When I was about seven and having trouble sleeping, someone told me the sheep-counting trick. I tried it, but my sheep didn’t scamper up to a fence and hop over it one by one, like they were supposed to. They charged the fence in a mass of matted wool and sharp hooves. The more I tried to shepherd them into a single line to be counted, the more frustrated and less sleepy I got.
There’s probably something psychologically revealing about myself in that story. Maybe I’ve always been anxious or I resist relaxing because it’s boring. Whatever the reason, I tend to lose sleep and overuse my brain to the point of migraines. Sometimes these headaches bring me to the massage therapist to work out the knots in my neck.
“Do you meditate?” my therapist asked me one day.
Meditate? Like sit in a lotus position, close my eyes, and try to banish the stampeding sheep in my brain?
The word makes me think of the man who lives down the hall from me in my condo complex. He burns incense and ignores the maintenance man pounding on his door until he’s finished with his practice. I’m not familiar with his eastern traditions, but I admire his focus.
I don’t do any of those things my neighbor does, but I figure my own Christian faith traditions count.
“Sure,” I say to my therapist. “I meditate.”
I read scripture and search for personal meaning, stopping to savor individual verses for as long as I can. I pray about the things I’m grateful for and the long list of things I need help with. If pondering scripture and praying aren’t meditating, I don’t know what is.
“That’s good,” my therapist says. “Meditation helps with stress.”
It turns out maybe I’m not meditating after all.
I’ve been noticing lately that my prayers, while sincere, don’t always center me on realities bigger than myself for as long as I’d like. Sometimes I don’t make it past the door before I’m swallowed up in the bedlam of the day. I decide to find out how an analytical, non-incense-burning, headache-prone person like me can find more lasting peace.
First, I learn that some who practice meditation encourage studying prayers and their meaning before meditating. The studying and prayers are not meditation; they are preceding steps.
Next, I learn that meditation can mean a variety of things. Some empty their minds by focusing only on the sound of their breath. Others fill their minds with positive words, setting their intentions for the day.
The second approach appeals to me. I like purpose, and I like words. As a Christian, it occurs to me that Jesus called Himself the Word. Is there something powerfully faith-building in simple letters strung together? Through using a few mindfully chosen words, might I grow closer to the Word?
Finally, I try it. After reading scripture one morning, I pray and voice my hopes: “Today I read scripture to experience Your wisdom and love. I would like these influences to stay with me through the day, and I will try to let them sink deeper into my mind and heart through meditation. Please help me.”
I sit on the floor. Yes, in the lotus position. I’ve read that sitting with a straight back is the best way to maintain alertness, and since I’m sleep deprived again, I’ll take any tips I can get.
With the first inhale and exhale, I think of two words: “Divine love.” With the second inhale, I focus on two more words: “Divine wisdom.” At first, my practice doesn’t seem like anything special. Getting some extra oxygen first thing in the morning is nice, but I don’t sense much change.
I meditate for only five or ten minutes. When I stand, I notice right away I’m walking a little closer to heaven. And it lasts. The fits and frustrations and stampeding sheep of the day don’t overwhelm me like they normally would. Beginning the morning in stillness slows the clock, giving me the capacity to see, think, and feel before reacting.
With scripture study, prayer, and meditation, I finally have all my sheep in a row.