Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Christianity and Meditation: Enemies or Long Lost Love?

In my last series of posts, I explored the concept of idolatry, and how we are still guilty of this sin today.  While I was writing this series, I had intended to write a post exploring the concept of meditation.  I had not thought at the time that this was related to the idolatry concept, but now that I sit down to write this it seems entirely appropriate to me.  I hope by the end of this post you will understand why.

Oh Mark, this will always be my favorite picture of you...
But first, let's ponder the suspicious and sometimes fearful attitude Christianity (at least of the American variety) seems to have towards meditation.  Our favorite icon of the raging fear version of Christianity, Mark Driscoll (pictured above), believes that "yoga is demonic", and that signing up for a yoga class is "signing up for a little demon class."  Additionally, back in June of 2013, a prominent political candidate for Virginia Lieutenant Governor named E.W. Jackson made news for his comments on the subject of meditation, wherein he said:
The purpose of such meditation [speaking of Maharishi Yoga] is to empty oneself. [Satan] is happy to invade the empty vacuum of your soul and possess it. Beware of systems of spirituality which tell you to empty yourself. You will end up filled with something you probably do not want.
I find this a curious statement, especially considering that he did not bother to back up his views with any reasoning or proof whatsoever.  But I especially find it curious that what both figures took issue with was this idea of "emptying yourself".  Why is this such a problem for some people?

Actually, what's really interesting is that the Bible has a lot to say about "emptying oneself."  In Philippians 2:6-11, Paul makes an interesting point - he states that though Jesus was in very nature God, he emptied himself.  The word used here is "kenosis", and it is a self-renunciation - a transcendence of ego.  Paul states that it is because of this kenosis that God exalted Jesus - because Jesus was humble he was made great.  This is in keeping with statements of Jesus such as Matthew 20:26, where Jesus says that whoever wants to be great must be a servant.  And in John 13:1-7, Jesus performs what would have culturally been considered to be the lowest act a servant could perform, and then tells his disciples that since a student cannot be greater than his master, they must also humble themselves.  Additionally, we can think of the idea of being "crucified with Christ" (see Gal. 2:20 for one example) as a metaphor for this act of kenosis.

The idea of "emptying ourselves" is that in order to love another, we have to transcend ego.  And so we need ways to step outside of our ego and minimize it.  Meditation is a practical way of seeking kenosis.  It is a practical way of seeking to take up our cross daily (see Luke 9:23) - crucifying the ego.  It is taking the time to sit down and stop the relentless flow of our chaotic minds.  And it is a practice of training our minds so that we can change the way we deal with the world.  Because all too often it seems that people lose control of themselves - they are controlled by their biases, their desires, and their emotional states.  So meditation is a way of training yourself to overcome this harmful state.  By entering into silence, we crucify the ego, and Gal. 2:20 tells us that when we do this it is no longer we who live, but Christ living in us.  Likewise, Rom. 8:26 tells us that even though we do not know how we ought to pray, the Spirit prays through us.

What is Meditation?
For a Christian, the practice of meditation begins by recognizing the ineffable nature of the infinite God.  The Christian practitioner recognizes that all our language about God - however close we come to the truth - is inadequate, incomplete, and thus partially incorrect.  And so Christian meditation begins at this point, and in response seeks to simply quiet the mind and rest in the silence of God.

In meditation, the practitioner spends a certain period of time relaxing their body and mind.  Meditation is, in essence, practicing a time of deliberate peacefulness.  In order to achieve this state of peacefulness, though, you must train yourself to empty your mind of the chaos that is normally there.  Most meditative practices will start with focusing on your breathing - the technique is usually to take a deep 3 second breath in, and exhale for the count of 4 seconds.  There is a science behind this - the longer exhale time helps to relax the body.  What's interesting about this practice of focusing on the breathing is that in both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, the word that is often used for "Spirit" has the same double meaning - in Hebrew, the word ruach is used and in Greek, the word is pneuma: both words can also mean wind or breath.  So if you think along these lines, you can mediate on the idea that each breath is an active expression of the presence of the Holy Spirit - breathing in, the Holy Spirit nourishes our body, and when we breathe out we are taking part in pouring out the Spirit into the world.

Now, once again the goal is to be able to reach a state of peace where our mind dwells in silence, and in my own practice (and I am admittedly a beginner), I have found an empty mind to be somewhat impossible to achieve.  I am not sure anyone has actually accomplished a complete state of emptiness.  But rather, what you begin to notice as you shut off outside influences - by closing your eyes, breathing deeply, and practicing in a quiet place - is that your mind is normally in a chaotic state of constant thoughts that fly off in many directions at once (no unity of thought, but rather there are many rabbit trails).  And for me, this really began to bother me.  I thought "why is it so hard for me to just stop thinking?  Why is it that thoughts seem to fly into my mind unbidden?  It seems almost as if I have no control of my own mind!"

So one of the things I learned quickly is that rather than simply trying to stop thinking, it was better to try to focus my thoughts on one, very simple thing.  Before I began a session, I would pick a phrase to focus my thoughts on, and in my mind I would repeat this phrase slowly and deliberately - attempting to shut out anything else.  This is known in meditative practice as a mantra.  A Christian practitioner might wish to take a simple phrase straight from the Bible for this purpose - I suggest looking to the Psalms.  For myself, I felt that the phrase "Be still, and know that I am God", from Psalm 46:10, was appropriate.  Another possible Biblical mantra could be "God is love" (see I John 4:8 and 16).  The mantra should not be too complex, or you will become wrapped up in trying to remember it and the state of peacefulness that is the goal of meditation will never be reached.  Meditation, for the Christian, is meant to be a form of prayer where the practitioner rests within the mystery of the infinite God - where one realizes the inadequacy of words and concepts and simply releases these to God.

Thomas Merton wrote in "Thoughts in Solitude":
In meditative prayer, one thinks and speaks not only with his mind and lips, but in a certain sense with his whole being. Prayer is then not just a formula of words, or a series of desires springing up in the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind, and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration. All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God.  One cannot then enter into meditation, in this sense, without a kind of inner upheaval. By upheaval I do not mean a disturbance, but a breaking out of routine, a liberation of the heart from the cares and preoccupations of one’s daily business.
The idea of focusing our thoughts is completely Biblical - for example, in Philippians 4:8, Paul instructs his audience:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

When I first began practicing meditation, I could rarely keep my concentrated thought going for very long before other thoughts would creep in.  But another thing I learned fairly quickly is to quietly, peacefully say "no" to these thoughts.  In my first sessions, the thoughts that crept in would bother me, but I learned that becoming upset does not help the process.  So it is better to simply realize that this is part of the process of training your mind, and to train your mind to notice this happening and to quietly redirect your thoughts back to the mantra.  Over time I began to notice my stray thoughts faster, and would keep the mantra going for longer before I would lose my concentration.

I should mention that there are many different forms and practices for meditation.  Often, there are guided classes where a teacher will ask the students to visualize various images in their mind.  Sometimes, the act of grasping individual beads in a string (a rosary) is used as an aid for concentration.  Peaceful, simple music can also be used to aid in enhancing the mind's ability to concentrate - I have personally found Tibetan singing bowls or Native American flute to be very helpful to this effect.  The goal of these practices, however, is always the same: meditation is for training the mind to be able to control its own thought processes and rest in silence, rather than becoming controlled by our thoughts and emotions.  Over time, one who has been practicing meditation begins to notice their emotions and is able to analyze them and care for them, rather than being reactionary.  And as a practitioner of meditation grows, they should be able to carry out the practice in more difficult environments, so that even while walking down the street they could concentrate more effectively on quieting the soul.   

The History of Meditation in Christianity
Now, I'd like to take a moment to discuss meditation in Christian history, because it seems that in many Christian environments, this history has been lost.  Far too many people are simply ignorant of the fact that meditation has a long and rich history within the faith.

Historians have traced meditative practices to the Jews of "Merkavah-Heichalot" mysticism, who lived during the Tannaic time period (10-220 CE).  These mystics sought elevation of the soul using meditative methods built around the Biblical account in Ezekiel, as well as the creation accounts.  Additionally, some scholars (Marcus Borg among them) believe that the Essene community of Judaism during the time of Jesus practiced meditation, and argue that Jesus would have been part of this tradition - pointing to his time in the desert or his prayer all-nighters (see Luke 6:12) as evidence that he must have practiced meditative prayer.

Within Christianity, the practice of meditation was taken up by monastic traditions in the Middle Ages. In the Western Benedictine tradition, the tradition of Lectio Divina grew out of Origen's views (from the 3rd century) of Scripture as sacrament.  St. Benedict (480-543 CE), the founder of this tradition, practiced slow, thoughtful reading of scripture in order to carefully ponder its meaning - which he called lectio divina.  In the early 12th century, this tradition was re-emphasized by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  Additionally, Guigo II, a Carthusian monk, formalized a progression of Bible reading, to meditative contemplation of the text, to responsive prayer, to a quiet stillness in the presence of God in his book "The Ladder of Monks".  

In the Eastern traditions, hesychasm (meaning "stillness, rest, quiet, silence") was practiced.  This tradition grew from a reading of Matthew 6:6 where Jesus instructs those who pray to enter into a secret place.  The monks of these eastern traditions would also seek to practice "constant prayer", and during their private periods of hesychasm would seek to cease registering the senses in order to enter such a deeply secret place that they would be found only in the presence of God.  This practice began with Evagrius Ponticus in the late 4th century, and influenced the writing of John Climacus' book, "The Ladder of Divine Ascent", in the 7th century.  Additionally, Eastern traditions would practice the repetition of the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner") as a meditative mantra.

These two practices - lectio divina and hesychasm - were both revived by various figures of the church at various points throughout its history.  A version of lectio divina was even practiced by John Calvin in the 16th century.  But it seems as though one of the results of Martin Luther's reformation - empowering the common man and de-emphasizing authoritative traditions - was the loss of the meditative traditions to the Western world.  Today, it seems as though a large portion of Christendom is largely unaware that meditation was ever even a part of the faith.  As such, many Christians who hunger for such a practice end up turning to the meditative traditions of other faiths such as Yoga or Buddhist meditation.  I, personally, have no problem with this and believe that turning to these other traditions may serve to build bridges between our faith and these others.  But one of the unfortunate side effects is that it seems that often, those who end up turning to other traditions to fulfill these needs will end up leaving their Christian roots.  And so perhaps it would be helpful to remind ourselves of the deep tradition within our own faith in order to appreciate this practice and reintegrate it.

As this article does not intend to be a comprehensive study on the history of meditation in Jewish or Christian practice, at this point I would like to move on to some of the science of meditation.

The Science of Meditation
Science has begun to study meditation and it's health effects with great interest.  In order to begin comprehending the effects, I believe it is necessary to understand what EEG measurements have found when examining subjects who are practicing meditation.  An EEG measures the wavelengths, or frequencies, of various brainwaves.  A normal EEG will look something like this:

As you can see, there does not seem to be any coherence between the various waves.  In contrast, when measuring the brainwaves of subjects during meditative practice, the observed effect is a coherence between the wave patterns:

Studies have shown that this higher coherence is associated with more effective thinking, higher creativity, emotional stability, and the ability to reason ethically.  In addition to the higher coherence of the brain waves, studies have shown that during the process of meditation, EEG activity begins to slow - the internal chatter dies down.  This has also led to the discovery that subjects who practice meditation experience less anxiety and stress - studies have even shown that meditation can help with addiction and eating disorders.  As the EEG waves slow down, the heart rate and functions begin to relax as well - which leads to other health benefits.  Some research has even shown that meditation can lower blood pressure, increase immunity, reduce cellular inflammation, and many other benefits.  And the studies on how meditation physically alters the brain itself have been astounding - the lateral prefrontal cortex (the frontal area, or assessment center) become thicker (just as muscles grow when they are exercised) while it seems that the connections to the fear center of the brain decrease.

It is important to note that this article only seeks to introduce the reader to the scientific studies being done in this area - I would encourage those who are interested to look into the many articles that are available on this subject.  My hope is that the mere introduction of this science, in correlation to the spiritual principles and history, will cause a greater interest in the subject within my readers.  Once again, I will note that I am only a beginner in the practice - but even so, I can testify that I have already begun to notice its benefits on myself.


  1. Keep up the beauty and mercy of Christianity which you so eloquently avow.
    You may find David Steindl-Rast's "the Music of Silence" of interest. Blessings.

    Prof. John P. Middleton

    1. Thank you so much!

      I've been reading a bit of Thomas Merton (Thoughts in Solitude) lately, as well as a book called "Finding Grace at the Center".

      - Geoff

  2. Thank you, that was very informative.

  3. Actually, the Catholic still does the original meditation practices which focuses completely on God not allowing one to become an empty shell letting in whatever is around in the spiritual world. It is worth a try and is definitely a safer choice as compared to pagan / new age practices.