Why should Christians meditate? Up until a few decades ago it was understood that our brains become relatively unchangeable sometime after adolescence, but new studies continue to reveal the brain’s remarkable ability to change and “rewire” even into adulthood. This suggests that the traits we assumed to be fixed, such as our attitudes, moods, and even personality, are not permanent and can be changed throughout our entire lives.
As Christians we understand that Christ can affect great change – bad habits can be dropped, good ones picked up. Now science is helping us understand some of the “hows”, and there is overwhelming evidence that meditation can have a positive effect on how we feel and how our brains function.
The touted benefits of meditation are staggering. Research has shown that meditation:
- Changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain. (1)
- Strengthens the neural circuitry responsible for concentration, memory, and insight. (2)
- Shrinks the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with stress and fear, and enlarges the hippocampus, a part of the brain that controls memory. (3)
- Provides measurable increases in memory. (4)
- Reduces loneliness and boosts the immune system. (5)
- Provides chronic pain and stress relief by “turning down the volume.” (6)
- The benefits obtained during meditation extend into our normal lives. (7)
Even the marines are expanding their use of meditation due to the exceptional results it’s provided. (8)
With modern meditation emerging from eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, many Christians understandably wonder if they can benefit from meditation or if it’s even compatible with the Bible. Good news, it is! But to understand how, we must understand what meditation is.
What is meditation?
In a broad sense meditation is a state of extreme focus or mindfulness. While there are many types of meditation, not all of which are compatible with Christianity, all attempt to limit distraction and obtain a state of single-mindedness. Meditation is a routine or practice that one commits to for a small segment of time but that has positive effects on activities throughout the day. Heightened mindfulness is often associated with spiritual practices, in part because of the calm, confidence, joy, and gratitude it can bring. If you’ve ever gotten anxious or stressed and found relief in a moment to yourself, a deep breath, or a prayer to God, imagine how meditation can help sustain that peace even further. Meditation is a practice that can and should be used when communing with our Creator.
Most types of meditation have four elements in common:
- A quiet location. Meditation is usually practiced in a quiet place with as few distractions as possible. This can be particularly helpful for beginners.
- A specific, comfortable posture. Meditation can be done while sitting, lying down, standing, walking, or in other positions.
- A focus of attention. The meditator may focus on a mantra (a specially chosen word or set of words, such as a portion of scripture), an object, or the sensations of the breath. Some forms of meditation involve paying attention to whatever is the dominant content of consciousness.
- An open attitude. Having an open attitude during meditation means letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them. When the attention goes to distracting or wandering thoughts, they are not suppressed; instead, the meditator gently brings attention back to the focus. The emphasis is a positive one. In some types of meditation, the meditator learns to “observe” thoughts and emotions while meditating. (9)
The subject of your focus is up to you. The marine’s meditation program uses a completely secular type of mediation where the participants sit and simply focus their attention on the point of contact between their feet and the ground. You can focus your attention on any sensation, whether your breath or the great awe you feel during watching a sunset. Research has revealed that slight differences in meditation strengthen different areas of the mind.
Varying types of mediation are distinguished primarily by the subject of thought. Compassion mediation, which is a Tibetan Buddhist practice, has been shown to substantially increase the feelings of love, compassion, and empathy of the meditator more than generic meditations. Though traditionally a Buddhist practice, thinking compassionate thoughts lines up with admonitions in the Bible to think about what is good, noble, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). Also, meditation on God’s word and works is written about all throughout the Psalms.
Meditation in the Bible
There is moderate discussion as to whether Jesus meditated. The practice was common in his day and he would have come in contact with it. If he did practice it, however, he doesn’t call it meditation. Some speculate that his 40-day fast and long prayers spent with God included meditating. Many who view prayer as speaking directly to God view meditation as the listening half of the conversation. At the very least, meditation quiets the anxious activity of our human minds and allows more room for insight into what God may be saying.
The meditation that’s repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament is usually some type of reflection on God and his beauty – almost as an act of worship. Joshua was commanded to meditate on Moses’ book of law “day and night” (Joshua 1:8), much like we are commanded to pray “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). In Genesis 24:63, Isaac “went out to the field to meditate” suggesting it was a deliberate activity. Then, in Psalms, David repeatedly references “a meditation of my heart” (19:14) and meditation as a source of insight (119:99). Thus the Bible provides us many examples of how meditation can play an important role in the believer’s life.
To relate my personal experiences as a Christian who meditates, I feel that the worry, stress, and anxiety of life, the desires of the flesh, and the voices that make sin so tempting, have become quieter with practice. Meditation helps me hear God’s truth and voice in my life. I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to follow God’s voice when I can hear it more clearly!
How can I begin to meditate?
Meditation works best when practiced regularly as a part of a daily routine. You can meditate with varying frequency throughout the day or varying lengths of time, but the more you meditate the more effects you’ll see. Early morning or late at night work best for me, but sometimes even meditating during a 10 min break can quickly relieve stress at work. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started:
Set aside 10 minutes to an hour, and set a timer.
- A quiet location free of distraction is key when beginning, as your mind will provide plenty of distraction.
- Choose a comfortable position that’s not too comfortable — you don’t want to fall asleep. I like sitting somewhere with an upright posture. Find a position that helps keep your mind alert.
- Choose the focus of your attention. To begin I would recommend an easy, specific sensation: a part of your body, your breath, a point on a wall. Your mind has the momentum of a freight train and slowing it becomes easier when the focus is simple. Choosing a Bible verse right away might foster wandering thoughts and can make the initial focusing even more difficult. Start with something simple.
- As you focus your mind, other thoughts, sensations, and feeling will interject (as they always do). How you handle them is key. Treat unwanted thoughts as Jesus treats the sinful – with acknowledgement, understanding, and forgiveness. You don’t want to fight them, as the conflict will only create more difficulty. Simply return your focus to your meditation. Interjecting thoughts or pains will gradually diminish, focus will become easier, and you will experience greater control over your mind.
- When your timer goes off gracefully return yourself to your situation.
Some sessions seem impossibly frustrating and you may wonder if you’re doing it right. Some will impress you with peace. As with any training or rehabilitation, progress takes time. Eventually you can bring the focus acquired during meditation with you and meditate “all day” as David proclaims. Be patient with yourself. As you grow in confidence you can tackle greater meditative challenges and truly reflect on God’s will in your life with greater clarity.
Note: We were pleased to feature this article by Thomas Fitch, a guest blogger.
Originally posted 2013-02-13 22:52:33.