Meditation for Christians?

This article has been provided by the Health and Temperance Department of the General Conference.

Gunter Reiss, D.H.Sc., M.P.H., is an associate professor of health promotion and education for the Loma Linda University School of Health.
Jim Florence, D. H. Sc., M.P. H., is director of the Center for Health Promotion at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.

 

 

Perhaps the first recorded instance of meditation dates back to the nineteenth century B.C., when the Old Testament patriarch Isaac, the son of Abraham, "went out to meditate in the field toward evening" (Gen. 24:63, NASB).

Through the centuries there have been many forms and followers of meditation. Zen meditation originated more than 1,400 years ago as practiced by Bodhidharma. The practice of Christian meditation is implied in Philippians 4:8. Meditation became a cultic practice in the fourth century, with the use of repetitive phrases that could be called Christian mantras. By the fourteenth century it was common to repeat the "Jesus Prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner") as a fixed meditative formula.1 After George Fox's insight in 1646, a type of Christian meditation became popular among the Quakers.

Although interest in Christian meditation has been slight, we are at present witnessing a revival of this ancient practice. Perhaps the major reason is a search by many Christians for an alternative to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation (TM), a form of Eastern meditation that became popular in the United States in the seventies.

Much has been written on the physiological effects of TM. R. Wallace and H. Benson reported a wide range of physiological changes resulting in the relaxation response during TM experiments. They describe this relaxation response as a "wakeful hypometabolic" state, during which the basic physiological activities that maintain life are slowed or decreased. Breathing becomes slower and shallower, with less oxygen used and less carbon dioxide eliminated. The heart rate is slowed, with a drop in the level of blood lactate and a rise in the acidity of arterial blood. Galvanic skin resistance is greatly increased, while electroencephalograms show that slow alpha waves increase, with occasional theta-wave activity. These changes are quite different from changes seen in normal sleep and other relaxed states.

Dr. Benson, one of the principal investigators in the above study, has become a leading proponent of the use of meditation in treating and preventing stress anxiety and the stress response. Aware of the fact that many individuals hesitate to use TM because of its Eastern religious overtones, Benson has formulated his own meditation technique to induce the relaxation response. It makes use of components of Zen and yoga meditation, but within the framework of "Western prayer methods and secular relaxation practices."3 The experimental findings from tests using his method of relaxation are similar to those seen in studies of TM. In his latest book, Beyond the Relaxation Response, 4 Benson explores the power of faith combined with meditation. He suggests that personal well-being requires more than relaxation. He admits the necessity of what he calls the "faith factor" in effecting long-term beneficial physiological and psychological changes. However, the techniques used to elicit the Benson relaxation response are, as he himself will admit, merely a Westernized form of Eastern meditation.

Research in meditation and stress management involves, it appears, only Eastern types of meditation, such as Zen, yoga, t'ai chi, and TM. Effects of true Western Christian meditation (CM) have not to our knowledge been scientifically evaluated. It would, however, seem reasonable to compare true Christian meditation with Eastern meditation, and presently practiced forms of meditation with those found in the Scriptures.

Differences between TM and CM

Although Eastern and Western meditation have much in common, a number of differences should be carefully considered. These differences derive from one major distinction pointed out by Joseph Goldstein, a teacher of Vipassana insight meditation. He observed that "all meditation systems either aim for One or for zero." That is, for union with God (One) or for emptiness (zero). The path to the One is through concentration on Him; to the zero is through insight into the voidness of one's mind." 5

Eastern meditators downplay reason and doctrine, dismissing them as impediments to higher consciousness. They banish intelligent thought and concentration. If concentration is used at all, it is only for fixing the mind monotonously on a single object, sound, or word (a mantra). The Eastern meditator seeks to empty his mind in order to fill it; he strives to achieve a union with the universe (whatever that means), a type of cosmic escapism from the reality of the world in which the meditator lives.

The Christian meditator does not downplay reason and doctrine but emphasizes them. Often He opens a meditation session with a discursive prayer, reminiscing thoughtfully over the truths of Holy Scripture. For CM practitioners, voluntarily expressed, rational thoughts form the very foundation of the meditation experience. The Christian meditator seeks a union with a personal God, a filling of the mind and soul with the Spirit of God, a learning to think the thoughts of God.

Figure 1 illustrates some of the major differences between the two traditions of meditation.

In the face of major stress, human efforts involved in Eastern meditation provide some relief and comfort. But for TM, the lasting, life-changing power to deal successfully with life (and to be joyful while doing it) comes from something vague.

It is crucial that life's stresses be met by Christian meditation, communion with God, and concentrating on and listening to His word. CM makes up the listening part of prayer, whether practiced separately or included as part of a formal prayer. In TM the meditator is "listening to nothing." CM is the basis for developing in the believer's own mind the very mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). This development of the Christian mind-set (Rom. 8:5, 6; Col. 3:2) is the higher consciousness of CM. It effects changes in every aspect of life, for "as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7).

In the practice of CM, a unity of will and purpose between the believer and his Lord empowers the believer to live in the world, but not of the world (John 17:20- 23). In dealing with stress, the utilization of the enabling and life-changing power of the Holy Spirit makes CM far superior to any other type of meditation.

Although there is little doubt that Eastern meditation produces some physical and mental benefits for coping with stress, it really amounts to little more than an escape. It treats the symptoms more than it does the person. Christian meditation, on the other hand, provides for a complete change of character, attitude, and behavior through the sanctifying work of the indwelling presence of God.

Most of the stress problems in our society derive from people's inability to cope with emotional problems. Even in an age when physical illnesses are increasingly being eradicated, psychosomatic problems are running rampant. People are turning to drugs and Eastern meditation for solutions, but they are finding only limited and temporary results.

Unlike Eastern traditions of meditation, however, Christian meditation does not profess to be the cure in and of itself. Rather, it is the means whereby the Holy Spirit, working in the believer's heart and mind, produces the true cure as the result of a change in the believer's mind, temperament, and behavior. CM is the practice of the believer, but long-term beneficial behavior change is the work of the Holy Spirit.

1 J.T. Ryan, "Prayer Is More than Words." Sign,
60(3):23, 24.

2 R. K. Wallace and H. Benson, "The Physiology
of Meditation," Scientific American, 226(2):84-90.

3 J. F. Beary and H. Benson, "A Simple Psychophysiologic
Technique Which Elicits the Hypometabolic
Changes of the Relaxation Response,"
Psychosomatic Medicine, March-April
1974, pp. 115-120.


4 H. Benson and W. Proctor, Beyond the Relaxation
Response (New York: Berkley Publishers,
1985).

5 D. Goleman, The Varieties of the Meditative
Experience (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977).

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Gunter Reiss, D.H.Sc., M.P.H., is an associate professor of health promotion and education for the Loma Linda University School of Health.
Jim Florence, D. H. Sc., M.P. H., is director of the Center for Health Promotion at Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.

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