The Ancient Practice of Reading Meditation
Today, we are always cramming our minds with information — scrolling through social media even when we have a spare five minutes (often because we want to avoid eye contact with other people in public). And we are always rushing to get things done. We rush to meet deadlines at work. And we try to cram as much into our downtime as possible, to compensate for the pressures in the office.
While we’re not always conscious of it, consequently, we live our entire lives in a state of low-level stress, always worried about the future.
When we read, we often merely skim. Our objective is to find the information or ideas that confirm our biases. Consequently, we will skim over anything that challenges us or will misinterpret what a writer is saying so that we don’t have to think about it.
As an author, I occasionally come across people who tell me that they enjoyed one of my books so much that they ended up reading it in three hours straight. While I’m always glad they enjoyed my work, it’s not possible to really read, and digest, a book in a few hours. (Probably not even in a few days.) You might even have had the experience of returning to a book after ten or twenty years and finding it so much more profound than you had on first reading it.
Below I’m going to describe an ancient practice of reading for meditation called lection divina (literally “divine reading”). This practice was developed by Benedictine monks and I first heard about it while staying in a Benedictine monastery in England a few decades ago.
Technically, this practice has four stages:
- lectio (read).
- meditatio (meditation)
- oratio (pray)
- contemplatio (contemplate)
While we’ll look at a more simplified form, here’s how to practice with the traditional stages:
Lectio: Sit comfortably and read a passage of a sacred book (in Benedictine monasteries, of course, this would have been the Bible). Only read a passage. And read it slowly and with full attention. don’t keep reading further into the book. You can re-read the passage as necessary, thinking about the words and what they mean.
Meditatio: Once you’ve slowly read the passage several times, just think about the words for several minutes more. Think about what they mean.
Oratio: Traditionally, the reader would pray to God, entering into a kind of spiritual conversation with the divine, to gain greater understanding.
Contemplatio: I’ve discussed contemplatio before in relation to the mind. (You can find that article here.) During this stage, the meditator remains in a state of quietude. Remain calm, relaxed, with the mind stilled. Contemplate any insights that might have come to you.
Okay, so let’s look at a simplified version, which is equally effective:
Again, sit comfortably, and read a short passage from a book of your choice. (I strongly recommend an ancient text — religious or philosophical. These are written in a different way to modern books and are more conducive to reading meditation.) Read the passage slowly. Think about it, and re-read until you feel you understand its message.
Now, remaining in a calm and relaxed state, contemplate the meaning of the passage. Do not try to force conclusions.
Lastly, allow the mind to be clear. Relax, focus on your breathing, and just “be in the moment.” You will find that, as you allow the conscious mind to relax and the subconscious mind to play a role in the process of reading (making connections, recalling memories, etc.), different ideas and associations will come to you.
Ultimately, you will understand the passage in a much deeper way. And you will get more out of one passage that you will out of ten pages if you practice lectio divina.