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Spiritual Practice

Spiritual Practice

still. here. (3 of 3): what’s with all the breathing?

blue-breath

Why do I meditate?… Because I am a Christian.
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

You’ve noticed. When people lead meditation sessions, they usually begin by telling us to take a deep breath, or maybe a few. They may continue to invite us to be aware of our breathing throughout the guided meditation. What’s the deal with all this breathing?

Breath holds a special place in Scripture, in science, and in our human experience, which makes it the perfect bridge activity in meditation. Let’s start with our human experience.

HUMANLY SPEAKING

Our bodily functions are divided into two categories: automatic and voluntary, or autonomic and somatic.

Our autonomic nervous system refers to those aspects of our bodily functions that happen automatically. Thankfully, most of the organs of our bodies do what they do without our minds having to consciously control them. (e.g., our heart or digestive system). Can you imagine if every beat of our heart and every ounce of blood filtering by our kidneys and liver had to be consciously directed by our brains? How would we get anything else done in life! Thankfully, our autonomic nervous system takes care of all of this kind of stuff for us.

Our somatic nervous system refers to those bodily activities that happen under our conscious control, like moving our muscles. We can walk and run and dance because of our somatic nervous system. Can you imagine if our bodies got these nervous systems reversed? Now that has me giggling.

So now, here’s the question: what category would you put breathing into?

Exactly. Breathing is that strange thing we do that can fall into both categories. Most of the time our breathing is an expression of our autonomic nervous system. And for that we are most grateful. But when we choose to, we can take immediate control of our breathing as part of our somatic nervous system. If this wasn’t true, we couldn’t hold our breath, for instance, making our time at the beach or local swimming pool a bit of a drowner.

Breath is the boundary between what happens beyond our control and what happens within our control. So when we centre our minds on our breathing, we are tapping into a terrific tool to help us focus on what is most important – our intimacy with and dependency on God’s very own life-giving Spirit.

SCIENTIFICALLY SPEAKING

Deep breathing is also proven to help reduce stress. When anxiety takes over, our body begins to shallow breathe, as part of the fight or flight response. Taking over our breathing and intentionally breathing slowly and deeply is something within our power that we can do to push back against our growing anxiety, fear, panic, or worry.

By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain. In this way, breathing techniques provide a portal to the autonomic communication network through which we can, by changing our breathing patterns, send specific messages to the brain using the language of the body, a language the brain understands and to which it responds. Messages from the respiratory system have rapid, powerful effects on major brain centers involved in thought, emotion, and behavior.
~ Richard P. Brown, M.D. and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., “The Healing Power of the Breath”

If I’m understanding this right, our brains can tell our bodies that we are anxious and filled with worry, so our bodies respond with muscle tension, accelerated heartbeat, and more rapid, shallow breathing. But we can fight back against this through our ability to take charge of our own breath. When we breathe slowly and deeply we send a signal back to the brain that tells it that everything is okay and it needs to calm the heck down.

So, for instance, when I read through the teaching of Jesus about worry, anxiety, and stress in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34), I want to read it while breathing slowly and deeply. That way I am intentionally partnering with what Jesus tells me, taking responsibility to cultivate my connection to and live out of the mind of Christ in me.

BIBLICALLY SPEAKING

In the Bible, the Old Testament and New Testament words for “breath” (Hebrew, ruach; Greek, pneuma) are the same words for “wind” and for “spirit”. The “Holy Spirit” is literally the “Holy Breath” of God. In these ancient languages, to speak of the realm of the spirit was to simultaneously speak of the realm of the breath. Breathing, therefore, is a beautiful God-given gateway, a helpful symbol of a world beyond ourselves and, at the same time, intimately engaged with ourselves.

Breathing… It’s the first thing we do when we’re born and the last thing we do when we die. Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “Father, into your hands I give my spirit.” and he breathed his last.
The resurrected Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
~ The Contemplative Monk (thecontemplativemonk.com)

Becoming aware of our breathing is an opportunity to become aware of the presence of Yahweh, the name of God that was breathed more than spoken, like a whisper, acknowledging that our every breath is a gift from God.

So when you meditate, take time to breathe on purpose. Use your body to become a prayer, breathing deeply as a way of asking the Spirit fill you and guide you. Breath symbolizes the meeting place between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit, and between the conscious (voluntary) and the subconscious (involuntary).

Sometimes we Christians tend to think of ourselves as eternal spirits. Once created by God, we think we cannot cease to exist. (A belief which has contributed to the idea of Hell as eternal conscious torment.) But this is a mistake. The Bible teaches us that only God is intrinsically eternal.

He alone possesses immortality.
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Timothy 6:16)

As for us, we humans depend upon God’s life-giving breath to remain alive moment by moment. God not only sets us in motion, he keeps us in motion, moment by moment. Without God’s breath in our lives, we disappear.

The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone. … For in him we live and move about and have our being.
~ The Apostle Paul (Acts 17)

Every day, every moment, through every breath, God is sustaining us by his Spirit. So, next time you meditate, start by taking a few intentional slow deep breaths. Let your whole body pray a prayer of gratitude for the life-giving Spirit of God. In fact, why wait. Let’s do that now. Take one long slow deep breath, and let your mind become aware of God’s presence, and his gift of life to you for one more moment.

Closer is He than breathing.
~ Alfred Tennyson

I would end this post by saying something like “chew on that,” but now I’ll say “breathe on that.”

Peace,

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DiscipleshipSpiritual Practice

still. here. (2 of 3): how to get started

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Are you “STILL. HERE.”?

Through study and inquiry, we type a lot of data into our minds.
Through meditation, we hit the “enter” key.

Picking up where we left off in our last post, some of us have never consistently meditated, often because as Christians we have assumed meditation was the practice associated with some other religion. Even worse, some of us were told that to meditate meant to empty our minds which would inadvertently make room for the Devil to enter us. I think this why the word “hogwash” was invented.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t leave a child of God when we meditate, any more than all the clutter and noise and nonsense we pollute our minds with throughout the day can push him out. Meditation allows our minds to practice the art of focus, which by itself is already a needed skill for people who want to love others well. We could be focusing on nothing more than the flame of a candle, a star in the sky, or a single word or phrase and it would already be a helpful mental exercise. Now, make your focus Jesus and his teaching, and we are growing in more ways than one.

Have you ever noticed a disconnect within yourself between what you believe from Scripture to be true, and how you feel or how you act or how you genuinely relate to others based on that truth? For many of us, it is easier to know something intellectually than it is to really know the same truth intimately and experientially, in how we feel and how we live and how we relate to strangers, friends, and family. I’ve seen this during seasons of my life, when I am going through the motions but living like a functional atheist, ignoring God at every turn. This doesn’t happen on purpose, but as the result of spiritual drift, slowly and imperceptibly, until I notice something decidedly un-Christ-like in me and realize that I’ve been ignoring my best friend for far too long. When that happens, I realize that I need to invest in the flow of the living water of the Holy Spirit in my life before I become any more out of tune with the mind of Christ, the character of God, and the fruit of the Spirit. How sad that we should ever become comfortable in the rut of routine, studying Scripture without enough time given to allow the Lord who gave us Scripture to actually shape our souls.

Speaking about the Holy Spirit, Jesus said:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”
~ Jesus (John 7:37-38)

For those of us who have trusted Christ, we have his promise of the Holy Spirit within. Jesus centred meditation can help us integrate God’s presence, heart, and fruit into every area of our lives.

For a Christ-follower, meditation has many potential benefits:

a. MENTAL: Meditation helps declutter our mind, strengthening our ability to focus on what’s most important in any given moment, and lessening our tendency to fall into distraction throughout our day. This will help us be open to the presence of God and the peace of Christ. Meditation can also help improve our experience of empathy, compassion, and self-control while reducing stress, worry, and most importantly anger, the emotion that the Bible most closely associates with judgment.
b. SPIRITUAL: For a Christ-follower, everything is, in a sense, spiritual. So the above “mental” benefits could be in the “spiritual” category as well. To this, we can add that the internal “decluttering” and slowing down of meditation can deepen our ability to hear the “gentle whisper” of God’s voice (1 Kings 19:12) among the cacophony of distracting voices in our heads and in our world. Hearing what Jesus is really saying is an ongoing theme in his teaching.
c. DISCIPLESHIP: Meditation will help us work with rather than against the Holy Spirit as he cultivates the fruit of the Spirit within us (Galatians 5:22-23). This happens as we allow our thoughts and feelings to be increasingly influenced by and partnered with the mind of Christ.

Meditation is not the be-all-end-all of spiritual practice, but it is one very helpful and often neglected tool in our discipleship toolbelt to help us grow in the ongoing process of conformity to Christ.

That is my introduction. (I have a problem with brevity.) If you missed the last post, head back here to read it. If you’re ready to move on, here is a list of some “how to” tips to help you get started.

STILL. HERE. Meditation Tips:

  1. Decide on a consistent time, duration, place, and posture. Set aside a consistent time (usually first thing in the morning is best) each day and a consistent place. Sit comfortably, with your Bible close at hand. At times when you are meditating, you will be holding your Bible, while at other times you might want to rest your hands on your lap with your palms upward. This allows you to use your body to remind your mind that you are not trying to fight to achieve something, but are simply making space to be with and receive what God wants to give you. Set a timer for the amount of time you want to meditate (somewhere between 5-15 minutes should be good for beginners). Setting the alarm can help your mind let go of having to wonder how long you’ve been meditating. (If you’re looking for a peaceful sounding, meditation friendly timer, try the app “Insight Timer”.)
  2. Begin with prayer. Take a few deep breaths. In the Bible, breath or wind is a sign or symbol of the Holy Spirit (ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek). Breathing consciously (which we can do by taking control of our breathing for a few slow, deep breaths) can be a way of using our bodies to remind our souls of the presence of the God’s Spirit. We are reminding ourselves of the promise of Jesus, that through the Holy Spirit he will always be with us and we pray we might have ears to hear what he has to say to us. As you breathe slowly, ask Jesus to open your mind to his presence and share with him your anticipation and excitement to encounter him now. Whenever possible, pray out loud, even if you mumble or whisper. That too can help our minds focus.
  3. Read the Scripture passage for study. I’ve offered some suggestions near the end of this post. The passage should be short enough so that all your meditation time isn’t taken up with intellectual study. Sometimes we read broadly to intake lots of information for the purpose of topical study. That is a good thing, but a different thing than biblical meditation. At least at first, it could be helpful to lay down a foundation by focusing on the teaching of Jesus found in the gospels (again, see suggestions below). You can bite off a new verse or few to chew on each day or linger for a few days at a time on the same small passage. When it’s the first day on any new passage you may need to spend more of your time in study, processing the context, the background, and the meaning of different aspects, thoughts, or words of the passage. Do as much study as is necessary for you so that your analytical mind can be satisfied and at rest. As you sit with this same passage for numerous days, your study time can decrease and your meditation time increase.
  4. Now, take another few deep breaths and read through the Bible passage again. This time, read the words slowly, allowing yourself to stop and pause on any word or phrase that God seems to be highlighting for you. The Holy Spirit can use Scripture, not only to teach you truths about there and then, but about here and now, to show you realities you may be missing at this moment, about God and/or about you. If there is a phrase or word that stands out, pause there, focus there, wait there. Repeat the word or phrase that seems significant to you a few times. At first, you may want to whisper or mumble, remembering that being vocal in some way can help us focus. (This act of verbally repeating or muttering to yourself is the literal meaning of the original Hebrew word for meditation.)
  5. When your mind wanders, as it will and does with everyone, simply bring it back. Once you notice that your mind has wandered, simply return to your focus. That process of wandering and returning is part of the practice; it is part of what makes meditation good for you. Every time you notice your mind has wandered and you pull it back to your chosen word or words of Jesus, you are building up mental muscle. This regular practice of returning your thoughts to centre will help you focus on others and on the presence of Jesus throughout your day when you notice you have been distracted. So, don’t be discouraged if you have a meandering mind – it’s giving you lots of opportunities to exercise your focus muscles!
  6. Engage your imagination. We usually think of our imagination as something that helps us engage with fantasy (e.g., children sometimes have “imaginary” friends). That’s not what I mean here. Imagination can also help us tune in to, rather than away from, reality. There are many things we know to be true that are beyond our five senses, like the reality of God’s presence and love for us in any given moment. Move beyond the words of the text to imagining, sensing, and feeling what you believe to be true. Does the text record Jesus say “I am with you always” as he does at the close of Matthew’s gospel? Then take him at his word, trust that this is true, and simply focus on the fact that Jesus is with you at this moment. Sit with that. Feel its truth. Does the text say “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God”? Then envision yourself being an agent of peace in your day ahead. What might that look like in the first conversation you will have after meditating? What will you feel, knowing you are acting as God’s child, imitating the unconditional and lavish love of your heavenly Father?
  7. Move between thinking and praying if that is helpful. God is with you and happy to talk with you, or to simply be with you in a time of stillness and silence. We do not need to compartmentalize our spiritual practices but can flow freely between them.
  8. If you fall asleep, good. You needed it.
  9. If you get bored, no problem. Pushing through the boredom is part of learning any new skill.
  10. Remember the pressure is off. Don’t pressure yourself to manufacture a big revelation or mystical experience. Sometimes meditation can become emotional, especially when a realization of how much God loves us begins to sink in. Sometimes we might even go through a process of first being filled with an emotional rush of reverent awe (akin to “fear”) knowing that we are in the presence of the personal power that created the universe and who is now engaging directly with us. And then we might hear Jesus saying, “fear not”. We may wish to cry out “Holy, Holy, Holy!” to this God who is wholly other, wholly light, wholly love. But having said that, most of the time, meditation is simple, plain, and restful. Meditation is a quiet labour of love. We are training our mind to focus better on Jesus and his will for our lives. Meditation takes practice, and the practice itself is healthy.
  11. Close with another deep breath and a brief prayer of thanksgiving. Now, where did the time go?
  12. Process what you are experiencing and learning with others who are on the same journey. We need to learn from others – what helps them meditate well, and also what they are learning about Jesus and about themselves through it all. At The Meeting House, this happens in Home Church, and especially our Home Church Huddles.

In our “STILL. HERE.” series at The Meeting House we worked through three passages of the teaching of Jesus that could be helpful places to start, focusing on one per week. Go here to hear that series. Now we are expanding our focus through our follow up series “STILL. HEAR.” to learn from the parables of Jesus. Beyond this, you might want to study and meditate your way through all of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 or the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17-49 or all of the Lord’s last night teaching in John 14-17. Of course, you don’t need to stick to the “red letters” (the recorded words of Jesus) for Jesus-centred meditation, since we can hear from Jesus throughout all of Scripture, but for those of us who are new to Jesus-centred meditation, the direct teaching of Jesus seems like a good place to start.

I’d love to hear from you. What has been your experience of meditation in the past? What about now? What has been helpful for you in this spiritual practice? What lingering questions are you still left with? I’m looking forward to learning together.

Peace,

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Spiritual Practice

still. here. (1 of 3): why meditate?

slowdown

Are you “STILL. HERE.”?

My Dad had a beautiful and gentle spirit. My sister told me about the time she checked in with him while he was having his daily time of stillness and quiet with God, praying and reading Scripture. She asked him what Bible verse he was reading and he told her. The next day she found him at the same place and same time and asked him the same question and he gave her the same answer: it was the same verse. She checked in on him the next day, and he was still reading that very same verse. So she had to ask: “Dad, why haven’t you moved on to another verse yet?” My Dad responded, “I don’t think God is finished talking to me through this one.” My Dad knew how to be “STILL. HERE.”

Welcome to the first of three posts on the spiritual practice of Christian meditation.

For many Christians, we feast on Scripture, devour books, pig out on podcasts, and consume blog posts under the banner of “more is better.” It’s all about volume, volume, volume.  While there is a time and place for the breadth of our spiritual study, our generation is most in danger of neglecting the depth of our spiritual connection with Christ.

You’ve heard of the “slow food” movement. At The Meeting House we’ve been experimenting with a slow soul food movement of our own: a pace of presentation in our Sunday service that is more gentle and meditative, allowing us the time and space to mentally and emotionally “chew” on the truth of the teaching of Jesus. This is nothing new – Christians have been mediating on the truths of Scripture for centuries. But for many Christians today, meditation is a completely new practice. I find this first of all exciting, because it means that many of us are on the verge of a revolutionary shift in our spiritual life.

This “STILL HERE” meditation practice isn’t just about a different way of structuring Sunday sermons, but a challenge to adopt a new (for some) spiritual practice and to practice that practice daily for three weeks minimum, and three months preferably. (Do you hear that Meeting Housers? Don’t give up!)

But why is meditation so new for so many Christians? I think Christians sometimes make the mistake of assuming meditation is the spiritual practice of other religions, like Hinduism or Buddhism, and therefore must not be a very Christian thing to do. And that is silly. This “guilty-by-association” approach to figuring out what is acceptable in life is the way of the Pharisees, not the way of Jesus. (I’m just glad we haven’t abandoned prayer because Muslims do that, or given up on Scripture study, because our Jehovah’s Witness friends do that, or stopped memorizing Scripture because we know some atheist friends who have memorized parts of Shakespeare. You get my point.)

It’s time to boldly do and be all that Jesus calls us to do and be, including being disciples who “abide” in his teachings and make room for his teachings to “abide” in us. Jesus said that his disciples are called to “remain” in him where the Greek word, meno, means to dwell, to abide, to stay, to move in and do life together with Jesus. In the same passage (John 15) Jesus also says that he wants to “remain” in us, and then tells us one way to welcome him inside – by allowing his “words” to dwell in us.

Study?  Yes.
Memorize?  Absolutely.
Meditate?  It’s time.

Elsewhere Jesus says –

If you abide (Gk, meno) in my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
~ Jesus (John 8:31-32)

Most of us know the last bit about the truth setting us free, but we haven’t learned to spend time abiding in the truth that brings freedom – the teachings of Jesus.

The ancient Israelites knew the importance of “abiding” in the teachings of the Torah. After Moses died, God commanded Joshua –

Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.
~ Yahweh (Joshua 1:8)

King David agreed that a key to true prosperity was meditating on God’s teaching. In his very first Psalm, David writes –

Blessed is the one… whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.  That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.
~ King David (Psalm 1:1-3; also see Psalm 48:9; and all of Psalm 119)

The Hebrew word for “meditate” is hagah, which means to mutter, murmur, and muse over something. The image is one of a cow chewing her cud. Have you ever noticed that when you see a cow she always seems to be chewing something? That’s because cows must chew their food twice in order to digest it properly. A cow eats a lot of grass in a day (volume, volume, volume), but then regurgitates smaller portions (called cud) and re-chews them before swallowing the cud into a different part of the stomach. What a beautiful image of the place of meditation in our spiritual diet. (Okay, okay. I know “beautiful” is not the best word to describe the image of a cow regurgitating its food for a second go around, but it felt like the right word at the time.)

There are many types of meditation, and most of them can be quite helpful for our mental and emotional well-being. You can easily do some of your own online research, and what you’ll find is that things like anxiety, stress, irritability, anger, and aggression are decreased, while things like awareness (of God? of others?), empathy, compassion, self-control, and ability to focus are all increased.

While there are many kinds of helpful meditation, all types can fall into one of two basic categories:

  • APOPHATIC MEDITATION – letting go of content, releasing, emptying, un-thinking.
  • KATAPHATIC MEDITATION – Focused thinking, deep contemplation on specific content.

Apophatic meditation is a fine form of meditating and a lot of mental and physical good can come from that, but it isn’t what we’re talking about here. Our “STILL HERE” meditation is kataphatic meditation: a focused meditation, where we chew over and over again on one aspect of something God seems to be saying to us through a reading in Scripture.

When I was little I learned to be afraid of meditation because, as I was told, it was a way of emptying our minds which would leave us vulnerable to demonic attack or even possession. I’m not kidding! I bought it for a while, before I realized that Christians who meditate aren’t kicking out the Holy Spirit, but making space to experience more of God’s presence. And especially through kataphatic mediation, God has given us a tool to help us absorb more of his Word, to focus our hearing on what the Spirit might be saying to us, and to abide in the teachings of Jesus in a deeper and richer way. (Take THAT Devil!)

Last thing: remember that meditation isn’t about the experience of meditation itself. It isn’t a matter of how and who we are emotionally or psychologically throughout the meditative experience. Meditation is about who we are becoming when we are not meditating and are engaging with people around us. A Christian who meditates is a Christian who is learning how to be more focused on and responsive to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the teaching of Jesus. And that is someone who will live and love more like Jesus in their daily interactions with others. Meditation for the win!

In our next post we’ll cover the basics of how to start a regular “STILL HERE” meditation practice. But for now, you can at least warm up your meditation muscles by reading a teaching of Jesus more slowly, inviting the Holy Spirit to highlight his truth to your heart.

Christian education is valuable. The process of study and inquiry is like typing important information into your brain. Meditation is like hitting the “ENTER” key.

Peace,

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