21 Feb 2013
John Main, the Irish Benedictine monk for whom our center here at Georgetown is named, tirelessly advocated the benefits meditation during the last ten years of his life. (He died in Canada at age 56 a little more than 30 years ago.)
Main did this primarily by example, that is, by meditating every day with people from all walks of life. He showed how simple meditation is, how accessible it is to everyone, and how free it could be of the cultural (read: Eastern) trappings that most people inevitably associated with it in those days.
Of course, John Main addressed other themes not only by example but also through teaching, lecturing and writing. He urged his fellow Christians, for instance, to rediscover and embrace their own ancient and theologically sound tradition of wordless, imageless contemplative prayer – a tradition that he himself had rediscovered only long after he had become a monk. At the same time, he possessed a truly ecumenical spirit, having been originally trained in meditation as a young man by Swami Satyananda, a Hindu monk who had nevertheless invited Main to meditate as a Christian.
Both men understood that religion is about conversion – but not in the way that sectarian partisans and secular skeptics most often seem to believe, namely, that it’s about changing one’s institutional affiliation or swapping one belief system for another. Conversion involves going deeply into oneself, facing reality, and being moved to action – regardless of where one has started on the surface.
Above all, though, John Main insisted on the value of submitting to and trusting the discipline of meditation itself.
In fact, for those of us whom he personally introduced to the practice, the almost complete absence of any preamble or preliminary explanation was one of the most striking features of his instruction. He urged us to just get on with it. Meditation itself would clarify matters for us far better, he thought, than any long-winded explanations on his part. Toward the end of his life Main was even increasingly of the view that, as he put it, “the less you read about meditation the better.”
There was a bit of hyperbole in such statements, and he knew it. But Main nevertheless put his finger on a psychologically astute fact: the biggest barrier by far in establishing a meditation practice – as in making progress toward any self-defined goal or ambition in life – is almost always some form of procrastination. We know what we want to do, but somehow we just don’t do it. And the more educated and sophisticated you are, the more likely that your procrastination will seem virtuous and necessary. If you are an academic, for example, you may decide that you need to review the scholarly literature before you begin. This seems very reasonable – but it may take years. Or you may feel insecure about not having read any or many books on meditation, or the right books – and which ones are the right ones, anyway? That’ll take some research to find out.
The vastness and subtlety of our ability to procrastinate isn’t limited to intellectual life. We may also convince ourselves, for instance, that we need to create a sacred space at home before launching ourselves on this road. Or we may believe that we need to find a group of like-minded people to support us before we begin our practice. Satisfying these preconditions will take time and effort, so we delay.
Under such circumstances, the fractured aphorism of G. K. Chesterton should be our guide: “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” And so it is at the John Main Center at Georgetown: meditation is worth doing, and whatever else we may leave undone or accomplish imperfectly, you can count on beginning or continuing your practice there. I think John Main would be happy to see his name on the building.