By Gailyn Van Rheenen
I find it interesting that Eastern meditation has become a fad in our postmodern world. The cover of this week's Time magazine shows actress Heather Graham in a lotus position practicing Transcendental Meditation and the caption "The Science of Meditation." The cover story, entitled "Just Say Om," opens with these words: "Scientists study it. Doctors recommend it. Millions of Americans--many of whom don't even own crystals--practice it every day. Why? Because meditation works" (Stein 2003, 48).
Why are Westerners increasingly receptive to Eastern meditation? How should Christians view this type of meditation? How do Eastern and Christian meditation differ? What are some practical approaches to communicating Christ to practitioners of New Religious Movements?
The East and West are Ever-Meeting
In our religiously pluralistic environment Westerners have become highly receptive to Eastern forms of religion, especially meditation. Harold Netland in Encountering Religious Pluralism writes: "The cumulative influences of the disestablishment of Christianity in Western societies, the increased marginalization of traditional religion in modern life, a deepening skepticism about the claims of orthodox Christianity, and the existential awareness of cultural and religious diversity engendered by globalization work together to erode confidence in the truth of Christian faith in favor of more pluralistic alternatives" (2001, 15).
Westerners, formed by Enlightenment thinking, first became enthralled with what they considered to be the rationalistic, natural religion of Confucius. Romantics, especially in Germany, looked to the monistic motifs of Vedanta Hinduism of India, believing that "ultimately all reality is one unified whole and that this reality is fundamentally spiritual in nature, with the material world being in some respect illusory" (Netland 2001, 102). The impact of Buddhism has been even more pervasive. In the nineteenth century battle between Christianity and secularism, the agnostic yet meditative character of Buddhism appealed to those seeking an alternative to Christianity. The counter-cultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s "drew heavily upon Eastern religious symbols and spiritual practices as alternatives to the perceived decadence of the West" (Netland 2001, 107). Westerners began travelling to India, Japan, and Tibet to study under religious gurus and many of these Eastern religious tutors have now moved to the United States or, like the Dalai Lama, sought refuge here. The Western world today has become religiously plural.
This continual exposure to religious diversity, the skepticism of modernists toward the historical accuracy of the biblical text, and the quest for "pragmatism and personal experience" (Netland 2001, 125) have created what Wade Clark Roof calls the quest culture. There has been "a qualitative shift from unquestioned belief to a more open, questioning mood, a search for certainty, but also the hope for a more authentic, intrinsically satisfying life" (1999, 9-10). Roof writes:
The emergence of a global world, an influx of new immigrants and cultures, widespread changes in values and beliefs, the immense role of the media and visual imagery in shaping contemporary life, an expanding consumer-oriented culture targeting the self as an arena for marketing, the erosion of many traditional forms of community--all point to major realignments in religion and culture.... Old certainties collapse as new mysteries arise. It seems not just coincidental that the metaphor of a spiritual quest takes on significance just when many of traditional religion's underpinnings of the culture have become tenuous.
(1999, 8; cf. Netland 2001, 125-26)
In their religious quests Westerners are not only appropriating beliefs from Eastern sources but are integrating them into new and distinctive religious configurations, called New Spiritualities or New Religious Movements. Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe in New Religions as Global Cultures (1997) say that New Religious Movements are a result of globalization, which allows people of world cultures to selectively integrate aspects of many traditions to create a new religious culture. In a significant, up-coming publication, entitled Mission to New Religious Movements, they write: "In practice and theory the creators of new religions selectively extract and combine elements they find significant from numerous local cultures spread around the world" (Hexham and Poewe-Hexham, 2004).
Julie is an example of this. We met on an airplane. Her books about power points and flows of energy enthralled me. She told me about her place of meditation, the altar in her house. Numerous crystals line the circumference. Within the circle three pyramids form a triangle. Statues of Buddha, Krishna, and Jesus, representing Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, stand between the pyramids. In the background is a large cross. A Bible, Koran, and Sutras are placed among the images. Julie's religion integrates beliefs and forms from different world religions. She believes that the life energy radiating from these elements gives her peace and power. Julie has taken items from multiple cultures and religions to form her own DiY (Do-It-Yourself) spirituality.
While historical and cultural factors make Westerners very receptive to Eastern forms of religion, there are also local contextual factors. For many the pace of Western life is overwhelming. Schedules are tightly maintained; accomplishment of task is frequently more important than people. Relationships are often competitive, and employers demand results in the workplace. Eastern-style meditation is frequently suggested as a remedy for stressed-out people.
Christian Perception toward Eastern Meditation
How then should Christians perceive meditation and other practices of the new spiritualities?
First of all, the practice of meditation affirms the reciprocal relationship between mind and body. In North America physicians treat the physical causes of illness, theologians and philosophers struggle with the reasons for evil, and psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists treat the trauma resulting from stress and anxiety. However, increasingly it is accepted that health is not merely a physical phenomenon that can be treated impersonally and superficially but must be treated as a spiritual phenomenon with physical causations. Christian physicians, therefore, must become ministers of "the God of all comfort" who empathetically and prayerfully minister as God's spokespersons. They must mimic the Great Physician who ministered both spiritually and physically.
In other words, Christians must reach beyond themselves instructing people to petition and trust in the Lord. New Agers, by way of contrast, reach within themselves hoping to access the ultimate impersonal Self or "oneness" of the universe.
Second, relaxation is a desperate need in this pent-up world. After a long day of work Western urbanites perceive a need for solitude, to be alone, to simply relax. Participants of the New Spiritualities stress this need and believe that the answer is an emptying of Self or a merging of Self with ultimate reality through meditation. One author uses his web site to promote meditation to relieve tension:
Too much stress, stress reduction, chill out, let it go, detach familiar phrases to all of us. Our world is fast, fun and exciting. It is also challenging, trying, demanding and frightening. These two sides of our lives produce stress, emotional reactions, anxiety, worry and anticipation. Our bodies and minds can tolerate only so much of any of these. After a while, each of us reaches a saturation point and the results become uncomfortable at best; for some it may be unbearable, even unendurable.
Joel Stein's Time article quotes many researchers to show that Eastern meditation reduces tension, increases contentment, slows disease, trains the mind, and reshapes the brain. Although Stein's research seems biased because he interviews only researchers with a positive deposition toward Eastern meditation, I do think relaxing while in the lotus position while focusing on breathing has some therapeutic benefit. I suspect that relaxation of all sorts can help up-tight Westerners reduce tension.
Frequently, however, Eastern meditation leads to a change of epistemology. Instead of looking for peace and tranquility through personal relationship with God (Matt. 11:28-29), people seek these qualities within themselves. One New Ager writes:
We start by paying attention to our breathing. The practical effort to focus completely on our breathing takes our minds away from the "mind clutter" that constantly tries to invade our mind and eliminate feelings that will lead to a time of calm. With repeated effort the goal of clearing your mind to think of nothing, does occur and the process of meditation takes on its own energy. The result is, and I guarantee this, peace, serenity, calmness, eventually opening yourself to new insights.
God is thus dethroned as the authority, and meaning is intuitively found within Self. Despite the claims of new spiritualities in the West, human beings cannot simply empty themselves of spiritual influences and find ultimate meaning within themselves. The attempt frequently results in a new type of allegiance. Ravi Zacharias in The Lotus and The Cross describes an imaginary conversation between Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha. At one point Gautama reflects despondently upon the idolatry and pagan rituals found within popular Buddhism, and Jesus responds by saying:
Superstition in its essence is actually a subtle lack of faith in God. If there is no righteous god in control of all things, a person ends up trying to appease the world of unseen power. Habits develop out of fear of the unknown. You took God away from them, Gautama, so they live in fear of the spirit world. Anytime god is displaced but belief in the spirit world remains, placation will dominate the individual's efforts.
A similar phenomenon is occurring within the context of New Spiritualities in the West. Meditation becomes the roadway enabling practitioners to not only relax but also to eventually access the spiritual realm. I have listened with awe to the tantalizing visualizations and soothing sounds in New Age tapes and videos guiding participants to access their spiritual guides, angels, or astral beings. How-to-do-it books, the type burned by new Christians in Ephesus (Acts 19:19), are readily available at local bookstores. As practitioners begin to sample the interconnected relationships of the spiritual realm, astrology and divination become appealing. Over a period of time, New Age self-actualization becomes demonic oppression and possession. Eastern meditation, thus, can open people up to practices that access the spirit world.
Christian Prayer and Eastern Meditation
The goal of Buddhism is to set aside pain, to negate suffering through meditation; the Christian, on the other hand, places suffering before the God of all comfort in supplication and prayer (2 Cor. 1:3-11). Ravi Zacharias' fictitious dialogue between Jesus and Gautama in The Lotus and The Cross ingeniously contrasts Christian prayer with Eastern meditation:
Jesus: "Prayer is a constant reminder that the human being is not autonomous. Prayer in its most basic form is the surging of the human spirit in its weakness, grasping at the Spirit of God in His strength. Sometimes mere words cannot give shape to the longing of the heart. You see, Gautama, God answers every prayer by either giving what is asked for or reminding the petitioner that God's provision is built on His wisdom and executed in His time. But the answer is always for the instruction and nurture of the soul. . . . When the seed meets the soil and the season is right, the boom touches heaven."
Gautama: "Beautifully put. But prayer is a dimension that doesn't fit in with my teachings. . . . There are cardinal differences between one who prays and one who meditates. One looks beyond and the other looks within" "
Jesus: "The purpose in life, Gautama, is communion, not union. There can be no meaning when the goal is to mediate oneself into oblivion. But meaning is found in a relationship with the living God. That's what it's all about--a relationship"
(Zacharias 2001, 47, , 73).
Meditating as a Christian
Meditation is also a distinctively Judeo-Christian term although Zacharias is correct in focusing on prayer. Prayer describes the core relational nature of Christian meditation. Theophan the Recluse, the Russian mystic, wrote, "To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you" (In Foster 1988, 19).
The essence of Christian meditation is vastly different than its Eastern counterpart. Christian meditation is focused on intimate relationship with God the Father and the person of Jesus Christ. According to Richard Foster, the Hebrew words for meditation refer to "listening to God's word, reflecting on God's works, rehearsing God's deeds, ruminating on God's law." The emphasis is on changed behavior (Ps. 119:97, 101-102). It is natural for people of God to meditate in the evening (Gen. 24:63); at night (Ps. 6:3-6), and early in the early morning (Ps. 119:148). "The Psalm that introduces the entire Psalter calls people to emulate the 'blessed man' whose 'delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night' (Ps. 1:2)" (Foster 1988, 15-16).
Jesus himself frequently withdrew to "lonely places and prayed" (Luke 5:16; cf. 4:42; 22:39). Preparing to select his twelve apostles from among his disciples, Jesus "went out to a mountainside to pray and spent the night praying to God" (Luke 6:12-16). Withdrawing and praying was habitual with Jesus. Being from God he desired to commune with God.
Foster defines Christian meditation as "the ability to hear God's voice and obey his word." It involves, he says, "no hidden mysteries, no secret mantras, no mental gymnastics, no esoteric flights into the cosmic consciousness" (Foster 1988, 17). The Bible is a narrative of God's relationship with his people, even when they rebel against him. "The great God of the universe, the Creator of all things, desires our fellowship" (Foster 1988, 17)!! The guiding question of the Bible is: "Will God's people live in relationship with Him? Or will they choose to live on the basis of their own ingenuity or under the sovereignty of pagan gods?"
Contrasts Between Christian and Eastern Meditation
Christian meditation opens the mind to the purposes of God by reflection upon Scripture, simply resting in his presence, and dwelling with him in the goodness of his creation. We grow as loving, holy, faithful beings by dwelling in the presence of God. Christian meditation, thus, attempts to fill the mind with the Person, attributes, and purposes of God.
Eastern meditation, on the other hand, attempts to empty the mind. Foster says, Eastern forms of meditation stress the need to become detached from the world. There is an emphasis upon losing personhood and individuality and merging with the Cosmic Mind. There is a longing to be freed from the burdens and pains of this life and to be released into the impersonality of Nirvana. Personal identity is lost and, in fact, personality is seen as the ultimate illusion. There is an escaping from the miserable wheel of existence. There is no God to be attached to or to hear from. Detachment is the final goal of Eastern religion. (Foster 1988, 20) Paradoxically, the new spiritualities of the West have selectively borrowed and reconfigured these conceptions to fit the optimistic success syndrome and individualization of the Western world.
Teaching Christ to New Religionists
I have consistently found participants in the New Spiritualities receptive to the story of Jesus. But Christ's work through us as ministers of reconciliation must be incarnational. We must personally enter their lives and treat them with love and respect.
I have found that discussion of methodologies of meditation provides common ground for spiritual discussion. Both the New Ager and the Christian meditate even though the nature and purpose of meditation is greatly different.
I frequently ask the New Age spiritual searchers to describe their type(s) of meditation. I listen intently and ask many questions because I want to fully understand what has been occurring in their lives. Out of this discussion they may express spiritual dilemmas. Like some religious people, they may be disillusioned by what is happening in their lives. If they have been meditating for many years, they will likely have dabbled in accessing spiritual guides and various types of divination.
At a convenient time, depending on the context, I will mention enthrallment with my meditation. They will almost always ask what I do. I will describe meditation on the beauty of creation, sitting or laying in silence listening to God, and devotional reflection upon God's Word, with illustrations of each.
I then slide from discussion of meditation to telling a few specific story of God steadfast love, awesome holiness, and consistent faithfulness, illustrating his great desire to relate with us. Since Christianity is a historical religion, the searcher must hear the story in order to fathom the rationale for my distinct type of meditation.
Finally, I will ask to pray with the searcher illustrating prayer as a relationship with a personal, loving Creator.
Throughout this informal study I do not ridicule the practices of the searcher or object to pagan customs but speak of and illustrate relationship meditation with creator God.