In the first part of this series we defined meditation as: "The ability, with intention, to pause and focus calmly on one task at a time for an extended length of time.”
In this, the second of our of three part “The Meditating Pastor” series we want to compare the modern idea of “mindful meditation” with the ancient practice of meditation mentioned in the Bible. What the differences between these similarly named practices?
A word search of the English Standard Version of the Bible finds 14 instances of the word “meditate” with the vast majority of mentions occurring in the Psalms. Most of the instances of the word meditate - in the original languages - are written to describe the context in which the author relates to the promises of God in a purposeful, musing, and sometimes even a complaining manner. The Bible poses both singular and dialogical possibilities to the process of meditation. Dialogical in this context meaning thinking/talking to oneself or in prayer to God. A wonderful example of chewing over a text can be seen in John Piper’s “Look at the Book” video series found here.
“...often a matter of arguing with oneself, reasoning oneself out of moods of doubt and unbelief into a clear apprehension of God's power and grace.”
Pastor and author Eugene Peterson in his wonderful volume on biblical reading, “Eat this Book” describes a Hebrew word, hagah, which is found in Isaiah 31:4 describing a lion’s growling over its prey. Peterson discovered that the Hebrew word hagah is oddly enough is found in other verses describing meditation. While watching his dog chew on a bone Peterson describes a having spark of insight about what the Bible really is getting at when talking about meditation:
“Hagah is a word that our Hebrew ancestors used frequently for reading the kind of writing that deals with our souls. But ‘meditate’ is far too tame a word for what is being signified. ‘Meditate’ seems more suited to what I do in a quiet chapel on my knees with a candle burning on the altar. Or to what my wife does while sitting in a rose garden with the Bible open in her lap. But when Isaiah's lion and my dog meditated they chewed and swallowed, using teeth and tongue, stomach and intestines: Isaiah's lion meditating his goat (if that's what it was); my dog meditating his bone.”
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
“One, sit down with your spine straight and close your eyes. Second, try to notice where the feeling of your breath is most prominent, and try to focus on what it feels like every time it comes in and goes out. And the third step is the key. Your mind is going to start wandering like crazy. Every time that happens, every time you catch your mind wandering, forgive yourself and bring your attention back to the breath. That moment is the bicep curl for the brain.“
That last statement is the key of it all. Mindful Meditation’s great benefit is in its ability to strengthen weakness in the mind. The American Psychological Association states: “Researchers theorize that mindfulness meditation promotes metacognitive awareness, decreases rumination via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory. These cognitive gains, in turn, contribute to effective emotion-regulation strategies.” The other benefits of mindfulness include: reduced rumination, stress reduction, boosts to working memory, increased focus, less emotional reactivity, more cognitive flexibility and increased relational satisfaction.
As we’ve seen, Biblical Meditation is like sitting down to chew on and digest the Word of God. Biblical Meditation is the practice of attempting to relate with a text that is alive and accepting its invitation to enjoy it and the God who wrote it. Stereotypes of biblical devotion often imagine sterile, quiet and even boring reading sessions but true meditation on the Word of God seems to be more like enjoying a favorite meal with best friends.
Mindful Meditation is exercise for your brain. Unlike any physical workout, mindfulness only involves sitting still, focusing on deep breathing, and bringing the mind back to breath-focus when it inevitably wanders off to the million other thoughts it wants to have. Another simple definition is: “Mindfulness is the ability to know what’s happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it.” Stereotypes of mindful meditation seem to picture the practice as a spiritual emptying when in fact - if practiced with enough frequency - it fortifies the mind in order that we can more enjoy better things like biblical devotion for longer.
Even though both share the similarities of stillness, focus and intentionality, Mindful Meditation and Biblical Meditation are not the same thing. The two practices share the english word “meditation” but are different in essential aim. Difference in aim, though, does not negate a potentially powerful complementary nature that Mindful Meditation brain training and Biblical devotion can share.
Next time we want to answer the questions: How can mindful meditation be leveraged by the Christian as a tool to strengthen mental and emotional deficit? Can mindfulness help the Christian to love God and people more?
Look for the third and final part of this series next week to learn about the devotional potential of synthesizing mindful and biblical meditation in your life.