What if the practice of meditation was no longer seen as taboo in church? What if it was no longer seen as a threat to Christianity? What if meditation classes were taught in conjunction with classes on prayer? I wonder…
(I am not using the term “meditation” here to refer to the act of thinking upon something such as meditating on truths or ideas. This type of “meditation” does have an important place and benefit on the spiritual path, but here I am using the term “meditation” to refer to the techniques of clearing the mind to achieve an altered state of consciousness.)
I first learned how to meditate about 9 years ago. When I did so, I experienced a profound shift in my state of consciousness and my walk with God. I experienced a tremendous amount of peace unlike any I’d ever known. I experienced a clarity of mind that I did not know was possible. I experienced the fading away of anxiety and fear along with my ego, and I saw the world in all its intricate detail through “the beautiful glasses”. Mundane activities became glorious. My senses and sensibilities were heightened since my CPU was no longer being overworked by “viruses” operating in the background. I began to see other people not as a potential threat or benefit to my own ego, but rather as spiritual beings inhabiting a body. I could not see their auras as some people can, but it was almost as if I could see right through their being, like Neo who finally learns to see through the illusory physical projections into the fundamental code of the Matrix. I gained a new level of control over my thoughts. I was no longer floating helplessly down the rapids of my stream of consciousness, but I was on steady ground watching the stream flow peacefully and guiding it where I pleased. I gained the ability to “take captive” the destructive negative thoughts and focus on the present where God dwells within us.
After my initial wonderful experiences with meditation, I began to shy away from it because I became afraid. I knew I was getting into things that went beyond the “safety zone” of orthodox Christian doctrine. I knew I was mixing Eastern wisdom with my Christian tradition, and the Old Testament is full of warnings about such mixtures. At the time, I began listening to a Christian pastor on the internet who warned against it. I had read other Christian articles warning against it. The warnings were terrifying: I could let in evil spirits… I could go to hell… I could deceive others into going to hell… On top of these stiff warnings, my ego was dying, and that can be a very frightening and painful experience – especially if it happens quickly at an early stage of life (I was 19). The cross is an appropriate symbol for the experience. The ego is that part of us that wants to be in control and wants to aggrandize the self. It has developed to ensure our survival as an organism in a hostile environment. The ego is necessary for a time, but for our spiritual evolution to progress, like John the Baptist, it must decrease and the mind of Christ must be raised within us. It is more natural for the ego to die later in life after many experiences, both painful and pleasant, and with the knowledge and acceptance that one’s days are numbered. I believe this process of ego death is what Jesus was speaking of when he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mat 16:24) Meditation has many benefits, but one of the most profound benefits can come from the daily death of “self” or “ego”.
So because of the warnings and my fears, I put meditation on the shelf for several years; however, I always knew I needed to get back to it. I longed for that peace and clarity of mind – the “beautiful glasses” or the “Christ-vision” as I called it. A quick Google search of the “benefits of meditation” will reveal plenty of scientific and anecdotal reports proving it’s wide and varied benefits and usefulness. I tried to meditate every now and then, but meditation is something that requires consistent practice to be fully effective. Only in the last few months have I begun making it a priority again. This time I am not afraid. I know it is a path I must follow.
Meditation vs. Prayer
These two need not be rivals. I think both are necessary companions on the spiritual path. Prayer, as it is most frequently taught in Christian churches, is a combination of egocentric and non-egocentric statements addressed to God. There are things in prayer that get our eyes off of self such as praise, thanksgiving, thinking upon scriptures and truths, and the releasing of burdens into the hands of God. Then there are aspects of prayer that are egocentric – statements revolving around “I”. “I need this.” “I want this.” “I am hurting.” “God! Help me!” Such prayers said out of honest cries of the heart are not necessarily bad, but most Christian pastors who have truly devoted themselves to a life of prayer have rightly come to recognize that such egocentric prayers should eventually be minimized and true communion with God comes through the non-egocentric prayers, and from cessation of speech altogether and simply “getting quiet” and “listening” and “soaking in the presence of God.” My friends, this IS meditation! Meditation is an emptying of the cluttered mind and achieving a peaceful silence in which the mind is synchronized with the higher self or the spirit. It is a temporary altered state of consciousness that produces many benefits throughout conscious daily living.
The sad thing to me is that while many pastors will accurately teach that this “quiet time” is the best kind of prayer, they cannot teach their flocks the techniques for achieving this powerfully healing meditative altered state because they cannot teach “meditation.” Consequently very few members of their flock press through and get the hang of it. Furthermore, if they do break through into this state, they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it for the benefit of others. Instead, many Christians try for a few days to devote the recommended quarter to full hour to prayer and quickly get worn out. Their prayer lives often stay reduced to a few egocentric prayers here and there and maybe a few praises here and there. It is a difficult thing to “get quiet” and “just listen”. It takes practice. The “Monkey Mind“, as the Buddhists call it – or perhaps we could call it the “Martha Mind” after the story of Mary and Martha (Luk 10:38) – is always trying to swing down rabbit trails going here and there with all kinds of cares and concerns. Meditation techniques enable a person to silence the “Monkey Mind” and “get quiet” and “just listen.”
For many centuries, a sect of Catholic Christianity has advocated the practice of what they call “Contemplative Prayer” or “Centering Prayer”. The techniques may differ ever so slightly from meditation techniques found in other cultures and religions, but they are essentially one and the same.
One and the Same
Why are the powerfully beneficial and healing techniques of meditation taboo in most Western Christian churches? There are many reasons. For one, meditation techniques are not explicitly described anywhere in the Christian Bible although there are numerous hints at it. For example, there are several instances in the book of Acts where believers fall into trances during prayer. But since meditation is not explicitly described in the Christian Bible it is assumed God didn’t want us to know about it. It is assumed a trance should only occur in the rare circumstance that God wants to supernaturally put you into one. I don’t think this is a valid assumption. The same Bible tells us, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the wisdom of kings to search it out.” (Pro 25:2) The Bible doesn’t teach us enough about astrology to know how the wise men from Persia learned of Jesus’ birth from the movements of the stars, but that was an important bit of knowledge. I think there are many subjects the Bible doesn’t talk about from which we might derive benefit.
Another reason meditation is not taught is that Christian orthodox doctrine has carried forward the same warnings from the Hebrew Torah about mixing ideas and traditions from other cultures and religions. Looking back, we have the examples of wicked kings who would allow pagan influence to seep in followed by the wrath of God and purges from the righteous kings to rid Hebrew society of pagan influence and idol worship. And looking forward, we are taught the “Left Behind” apocalyptic eschatology which warns us that the evil ecumenical anti-Christ will try to unite the world’s religions. In reality, Revelation speaks of a beastly world government coercing people to worship it through force, deception, the banking system, and fearful displays of firepower. I don’t see anything about Christians and Buddhists meditating together.
Finally, Western Christian thinking views the normal egocentric waking state of consciousness as the highest and only valid state through which knowledge of God may be approached, and the only appropriate kind of meditation is to meditate on something in a cerebral and analytic manner. There is a prevalent notion that to seek an altered state of consciousness and to empty the mind is a sign that one is lacking a truly fulfilling relationship with God and that altered states are dangerous and inherently evil as they can open a person up to evil spirits. There is some shadow of truth to this last statement in that certain kinds of altered states can open a person up to negative things, (i.e. bath salts) but I don’t believe this danger is inherent in the naturally healing altered states induced by meditation alone.
Beyond all these objections, what is the greatest danger that meditation poses to orthodox Christianity? It is that the flock will realize that some of their spiritual experiences are fundamentally and qualitatively one and the same as those of spiritual seekers in other religions and cultures around the world despite differing terminologies, mythologies, and traditions. At the time that I was first exploring meditation, I was a student at LeTourneau University. During one particular chapel service the guest speaker, Tony Campolo spoke on contemplative prayer. He talked attractively and persuasively about finding God in the silence and dying to self. He talked about the Holy Spirit in terms of a divine energy force – a pneuma that could ebb and flow and move through the one whose spiritual sensibilities were elevated through the discipline of contemplative prayer. His descriptions of contemplative prayer, the Holy Spirit, and death of the ego – although couched in Christian terminology for a Christian audience – were identical to Eastern descriptions of meditation, Chi flow, and death of self. I wondered if Tony realized he was teaching “Eastern mysticism” to Christian college students under the radar of the orthodox administration, so I approached him after the chapel and made up a story… I said, “Tony, I really enjoyed your message! Could I get your advice on this situation? I have a Buddhist friend to whom I’m talking about Jesus. Your descriptions of contemplative prayer, and the Holy Spirit, and death of ego sound exactly like my Buddhist friend’s description of his meditation practice, chi flow, and the Buddhist concept of dying to self. Are they one and the same thing?” Tony lowered his voice a bit, “Yes, aside from a few minor differences and semantics they are really just the same thing by another name…” then he added more boldly, “But keep talking to your friend about Jesus!”
The notion that spiritual seekers in other cultures and religious traditions could be experiencing the same kind of relationship with the God as Christians do goes strongly against the grain of orthodox church doctrine which divides the people of the world into two camps: the lost and the saved. Those who are saved are the “real” Christians and those who are lost are everyone else. The Buddhists by definition fall into the “everyone else” category. (I don’t want to make this about Buddhists vs. Christians, but I’m using them since they are practitioners of meditation.) To Christian orthodoxy, the idea that some of them could be experiencing a relationship with God that is perhaps even deeper than some Christians’ relationships with God is not only heretical, but dangerous because the line between saved and not saved is now blurred and the importance of Christ appears to fade and millions could be deceived into the default destination of every human: hell. Personally, I don’t think either Buddhists or Christians have it all figured out, and I think we can benefit by learning from one another. There are hot, cold, luke warm, wise, and ignorant Buddhists and Christians. All people in any religion have their strengths and weaknesses because they are all reading distorted 2D maps of higher dimensional truths. The truly enlightened individuals in any faith are the ones who go beyond the words and the semantics and the doctrines and the concepts and actually LIVE the truth. Religion is the schoolmaster to teach us essential truths, but such truths remain only dead words unless we live them out. Some people like to say there are many paths to God. I prefer to say there is one path to God which has been called many different names as people in different times and cultures and religions explored this path. I know “The Way” by the name of it’s mortal incarnation, Jesus, whereas someone else might have stumbled upon it and called it in their language, the Tao.
At the time that I was learning about meditation, I read the book, The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff. This simple short book that illuminates the Taoist principles as illustrated by Winnie the Pooh, changed my life. I learned to become a less frustrated more peaceful individual. Many times afterward, I successfully encouraged other frustrated stressed out Christians with the principle of Wu Wei, although I couched it in Christian terms which they could accept. I found that when you strip away tradition, ceremony, and semantics, most of the fundamental core principles of Buddhism and Taoism resonated deeply with my Christian background. Around the time I was reading the Tao of Pooh an odd synchronicity occurred where a Toaist teacher happened to be on PBS when I was at my grandmother’s house with my parents. This Taoist teacher spoke eloquently and passionately about principles that were completely indistinguishable from the words of Jesus: love your neighbor, avoid materialism, seek to live in peace and harmony with one another, do not worry, etc. Just as my world was being rocked by the fact that an “unsaved” man could so persuasively teach the very same essential truths that Jesus taught, my Dad erupted at the TV, “He’s going straight to hell!! And everyone in that audience is too!” For a period of time I wondered: was my Dad right, or was my heart right? My heart said that someone teaching the very same noble truths that Jesus taught could not be going to hell. Perhaps he was preaching Jesus to that audience in a way that they could accept just as I had taught Wu Wei in a way that Christians could accept.
Can we as Christians learn to stop being insecure about our faith? Can we stop seeing timeless truths as threatening simply because they are also found in other religions and cultures? The Word of God will endure with or without our help. It will be tested and stand on its own merit whether it is spoken by a pastor, a monk, a priest, an apostle, an ass, or a bush. We have things to teach others, but perhaps others have a few things to teach us too. Why be afraid that meditation could build a bridge to other religions? Bridges allow travel in both directions. The benefits of meditation are almost as well proven as the fact that the earth is round. The church must stop being afraid, catch up, and acknowledge this or lose some credibility and relevancy. Meditation is something that people need to learn. If churches refuse to teach it, then people will be forced to go elsewhere to find what they need. I think many churches have a tremendous amount to offer and I would hate to see that happen.