The term meditation has different meanings, each influenced by a given psychological, philosophical, religious or spiritual belief system.
To say “she meditates” can mean almost anything. The late rap artist Guru (1961–2010), for instance, rapped in the song “Living in this World“:
I’m growin’ tired of the trickery
And the misery, it’s makin’ me kinda sick you see
But now I meditate, so I can get it straight
My thoughts penetrate, so I control my fate.¹
For René Descartes, meditation involves thinking, as evident in his Meditations on First Philosophy.
Descartes outlines a philosophical ‘method of doubt’ containing six meditations and the famous line cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am (originally Je pense, donc je suis).
However, Descartes’ view of meditation does not rule out the idea of faith and his belief in God’s goodness is essential to his overall argument.²
Meditation also refers to any kind of personal practice leading to peace, clarity or an enhanced perspective on life or the afterlife. This form of meditation may involve bodily movement (Tai chi), postures (hatha yoga) or stillness and it may or may not demand a religious component.
Clinical psychologists found that meditators report similar feelings of stillness, peace, and oneness when repeating a mantra. And the mantra in these studies did not necessarily contain religious meaning. Apparently simple monosyllabic words like “rip or” tap” produce the same result as religious words like AUM.
Other researchers try to link specific brainwave activity to precise meditational states.
Alpha wave activity is associated with relaxation and is thought to be a beneficial state. In fact alpha activity has been observed in a number of different forms of meditation. The remarkable thing, however, is that as the meditators signalled that they had entered into the state of mental silence, or “thoughtless awareness”, another form of brain wave activity emerged which involved “theta waves” focused specifically in the front and top of the brain in the midline.³
Some superficial mental health professionals and neuropsychologists have interpreted these findings to say that all religions are the same or that it doesn’t matter if you are religious or not. Peace is peace. Love is love, so the reasoning goes.
This is an interesting notion but I think it’s more about scientism than science.
Responsible researchers would humbly note that they are observing from the outside and with just a few variables. They isolate, for instance, brainwaves and then look at verbal reports or questionnaire responses.
What’s wrong with this?
Nothing in itself. But studying mere brainwaves overlooks possible biochemical differences among subjects, not only in the brain but in the entire nervous system and the body.
More importantly, this method of “spying and scraping,” as William James once put it, provides no reliable way of comparing the character and quality of subjects’ internal experiences. Subjects reporting their experiences with similar words may be referring to entirely different psychological states and perhaps numinosities.
After all, a lot of people say “I saw God” or “I’m in a state of grace.”
Should we assume they all experience the same thing?
All too often psychological researchers make facile and unscientific claims about the link between meditation and mysticism. By way of analogy, if I were to say, “All investments are the same because they all make money,” a seasoned broker would think I was an economic idiot.
Moreover, some researchers ignore not only the possibility of different inner states but also what kind of ‘place’ these states might lead to in the afterlife.
And this is what religion is about.
Concern over how our present chosen path affects our eternal afterlife is no small issue or neurotic obsession. Secularism often tries to eschew the afterlife and especially the notion of good and evil spiritual powers. The Catholic Church, of course, has a different view:
In Aspects of Christian meditation, the Catholic Church warned of potential incompatibilities in mixing Christian and Eastern styles of meditation. In 2003, in A Christian reflection on the New Age the Vatican announced that the “Church avoids any concept that is close to those of the New Age“.4
This is a bold proclamation but in practice, things aren’t quite so harsh. When I was in the RCIA first time around in Ottawa – I didn’t complete it then – some of the volunteers advocated New Age style meditation and music CDs.
Later, when I actually completed the RCIA in Toronto and technically became a full Catholic, a large picture of the Dalai Lama appeared for a while in a local parish. This seemed ironic considering Buddhists do not believe in God..!
For the Christian scholar Evelyn Underhill, meditation is a less elevated prerequisite for contemplation. She says in Practical Mysticism:
Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.5
This definition doesn’t advocate a black and white scenario that so many fundamentalists and conservatives uphold. Instead, it suggests a developmental approach where a seeker moves beyond meditation to eventually encounter the higher and nobler act of contemplation.
From my experience, there is some merit in what Underhill is saying. For myself and a few other like-minded souls encountered along the way, it has not been uncommon to move back and forth, combine and perhaps synthesize meditation and contemplation with whatever the future might bring to the hearts, minds, and souls of God’s creatures.
Essentially, spiritual concepts like meditation and contemplation should evolve as humanity grows inwardly and outwardly. Ancient routines6 may be fine for some, but for others, they are stagnant and do not fully address our many contemporary challenges.
It seems a more integrative and honest approach is needed to keep the fires of faith, hope, and love aflame for the 21st century and beyond.
3 Knowledge of Reality Magazine, Issue 21, 1996-2006.
5 Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (1914), p. 46.
6 Lectio Divina perhaps being a good example.
Related » Aurobindo, Auroville, Ch’an Buddhism, Chakotay, Contemplation, Eightfold Path, Gawain, Saint, Shakti, Intercession, William James, Kabbala, Medicine Wheel, Raga, Siva, Suffering, Underhill, Vanaprashta, Vocal Prayer, Yantra, Zen