why are some churches so nervous of it?

1710 - prayer day carousel

“Our greatest need,” wrote St John of the Cross, “is to be silent before this great God…for the only language he hears is the silent language of love.”(1)

Another of St. John’s teachings – that God is always speaking his one Word “in eternal silence, and in silence it must be heard”(2) – prompted the much-loved monk Thomas Keating to say, “This suggests that silence is God’s first language and that all other languages are poor translations.”(3)

Many people today, including a great many Christians, are afraid of silence. They fear that entering silence might involve losing control, losing themselves in some way. In a very important sense, they are quite right. But who might lose control and what self will be lost?

In his important book The Master and his Emissary (4), Iain McGilchrist offers a perspective from the vantage point of contemporary brain hemisphere research.

What he says corresponds to an extraordinary degree with accounts of mind and the nature of awareness/consciousness to be found in the Christian and other contemplative traditions. Let’s look at some of what McGilchrist says about the workings of the hemispheres, and then come back to the question of who might lose control and what self might be lost in entering silence.

The left hemisphere is the seat of self-consciousness. It receives information from the right hemisphere, orders and classifies the information, organises it into discrete objects, separating one type of thing from another, and presents it to us in language that is always self-reflexive, which always in some way points to itself.

The perspective of the right hemisphere is holistic, holographic and spacious. It receives new information and offers perception and insight. It can also process metaphor and navigate the uncertainly of paradox. You might describe the realm of the right hemisphere as the deep mind. Here, in the depths, the right hemisphere works unseen and unheard by the left hemisphere.

The left hemisphere takes what the right hemisphere perceives as whole and interconnected, and presents it as divided and separate. And as the workings of the right hemisphere are barely visible to it, the left hemisphere thinks that it is the Master and that its view of reality is reality. The truth, however, is that the left hemisphere is wholly dependent on the right hemisphere and that the right hemisphere is the Master.

Both types of attention – the narrow, linear perspective of the left hemisphere, and the wide, holistic, holographic perspective of the right hemisphere – are necessary. In terms of our evolution and survival, the narrow-focus lens of the left hemisphere and its ability to pay attention to detail helped us find food, while the wide-angle lens of the right hemisphere helped us avoid becoming someone else’s food while finding our own.

According to McGilchrist, the ideal working relationship between the two hemispheres requires the right hemisphere to be the Master.

With the balance of power slightly to the right, the right hemisphere is able to override the linear, atomised view of the left hemisphere and offer a wider, holistic appreciation of reality. Quite simply, the left hemisphere is good at utilising the world, the right is better at understanding it.

Unfortunately, we live in an almost entirely left-hemisphere dominated world, particularly in the West. The holistic perspective of the right hemisphere, in which reality is understood as relational and one, is not just underacknowledged, but actively denied and suppressed. In so many ways our culture encourages us to see the world as a collection of separate, divided objects, only having the loosest relationship to each other. I don’t think it’s coincidental that churches which present Christianity within a strong heaven and hell framework, which have a particular interest in who is in and who is out when it comes to salvation, often have a fear (or at least a strong distrust) of silence.

Meditation is an ancient way of shifting the balance of power from the left to the right hemisphere, of rebalancing our two ways of knowing. Saying our prayer word, following our breath, we learn to recognise and step back from the narrow-focus perspective of the self-conscious mind, so we can increasingly live within the spacious, holistic wide-angle perspective of the deep mind. God didn’t make any mistakes in our creation. We don’t need to get rid of anything. Meditation is a simple way of bringing the various aspects of our being into a new inner harmony – so we can live more harmoniously.

Now, back to the fear some have of silence - that entering silence might mean losing control, losing themselves in some way – and the question of who might lose control and what self will be lost?

We know, intuitively, in our heart, that silence, stilling the mind, is a path of wisdom, a path to fulness of life. This is what our tradition calls bringing the mind into the heart. But to walk this path takes great trust, and the loving-support of others.

In chapter 4 of Mark’s Gospel (4:35-40), Jesus says to the disciples, “Let us cross over to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, the disciples take Jesus with them into a boat. Meister Eckhart understood “leaving the crowd” to mean leaving the crowd of our thoughts, our internal mental noise. (5) We might think of meditation as the boat which helps us to leave the crowd and cross to the other side with Christ.

A great windstorm arises. Waves begin to come into the boat, so that it starts to fill with water. Alarmed, the disciples wake Jesus, who was asleep, and say to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And being woken, Jesus rebukes the wind and the sea, saying, “Silence, be still!” The wind falls away, and there was a great calm. Then Jesus says to the disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you not yet have trust?”

In meditation we practice greeting our mind-waves, the weather of our thoughts and feelings, with silence, with stillness of mind. We have to practice every day because we are so conditioned to greeting our thoughts with more thoughts, greeting our mind-waves with ever more waves. Many people identify with their mind-waves so closely that they think this is who they are. And so, to suggest a way of prayer that looks beyond them, might sound like an invitation to abandon who you are, to lose sight of yourself.

And yet, as Jesus very clearly teaches, in order to discover our real life, we need to let go of our ideas about what our life is, our life as we have conceived of it. “Whoever wishes to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole cosmos and lose their life? (Matt. 16:25-26); which is to say, “Whoever wishes to save their idea of their life will lose sight of their real life, but whoever loses their idea of their life will find their real life. What profit would there be to gain the whole cosmos of their imagining and lose their real life?”

The moment comes in meditation (and in our life) when we are willing to surrender everything, to let go of our idea of who we are, and live within God’s idea of who we are. What we discover can sound as paradoxical as it is deeply liberating. But before this awakening comes, we can barely imagine it.


“Whoever loses their life will find it...” The self, the life, we lose, is the idea of a separate self, a separate life. What we lose is the illusion that we are separate from God, from each other, from the cosmos. We discover that the “loss” is wonderful, that it is freedom; freedom to delight in the unfolding truth of our life – which we discover to be our shared life.

If you commit to meditation, you will certainly lose your life! You will lose all your ideas of your life. And you will be increasingly happy to set them aside. You will find joy in letting go of your self-consciousness and be happy to rest in the warm ocean of self-forgetfulness.

Why? Because in losing ourselves we discover ourselves to be one with God and the whole of creation.

When our mind, our consciousness, is no longer divided but one, it is one with all within the All.

Christian meditation - a new way of seeing for a new way of being

If you feel inspired to meditate, you’re very welcome to join one of our free online practice sessions or read one of our guides.

School of Contemplative Life
Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.