Meditation: It’s not Just for Gandhi Anymore

I will admit it. When I first picked up Richard Foster’s book, “Celebration of Discipline,” and saw that the first discipline in the book is meditation, I almost put it down. Images immediately came to mind of a cloistered monastery; cold, damp walls reverberating with a collective “ommmm” as robed adherents rocked gently back and forth, index finger to thumb in the lotus position. I thought of Thomas Merton and Mahatma Gandhi, Henri Nouwen and John Michael Talbot; good people all, great even, but high on a pedestal and unattainable for mere mortals like me. And I thought of all those times when I’ve been put off by “new age” people on “a journey,” who seemed to be so insistent on gazing at their own navels that they rarely noted the wider world just beyond their consuming selves.

But the book had come highly recommended by a close friend whom I trusted, so I resisted that initial dismissive impulse and began reading. The first chapter was a transforming experience in which a whole host of preconceptions were challenged and dismantled, and a rich world opened before me.

Foster grabbed me with the very first lines: “In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness,’ he will rest satisfied. Psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, ‘Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.'”

Even for folks like me who long ago gave up on the notion of a literal little red guy with horns, tail, and pitchfork living underground; it is a compelling image of what Paul called “principalities and powers,” and what Foster calls our “Adversary.” The things that stand against us, he seems to say, are less obvious than the traditional pitchfork-yielding Devil of Medieval art. They are things that seem good at first glance: busy schedules, crammed agendas, frenetic activity, active social calendars, and instant information/communication. Foster wrote this book long before the internet or the phenomenon of Twitter/Facebook/MySpace or, yes, blogging; but there’s no doubt all these things have only intensified the “muchness and “manyness” and “hurry” that characterize our day and makes our Adversary smile.

Foster begins his book with meditation because he believes it is the doorway to all the other disciplines. We must, for our own sakes and for the sake of the world, go beyond the superficialities of our day, slow down, go “deep into the recreating silences,” and find that center where God longs to commune with us. God is always speaking, always revealing Godself to us, both individually and communally. We are the ones who find it hard to hear for all the noise.

To hear God’s voice is not only for the Merton’s and Nouwen’s of our day, but is God’s gracious gift to all God’s children. Cultivating the discipline of meditation is one way to place ourselves in the arena of grace (to use an idea of Shirley Guthrie). We cannot control God, we cannot dictate to God where and how God will speak, but we can put ourselves in the place where God has been known to speak before. The biblical witness and the witness of Christians through the ages is that we can hear the voice of God more clearly when we silence other voices vying for our attention, when we practice intentionality in our inner lives.

Foster is not big on mushy sentimentality. He eschews the popular notions of meditation and spirituality that claim a “buddy-buddy,” “me and Jesus” outcome. Rather, he describes meditation as both “intense intimacy” and “awe-full reverence.” Foster is likewise quite dismissive of the ideas of some forms of meditation that try to get people to detach from the world in some blissful inner state and never re-engage. The purpose of meditation is to experience the deep peace and presence that comes from communing with God in order to re-engage the church and the world in a way that will be effective and grace-filled.

This has always been my biggest criticism of much that passes for spirituality in our culture – especially our religious culture – today; that it is too focused on the self and not the other, that it devalues the importance of life in Christian community (the church), and that it is unconcerned with the social engagement that was so much a part of Jesus’ witness and work. Foster shares these criticisms and yet is unwilling to do away with the idea of spirituality and meditation because of these contemporary corruptions. Rather, he seeks to reclaim them.

He convinces me. So I took on the challenge of expanding my conception of prayer and implemented some of the methods he recommends for meditation. Foster encourages at the beginning the setting aside of a particular time and place each day. It needs to be a time and place quiet and free of interruption, with no telephone (or cell phone or computer) nearby. You should have a posture that reflects an inward state of calm and contemplation, whether that is sitting, standing, or kneeling. He recommends opening the palms upward to instill a feeling of receptivity. You might either close your eyes or look out on nature.

There are numerous forms of meditation. One can meditate upon a favorite Scripture passage, reading it through several times and listening for emphases that seem to come to your mind. Another form – and one I found very helpful and have practiced with some regularity since first reading this book almost twenty years ago – is called “re-collection.” I begin by placing my palms down as a symbolic way of indicating my desire to turn over any concerns I have to God. I might say, “God, I give over my insecurity over the upcoming meeting today.” Whatever is weighing on my mind, I symbolically release it. Then I lift my palms up in a posture of receptivity and receive God’s grace, peace, and joy. It is always amazing to me what these simple movements will do for my sense of God’s presence and my prayers both for myself and for others. Through this I have discovered that meditation is not just for the spiritual giants, but God’s gift to us all.

Meditation is really a doorway to the other disciplines, which all in one way or another call for the simple yet difficult practices of setting aside time, slowing down, quieting the mind, and reflecting on our relationship with God.

I would love to hear your own experiences with meditation or your reactions to these ideas. Perhaps you have a story of a way this discipline has affected your life, or you want to help fill out these reflections with thoughts of your own. Meditation remains a highly misunderstood concept in the western church, and I freely admit that I am often quite critical of some of its most ardent advocates. But Foster has a way of cutting through a lot of those concerns for me and getting to the heart of the matter. What about for you?

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2 thoughts on “Meditation: It’s not Just for Gandhi Anymore

  1. Mike Moyer’s provides a comment below…Chris, I could not successfully comment on you blog regarding meditation.So here it is via e-mail:Foster’s book deeply impacted my devotional life. I too found re-collection a very effective way to become centered with God. After some practice, I was amazed how quickly I could get in a spiritual “Zone”. A longer practice that I like is a “nature walk” in my mind. I imagine myself in some beautiful place of nature. The beach, A sunlit forest, A field of flowers. I try to sense everything about that place. I imagine myself laying down and resting in that place. It is very calming. Sometimes, my ever-visual imagination lead to some very interesting experiences. Sometimes they lead to visions. Then there came a time where I just wondered if it was really an encounter with God or just my mind going goofy. Then I fell out of the habit of meditation. But every now and then, I come back to the discipline. I figured that my creativity and imagination could be a means where God chooses to commune with me. And that is partly how I got back into painting.The Prayer Garden at church is a great way to take a baby step into contemplative disciplines. And it is an excellent tool to introduce children to the disciplines. The Lecto Divina class that CJ leads brings meditation on the scriptures in a whole new way for me. I am glad our church has opened doorways into prayer and contemplation for her people. I pray that more people are able to walk through those doors.Peace.

  2. Hi Chris. I read Foster’s book in divinity school and was less than enamored with it; however, your zeal makes me think that maybe at this stage in my life I should dust the book off and try again.One of my favorite practices of meditation is the Breath Prayer where, breathing in I will think “Lord in your mercy” and breathing out I will think “hear my prayer.” Depending on what is going on in my life I have prayed many breath prayers. I have found they are especially important as I learn to run so I wanted to pass it along to you. The repetition of the prayer allows it to become part of me and when the prayer is something I need to release, the repetition allows me to slowly let go.As for your critique that the focus is more on the self than on others, I am coming to the point in my life where I am beginning to believe that the Christian life is both individual and communal. Individually we have to surrender the stuff that gets in the way of worship, of relationships with God and the world. And communally we have to do the same. As we let go individually and communally we are able to make room for our neighbor and, in doing so, for God. My current thoughts . . .

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