Q: I was meditating/doing Centering Prayer for many years. However, about three years ago I got pretty sick. A result of that illness is now severe tinnitus or ringing in the ears. It is very disturbing. I find meditation and Centering Prayer to be very difficult, if not impossible. I feel a longing to return, but whenever I start I get discouraged and frustrated because of the noise in my head. Do you have any recommendations?
A: I have had tinnitus for over 50 years. It started very gradually but as the years have gone on the volume has increased. I only notice it when I decide to notice the ringing. If I focused on it, I am sure it would disrupt all my activity. All I can say is that it has become part of the background noise of my life. It is a genuine letting go of the sound. It is a real dying to self to enter into a deeper silence, a spiritual silence not a physical silence. As I am writing you I can hear it with gusto because I am thinking about it. I have heard of many procedures to lessen the sound or cure it, but I am just living with it as part of my life, just like breathing. It certainly does interfere with my ability to hear but I just ask the person to repeat themselves.
As far as the discouragement you feel, make friends with it, as St Paul did with his “thorn of the flesh.” Who knows, it could have been tinnitus that he had! Notice what he said in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10: "Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times, I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me ... For when I am weak then I am strong."
Treat the sound as you would a thought, following the wisdom of the Centering Prayer guideline #3. You know you are always aware of the sound - that is a given - but the guideline says when you become engaged with the sound to ever-so-gently return to your sacred symbol, letting it come and letting it go. And each time you let go you are entering into a deeper spiritual silence while you are somewhat aware of the physical non-silence.
I love this quote from the wisdom of Shunryu Suzuki, who said, “Leave your front door and your back door open. Allow your thoughts [sounds] to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.” Sounds can be treated as thoughts during the prayer – and in life. During the prayer, your thoughts are always flowing, but we practice letting them go to the point that they become just background noise in the prayer. This is good practice for life as well.
"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I really do know what you are going through.