Should Christians Meditate?

A guy I went to high school with and who is now a minister at the Church of the Good Shepard, a Methodist church, sent me an article called Apologist Warns Catholics About Dangers of ‘Mindfulness’: An Interview with Susan Brinkmann About Her New Catholic Guide.

In the interview, Ms. Brinkmann makes a number of points about mindfulness meditation that I have seen repeated a whole lot lately. For example, she says, “a meta-analysis of 18,000 mindfulness studies conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 2014 found only 47 that were considered methodologically sound — that’s only .0026%. And of those 47 found to be acceptable, the research found only ‘moderate evidence’ of decreased anxiety, depression and pain and ‘low evidence’ of improved mental health-related quality of life.”

I’ve been saying this same stuff too. It’s a bad idea to get into meditation for the sole reason that you think it will be an easy solution to your troubled mind or a simple way to deal with stress.

In fact, meditation almost always shows you that your mind is even more troubled than you thought it was. This can be very disconcerting, and even stressful.

There’s a good reason why genuine Buddhist masters do not give their students permission to teach independently until the students have done Zen practice for decades. It’s not because it’s so hard to teach someone how to meditate. It’s super easy to do that. This is why the current crop of mindfulness teachers often have almost no experience of actually doing the practice they’re teaching.

One very good reason nobody gets ordained as a Buddhist priest until they’ve done a whole lot of meditation themselves is because if you teach someone how to meditate, you’ve also got to be able to follow up on what happens to them once they get more into the practice. This can only be done by someone who has gone deeply into themselves and turned up a lot of unpleasant shit, yet still kept on going anyway.

Someone who has only had a quick crash-course in meditation techniques cannot do this. In fact, someone who has done meditation for even a couple of years would have a very hard time dealing with the profoundly unsettling stuff people sometimes bring up from their meditation practice. Hell, I’ve done zazen for three decades and I still occasionally get a little rattled when I have one-on-one conversations with fellow practitioners.

Also, the idea that a meditation practice should be “effective” is offensive. “Effective” means it does what you think it ought to do. Ibuprofen is effective if it gets rid of your headache. Meditation does not work that way. So, of course, studies are going to find that it isn’t effective.

But, to me, the really interesting part of the interview is the stuff about God.

Ms.Brinkmann says, “If one is living in the present moment in the presence of God, there is no need for a Buddhist practice like mindfulness. Christian practices far surpass these merely human-based methods and actually draw us into the presence of God, where we can find authentic peace and healing.”

“Instead of a momentary escape from anxiety,” she says, “the Christian alternative offers a real solution to anxiety and a permanent transformation. One practice is a quick fix; the other is a long-term opportunity for exponential personal growth toward the ultimate goal of our existence here on Earth — union with God.”

A bit later, she says, “if you’re engaging in the typical methods of practicing mindfulness … meditation, then you risk inducing an altered state, which renders one vulnerable to psychological damage or to the influence of spiritual entities.” She also says that meditation, “can often result in spiritual disaster, even to the point of requiring exorcism in some cases.”

Then she says, “my book recommends that they (Catholics) begin to employ The Practice of the Presence of God, which was introduced in the 16th century by a humble Carmelite brother named Brother Lawrence. It not only teaches a person to stay grounded in the present, but to do so in order to live in continual awareness of the presence of God within.” She says, “There is a vast difference between a state of sterile ‘awareness’ and the much deeper realms of bliss to be found while basking in the presence of the Creator of the universe.”

It impossible for me to imagine a God who created this vast, vast universe and everything in it — billions of galaxies, each containing billions of planets, probably countless forms of life and endless ways of relating to God, all of it existing for billions of years — and then that God sends just one guy to one country, has him teach a handful of people for three years, and that’s it. That’s the version of God that absolutely every sentient being he created throughout all of time and space has to believe in. And if they don’t believe, then they burn in hell forever.

It’s like the aliens in cheap old science fiction films who figure they’ll conquer the entire Earth by sending one plastic-looking flying saucer piloted by two knuckleheads equipped with a couple of ray guns. I cannot believe in a God who seems like something dreamed up by Roger Corman or Ed Wood.

I have the same issue with anyone who says the only way to become awakened is to become a Buddhist monk — even my beloved Dogen*. I can no more believe that God is a Buddhist than believe that God is a Christian. Both ideas, and all similar ones, are obscene and deranged.

On the other hand, I, like Ms. Brinkmann, am interested in union with God. But first I have to find out if God exists or not. I cannot simply take it on the word of any book, no matter how holy it’s supposed to be, or any person, no matter how saintly that person seems, that there really is a God. Clearly there are lots and lots of books claiming to be written by God. There are also lots and lots of guys claiming to speak for God. They all say contradictory things, and I have never found any of them remotely convincing.

I’m not specifically aware of what’s involved in Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God, but I have read accounts of some of the early Christian styles of meditation, including some invented by the Carmelites. Many of these seem almost identical to zazen. In fact, some of those early Christian mystics sound almost exactly like Zen teachers when you read their stuff.

I wonder if Ms. Brinkmann’s beef with mindfulness might not be somewhat similar to my beef with it. She seems to be a highly superstitious person, which is unfortunate. And yet, some of what she says does not seem entirely crazy to me.

For example, I think it’s vital that any meditation practice should be combined with some kind of moral and ethical teachings. There’s a real danger, I think, that if you practice meditation without some kind of ethical grounding you’ll go terribly wrong.

Ms. Brinkmann worries about the “influence of spiritual entities.” I would not put it in those terms. But I do think that some of what she calls the “altered states” one many enter into during meditation can, indeed, cause psychological damage. I think that what people once called “demon possession” is essentially the same thing as what we now call “psychological damage.” Maybe, for someone with a very superstitious worldview, an exorcism might even be a somewhat effective way to deal with such problems. Not because there really are demons out there trying to get us, but because of a kind of placebo effect.

If your meditation practice is not grounded in some kind of ethical framework that includes a communal aspect, you really could end up seeming almost like you were possessed by demons. Whether that ethical-communal aspect is a Zen temple or a church or even a group of ethical atheists probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. God doesn’t care whether you call him Jehovah or Krishna or Buddha or even if you don’t believe he exists. Just as long as you’re not an asshole.

*I think Dogen had complicated reasons for saying things like this while almost simultaneously saying contradictory things about how anyone has the capacity for awakening. When encouraging the monks that he trained, he liked to make them feel special. When talking to those outside the monastic tradition he could afford to be more realistic.


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