Intellectuals in the United States have been having a major religious, philosophical and political debate for the last fifty years about which model of human consciousness should be the dominant model. The results are trickling down to the general population in an interesting way, as any cell leader will tell you — they have variations on the debate almost every week.
Is it the soul of Christianity — created, fallen, in need of salvation?
Is it the psyche of modern psychology — conflicted though creative, controlled by hidden, unconscious forces beyond the surface ego?
Is it the Indian atman or Self — already immortal, divine and somehow seriously blissful?
Jon Stewart often has this debate running through his comedy routines. This clip is not about my subject, but it is still about the debate over who we are. [link]
You can see how much the last explanation in the list above, the Hindu/Buddhist one, has been influencing us just by noticing the proliferation of yoga centers. Google “yoga Philadelphia” and the first page will display a host of options for someone to practice yoga within a ten block radius of the Comcast Center. Plus you will see a blurb on people practicing “urban yoga” in the plaza of the obelisk itself!
I want to talk about yoga for a minute as an example of “Hinduism’s” strong entry into the debate about our spiritual core. But I don’t intend to bash yoga. As a meditation technique, yoga practices are not that much different than any other techniques. But the techniques come from a philosophical base and most practitioners like the philosophy. We should be aware of that and have a conversation with it.
Yoga purists regret how yoga has been marketed and practiced as a stress-reducing exercise routine. An ad for “pure” yoga tries to correct that: Yoga is for mastery of the body so that “the whole of Meditation can be learned and practiced, gradually leading one to know himself or herself at all levels, up to and including the eternal center of consciousness, which is one with the absolute reality, by whatever name you choose to call that.” That sounds a bit like AA doesn’t it? a bit like your therapist, maybe; a bit like people being politically correct, even. The Eastern consciousness has been translated into an American mindset.
I think all sorts of meditative practices can have positive impact on us. Physical meditation practices are commonly helpful regardless of philosophy or religion. The body is the body; learning how to move with our breathing, coming to focus, feeling release, resting in silence, developing mind-body-soul awareness is crucial to spiritual development. I made sure to practice my daily discipline of that before I began to write.
The danger comes when one enters this territory thinking it is neutral, or merely about one’s body. We need to be able to answer an important question. What am I going for? Am I looking for out-of-body mindfulness? Do I intend my awareness of sexual energy to turn to bliss? Am I looking for myself to join in union with the divine Self? Do I expect my centeredness to ripple into the world and bring peace?
The Catholics see yoga meditation as kind of the “entry-level drug” of godlessness, an antichrist marijuana. In a paper on the subject the bishops say: “Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian. It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut.” I think they are right this time. It is the end of meditation that brings the depth and brings the dangers. What moves our meditation and where is it taking us? Christian meditation is personal and focused on God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, not on oneself or on the great Self being represented in us.
There are many Bible verses that reinforce how Christians meditate. This one will do:
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.
Thou wilt keep her in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because she trusteth in thee.
Isaiah 26:3 (KJV)
The goal for Christian meditation is having our created “mind” fully “stayed” on our creator; subjecting our energies to the power who directs them. The feeling of the word “stayed” has many layers, of course. Think about it as gazing, being attentive, becoming aware, seeing and being seen, knowing and being known. The process results in peace. “Mutual gazing” might be good definition of contemplative prayer. John of the Cross summed it up this way: “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God.” By means of this loving attentiveness one begins to moves into the place that Paul calls “in Christ.” From that place transformation comes and holiness grows.
Meditation is the technique we use to train ourselves to hold the gaze of God, to be attentive. We usually need to start with God so we can look at others like Jesus does and warm our hearts that way, too. To have this spirit-to-Spirit gaze takes stillness, or our natural defenses rise, our insecurities take over and our longing for attachment over runs us.
As I was saying on Saturday, we often benefit from having a word to help center our meditation and help us let the distractions go. The ring of a bell or the rhythm of chanting “om” might work, too — for some, the less content, the better. But for many, content is a good thing. We are becoming aware of someone, not merely emptying ourselves for the sake of being empty or for the purpose of uncovering some lost self in us. The other day, my spiritual director needed to go to the bathroom so he could continue listening to me. While he was gone, I had some well-informed silence to consider what we had been talking about and a word came to me that has been a centerpoint for my meditation ever since. For centuries, people have practiced using a core phrase of faith as the centerpoint of the meditation: Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (the “Jesus Prayer”). I hope that as you read this paragraph a word came to you. If you center in silence right now, the Lord might raise one up in you.
Since there is debate about these things, many people shy away from prayer, and certainly the prayer of meditation, as simply too dangerous. One person told me that they don’t meditate because they are afraid to do it wrong and open themselves to all sorts of dangerous spirituality! If your mind is stayed on Jesus in some little way, you are quite safe, I think. If you talk about what you do with a person you can see is on the journey with Jesus, that will make you even safer. The wonder of the practice is worth facing the dangers. The Bible calls us into the silent lands where we are known by and know God. Our hearts yearn so much for the peace of that land, some of us would even try letting a yoga instructor guide us there.
[It so happens that here in Philly a road show about the Jesus prayer is coming to Frankford and Norris on Tuesday, October 11 at 7pm. You might want to check it out — link to a site for the organization coming to town]