Saturday, August 11, 2012

Meditation - a form of prayer and path to human flourishing

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.


Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Clifford,

Your blog is devoted to "the path that leads to the abundant life of human flourishing." What a beautiful subject, and how rare in this world of sin and stress.

But I feel shot in the heart by your words, because you dismiss the technique that has helped me and millions of others move in the direction of an "abundant life of human flourishing" with the brief, heartless phrase, "TM is actually a form of Hindu meditation."

Where did you get this dismissive idea? You certainly haven't learned TM yourself, or you would know that only one or two of its internal forms has any overlap with Hinduism. This is because TM was restored from the original Vedic texts and brought to the world by a religious monk, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

If you had learned TM yourself, so you could at least speak authoritatively based on your own experience, you would know that the technique of TM is completely independent of religion. It works because of how the mind itself works, not because of any belief or faith.

Jesus taught intuitively, because he understood life. He taught of love and acceptance, not hatred or dismissal.

Please at least pretend to be more like Jesus and learn about how TM fulfills life. Then you could do your readers, religious or not, a real service in showing them how eliminating their internalized stresses results in eliminating bad thoughts, bad emotions, oppositional attitudes, and all else that is based in these stresses.

Free of stress, an individual no longer has to oppose God. Free of stress, an individual no longer has to search (in spite of any religious beliefs--beliefs alone are not enough in this world). Free of stress, an individual is finally free to be happy and whole, finally free to pursue the important paths in their life, especially the path to devotion, service, and love of Man and God.

I am sure you are a wonderful priest. Don't have a blind spot for the one path that helps religion achieve its goal. Ask me questions, or visit the TM website to learn more.

David Spector
Natural Stress Relief/USA

George Clifford said...

Rereading my original post, I am not dismissive of TM becuase it emerged out of Hinduism. I have no objection to Hinduism, one of the world's major religions and a path to God for many people. The Vedic texts are Hindu scriptures. Although TM claims not to be a form of Hinduism, TM did in fact emerge out of Hinduism.

Anonymous said...

TM emerged out of the Vedic tradition of India, which preceded Hinduism. But the more important issue, which you have ignored, is that TM is the most direct and accessible way to experience "the abundant life of human flourishing", in which you claim to be interested.

My 1400 clients have found transcending to be fulfilling to their goal to be happy. Being truly happy cannot be accomplished by taking drugs, attending church services, listening to relaxing music, or any of the thousands of coping strategies we use to deal with our accumulated internalized stresses.

The only way to get lasting happiness is to realize the Self in relation to God. Why do you, in your reply, ignore this vital issue?

The basic reason we are alienated from God and suffer in life is not because we deserve it, not because we don't believe deeply enough in Jesus Christ, and not because we sin. The basic reason is that we are carrying around a mountain load of stress. This stress clogs our mind, hiding the true nature of the Self as having freedom of action.

Just by learning how to transcend thinking, a simple activity that we can accomplish in just a few hours by taking a Transcendental Meditation (TM) or Natural Stress Relief (NSR) course, we can experience pure consciousness, the Divine field underlying the apparent reality of everyday life.

This is an activity of giving up activity. Only by giving up our "monkey chatter" thinking can we inherit our full status as human beings, living in Divine joy. And only by experiencing the unique state of restful alertness twice a day can we eliminate stored stresses and grow in intelligence, creativity, productivity, and love.

As a priest you are in a unique position to try this effective approach for yourself and then, having been convinced by your own experience, recommend it to others.

I urge you not to miss this chance to expand your effectiveness, and I urge your readers to visit the TM and NSR websites to find out more.

David Spector
Natural Stress Relief/USA

George Clifford said...

TM is helpful to some people. Stress does block some people's spiritual development. For other people, the blockage is sin; other people experience other blockages. Similarly, no one path is right for all people. Many paths and guides do not charge a fee; some people cannot afford to pay. Your "clients" have found TM helpful; my anecdotal experience is that many do not find TM a fruitful, long-term path for themselves.

Gary (NJ) said...

I did TM for several years back in the 70s and although it was relaxing, I really didn't experience any significant change in my life (of course it wasn't 'messed up' to any great degree to begin with). Now I do Holosync meditation which basically takes you into deeper and deeper levels of delta brain waves by listening to various unheard tones in each ear with headphones. I believe they are called binaural beats. They are disguised with the sound of rain and tibetan bowl chimes. My favorite peace inducing practice is still listening to Gregorian Chant or Renaissance liturgical music; sometimes while praying or just listening with my eyes closed.

George Clifford said...

Thanks for sharing your experience; I suspect that others will find it helpful.