Below you’ll find an article on meditation written by a friend of mine, Robert Engelbach. He has given me permission to present this to you through my site, and I thought it was a great way to help people interested in meditation to learn more. You will find lots of information and resources below. Enjoy!
Meditation and the Mind
Remember the line from the song “You say to-mah-toes, and I say to-may-toes.” People can argue about the most ridiculous things. One of the biggest debates in religious circles these days is whether certain forms of meditation are appropriate for Christians. Many traditionalists warn against meditating on anything except scripture and they present arguments from scripture attempting to prove that this type of rumination on scripture is what is meant when the word “meditation” is used in the bible. However, there are examples of meditation in the bible where it is unlikely that scripture was available to be used. For example, consider Isaac meditating in a field after his mother’s death (Genesis 24:63). This occurred five centuries before his descendents began recording scripture during the exodus from Egypt.
Meditation on scripture is unquestionably valuable. It allows the meaning of scripture to sink in. Instead of simply acknowledging a scripture like “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), meditating on it allows the mind to slow down and ponder all its ramifications. For instance, what does it mean to be “still”? How can we come to know God by being still? How does this apply to situations in general? Will I experience less of God if I am not still? Does it apply to me for any particular situation I am in right now? How about the fear I feel when a car cuts dangerously in front of me on the highway? How about the rage some people feel after such an event? Meditating on scripture provides an opportunity for insight into deeper meanings and more personal applications. Dwelling on it makes it more readily available for the mind to use, easier to pull out of its huge storehouse of buried information.
Another form of meditation does not dwell on scriptures, nor does it focus on spoken sentences, ideas, events, or people. This kind is sometimes referred to in theology as “contemplative meditation”. It is meditation that involves quieting mental activity rather than focusing on specific ideas or feelings. An example might be breathing meditation – by sitting quietly in a comfortable position and focusing on the breath, and then allowing all other thoughts, feelings, and experiences to drift by without paying attention to them, the body relaxes and the mind becomes more still. It is conducive to strengthening one’s intuition and a sense of peace and security, instead of being caught up in anxious thoughts.
Christian monks have been practicing different forms of contemplative meditation since the 4th century. This has evolved into a popular practice for laymen today called “Centering Prayer”. Instead of focusing on the breath, centering prayer involves gently repeating a “sacred word” with the intention of consenting to God’s presence and influence in us. The following are instructions for performing one example of this:
- Sit in a comfortable position. You may close your eyes if desired.
- Choose a sacred word or short phrase that expresses your intention to be in the God’s presence and open to God’s divine action within you (i.e. “Jesus”, “Savior,” “His Presence”, “Shalom,” “Spirit,” “Love,” etc.).
- Let that word or phrase be gently present as a symbol of your sincere intention. It may be spoken softly, under the breath, or unspoken.
- As you become aware of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc., simply return to your sacred word or phrase as your anchor.
Centering prayer is practiced either daily or periodically throughout the week, meditating for a short period, maybe from 5 to 30 minutes. It is usually used in conjunction with practicing “Welcoming Prayer” throughout each day’s activities. During welcoming prayer the sacred word or some other cue is used while one is active and fully alert in order to reestablish awareness of God’s presence and influence. More information on centering and welcoming prayer can be found at http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org.
Five hundred years before Christ, Buddha taught a form of contemplative meditation in India which was an essential part of his teachings on spiritual enlightenment. Buddhist meditation techniques have been successfully imported to the West and have become quite popular. A description of one form of Buddhist meditation can be found at http://www.viewonbuddhism.org/meditation_practice.html. First-rate audio instructions in practicing “zazen”, which is a Zen Buddhist version of meditation, can be found at http://www.dharmafield.org; under “Teachings” select “Talks Online” and then under the heading “Free Talks” select “Meditation Instruction”. These are a series of talks and guided meditations by accomplished American Zen master and author Steve Hagin.
The Buddhist style of meditation presents a form of spirituality that promotes peace and well-being, and thus competes with other spiritual solutions in our troubled world. Some Christian denominations, feeling threatened by this competition, have asserted that all forms of contemplative meditation involve “emptying” the mind into nothingness and so are equivalent to practicing Buddhism, and that Christians should instead be “filling” their minds with Christ. A thorough example of this traditionalist perspective can be found at http://www.bibleguidance.co.za/Engarticles/Contemplation.htm.
The thrust of many of these arguments is that contemplative meditation encourages an inner journey that leads to self-deification, recognizing the self as the source of all power, thus blocking out God. However this conclusion is quite presumptuous. As we shall see, contemplative meditation has the potential to reduce self-centeredness and impart greater respect and deeper empathy for the whole that one is a part of. These denominations that want to close their doors to all forms of contemplative meditation may actually be closing the doors to their own spiritual growth.
Emptying? Filling? Using these words to refer to the human mind is kind of silly when you consider that the human brain is not a tea cup to be emptied or filled. It is a wonderful and complex organ in which our mind resides, maybe even our soul. So what actually does happen in the brain during contemplative meditation?
Dr. Andrew Newburg and other neuroscientists have used brain scanning techniques to detect changes in brain activity in subjects who meditate. They have discovered that slight changes occur during non-contemplative meditation, but our brains undergo remarkable changes as a result of the contemplative type. Activity increases in the frontal cortex and decreases in the parietal lobes. Other changes occur in the limbic system, which controls emotions, and even the size of various areas of the brain change with continued practice of contemplative meditation. There is a correlation between the functions of these various brain areas and the way we think, feel, and perceive the world around us. The parietal lobe, for instance, is where we obtain our sense of self as different from everything else. When this area becomes less active, we feel less ego-driven and more connected to others and our environment. The area responsible for the ”fight or flight response” becomes less active, allowing us to become more calm and reflective in dealing with stressful situations. Empathy is increased. We perceive our experiences more in the here and now, and are less likely to become anxious about the future or dwell on negative experiences from the past. More attention is directed to perceiving experiences first hand: we learn to appreciate and understand them afresh, instead of channeling them through a limited filter of expectations and pre-judgments. We are thus able to explore our experiences with more openness and creativity. This leads to more fluidity and flexibility in dealing with ourselves and the world around is.
For more information about this area of neuroscience refer to:
2) The book “How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist” by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman (http://www.amazon.com/How-Changes-Your-Brain-Neuroscientist/dp/0345503422).
Follow up scientific studies on people who engage regularly in contemplative meditation show significant physical and mental health benefits. These include increased vitality, lower blood pressure, less emotional stress, relief from depression, increased immunity to disease, reduction in chronic pain, more optimism, and increased cooperation with others. This has resulted in the development of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) by psychologists as a tool for therapy, for personal life enhancement, for improving job satisfaction, and for increasing corporate efficiency.
MBSR is based on a form of contemplative meditation which focuses on breathing to quiet the mind. Subjects are then encouraged to practice “mindfulness” throughout their daily lives, particularly when feeling stressed. Mindfulness consists of being open to the moment, focusing on the here and now, and perceiving and responding to experiences without analytical judgments. Thus, like Centering/Welcoming prayer, this is a two step process. Performing the meditation step is a prerequisite to enhancing awareness throughout the day.
A standard program in MBSR consists of eight weeks of training and is offered at many universities and private institutions. Universities have ongoing research programs where they administer medical and psychological assessments to subjects throughout the eight week program and afterwards. This combines a standard program with reliable assessments that are acceptable in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Thus neuroscientists, psychologists, and meditation instructors have all joined hands to provide a much better explanation for what happens when we engage in contemplative meditation. We have come a long way from simplistic explanations such as “filling and emptying” the mind. This should provide the basis for open minded people to explore various forms of meditation regardless of religious orientation, including atheists, without fear of having their minds or souls corrupted.
You don’t have to take the standard eight week course to engage in mindfulness meditation. There are many articles and audios available on the web that can help you get started and you can choose one that fits your religious or secular orientation. A secular example is at http://www.counselingfortransformation.com/resources/podcasts-guided-excercises
Two excellent general books on mindfulness are:
(1) “Mindfulness for Dummies” by Shamash Alindna (http://www.amazon.com/Mindfulness-For-Dummies-ebook/dp/B003TFE8SI)
(2) “Mindfulness for Beginners” by Jon Kabat-Zinn (http://www.amazon.com/Mindfulness-Beginners-Reclaiming-Present-Moment/dp/1604076585).
Both are available in Kindle, but the regular editions are preferable because they provide well-designed guided meditations and mindfulness exercises on CD.
Two outstanding books on centering prayer are:
(1) “Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer” by Thomas Keating (http://www.amazon.com/Intimacy-God-Introduction-Centering-Prayer/dp/0824525299)
(2) “Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening” by Cynthia Bourgeault (http://www.amazon.com/Centering-Prayer-Awakening-Cynthia-Bourgeault/dp/1561012629)
The practice of contemplative meditation goes back a long time in human history, maybe even earlier than the 15th century B.C.E. This is an ancient tool that is still being rediscovered in a modern world. Hindu, Buddhists, Sufis, Jews, Christians and now neuroscientists and psychologists have all shared a part in exploring and developing this tool.
Meditating on scripture and contemplative meditation are not the same. Even though they are both forms of meditations, they are more like apples and oranges than to-mah-toes and to-may-toes. They affect the mind differently, but they are both beneficial to health and spiritual awareness. Hopefully this article will help dispel misconceptions and encourage readers to explore various forms of meditation.