Sometimes when I sit and meditate, a recent guilt or mistake explodes in my head and nags me the way my mother does. It plagues me again and again, and it sometimes drives me off my mediation cushion.
Some meditation teachers will suggest mindfulness to help loosen the grip of ruminative thoughts. This is helpful if you can get out of the emotional cycling by accessing the logical mind.
When a repetitive, nagging thought comes into the mind and tells you that you MUST jump on that train of thought, you reengage your awareness of the present moment by saying, “I know that I’m engaging in repetitive thoughts” or “I am aware that I’m jumping on a train of thought.” You then return to something in the present moment, such as your breath or a body sensation.
Other meditation teachers will employ a mantra to help keep you anchored in the present moment. When your mind drifts off, you speak the mantra (or sacred word) to put you back on the path. Even the Catholic rosary, using the motor skills of your fingers to move the beads while also repeating the Hail Mary and Our Father, serves as a guided meditation so your thoughts can’t drift towards unruly thoughts.
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing suggests using “God” and “sin” as simple words during contemplative work. Whereas discursive prayer might elaborate on a particular sin, asking God for forgiveness or mercy, the author suggests keeping it simple. It could be tempting to reflect on a particular sin, such as anger, but this might involve too much thinking and analyzing.
Instead, we’re asked to consider the “lump” of sin overall, like a lump in the throat. We don’t sit there and try to think about what kind of lump it is that’s choking us, we simply want to get it out of us. So even before the word “sin” arrives in our consciousness, we use that lump as a short prayer to guide us away from sinful behavior in our lives.
Similarly, he also suggests “God” as the counterbalancing prayer word to redirect us not to the many virtues, but the entirety of God. He writes:
Fill your spirit with its spiritual meaning, without concentrating particularly on any of his works, whether they be good, better, or best, physically or spiritually…All virtues they find and experience in God; for in him is everything, both by cause and by being1.
It all reverts to one thing—God alone. We remember the apophatic perspective that the author adopts—that our image of God is not God. Our reflecting upon the virtues might make us feel warm inside, and that might feel good and encourage us to do likewise.
However, this might not suffice in interrupting the nagging thoughts of sin that might bubble during our contemplation. Before we analyze and reflect, we might say the word “sin” as a prayer for God to help us remove it. Above all, God alone is our pure intention.
1. Walsh, James, pp. 197-198