to your breathing.
Open Your Heart
We have all had the feeling of openheartedness when we see a smiling baby, a playful puppy, or a beautiful sunset. This feeling is in us all the time, and we can practice in meditation opening up to our inner sweetness and joy. Because of the hurts and traumas we have experienced in life, our hearts may have protective layers defending us against further pain. Through meditation and feeling the unconditional love of the Divine, the heart will begin to relax more. This might mean that tears of pain could flow, releasing old wounds. This is one of the great benefits of meditation. Our hearts learn to expand instead of contract, and we become more open and loving.
Humans want to be loved more than anything else, and when the heart contains so much pain, it is unable to receive the love we desire. The unconditional love of the Divine heals all wounds. The saints are good examples of how to let go of our attachments to the past and feel the presence of God in the present. Visualize offering your pain to the Divine on the exhalation, then allow unconditional love to replenish your heart on the inhalation. Continue imagining the Source of all Love filling you completely. Eventually, your tears will turn from those of grief to tears of gratitude. The heart will be touched with so much love your pain will eventually melt into joy.
After you are calm, relaxed and focused, visualize your heart open and loving. Imagine this love expanding out in concentric circles beyond your body to include at first your loved ones, then your community and eventually the world. Breathe naturally and be receptive to what feelings or intuitions come.
The Spiritual Eye or Christ Center
As you become more focused in meditation, you may see some form of light when your eyes are closed. Within each of us is a spark of the Divine, and inherent in this spark is the ability to feel connected to the Divine light. In order to perceive this light, we need to practice bringing our focus inward toward the spine and upward toward this inner light. We can do this by focusing on what is called the spiritual eye, third eye, or Christ Center that is located at the point between the eyebrows. You see this portrayed in pictures of the saints with their eyes lifted upwards. The Eastern saints are sometimes painted with a ray of light radiating from their spiritual eye. Jesus explained this technique when he said, “If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22)
With eyes closed, turn your eyes slightly upward, focused about an arm’s length away, but looking through the point between the eyebrows. Do not strain or cross your eyes; your eyes should feel comfortable and relaxed. As your practice deepens, you may feel sensations or a slight tingling at the point between the eyebrows. At some point, you may begin to see light at the spiritual eye, and eventually a five-pointed silver star in a field of blue, surrounded by a golden halo. This representation is apparent to people of all faiths. Some people see this light early on in their meditation practices and others never see it. It is not necessary to see this light to feel a Divine connection, so don’t be concerned if you are not able to. It is not an overt sign of your depth of spirituality. Focus on the spiritual eye as often as you can, especially while practicing all your meditation techniques.
Bring your attention now to the air passing through your nostrils, and focus on it flowing to the point between the eyebrows. It might help to put your finger at the point between the eyebrows at first to help you visualize the air reaching its destination. As you do this, repeat silently two or three words that have spiritual meaning to you. For example, on the inhale mentally repeat “Jesus” and on the out breath “Christ” or “A” - “men” or “I am” “Spirit.” Practice this for several minutes, or as long as you want, always bringing your attention back to the spiritual eye if it wanders.
Feel the Saints’ Presence
By using the above techniques of relaxation, focusing inward and opening, we are now more receptive to the saints’ blessings. When you are open and calm it is a good time to pray to the saints, asking to feel their presence. Some qualities you might experience when feeling the saints’ presence are joy, sweetness, unconditional love, or peace. These are actually manifestations of God’s consciousness within us. Imagine that you are absorbing these qualities into every cell of your body. Open your mind, body and soul, absorbing the gift of grace that you have prayed for. Try not to let your mind wander and miss out on this opportunity. This special grace can disappear in a flash, and you will want to take advantage of each moment, bathing in the rays of the saints’ blessings. Then hold on to the experience, carrying it with you as you go about your day. Any time, anywhere, by closing your eyes, and focusing on the spiritual eye, you can recall the particular qualities you have felt.
In the beginning of practicing meditation, the mind wants to stay active, so it helps to have some additional tools to train the mind to maintain focus.
1. Listening to, or singing, quiet devotional songs help to open the heart and invoke the presence of the Divine before meditation.
2. Creating an altar with pictures of your favorite saints or holy ones will assist you in focusing. Look into the eyes of the saints, and feel that they are sitting in front of you. Talk out loud or silently to them, recite prayers, mantras, or the rosary when your mind is distracted. If you are unfamiliar with praying, just converse with the saints, speaking to them from your heart: “I want to know you,” or “Show me how to love God as you do.” Then, close your eyes and bring your attention inward and upward, imagining the picture of one of the saints at the point between your eyebrows, the spiritual eye.
3. Another useful tool is to create a personal relationship with a saint. As you read about the saints’ lives in this book, feel as if you know them and are familiar with what kind of people they were. What aspects of their experiences can you personally relate to? You might sense that a particular saint seems like a father, mother, grandmother or grandfather to you. Then, as you meditate on them, you will begin to know their unique vibration. When you visit their shrines, you will find it easier to tune into their vibration because it will already be familiar.
4. It is generally not a good idea to meditate after a meal, when your body is preoccupied with digestion. Better to wait at least a half hour, or up to three hours, depending on how big the meal is. Caffeinated beverages speed up the body and mind, and are not conducive to a calm, meditative, mental state. We once made the mistake of having a strong cappuccino before we visited a shrine. Unfortunately, we were too wound up to focus inwardly and ended up leaving. Depending on how you react to caffeine, you might want to wait a half hour to an hour after consuming the stuff. In Italy, with the best cappuccinos available everywhere you look, that can be a challenge to your will power and your schedule!
5. When visiting the shrines, try to look for quiet places to sit and meditate. In the description of the shrines at the end of each chapter, we make note of suitable places available for quiet contemplation. If one is not available, you won’t regret bringing earplugs to help block out most sound.
For the purposes of experiencing pilgrimage, you will need just the basic meditation techniques described above. More in-depth methods are taught in many excellent books on meditation, some of which are in the resources section in the appendix. For further instruction, please refer to them when you are ready to move beyond these simple techniques. Joining a meditation group can be helpful not only because it is easier to learn to meditate with others, but also because a good group leader can guide you through the learning process. Meditation groups can be found through churches, spiritual bookstores and on the Internet.
Typical Meditation Routine
1. Find a quiet room where you will not be disturbed.
2. Do several stretches to release tension in your body, or inhale, tense all your muscles and then release the tension on the exhale.
3. Sit on a chair with your spine erect and not touching the back of the chair. Your chin should be parallel to the floor, feet flat on the floor, and hands with palms facing upwards, resting on the crease between your thighs and hip. Begin with a prayer from your own heart.
4. Close your eyes, breathe naturally, and check your body from head to toe for tension. Breathe into any areas of tension, relaxing the tension on the exhalation. Mentally relax by letting go of all worries, thoughts and distractions.
5. Inhale slowly through the nose to a count that is comfortable. Hold the breath for the same count and exhale for the same count. Repeat for several rounds.
6. Follow the breath entering the nostrils, traveling into the lungs and out again. The relaxation steps 1 6 should take about three to five minutes. With eyes closed, turn your eyes upward, looking through the point between your eyebrows (spiritual eye). Your focus should be fixed about an arm’s length away and relaxed. Gaze at this point throughout your meditation.
7. Follow the air passing through the nose, to the point between the eyebrows, then back out again. Repeat “A men,” or other words that have spiritual meaning to you, on the inhalation and exhalation. Do this technique for half of your remaining meditation time.
8. When you feel calm and peaceful, invoke the presence of the saint by asking: “St. ________, help me to feel your presence and the grace of God that flows through you. Bless me and (others you are praying for), by guiding us on our spiritual path.” Or pray in your tradition through the saint you have called upon. After invoking their presence, sit in the silence and absorb the peace and grace they are sharing with you. This should constitute the final half of your meditation time. End with a prayer of gratitude, bringing the peace and inner calmness of meditation into your daily activities.