The title of this blog makes it sound as if prayer and meditation are mutually opposed. I don’t hold this view, but I know that this is the predominant view among fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Muslims. In this blog, I want to make the case that the competition between prayer and meditation is really a competition between left and right hemispheres of the brain, and I want to make the case to my Christian friends that meditation is hinted at in the Christian Bible and that meditation complements prayer.
First of all, I want to clarify terms. When I say prayer, I mean it in the traditional Christian sense: speaking mentally or verbally to God as you would to any other person for the purpose of thanksgiving, petition, or communion: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come….” When I say meditation, I mean it in the Eastern sense of clearing one’s mind and focusing on a single point or nothing at all: “Ommm….”
In my last post, The Feedback Loop of Self, I explained how the principle effect of meditation is to temporarily stop the feedback loop between thinker and thoughts. It is this feedback loop that generates the concept of a self as an entity separate and distinct from the environment. It is the left-brain which is primarily responsible for this state of consciousness which breaks things down into pieces or words and applies sequential logic to these parts. It is the right brain which uses intuition to arrive at a unified view of all parts as one whole.
There is nothing inherently wrong with either the left brain logical or the right brain intuitive processes; however, I believe it is advantageous to strike a proper balance between the two. Prayer, as I have defined it above in the Christian sense, is a left brain activity. Eastern Meditation is a right-brain activity. Prayer uses words in a sequential logical coherent stream of thought to arrive at an intended destination. Meditation abandons words and allows the right brain intuitive holistic functions to dominate.
Since Western thought is largely based upon the orthodox Judeo-Christian-Greek understanding that truth is arrived at through the deconstruction of a whole into parts, the analyzation of written words, and of prayer as a left-brain wordy thought process, the West has glorified left-brain achievement and placed supreme value on one particular state of consciousness: the fully-alert, reasoning, left-brain, logical state. Some consider the achievements of our left-brain dominant society a triumph of reason over antiquated superstitious magical thinking that has given us wonderful technological advances. Others consider this over-emphasis on left-brain thinking a pathology that leads to selfishness, materialism, coldness, mistreatment of our environment, and ultimately the atomic bomb.
Eastern meditation and Eastern non-dual philosophy is largely based upon the holistic view that the self is contiguous with the whole and that truth is arrived at by avoiding deconstructing the whole into parts and words. The advantages of this holistic emphasis are low stress, equanimity, simplicity, and harmonious relationship with the environment (no need for an atomic bomb). The disadvantages of this philosophy are that there is no great impetus to evangelize or spread this philosophy or to protect one’s self from the left-brain, technologically-minded, achievement-oriented conquistadors.
Although fundamentalist Christianity and Western society place supreme value on the left-brain, alert, reasoning, wordy state of consciousness, there are hints of Eastern meditative type states of consciousness in the Christian Bible and traditions. Any Christian who has truly sincerely pursued a relationship with God will tell you that my definition of prayer described above is really a very shallow superficial one, and that effective prayer is much less about talking to God about your needs and wants, and much more about getting quiet and listening. Many pastors will advocate setting aside a quiet time for prayer of at least 30 minutes or an hour a day. I have tried this daily discipline of spending an hour a day in prayer. But what happens during that hour? Unless one is very loquacious, one cannot continue talking for a full hour. One’s attention begins to wander. So one disciplines oneself to continue bringing attention back to a single point: God (or one’s idea of God). And one tries to keep talking to God, but one soon runs out of things to say, so one begins to repeat things: “Thank you, God. Praise you, God. You are worthy, God. Bless you, God….” And as one repeats a mantra of praises or petitions to God, one begins to lose oneself in the exact same way as in Eastern meditation. The repetition of words or sounds is like giving the word-hungry left-brain a bone to chew on to occupy it so the intuitive holistic right brain can come out and have a chance to express itself. It is in this state of right brain dominance that intuition and insight flows more freely and this is called, “hearing God’s voice.” Studies have shown that all of us are telepathic, clairvoyant, and pre-cognitive to a certain extent. Studies have also shown that those who are creative (right brain dominant) and those who practice meditation score higher on such skills. We are undoubtedly capable of receiving information in non-local ways that bypass our senses and that information seems to come more readily through the right brain.
Most people are familiar with the story of Jesus walking out on the water, but the next time you read that story, take note of the fact that this occurred after Jesus had spent a very long time (perhaps 12 hours) on a mountain in solitude in prayer. Now if you thought talking for 1 hour is difficult, try 12! Perhaps Jesus had 12 hours of wordy conversation with our Father, but I doubt it. It seems very likely to me that this 12 hours of prayer involved a deep meditative state where words disappeared. There are numerous incidences in the book of Acts where believers are said to have fallen into a “trance” where they receive a vision or some kind of intuitive knowledge. Many Christians assume that a trance state of consciousness is only valid if God supernaturally forces a person into one, and that we should not purposefully intend to seek altered states of consciousness, but as I described above, this trance state is the ultimate result of a very long time spent in prayer.
In the same way that repetitious praises or phrases can pacify the left brain, speaking in tongues accomplishes this same thing. Many Christians do not accept that speaking in tongues is still valid, and why is that? Because our left-brain dominant society abhors illogical nonsense. In such a society, speaking nonsense is embarrassing and is something that can get you locked away in a padded cell. Some accept speaking in tongues but only if there is an interpreter, because if we can’t get any meaning out of it, then what is the point? Many Christians who are not familiar with speaking in tongues are afraid of it. They assume that it involves some outside force of God taking over one’s mouth and vocal chords to involuntarily produce sounds as directed by the Holy Spirit as if one were being “possessed.” This results in a great deal of frustration for sincere Christians who want to get “baptized in the Holy Spirit” and are waiting for God to literally take control over their bodies. But those who are familiar with speaking in tongues know that it is not being involuntarily taken over by an outside force. A person has to willfully open their mouth and freely utter nonsensical sounds. And what is the principle effect of uttering nonsense? The left brain is pacified and the right brain is in full control. The big dog left brain has a bone to chew on and the right brain can peek its head out and see what is going on from a holistic perspective.
Now that I’ve shown that extended left-brain prayer effectively leads to right-brain or synchronous meditative states, I want to explain why I hypothesize that meditative states make prayer effective. There is one thing the Bible pounds into us over and over: faith. Prayer without faith is ineffective. As James says, a man who doubts should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. He is a “double-minded” man, unstable in all he undertakes. As Jesus said, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you curse a fig tree and wither it instantly, you can speak to a mountain and cast it into the sea. In other words, nothing is impossible with faith.
So what is faith? How do we get it? I want to propose that faith is the unification of the mind. It is bringing the left and right brains into synchronous harmony. It is no longer being “double-minded” but is returning to the single-minded non-dual state of a child where there is no separation between thinker and thought or doer and deed. Doubt comes through the feedback loop of self. When the feedback loop is broken by observing the feedback loop and collapsing it into a single point, I believe this is where a state of mind called “faith” is achieved.
Faith is often mistaken as the effort one makes to believe certain things, but if there is effort, this cannot be faith because faith is effortless. Faith is a state of complete internal harmony. If one is trying to believe something, then one does not believe it. If there is internal effort, then there is not internal harmony because there are two or more competing perspectives – the double-minded state of doubt. Meditation and Eastern non-dual philosophy is about reaching a place of effort with no effort or action without action which is synonymous with a state of faith. It is the feedback loop of self which keeps us in a place of no faith, of constant striving against ourselves, of constant division between our aspirations and our attainments.
When the feedback loop of self is broken, the mind is unified, and a state of faith or “no-effort” is achieved, then words are superfluous to prayer. They may be used or they may not be used. Jesus is said to have driven out evil spirits with “a word.” Many times, he didn’t even use words. One time he simply said, “I thank you Father that you heard me. I know that you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of those listening…” So in a place of faith, perhaps words are only necessary to help others understand something about what is going on. I believe prayer and meditation can work together to achieve positive results in one’s life and one’s environment.