One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation
I do not have a quiet mind.
My internal dialogue consists of free association Google searches, where one idea leads to the next, and then the next, until I’m miles from where I started–and going in the wrong direction toward my destination.
This lack of concentration is why people like me (and perhaps you) feel stressed and overwhelmed. Our inability to focus the mind not only impedes our mental and physical health–but also our spiritual well-being. This is why we need meditation.
But what is it meditation? Can Christians meditate without being struck by lightning?
I ask this question in my third book, One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Meditation, to be released in February 2019 from Upper Room Books. The book chronicles my fledgling meditation practice, and how, with a little help from Jesus, I’m beginning to see some progress. One Breath leads the reader on a journey through scripture, theology, and science, and offers them a step-by-step 40-day guide to getting started.
So, can Christians meditate? The short answer is yes.
The English word, “meditation,” means to reflect, think, or ponder upon. It comes from the Latin, meditatio, from the verb meditari. The equivalent word is present in both the Old and New Testaments (the Hebrew word for meditation is hagah; the Greek is meletao). In the Christian sense, meditation refers to reflecting upon scripture and God’s presence. Did Jesus do that? Absolutely. Perhaps the most poignant account is in the Garden of Gethsemane, included in the three synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 26:39, Mark 14:35-36, and Luke 22:42).
But if Jesus meditated, and Christians have a model for meditation, how is Christian meditation from different Buddhist and Hindu meditation?
Meditation was birthed out of Hinduism, which is the world’s oldest living religious tradition. In Hinduism, the term for meditation is dhyana (pronounced dyaan), which is described as an uninterrupted flow of attention towards the object of meditation (The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali). Dhyana, the eighth limb of yoga (yoga the lifestyle–not the exercise class) is only achieved after the practitioner has completed the first seven stages of yoga, which include various practices to calm sensual desires, foster concentration, and practice pulling the mind away from its endless thoughts Then, concentration is uninterrupted and a person can fully meditate upon God . According to the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, one doesn’t attain the state of dhyana until the mind has been controlled and the senses reigned in.
In Christianity, there’s less overt focus on freeing ourselves from desires before attempting to concentrate on God. This attempt is often called theoria, Greek for “gazing.” “Gazing at God” helps us naturally quiet our mundane desires. Similarly, in the bhakti-yoga tradition of Hinduism, cultivating intense devotion through meditation on the names of God displaces material desires, culminating in love for God (bhakti).
How often do you gaze and meditate on God?
If you’re like me, not very often.
Christians have a robust prayer life, but often it’s fraught with formulas and lists for material things to God to take care of. Wordy, wordly prayers don’t leave room for listening for–or gazing at–God.
I’ve never stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon, but when I imagine it, I think of awe. In my mind’s eye, I don’t see myself prattling on without taking a breath amid such beauty. For me, meditation is supposed to be like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon–where I’m speechless–and unable to take my eyes off the magnificent scene. When practiced well, and over time, meditation is that word-less prayer that helps be still and quiet in order to make space to reflect on and gaze at the beautiful presence of God.
There’s not shortage of ways to begin a meditation practice, but One Breath will feature five modalities:
- Breath Meditation
- Lectio Divina
- Centering Meditation
- Loving-Kindness Meditation
- Devotional Meditation
My fellow Upper Room Books author and yoga and meditation teacher, Whitney Simpson and I will be offering a sneak preview of One Breath and these practices this week at Festival of Faith and Writing. But if you can’t make it to Michigan, here’s how to practice the first one–breath meditation–at home.
- Keep you meditation sessions short. Start with no more than three minutes. You can always increase your time as you practice. Feel free to use the steps below, or listen to this guided practice.
- Open this sacred time with a short piece of scripture that centers you. My favorite is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.”
- Practice the modality (see below).
- Close your sacred time with the same scripture.
- Reflect on what happen. What did you notice? What was hard? What do you hope for for tomorrow’s practice?
Modality One: Breath Meditation
All that is has been made by God, who breathed breath into the first human (Genesis 2:7). Our breath—our life source—is with God within us, every day, all day. But we often don’t think about it that way—until something goes wrong and we cannot breathe.
Becoming aware of this life force is the first step in any meditation practice. Harnessing and deepening the breath help us slow down our minds and helps us appreciate the very gift of air.
Here are the steps:
- Sit comfortably, either in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor.
- Close your eyes and notice your breath. Become aware your inhaling and exhaling.
- As you continue your breath awareness, try breathing deeply and slowly. Counting as you inhale: 1, 2, 3, 4, and exhale: 4, 3, 2, 1.
- Notice how the deeper your breathing becomes deeper, the calmer your feel. As you inhale, imagine God’s light and love filling your body—from your head to your toes.
- When your mind wanders or intrusive thoughts arrive, bring your awareness back to the breath. Do not judge yourself. If you wander away 100 times, come back 100 times.
- Continue your deep breathing until the timer goes off. Then, open your eyes and bring yourself back to full awareness.
Your turn: Do you think Christians should meditate? Let me know how this practice goes! Enjoy this infographic on the many benefits of meditation.
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