As Christians, how are we to understand meditation? In mainstream Christianity, there seems to be a much bigger emphasis on prayer than on meditation. This is perhaps because meditation oftentimes seems like the realm of Eastern religions -- Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.. The truth is, many people have an incorrect view of the role that meditation plays in Christianity. This post is my attempt to clear up this misconception. By exploring what the Bible teaches us about meditation, hopefully we can all see the crucial role that meditation has in the development of our spirituality as Christians.
In the past, many Christian “purists” (for lack of a better term) have completely separated meditation from prayer, only highlighting what makes the two practices different from one another – and what’s more, in their differentiation of the two practices, these purists emphasize, why “Christian meditation” (if they accept that there is such a thing) is vastly different from Eastern forms of meditation. This purist view of meditation sets it as something removed from both, Christianity and meditation. This does a tremendous disservice to both.
Nevertheless, on the other hand, on the other end of the spectrum, those who lean more towards Christian mysticism than towards Christian fundamentalism have conflated prayer and meditation as if there is no difference between the two at all. This point of view is also misguided. In this writer’s opinion, both of these approaches are incorrect; Prayer and meditation are by no means the same thing, nor are they so vastly different. The truth is, prayer and meditation are two sides of the same coin. The former is how we talk to God, and the latter is how we listen.
Let us first clarify what prayer and meditation actually are – by definition -- so that we have a solid foundation from which to start our discussion. When we “pray” what we are doing by definition is “addressing God in adoration, confession, supplication or thanksgiving.” In other words, a prayer is made up of the things we say to God, and prayers oftentimes (but by no means have to) take a precise form, such as the “Our Father” or the “Hail Mary.” On the other hand, when we “meditate,” we by definition “engage in deep contemplation … for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.” In other words, by meditating we focus our thoughts in order engage with something higher. So as you can see prayer and meditation are practiced differently: the former is about “addressing,” and the latter is about “contemplating.” Nevertheless, despite their different approaches, both practices seek to reach something beyond us and transcend one's current state.
What is more, the difference between Christian meditation and other forms of meditation is likewise very subtle, and thus needs to be examined more closely to be better understood. The way in which “meditation” is usually practiced is by sitting comfortably and quietly (although sometimes people chant mantras like “Ohm”). And once one is seated comfortably, they then focus on their breathing, and in so doing, they become more relaxed. This focused breathing allows our thoughts to separate themselves from their usual stream of consciousness, and during this separation, it is believed that we can better understand how our thoughts work, how we can better control them, and how we can better use them to our advantage. Simply put, by meditating we gain relaxation and mental clarity. The difference between this form of meditation and “Christian meditation,” is that with Christian meditation, relaxation and mental clarity are not the goals of the practice, but rather they are a side effect of the goal. That is to say, for Christians, in addition to focusing on our breathing, we are also to focus our minds on God and his Word, and in so doing, we then become relaxed and gain mental clarity. In other words, through our act of meditating upon the Lord, we connect with his Holy Spirit, who bestows these and other blessings upon us.
Let us look to the Bible for an example of what I mean. In so doing, it is my hope that we will gain more clarification on how we should approach meditation as Christians, and furthermore, what we can expect to gain from it.
In the beginning of the Book of Joshua -- just after Moses died, but before Joshua and the Israelites enter the Promised Land-- the Lord speaks to Joshua about how to meditate, saying, “The Book of the Law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success” (Joshua 1:8). In other words, God is explicit that Joshua should not recite the Law (which is to say, speak the scripture aloud) like a prayer, but rather he should think about it deeply. And by doing this, God tells him that he will prosper as a result. So we see from this verse, Christian meditation revolves around intense focus on the Word of God, which brings with it His blessings.
The Bible mentions meditation more than a couple dozen times throughout its sixty six books, and most of the references are found in the Book of Psalms. Nonetheless, besides the aforementioned passage from the Book of Joshua, I believe that there are three Biblical verses in particular that are the most instructional and profound for helping us understand this oftentimes overlooked and/or misunderstood practice of Christian meditation. The three passages are:
1. “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
2. “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)
3. “Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in thee.” (Isaiah 26:3)
Notice, not one of these passages explicitly uses the word “meditation.” Nevertheless, these passages are quite useful and educational as we try to better understand how this spiritual practice fits into our life as Christians. Taking these three passages in concert with one another, we see that in stillness we will meet God, away from the body we will be with God, and if we keep our thoughts on God we will find peace. This not only re-emphasizes our previous point that by focusing our mind intently on God, he will bring us blessings such as peace of mind, but it leads us perfectly into the next part of this essay where we take a closer look at the meditation practices of Eastern religions and we highlight something often overlooked or dismissed by many Christians out of hand.
There is a concept in the meditation practices of Eastern Religions that the portal through which one’s meditation leads them into the spiritual realm is via the “third eye,” the “mind’s eye,” the “all-seeing eye,” or whatever you want to call it. It is the eye that is believed to see beyond the material world. It is believed to be something inside of us that resides between our eyes, just above our brow line. This is why the third eye is associated with the brow chakra in Eastern thought.
Many associate the third eye with the third ventricle of the brain, and more particularly the pineal gland in the midst of it. A gland which esteemed French philosopher Rene Descartes called "the principle seat of the soul." What is more, the third ventricle is the same exact shape as the “eye of Horus” – also known as the all-seeing-eye – which is depicted in much of the Egyptian iconography. Furthermore, the Egyptians also wore head coverings depicting a serpent coming out of that same spot -- between the eyes just above the brow line. The point is that it all seems to connect together. The concept of the third eye in Eastern meditation has a long tradition, and even goes back as far as the spiritual practices of the Egyptians. That is not to say that these two cultures are directly connected in any way, rather, I am simply pointing out the widespread nature of this spiritual understanding. In fact, the more separate these two cultures are, the more it adds to its validity and spiritual mystery.
A belief that goes back that far, and is still around today is worth a closer look. What is more, it begs the question: does the Bible say anything about this spiritual gland – this third eye? The Christian “purists” would say that the meditation beliefs of pagans and Eastern religions have no basis in Christianity. I agree that the only way to God is through the way that Jesus taught, like it says in scripture (John 14:6). Nevertheless, other religions speak of love, that does not make the power of love less true. As always, let us turn to scripture to find the answer to our question.
There are two passages -- one in the Old Testament and one in the New -- that I believe shine a light on our third eye/pineal gland/spiritual center discussion and bring a bit of clarification to our Christian meditation discourse. The first is found in the Book of Genesis. When Abraham’s grandson Jacob wrestles with God, and is subsequently given the name “Israel,” there is another interesting name in the passage that is worthy of note for our purposes. It is the name of the place where they wrestled. “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30). It is not hard to see the similarity between Peniel and pineal – not only in terms of look and sound, but also, and more importantly, these two words are connected symbolically in terms of meaning, for they each seem to be the place where we see God face to face, so to speak – where God helps us through our "struggles" (another possible translation for "wrestles" in the Bible) and our "life is preserved," as it were. In other words, Jacob's time at Peniel is analogous to one's meditation through the Pineal.
Furthermore, there is a passage in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus seems to discuss the third eye as well, saying, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness” (Matthew 6:22). Notice Jesus refers to the singular “eye” here and not the plural “eyes,” suggesting that he is not referring to our two visible eyes on our face, but rather to something else, something more metaphorical/allegorical. And relating this back to what we have said thus far, he seems to be talking about our spiritual eye within us, the one with divine sight. In other words, it is as if Jesus is saying: If our third eye is sound, we will be full of light. Read this way, and connecting it back with the previous points, this verse seems to imply that Jesus is telling us that through meditation we become “enlightened” so to speak, which is coincidentally the stated goal of Buddhist meditation.
Let us focus our attention on the location of the mind’s eye/pineal gland for a moment, which as I have already said is between our eyes right above the browline. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians something quite germane to this discussion: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you.” Let us now remind ourselves of the name that we give to the spot on the side of our foreheads, right at the brow line. That’s right, our "temple." Perhaps, this is all just a coincidence that the third eye -- our supposed spiritual center -- is literally found within our temple.
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