This post on meditation is another in my occasional series on prayer (cf. Contemplation, Musings about prayer, Some thoughts on prayer, and Prayer can improve personal happiness).
Although the word meditation appears 6 times in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (perhaps the best English translation), those passages all suggest contemplation rather than meditation, encouraging people to reflect on God's deeds, guidance, or being. (cf. Job 15:4; Psalm 19:14; 49:3; 104:34; 119:97, 99).
Although more commonly associated with Eastern religions, meditation in fact has a long history within Christianity. Those who pursue this path are often called mystics; the experience they seek is a mystical experience, i.e., a personal encounter with God.
Regardless of the religion, there are two types of meditation. The first focuses on something outside the person. In Christianity, for example, a person may meditate on a cross or an icon. The other type of meditation is inwardly focused, seeking to clear the mind. In Christianity, for example, a person may repeat a phrase such as “Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior, forgive my sins.”
The goal of both types of meditation is the same: the person meditating seeks to experience God's presence in an immediate and personal way. Plotinus, a Greek third century philosopher, described this as the flight of the alone to the Alone.
Meditation is a form of prayer that very few people cultivate on their own. A teacher, often known as a spiritual director in Christianity or a guru in Hinduism, who has personally traveled the meditative path, helps to point the way, offers guidance on how to walk the path, and encouragement when progress proves elusive. Books such as The Way of the Pilgrim can perform some of those functions, though a book obviously cannot provide feedback on one’s experiences.
In his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James identified the characteristics of the mystical experience for which the person who practices meditation aims: ineffable (irreducible to human language), transient (has a beginning and end, noetic (within the mind), and passive (something the person experiences rather than does).
In the second half of the twentieth century, Transcendental Meditation (TM) became popular. A yogi (a person who practices meditation) would assist in training the new person in meditation using a mantra (word on which to meditate) that the guru provided. Although TM claims not to be religious, TM is actually a form of Hindu meditation. More broadly, yoga – using physical exercise as an aid to meditation – is popular as a form of exercise, often divorced from any attempt to discipline the mind or to benefit from yoga as a form of meditation.
Extensive reading in the writings of mystics from all of the world’s major religions convinced me, decades ago, that although the mystics may describe their path and their encounter with God using different images and concepts, that they were all describing essentially the same experience. Logically, if God does exist, then people all around the world seek and encounter the same ultimate reality, regardless of their metaphorical language they use to describe that reality or the path that leads them to it.
More recently, meditation has attracted scientific interest. Research suggests that some hallucinogenic drugs can induce mystical experiences. This research has not, inherently cannot, demonstrate whether the experience is entirely noetic, i.e., a mental experience of the person who took the drugs (or, presumably, one who has achieves a similar experience through meditation). The difficulty is that God is ineffable, totally other, and therefore the scientific method does not have any means of detecting or measuring God, if God exists.
Newer research shows that meditation involves certain brain areas and raises the question of whether humans are hard-wired for mystical experiences. This research, like that on drug related mystical experiences, really has little if anything to contribute to discussions about the validity of mystical experience. Unable to detect God, the possibility of what some popular media term a God gene begs the question of what actually occurs in a mystical experience.
Other research has demonstrated that meditation has health benefits, aids in the control of pain, contributes to human happiness, improves brain functioning, and enhances resistance to infection. An impressive body of literature is accumulating that supports all of those conclusions regardless of the religion to which the meditator belongs. Some research suggests that benefits of meditation are greater if a person believes in a religion rather than practicing meditation as a strictly non-religious endeavor.
The regular practice of meditation is a difficult discipline that few people truly follow. For those who find meditation a meaningful way to pray, the benefits, even if not an experience of God, seem increasingly well documented. The human experiences of awe (e.g., at natural beauty) and of love (not only of kin but more broadly), the human capacity for creativity and self-transcendence, and the cross-cultural reports of mystical experiences all suggest that God is real and not simply a figment of the human imagination.