[Note: I changed the title from “Christian Meditation vs. Eastern Meditation” to “Centering Prayer vs. Eastern Meditation” because I am only focusing on one form of meditation in this post. I didn’t want readers to think that I was presenting Centering Prayer as the only form of Christian meditation. There are, of course, many forms of Christian meditation and prayer but since Centering Prayer is the one that seems to be the most unclear, I wanted to spend some time reflecting on it specifically. Thank you for the comments and feedback to help make this a better and clearer post.]
This is the first of three posts focused on bringing more clarity to contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation.
I’ve been saturated in the world of spiritual formation and contemplative Christian spirituality for the last 9 years or so. I received my Bachelors in Philosophy and Religion from Spring Arbor University. While I was there, I had the opportunity to take a course with Richard Foster on the History and Practice of Spiritual Formation which ignited my desire to learn more about the depths of Christian spirituality. During my time in college, I also put together an independent study with one of my professors exploring Contemplative Prayer in depth. More recently I completed my Master’s degree in Spiritual Formation and Leadership. I have spent a lot of time thinking about and exploring different facets of Christian spirituality and I desire to continually grow in understanding.
Over the years, I’ve heard all sorts of perspectives on contemplative Christian spirituality and Christian meditation. Some people say that discovering a more contemplative faith has saved their relationship with God and mark it as one of the most transformational aspects of their faith. Others condemn it as heresy and speak of the dangers of certain teachings that are taught under the guise of “contemplative” spirituality. They caution that it walks too closely with new age thought and Eastern religious practices. They claim that it is a harmful weed slowly infiltrating the church.
Certainly, some Christians take things too far and have become overly influenced by Eastern thought and practices. Almost anything can be misappropriated if improperly understood. Similarly, there are Christians who are abandoning a vital, historical aspect of Christian spirituality by condemning anything loosely tied to contemplative spirituality. There are two sides by which one can fall off of a horse!
The main criticisms of contemplative Christian spirituality and/or spiritual formation that I typically hear fall into one of three categories:
- Centering Prayer is Eastern mysticism wrapped in a Christian package. (Current post.)
- Contemplative Christian spirituality and spiritual formation are focused more on self than on God. (Read part two here.)
- Spiritual formation is a form of works righteousness.
In this post, I’d like to do my best to help distinguish some of the fundamental differences between Christian and Eastern meditation—specifically between the Christian practice of Centering Prayer. Christian meditation should always be centered around Scripture and prayer practices should be used as ways of allow the truths of Scripture descend from one’s head into one’s heart. There is so much to say on this topic, but I want to focus on just a few points that have been really helpful for me.
There are many forms of Christian meditation, but Centering Prayer1 is the practice that is often accused of traversing most closely to Eastern meditation and seems to be the most unclear. I’m not sure where I stand on the practice of Centering Prayer personally, but I hope this will at least help clarify what it is and allow you to draw your own conclusions. The Centering Prayer method is to choose a word or phrase that represents your attention and intention to be conformed to God’s image by remaining in his presence. This word might be Jesus, Peace, Rest, Holy Spirit, Lord Have Mercy, etc. Any time you get distracted by your thoughts, you are to say this word and return to your center. The repetition of this word is to reaffirm your intention to remain in God’s presence and surrender your will to His. This word is not supposed to be a mantra that is mindlessly repeated in vain, it is supposed to be a tool to keep ones heart and mind centered on God—rather than on wandering thoughts and distractions. The idea is to simply rest in God’s presence, step away from the onslaught of inner noise that congests our minds, and to allow God to speak and work in one’s spirit.
Eastern Transcendental Meditation might sound similar but is distinctly different. The word or mantra used in Transcendental Meditation typically has no meaning, intention, or representation in of itself. The word or mantra is used in the same way, to dispel distractions, but the goal is not to keep one’s attention on God and His love, but to simply clear the mind and remain in a state of detachment. The mantra is a meaningless phrase simply used and repeated as a tool to block out thoughts and maintain a detached state of mind. Sometimes “secret” or specialized mantras are selected because of beliefs about how that mantra allegedly affects the brain. The repeated use of such mantras during meditation can bring the meditator to an altered state of consciousness.
Apologetically, this is a very brief and high level overview and comparison of Christian Centering Prayer and Eastern Transcendental Meditation, but it should be clear that there is an obvious distinction between the two. So why is this distinction so important? Why should we care about maintaining a clear boundary between these two practices? What else do we need to know?
In his book The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life, Dr. Timothy Jennings gets right to the issue at hand:
Eastern meditation techniques increase the frequency of alpha and theta waves, suppressing beta waves and causing increased secretion of a brain chemical called dopamine (which enhances visualization), provoking a predominance of right-brain activity and altering one’s entire consciousness. This would cause one to feel a loss of self-awareness, a feeling of unity with the cosmos, more intense mental imagery, and less awareness of time and space. It would also reduce one’s ability to discern evidence-based truths. (225)
If you read personal testimonies of people who regularly practice Eastern Transcendental Meditation, this is exactly what they often report. But for a Christian, what is the problem with a loss of self-awareness, feeling of unity with the cosmos, less awareness of time and space, etc.?
God calls us to meditate on his law of love, which is an expression of his character of love. This is no empty, mindless, thoughtless meditation, but a contemplative, deeply reflective meditation on the beauty of our infinite God and his methods of love. Such meditation reqires the balanced engagement of both right and left hemispheres. Such balance not only results in greater healthy and peace but also growth in Christlikeness. (226)
What Jennings just said there on the balanced engagement between both the right and left hemispheres is key. He continues:
Our left brain is attacked within Christianity by false ideas about God’s law, with subsequent distorted views of God as a vengeful, punishing tyrant, which incites fear. And sadly, many Christians, rather than reevaluating their view of God, instead turn to Eastern meditation to calm their chronically active fear circuits. But Eastern meditation inactivates the left brain through meditations designed to shut it down and so pursue an emotional, transcendental experience.
Thus we find that Eastern meditation, rather than leading a person to a personal friendship with God, actual transformation of character, and overcoming fear and selfishness, instead isolates one from God [and] fails to transform character…. (228)
In other words, overtime Transcendental Meditation can increase your feelings of well-being, unity, and detachment but it does so because it is overstimulating your brain’s thalamus (the thalamus controls our sense of what is real and what is not) to the point in which your feelings become neurologically real, even if they are not in actuality.
1. If you are someone who actively practices Christian contemplative forms of prayer, particularly Centering Prayer, is your attention genuinely on God and your desire to be in his presence? Or have you potentially slipped into Eastern Transcendental Meditation and are just using Christian language for your mantra? Is your meditation rooted in the God of love as revealed through Jesus Christ or has your spirituality become more abstract, vague, and amorphous? Are your spiritual practices well-balanced—not just relying on abstract meditation but on actual contemplative study, reflection, and conversation with a loving God as revealed through Jesus?
2. For those of you that are asking, “Well why even bother with Centering prayer if it is sometimes confused with other forms of non-Christian meditation? There has never been a time in our history where silence is more needed (and unavailable) than it is today. Centering prayer and other forms of Christian meditation and prayer can be invaluable ways to clear out some of the noise and clutter that is constantly competing for our attention. Furthermore, Centering Prayer is not a new modern practice but a form of prayer that can be traced back to the first and second century Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers—and has been practiced for thousands of years since. [As a commenter below noted, the mere presence of a practice throughout history does not necessarily mean it is legitimate, one should always look for the fruit to judge the validity of such practices.] Others have argued that the Jesus Prayer is a much less ambiguous form of prayer that focuses specifically on the Savior and is not likely to lend itself to potentially deceptive influences. (Thank you to my friend Jonathan for highlighting the Jesus Prayer as a better alternative to Centering Prayer.)
3. For those of you who have been largely critical, skeptical, or even condemning of contemplative Christianity, please consider exactly what it is that you are condemning or cautious about. Simply saying that it looks too similar or comes too close to new age or Eastern thought is vague, unclear, and ultimately unhelpful. Almost every belief and nearly every doctrine only needs to be slightly twisted or altered to become a form of heresy or to fall outside of orthodoxy. Just because something looks similar to something else or requires careful discernment doesn’t mean that it should be cast by the wayside.
Lastly, I would love to hear your thoughts. I don’t write this as an expert but as someone who is actively working through these questions and desires further clarity and insight. What do you think, is is Centering Prayer a viable Christian practice or does it lend itself to deceptive influences? Does it have Scriptural backing?
1For more on Centering Prayer visit: http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/category/category/centering-prayer
Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Egypt