Yoga, Christian Meditation and the Debate about Our Souls

Intellectuals in the United States have been having a major religious, philosophical and political debate for the last fifty years about which model of human consciousness should be the dominant model. The results are trickling down to the general population in an interesting way, as any cell leader will tell you — they have variations on the debate almost every week.

Is it the soul of Christianity — created, fallen, in need of salvation?
Is it the psyche of modern psychology — conflicted though creative, controlled by hidden, unconscious forces beyond the surface ego?
Is it the Indian atman or Self — already immortal, divine and somehow seriously blissful?

Yoga Philadelphia

You can see how much the last explanation in the list above, the Hindu/Buddhist one, has been influencing us just by noticing the proliferation of yoga centers. Google “yoga Philadelphia” and the first page will display a host of options for someone to practice yoga within a ten block radius of the Comcast Center. Plus you will see a blurb on people practicing “urban yoga” in the plaza of the obelisk itself!

I want to talk about yoga for a minute as an example of “Hinduism’s” strong entry into the debate about our spiritual core. But I don’t intend to bash yoga. As a meditation technique, yoga practices are not that much different than any other techniques. But the techniques come from a philosophical base and most practitioners like the philosophy. We should be aware of that and have a conversation with it.

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Yoga purists regret how yoga has been marketed and practiced as a stress-reducing exercise routine. An ad for “pure” yoga tries to correct that: Yoga is for mastery of the body so that “the whole of Meditation can be learned and practiced, gradually leading one to know himself or herself at all levels, up to and including the eternal center of consciousness, which is one with the absolute reality, by whatever name you choose to call that.” That sounds a bit like AA doesn’t it? a bit like your therapist, maybe; a bit like people being politically correct, even. The Eastern consciousness has been translated into an American mindset.

I think all sorts of meditative practices can have positive impact on us. Physical meditation practices are commonly helpful regardless of philosophy or religion. The body is the body; learning how to move with our breathing, coming to focus, feeling release, resting in silence, developing mind-body-soul awareness is crucial to spiritual development. I made sure to practice my daily discipline of that before I began to write.

The danger comes when one enters this territory thinking it is neutral, or merely about one’s body. We need to be able to answer an important question. What am I going for? Am I looking for out-of-body mindfulness? Do I intend  my awareness of sexual energy to turn to bliss? Am I looking for myself to join in union with the divine Self? Do I expect my centeredness to ripple into the world and bring peace?

It is the end of meditation that counts

The Catholics see yoga meditation as kind of the “entry-level drug” of godlessness, an antichrist marijuana. In a paper on the subject the bishops say: “Christian prayer is at the same time always authentically personal and communitarian. It flees from impersonal techniques or from concentrating on oneself, which can create a kind of rut.” I think they are right this time. It is the end of meditation that brings the depth and brings the dangers. What moves our meditation and where is it taking us? Christian meditation is personal and focused on God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, not on oneself or on the great Self being represented in us.

There are many Bible verses that reinforce how Christians meditate. This one will do:

Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.
Thou wilt keep her in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because she trusteth in thee.
Isaiah 26:3 (KJV)

The goal for Christian meditation is having our created “mind” fully “stayed” on our creator; subjecting our energies to the power who directs them. The feeling of the word “stayed” has many layers, of course. Think about it as gazing, being attentive, becoming aware, seeing and being seen, knowing and being known. The process results in peace. “Mutual gazing” might be good definition of contemplative prayer. John of the Cross summed it up this way: “Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning God.” By means of this loving attentiveness one begins to moves into the place that Paul calls “in Christ.” From that place transformation comes and holiness grows.

Meditation is the technique we use to train ourselves to hold the gaze of God, to be attentive. We usually need to start with God so we can look at others like Jesus does and warm our hearts that way, too. To have this spirit-to-Spirit gaze takes stillness, or our natural defenses rise, our insecurities take over and our longing for attachment over runs us.

As I was saying on Saturday, we often benefit from having a word to help center our meditation and help us let the distractions go. The ring of a bell or the rhythm of chanting “om” might work, too — for some, the less content, the better. But for many, content is a good thing. We are becoming aware of someone, not merely emptying ourselves for the sake of being empty or for the purpose of uncovering some lost self in us. The other day, my spiritual director needed to go to the bathroom so he could continue listening to me. While he was gone, I had some well-informed silence to consider what we had been talking about and a word came to me that has been a centerpoint for my meditation ever since. For centuries, people have practiced using a core phrase of faith as the centerpoint of the meditation: Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (the “Jesus Prayer”). I hope that as you read this paragraph a word came to you. If you center in silence right now, the Lord might raise one up in you.

Since there is debate about these things, many people shy away from prayer, and certainly the prayer of meditation, as simply too dangerous. One person told me that they don’t meditate because they are afraid to do it wrong and open themselves to all sorts of dangerous spirituality! If your mind is stayed on Jesus in some little way, you are quite safe, I think. If you talk about what you do with a person you can see is on the journey with Jesus, that will make you even safer. The wonder of the practice is worth facing the dangers. The Bible calls us into the silent lands where we are known by and know God. Our hearts yearn so much for the peace of that land, some of us would even try letting a yoga instructor guide us there.

[It so happens that here in Philly a road show about the Jesus prayer is coming to Frankford and Norris on Tuesday, October 11 at 7pm. You might want to check it out — link to a site for the organization coming to town]

6 thoughts on “Yoga, Christian Meditation and the Debate about Our Souls

  1. Lots of good points to consider, Rod. Thank you for bringing them up. Please allow the following reflections…

    First, here’s another helpful essay, written by John Shreveland. It is a thoughtful look into the current Christian dilemma over yoga in the USA:

    One notable point by the author :
    “On this matter one must tread lightly, for it is no coincidence that a [Hindu American Foundation] statement of concern points to the “discrimination and hate” Hindus face because of their religious identity, as well as to the embarrassment they suffer from exotic caricatures of the tradition in terms of ‘caste, cows and curry.'”

    As Christian peacemakers, we need to be very cognizant about how our speech may influence or reflect racial/ethnic prejudice that has been demonstrably linked to violence . See, for example, this recent incident in NJ:

    It’s also helpful to understand that, as Shreveland notes, colonialism here and elsewhere has influenced how we approach our Hindu neighbors. (Even the label “Hindu” is now considered by many people to be a product of colonialism, despite the fact that many people have accepted the term for self-identification.) Additionally, we in the USA live in an era of extreme suspicion toward “outsiders” (as seen in immigration debates, new walls, new laws and the like). This isn’t simply a shuttered-away, academic concern. It has to do with how we talk about and treat people. We don’t have to agree 100% with everything our neighbors are doing, but I think it is better to think of people as people (with thoughts, feelings, families) rather than as an invasive species or a threat. To be able to do this most effectively, it helps to know someone who considers him/herself a Hindu. That relationship will complicate matters in good way, I think.

    Overall, I think that addressing concerns about yoga is really complicated anyway. One place that we might look for some help is the ancient church in India itself. For example, how have these Christians (albeit imperfectly like the rest of us) understood their faith, their meditation practices compared to their “Hindu” neighbors? But, maybe it would be better just to talk to someone here who is well-versed in the history and practice of Westernized yoga. The struggles Christians have had with deciding what to accommodate or reject from different religious cultures is nothing new. On that theme, Shreveland suggests that it is fully possible to engage in respectful conversation with the “other” without sacrificing one’s identity in Christ. It’s very messy and fraught with danger (not the kind we might initially suspect, either), but very necessary to the health of the Church, I think. And, better, we might even make a friend or two in the process.

    This is starting to get a little long, so I’ll end it here, but I wonder what other people think about this?

  2. “The Bible calls us into the silent lands where we are known and know God.”

    this especially spoke to me 2day.

  3. Please pray for my daughter’s 1st grade teacher Ms. Coppertino, she is a yoga instructor and she really hurt her back badly trying out a move recently.

  4. I think the problem maybe that the majority of Christian Churches have little in the way of a personal practice. The Buddha folks do offer a practice that allows a person to calm down and be centered. Now we just need to move the center from folks navel to Christ.

  5. In some books, I’ve come across a new age form of meditation that is based in Hindu practice and is about raising the soul to “higher levels of consciousness,” but it calls the first next level of consciousness the “Christ consciousness.” Presumably, the purveyors of this philosophy are attempting to create a unified religion that incorporates all mystic practices into one. But the end result is to say, we are all children of God, therefore, just like Christ is God, we are all God. It is different from the “mutual gazing” you are talking about. How do we gaze at ourselves?

    As crazy as this new age philosophy sounds, I think it is very appealling to Christians (and “post-Christians”) of the hypermodern culture we live in, where our sense of truth is based entirely on personal experience and purpose is found solely in individualistic expression. It’s easy to fall in the trap of seeking our own personal “Christ consciousness” that has little to do with the God of Truth outside of ourselves.

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