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3 min read

Meditation and meaning beyond the bee 

Beyond noticing the moment, Jane Williams sees another dimension to meditation, giving a different kind of account of what is going on.

Jane Williams is the McDonald Professor in Christian Theology at St Mellitus College.

A bee rests on a human hand sipping a liquid.
'The daily life of a bee'.
Photo by Fabian Kleiser on Unsplash.

There is an increasing recognition of the power of meditation as a practice that promotes well-being. It is even being suggested as a tool, alongside others, for managing anxiety, depression and the other mental health related symptoms of our time. 

Meditation doesn’t have to have a religious dimension to it, although it is a practice that has been found in all religious traditions, including Christianity, for centuries. The ‘techniques’ of meditation are very similar, whether used by someone who is religious or not. Meditation, at its most basic, requires us to attend to our body, hearing and calming our heart beat and our breathing, noticing the areas of tension and even pain in our body, finding a posture that can be maintained with comfort but without sloppiness for a period of time. 

The daily life of the bee 

 It also requires us to notice the moment we are in: to hear the regular sounds around us, to see the way in which light falls through the window, or from a candle flame, to see the fly or the bee, getting on with daily life. Deliberately, we do not try to control these things, or allow our busy minds to tell stories about them, or try to rearrange them in any way: we simply give them our attention.  

Although this sounds easy it is surprisingly hard, to begin with. It makes us realise how inattentive we usually are, how hard we find it to be still, how little our minds are accustomed to concentration, more used to veering wildly from one topic to another. Meditation helps us to notice this, not by asking us to do the impossible, and force our minds to emptiness, but by gently, firmly, taking each thought as it flits across our brain, and putting it down again, returning our attention to breathing, to space, to the moment we are in.  

As we continue the practice, we will probably notice patterns in our distracting thoughts, habits of worry, or self-obsession or annoyance or fantasy; we will begin to notice the depth of the channel these kinds of thoughts have dug in us, but also begin to be able to redirect the channels, and put new ones in place, channels of attention, peacefulness, gentleness to ourselves and the world. 

A different dimension 

We don’t need any religious explanation to see why such practices ‘work’ for us, who are complex and interdependent beings, who can never separate out mind, body, spirit; meditation teaches us how to attend to our wholeness. But as a Christian theologian, I can’t help seeing another dimension to meditation, which might give a different kind of account of what is going on when we meditate. 

As a Christian, I know myself to be a ‘creature’, a being made by God, not by accident, not to fulfil some lack in God, not to perform any tasks that God needed done, but simply because God’s overflowing love and creativity calls into being a universe and gives it freedom, agency and creativity of its own. God creates what is genuinely not God, and God loves what is created. That means that the complex interaction of all the processes, mental and physical, that make us human beings are gift, and meditation focuses us on this giftedness, it asks us to trust ourselves and our world as, at the deepest level, beneficent, meaning well to us. However much the world may have the power to damage us, and we to damage ourselves and each other, that is not its first and most basic effect: as we meditate, simply attending to the moment, we are blessed. 

Christian mediation also assumes that as in meditation we attend to the moment, we are also being attended to. We are not just learning to see and hear where we are, but also learning that we are seen and heard. In our crowded lives and over-busy minds, God is still present and attentive, but there are so many distractions and barriers that prevent us from noticing and receiving the loving, patient, healing attention of God.  Meditation as the ‘practice of the presence of God’, might help us see why it is such a powerful habit, because it opens in us a space to receive ourselves again from the one who made us in love, the one who came to live a human life to fill our created reality with the generosity of the Creator, the one who prays in us, endlessly, wordlessly, joyfully, that we are beloved, known, invited and set free. 

Article
Change
Character
7 min read

What’s the point of purpose?

We need a wider understanding of our purpose – grand or small.

Emerson writes on geopolitics. He is also a business executive and holds a doctorate in theology.

A white arrow on tarmac points towards a setting sun and people walking by a silhouetted lamp post.
Chris Loh on Unsplash.

In his 2009 book Start With Why, the leadership speaker and consultant Simon Sinek encourages leaders and businesses to think about their purpose. He encourages them to answer the question ‘Why?’ before moving to ‘How?’ Sinek’s book is part of an industry, with no shortage of self-help books, executive coaches and university programmes assisting individuals in finding purpose. Surely Sinek is right that a sense of mission (the ‘Why?’) needs to come before the development of a strategy (the ‘How?’ as well as ‘Who?’ ‘What?’ ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’). Yet working out our purpose is not easy. It takes time, effort, listening and crucially, an open mind.  

In a ‘purpose economy’ (to use the term coined by writer Aaron Hurst), we risk arriving at fast, superficial, or inflated purposes disconnected from the unique vocations to which we are actually called. Several years ago, I undertook a project, of which elements were shared in the Harvard Business Review. One interviewee stated ‘We are a generation that is ruthlessly comparing ourselves with those around us and our role models at the same time. And if we are not doing something exceptional or don’t feel important and fulfilled for what we are doing, we have a hard time.’ In an age dominated by social media and its emphasis on presentation of superficial images inviting us to compare ourselves with others, these are words worth dwelling on. 

This reflection struck me at the time, implying that many people believe that their purposes must be significant. Without grand purposes, we tend to struggle. That interviewee was right. Many of us value purposes involving high levels of excellence if not notoriety, whether pursuing elected political office, climbing the ranks in prestigious industries such as finance or consulting, or entering professions that are well-known and whose value can be readily explained to others (such as medicine, law or accounting).  

The problem with an idea of purpose focused on excellence is that only some people will be seen to have worthy purposes. The consequence is more ‘ruthless comparison, in which we all look over our shoulders to what our peers are doing, wondering whether their respective purposes measure up or not. Of course, this issue could be dismissed as little more than a case of early-career angst, in which ambitious self-starters seek to outdo their peers in climbing the career ladder, but I doubt this is a good explanation.  

Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. 

After all, modern workplaces are full of people, across all generations, searching for purpose. More generally, rapid industrial transition over recent decades – whether the loss of the shipbuilding or coal mines (not to mention important parts of the steel industry in recent months) in the UK, or the recent loss of manufacturing jobs in the United States – and waves of technological change leave countless thousands of people feeling lost at sea. A sense of aimlessness is amplified when personal dignity is connected to work rooted in local communities. When this industrial work vanishes seemingly overnight amid shifts in government policy and technological change.  

These examples suggest the need for a wider understanding of purpose, which makes room for many kinds of excellence, whether grand or small. Consider the example of a single mother. In comparison to the high-flying politician, business executive or university administrator, her purpose is anonymous. A paid job in the workplace is unlikely to be the source of the single mum’s purpose. Rather, the raising of a family is almost certainly the driving purpose in her life, a purpose which is nevertheless no less significant than those occupying more esteemed, high-status roles.  

In the eyes of God, the single parent is called to the vocation of parent (I don’t think there is a difference here between a vocation or purpose), possibly through an unexpected event such as a divorce or passing of a spouse. Her calling is not as impressive in the world as the more publicly recognised calling of a profession, but surely the calling is of equal value. Indeed, from a Christian perspective, the lone parent fulfills a vital role of service in raising children who can help to approximate the Kingdom of God on Earth. Martin Luther pointed it out well: every person has a divine calling providing them with purpose, whether they are aware of this or not.  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. 

How then can we define our purpose when elements of culture, technology and other forces tempt us to identify clear purposes as rapidly as possible? To start, it helps to resist the urge to form large and lengthy purposes. Our purposes are often revealed gradually. Even the most profound events altering the landscape of a person’s life must be digested slowly. Tom Wright, in his biography of Saint Paul, writes that after Paul’s encounter with Jesus while on the Road to Damascus, he returned to Tarsus for ten years to meditate on what he had learned. In all likelihood, Paul spent this time working as a tentmaker, working within a ‘small, cramped workshop,’ in which ‘he prayed, he studied, and he figured out all sorts of things.’  

It is only ‘by the end of the Tarsus decade [that] Saul had worked out in considerable detail what it meant that the One God had revealed himself in and as the crucified and risen Jesus.’ Paul’s purpose was formed over many years, ‘hammering away’ at what he learned on the Road to Damascus. Had Paul wanted to make sense of his encounter with Jesus in a single go, then his purpose would surely have been truncated, thereby limiting the fulfilment of his unique calling that transformed the world we live in today.  

Our circumstances may also limit the scope of our purposes. Our family, geography, gender, and socioeconomic situation all shape the people we become – at least in the short-term. The philosopher Robert Adams writes in Finite and Infinite Goods that ‘One’s actual circumstances condition and in various ways influence and limit one’s vocation. The vocation, however, is not the circumstances, but what one is called to do in them.’  

The idea is that a sense of what we are becoming matters more than the circumstances we find ourselves in. The question of who we wish to become is a crucial one, involving personal vision, and Adams sees this question as outweighing extensive consideration given to existing circumstances. Another idea of vocation, proposed by the theologian Oliver O’Donovan, is more gradual. He says that we come to be a certain person over time, without too much planning. Our purposes develop one day at a time. Specific events give us chances to put our purposes into action, but we do not know when these events will occur.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. 

How then can we find our purposes when they are often ambiguous, intertwined with our personal circumstances, and without too much recourse to self-help books, life coaches or university programmes recommending quick answers?  

Our purposes need to be worked out through consistent, small-scale practice of the things we enjoy. For some, this is the playing of a musical instrument, for instance the piano or guitar, two hours per day. For others, this is the constant practice of a given sport in the early hours of the morning. And for others, this is working away on a tricky mathematical problem that simply grips them.  

With this approach, clear purposes are formed over time through constant practice, rather than revealed at the outset of an activity. It is then unexpected events – as Harold MacMillan said ‘Events, dear boy, events’ – which shape us. These events may change us, setting us in entirely new directions much like Paul’s encounter on the Damascus Road, or the lone parent following a divorce or death of a spouse. But it is not only the events that create purpose. The seeds of purpose are planted well ahead of time, through practice in relation to the things that bring us joy.  

Our purposes, then, should be less a cause of anxiety requiring self-help industries – needing to figure everything out at once – than a reason for play, practice, and prayer, listening to the still small voice – perhaps the voice of God, gently leading us to a settled sense of purpose. This allows purposes we never imagined to reveal themselves to us over time, sometimes merging with – and sometimes out of – our circumstances and personal attributes that are more easily visible.  

Rather than search for fast answers to our purposes, we can take comfort knowing that we do not need to do all the work ourselves. We may begin to work out our purpose through action, but trust that our purposes will come to fruition when the time is right.