I began to meditate as a teenager. My youthful Christian piety guided me. I tried to practice stillness so that my spirit could be in union with the divine. I began this arduous task because I believed by reading the bible daily, alongside books of spiritual meditation, I would understand biblical passages and references more accurately, and by doing so become more deeply Christian. This I believed would make me more fully human. The practice of spiritual inwardness, of course, had centuries on me.
Then, I had no idea that there was a longer, richer, and even a quixotic history of prayers and meditation emanating from Coptic, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics orders and monasteries and later Protestants. Back then, all I was trying to do was understand myself amid the confusion of being a black male teenager in Chicago’s Byzantine politics during the Vietnam War years—which created its own internal discombobulation—and the Watergate hearings that reached its apex, revealing the sordidness of President Nixon’s presidency. In retrospect, I suppose there was no better time to try to be contemplative.
Meditating led me to read meditations, which fortuitously aided me to make life choices such as selecting a college, navigating my angst, indecision, insecurities, and discovering my vocation. In other words, how or what would I commit my life to? How would I serve others? To what end was my life directed? Being contemplative as a teen was difficult. I was always falling off the wagon it seems. It requires daily practice.
Though it was difficult, I learned something about the writing life early. I began keeping a journal and in that journal, I wrote down my thoughts, despairs, and hopes. I also learned to listen to others. Discussions with my mother, passages from biblical verses, or a rich paragraph from a novel. As I practiced sitting still, I tried to find my inner-self through the exercise of quiet to halt my internal rumblings—the negatively deceitful and vain voices that caused me disquiet.
In my teen years, I did not realize how much being meditative was daily practice. While my meditative practices were derived from a youthful journey of faith, I soon began to see the universality of meditation. What is so interesting to me is that the writing life necessitates some form of meditation. Writing, whether it is writing fictional characters or describing entrenchment of power, must come from a place of silence. Writing requires an inwardness, a conscious listening.
This is why so many writers seek a form of their own monastic cells, a deeply quiet place. A place to scurry away from the madness of daily living in order to make sense of our quotidian existence. We all occupy worlds filled with The God of Small Things, as Arundhati Roy’s title aptly sums up. So as writers, we must create spaces and places that allow us to see ourselves, others, and all the worldly machinations in all its raw beauty and its accompanying despicable ugliness.
The late Toni Morrison often said her characters talked to her. They could not talk to her if she was not sitting still enough to listen. And that’s the point of meditation. It is rarely mentioned that Morrison had a mystical side. She was baptized a Catholic. Her Catholic baptismal name commemorated St. Anthony. Among Roman Catholics, Anthony of Padua is venerated as the saint of lost items and lost people. Morrison’s birth name was Chloe, which people often mispronounced, but her baptismal name was Anthony, which was shortened to Toni. And like her baptismal namesake her novels recovered the lost. She restored souls who needed to speak from the discarded bins of history and moral disasters. Her characters tell us of hurt and confusion, life and death, love and loneliness–Cholly and Pecola Breedlove, Malcolm “Milkman” Dead III, Sully Peace, and Baby Suggs. By listening meditatively to her characters, she wrote deeply about the human condition itself. In a sense, she recovered for us the lives of the lost and gives voice to those who are perhaps losing their lives.
Meditations have been written by ancients and moderns, as well as the religious and the secular. Whether it is the Roman Caesar Marcus Aurelius giving stoic reflection on the burden of leading Rome, or Augustine of Hippo writing his confessions on the corrosive effects of Rome in shaping his faith or Medieval Teresa Avila; the Spanish founder of the Carmelite nuns, offering us an arresting embodied love for Jesus; or Howard Thurman, the African American mystic who exercised a powerful influence on a generation American activist, teaching them how to be still and retain their humanity even in violent struggle; or the Dalai Lama whose inner awareness blast a powerful light on the Chinese state, whose imperialism is determined to silence and control. To write is to meditate. It is to examine all the spirits inside ourselves and of our times. This is what the 18th century German philosopher G.W. Hegel called zeitgeist or spirit of the times.
Meditations can be found in every medium. One of my favorites in the visual arts is the American painter Andrew Wyeth’s 1952 painting “April Wind.” It is a rendering of James Loper, a friend of Wyeth, who sits on a fallen tree limb in the woods of Pennsylvania. Wyeth paints Loper from the rear so we do not see his face. We only see his back and the ring on his hand as he faces outward into the woods in a deeply meditative posture. The painting is eye-catching in its quietness. I often think of myself in the place of Loper sitting quietly and listening to my inner world and the world we inhabit. From that seat I try to reconfigure myself meditatively in order to render the world anew as a writer.