“The journey to our own heart is a journey into every heart.” – Fr John Main
Fr Laurence Freeman is the man who taught Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, about meditation. As the director of The World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM)—described as “a monastery without walls”—he teaches meditation all around the world.
“A way of love” is how the Catholic priest describes meditation in a sentence. “Love,” he says, “is the giving of oneself to another in [terms of] attention, which is selfless. In meditation, we practice taking the attention off ourselves. This then plays out in all aspects of our lives.”
Born in England in 1951, he studied English literature at Oxford and discovered the practice of meditation during his first year there from Fr John Main (1926-1982), a Benedictine monk who introduced the utilisation of a prayer-phrase (or mantra) in Christian meditation. Fr Main would later become Fr Freeman’s teacher when he entered monastic life.
Today, Fr Freeman seeks to reinsert contemplation into the heart of Christianity. “More stillness and less noise” is what he says the world needs, but in a culture that prizes busyness and multi-tasking, there is little room left for contemplation. According to Fr Freeman, organised religion isn’t the only place for stillness; the contemplative dimension of knowledge is a crucial characteristic of education. In 2015, he founded the John Main Center for Meditation and Interreligious Dialogue in Georgetown University, which promotes a space for mindfulness and reflection in the midst of a fast-paced college culture.
We speak to him about his beginnings in meditation as well as the lessons it has taught him.
What did you want to be when you were a child?
Policeman, novelist, astronaut, professor, taxi driver
At what point in your life did you discover meditation? What called you to it?
I was in my first year at university [where I was] studying literature. My teacher John Main introduced it to me in very few words and in a very simple way. He told me that meditation is not about what you think. In meditation, we lay aside all thought, words and images by gentle and faithful repetition of a scared word, prayer-phrase or mantra. It made a great impact on me, but though my heart understood it my head took a long time to catch up.
Could you describe the moments leading up to your decision to enter monastic life?
I took a six-month retreat in order to ground meditation into my daily life. At the end I found I had lost the worldly ambition I had before. After some struggle and confusion I realised I was meant to be a monk and am still happy with that decision nearly forty years later.
What’s the best advice you received when you first started meditating?
Say the mantra [maranatha, which is Aramaic for “Come, Lord”]. In learning to say a mantra, we learn to let go of all our ideas, plans, thought processes and even of our self-consciousness.
Do you have any advice for people who find meditation difficult?
Don’t give up. Don’t try too hard. Meditate with other people as often as you can. Don’t judge yourself.
What’s your personal motto?
Truly seek God. This is how St Benedict describes the monk.
What traits do you most value in others?
The ability to show affection.
How do you overcome moments of self-doubt or adversity?
Look at how my mistakes or upsets in the past have turned out all right in the end.
What would you tell your 20-year-old self that you wish you knew then?
Take the attention off yourself.
What does success mean to you?
Not so different from failure as we imagine. In both success and failure we learn to be detached, to work with all our strength but not for reward or with fear, but for the good of the work as it reaches out to others.
What is your favourite…
The Great Escape