One of the most important developments in Psychology in the past decade is the embrace of mindfulness meditation. Many carefully controlled studies have found benefits of mindfulness meditation training. For example, those who are trained in mindfulness meditation show less stress, emotional problems, and health problems. As a result, mindfulness meditation is becoming one of the most commonly encouraged at-home exercises for people who struggle with a variety of different problems. For an excellent, accessible discussion of these developments, I recommend Krista Tippett’s program devoted to the topic: Investigating Healthy Minds.
The kind of mindfulness meditation that has been emphasized in research and psychological practice comes from Buddhism. The basic thrust of this kind of mindfulness meditation is to focus on something (such as one’s breath), ultimately helping one to gain better control over one’s attention, and thus learning to be more fully present in the moment without having various other thoughts hijack one’s mind.
There are other forms of meditation possible, however. In particular, Christian readers of this blog may be interested to learn about Christian forms of meditation. This is the topic of an excellent chapter in one of my favorite books: “The Celebration of Discipline,” by Richard Foster.
In this chapter, Foster notes that Eastern meditation actually is quite different from Christian meditation. In particular, he suggests that whereas “Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind,” “Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind.” Another way to put this would be that whereas Eastern meditation seeks to help people to detach from unhealthy attachments; Christian meditation seeks to help people to detach from unhealthy attachments and also attach to healthy attachments, most notably through a deeper, more experiential relationship with God.
More specifically, Foster recommends Christians consider trying four different kinds of meditation, which I summarize below.
1. Meditation on Scripture.
Perhaps the most important kind of Christian meditation, a focus on Scripture is potentially one of the most important spiritual practices for the serious Christian. This is not the same as a “Bible study,” though, as the focus is less on analysis and more on contemplation and application. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said:
“. . . just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart. . . That is all. That is meditation.”
Another valuable commentary on Scripture meditation comes from Ignatius of Loyola, who always encouraged his followers to apply all the senses to the task. Foster provides an example:
“Suppose we want to meditate on Jesus’ staggering statement ‘My peace I give to you’ (John 14:27). Our task is not so much to study the passage as it is to be initiated into the reality of which the passage speaks. We brood on the truth that he is now filling us with his peace. The heart, the mind, and the spirit are awakened to his inflowing peace.”
Foster provides an example of this kind of Christian meditation, which originally comes from Quaker tradition. This he calls “palms down, palms up.” He instructs:
“Begin by placing your palms down as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over any concerns you may have to God. . . Release it. . . After several moments of surrender, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord.”
3. Meditation on Creation.
A third kind of Christian meditation directs itself toward the beauty of the natural world as a means to understand the beauty of the Creator. Foster writes:
“Look at the trees, really look at them. Take a flower and allow its beauty and symmetry to sink deep into your mind and heart. Listen to the birds. . . These are humble acts, to be sure, but sometimes God reaches us profoundly in these simple ways if we will quiet ourselves to listen.”
I add to this that one of the reasons I personally find photography to be so enjoyable is that it almost aids in this kind of meditation. I typically leave a photography outing in nature spiritually refreshed.
4. Meditation on Current Events.
This fourth kind of meditation encourages individuals to focus on significant events and to seek spiritual significance and guidance regarding them. As we do this, Foster suggests, “we should ask for guidance for anything we personally should be doing to be salt and light in our decaying and dark world.” I personally really resonate with what Thomas Merton said about this kind of meditation:
“[The person] who has meditated on the Passion of Christ but has not meditated on the extermination camps of Dachau and Auschwitz has not yet fully entered into the experience of Christianity in our time.”
One of the great leaps forward in my spiritual life came when I decided take at least 30 minutes per day engaging in one of these forms of Christian discipline. I long have thought that I possessed an understanding of what it means to have a relationship with God. However, engaging in these kinds of meditation has helped me to actually experience that relationship.