Facilitating an introductory session on the topic Tuesday evening at the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library, retired teacher/librarian Sheila Soulier used the technological advances of modern science to illustrate the benefits of meditation.
“They’ve put (people) in MRIs and discovered they can watch what’s happening in your brain while you’re meditating,” Soulier said. “So while you’re meditating, the part of your brain that … controls this whole ego thing relaxes, and the part of your brain that … reaches out to the entire cosmos, to other people and the rest of existence, becomes more active, and they see that in their MRIs as you’re meditating.
“And so you become more open to the people around you, which means you’re more accepting of other people and not so tied up with yourself.”
Soulier’s brand of Christian Meditation was originally the creation of an English monk named John Main, who had studied meditation in Malaya and sought a way to reconcile the practice with Christian religious tradition.
Looking back in history, Main discovered a Christian method of meditation dating to the fourth century that was similar to the Malayan variant, also involving a mantra and sitting in silence for long periods of time.
After receiving the approval of his superiors, Main set up a meditation house and invited laypeople of all denominations to meditate with him. His style of meditation eventually spread to many countries, including Canada.
“I started meditating in 1976 with Transcendental Meditation and … in the ’90s, I guess, I learned about Christian Meditation,” Soulier said. “I went to the retreat centre in Saskatoon, and I also learned about Buddhist meditation a few days before that … I’m very interested and very pro-meditating, but this seemed a way to combine a prayer life with the practice of meditation.”
During a meditation session, subjects sit still and upright, closing their eyes lightly as they silently repeat a single word that serves as their mantra. Soulier suggests the Aramaic word “Ma-ra-na-tha,” which translates as “Come Lord Jesus.”
You become more open to the people around you, which means you’re more accepting of other people and not so tied up with yourself. - Sheila Soulier
Participants repeat the word internally while otherwise keeping their minds blank. They typically maintain this pattern for 20-30 minutes.
“When you close your eyes and you’re sitting there, all of a sudden you’re thinking what (you) did yesterday or what (you’re) going to do tomorrow,” Soulier said. “So your mind is never in the present. It’s always jumping back and forth, and what the mantra does is it slows your mind down, and it allows you then to relax and let go of all of this, and what you’re letting go of is the ego.”
Soulier pointed to a wealth of scientific evidence on the benefits meditation can offer brain performance (improving attention and thought lucidity), physical health (lowering blood pressure, boosting the immune system) and mental health (reducing anxiety, stress, depression and risk-prone behavior).
She also described several spiritual benefits.
“You become more loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and gentle,” Soulier said. “You have more self-control, and it’s part and parcel of the same thing … You become less stressed because you’re not so concerned about your place and where you’re going and what you’re doing.”
Still, it may have been Main’s eventual successor Laurence Freeman who described those benefits in the most potent terms.
“He said it’s not just relaxation or something you do in your spare time,” Soulier said. “But what it does is it brings you back more closely to the person that God created -- the person that you’re supposed to be.”