Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How do we Listen to God?

An Introduction to Christian Meditation

Recently when I sent out an invitation for a workshop on meditation, I received an angry response from a young lady. It said,

I've heard of this meditation where you concentrate for long periods of time over "Nothing". It's a Hindu concept so in other words you're promoting practices from a pagan religion. You will never have control over your thoughts so it's much better to give that control to Jesus and give up your ways of leading people astray and wasting their time by helping them to concentrate on "nothing".

Instead of responding to her personally, I am choosing to write this open response because she has voiced her opinion about meditation representing a large movement within Christianity. Although I am a Christian too, I am not affiliated with that movement. My attitude and approach to meditation is very different from that of this young lady, and here I am making an attempt to explain how I differ.

This young lady correctly understands meditation as an exercise of human mind when she defines it as “concentration on nothing for a long period of time”. This exercise helps me control my thoughts, feelings, and desires rather than they control me. She would agree with me in affirming that all people need to gain the ability to control one’s own thoughts, feelings, and desires to lead a successful life. The difference between us is in our understanding of how to achieve such control. She believes that I should not even try to control my thoughts, feelings, and desires; all I have to do is to let Jesus control them for me. Trying to control one’s own thoughts is unchristian or even anti-Christian according to her.

Controlling my own thoughts and letting Jesus control them may sound contradictory, but on close examination we can realize that they are complementary. If I want to give the control of my mind to Jesus, I must request Jesus to do so. How would I communicate with Jesus? I must have the ability to focus my mind, see Jesus in my mind, and communicate my innermost desire that I want Jesus to be my Lord. Thus even if you want to let Jesus control your mind for you, you have to take the first step of focusing your mind in order to make that connection with Jesus and communicate your intention.

What is Meditation?

A Christian is someone who accepts Jesus as his/her lord. He chooses to live according to the will of God rather than according to his own will. But this does not mean that he will evade the responsibility to live his life. I understand that the ability to control my mind is just another skill like the ability to write, to ride a bike, to swim, to type, to dance, or to play music. How did I gain the ability to read and write when I was a child? It took several years of regular practice and effort. I couldn’t hand over the responsibility of reading and writing to Jesus. I needed to learn to read first in order to read about Jesus. How did you learn to ride a bike? How did you learn to swim? How did you learn to use a keyboard to type? All these skills required a lot of time, effort, and patience from you. The ability to control and manage our mind is just another skill we can and should learn. Actually all people can control their mind to some extent, for without it, living would be impossible. The ability to control our mind better can make our life easier and more successful. Meditation is nothing but the training and practice that makes it possible.

If meditation is nothing but an exercise, one might wonder why it is associated with religion. A skill such as swimming or riding a bike is not associated with any religion, but why this skill? According to the young lady, it is “a Hindu concept”. In my understanding, meditation is promoted not only by Hinduism, but by all the religions in the world in various forms with slightly diverse meanings. A simple search online will reveal that meditation exists in all religions. They promote meditation because it is beneficial to human well being as individuals and as communities. Even people without any religion promote meditation.

Meditation in Christianity

The young lady is not aware that meditation is central to Christianity as well. Meditation exists mostly as a part of prayer in Christianity. Prayer is defined as communication with God. A communication involves not only speaking to God but also listening to God. We can’t listen to God with any of our five senses; we need to focus our attention to a sixth sense within us in order listen to God. We need to withdraw our attention from our five senses, our thoughts, and our feelings, and we need to listen intently for the voice of God. Such listening to God keeping the mind still and withdrawing our attention from our five senses is meditation. Unfortunately, in many present-day churches, prayer means nothing more than talking to God. They tell God whatever they want to tell, and leave it there without caring to listen to what God wants to say.

It is not possible to talk to God all the time; but it is possible to keep our mind receptive to God all the time. This is probably what St. Paul meant when he exhorted Christians to pray ceaselessly. Keeping the mind focused, receptive, and attentive all the time is the goal of meditation. The liturgical worship of traditional Christianity is structured in such a way as to help the participants to have a communal meditation. Traditionally, Christians pray seven times a day. In the modern evangelical churches, Sunday worship and other prayer meetings consist of meditation of the scriptures punctuated by devotional songs. In many of them, the congregation sits while listening to a sermon, but stands up while they sing the devotional songs. When an entire congregation on their feet raises their consciousness and flow upon the tide of a melodious devotional song, it is an excellent example of a communal meditation.

The young lady defines meditation as concentration on nothing. I think this is an excellent definition. In our day-to-day life we pay attention to various things around us. When you watch the TV you pay attention to what you see on the screen. When you talk to your friend on our phone, you pay attention to what you hear. When you eat your food you pay attention to how it tastes. But when you are having a conversation with God, where do you pay attention to? You can’t listen to God with your five senses. You can’t listen to God with your thoughts or feelings. Then how do you listen to God? You need to withdraw your attention from all the five senses. You also need to withdraw your attention from the thoughts and feelings that pass through your mind. When you withdraw your attention from all these, where is it now? The young lady is absolutely right here. Our attention is on nothing. When we keep our attention active and alive, but keep it withdrawn from everything we usually pay attention to, a sixth sense slowly becomes active. We begin to listen to God.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” Jesus told us. God is like the Sun. We can’t look at it straight. We can only see the reflection of the Sun in clear water. Similarly, no one can see God straight, but we can see a reflection of God within us if we manage to make our heart clear and pure. Meditation is nothing but sweeping our heart clean from all thoughts and feelings that disturb it.

The psalmists exhort us to look at God. Look to God that you may be radiant with joy. Ps. 34: 5. Then you will gaze on the Lord’s beauty. Ps. 27: 4. The psalmist also confesses, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Ps. 42:1. For God alone my soul waits in silence. Ps. 62:1. These are some of the ways in which the psalmists have described and explained meditation.

Before conclude, I must say that I feel sad at the young lady’s approach to other religions. Hinduism is the way of life of a billion people in the world, and it produced such jewels like Gandhi, Tagore, and Vivekananda. All religions exist for the well-being of humankind. How would a Christian feel if he/she happens to hear a similar derogatory comment from a Hindu about Christianity? Jesus advised us to treat others as we want others to treat us. If we talk respectfully about people of other religions, they would be respectful to us as well.

For further reading:
Dr. Joseph Thomas  Rev. Dr. Daniel Thomas  Edith Schlosser  Daryl Sanders  World Community for Christian Meditation


Anonymous said...

Interesting essay on meditation. In my experience of meditation, it has always been difficult to "control" my thoughts whenever I had attempted to control them. Whenever I gave up the urge to "control" and dismissed the intruding thoughts, I have felt that I have gained entry into the moment of "nothingness" which if I can hold on to extended periods of "nothingness", a blissful feeling resulted, albeit for short bursts of time only! In summary, for me, when I give up "control", I seem to gain "control" of the silence that I seek to discern the stillness, hopefully a "biopsy" of the bliss of God. It is in the stillness that one perhaps can best discern the bliss of God.
C. Alex Alexander

Anonymous said...

After "sleeping" over my earlier comment, I feel the need to add here my understanding of the broad framework of meditation that meditation masters teach, viz., those based on "contemplation" and others based on "concentration". I believe that both are valid paths to seek enlightenment. For some, "concentration" method works well and for others the "contemplation" allows the mind to empty itself. It is the emptying of the mind of all thoughts, the desired aim of meditation as I understand it. I did not mean to imply in my earlier comment that by only abjuring "control" that one can seek the bliss of silence.
C. Alex Alexander

susan said...

Hi John,
Christian meditation is very old. What is the contemplative life? Is it not an ongoing life of meditation?
Isn't Jesus prayer a way of emptying the mind?
I am waiting for July, when I will find time to learn more about Christian meditation.

Actually there is no Christian or Pagan meditation. Chanting Om or Jesus Prayer or Kyrie Eleison till as they say, the prayer moves from the head to the heart, is also meditation is it not?

P.V. Thomas said...

Dear John Kunnathu,

Many thanks for providing the link to your nice article "A Voice in the Wilderness ". It was interesting.

My thinking was that , meditation means deep concentration on something. But you indicate that meditation is thinking about nothing.

Don't you think that God is not a 'NOTHING'. We all believe that God is our Father, our Lord, a living fact, a 'SOMETHING'. And, in fact, for a Christian, He is the 'MAIN THING'. Then, how can concentration on nothing be
concentration on God? You indicated that, when we concentrate on nothing,
gradually our sixth sense will arouse. Do you mean that God is nothing but our sixth sense? I think the concept of sixth sense is close to atheism. God
is not just a sense.

May I try to explain my view. When we attend meditation prayer, there will usually be a meditation speech ( Dhyana prasangam) . If someone is delivering a good speech on spiritual subjects, without any hidden agenda of
religious politics, and without any sarcastic statements or distractive ‘Thamashas’ or that sort of stuff, and if the speech is well connected and is purely on Christian way of life given in Bible and in the teachings of
Church, based on teachings of Lord Jesus, we will experience a
transcendental atmosphere, forget where we are, at least for some time. That will make us see ourselves in the Mirror of the WORD and guide us to take
some useful decisions and will help us move a step nearer to Lord God. I think that is a better way of meditation. Same thing you will experience when you tread a Bibel portion and try to understand its meaning.

About listening to the word of God, I think, God speaks to us through all His creations. Like what the Psalmist says, ‘Akashavum akasha vithanangalum
avente mahathwathe varnikkunnu’; If only we listen to them. He talks to us through our Priests, preachers, parents, friends, wife, husband, children, writers like you, and, also, through our critics, enemies, and whom not. If
we try to listen to His Words in all them, we will hear Him.

Many thanks for arousing my thought process and giving me an opportunity to think about what is meditation in God and Lord Jesus.

With love,

Your brother in Jesus,
P.V. Thomas

John Kunnathu said...

Dear Thomas,
Thank you for taking part in the discussion.

A sense is a means through which we receive information. We receive information about the world through the five senses. But we cannot receive information about God through the five senses. We cannot see, hear, smell, taste or feel God. We need to go beyond these five senses to receive information about God.

Thinking is the processing of the information we receive through the five senses. So We need to go beyond our thinking to know God.When we meditate we are not supposed to think at all.

This is what we do in our Holy Qurbana when we admit that "njangalude bodhangalum vicharangalum hrudayangalum deyvammaya karthaavingal irikkunnu."

This is what the psalmist does when he says, "ente ullame nee deyvathe nokki maunamayirikka." We can make our heart silent and quiet when it is free of distracting thoughts and feelings.

This meditation is different from meditating the word of God. When you read the Bible, or when you listen to a speech, you actively think.

We need both kind of meditations. In one, you keep the mind without thoughts, and in the other you actively think positive and worthwhile thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Dear John,
Thanks for looking into the matter I'm really happy that I could provoke you to look into meditation and the background of it a little.
The impression I got is that you haven't really understood the essence of Christianity or even Hinduism for that matter. I'm going to try to briefly explain where I'm coming from and what my limited mind understands of God.
I was reading through your articles a little bit more to understand what exactly it is that you believe and I came across evolution of the Christian God article and how you claim that monotheism was born out of pantheism. So let's start from there.
John 1:1- In the beginning was the Word(notice Word is capitalized) and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Through him all things were made and without him nothing was made that has been made (I love the wording of this by the way). That's talking about Jesus later on in verse 14 he confirms it for us. This is written so that we don't think that Jesus was someone who was just born about 2000 years ago, he always was and always will be. In Gen 1:26 God says let us make man in OUR image, in OUR likeness, if God the father was alone then he would've said Let ME make man in MY image. So now we understand that monotheism was not born out of pantheism and it was just the opposite.
When I was referring to Hinduism as a pagan religion, I did not come up with that idea. Those are not my views. That is what the BIBLE says about other religions. Paul writes to the Corinthian church "No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of The Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both The Lord's table and the table of demons." 1 Corinthians 10:19-21. Paganism was not born with Hinduism. It was born thousand of years ago. Baal worship (worship of the idol in the form of a calf) was practiced in the days of Moses. In those days Israel had different gods for different purposes much like what Hinduism teaches for example Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom, Brahma is supposedly the creator, Shiva is supposedly the destroyer etc etc on to the other 330 million. So even in the days of paganism in Israel there were many many gods and people worked so hard to please all these gods until God spoke to Moses and he proclaimed in Deuteronomy 6:4- "Hear oh Israel, the Lord thy God is ONE".
You said the Hinduism has given us many jewels like Mahatma Gandhi and as true as that may be. It's not like I knew them personally and I doubt you knew them either. Even Mahatma Gandhi didn't truly embrace Hinduism. Hinduism teaches an eye for eye (words of Krishna) but Gandhi believed that an eye for an eye would make the whole world go blind. So even the "jewels" that Hinduism claims aren't true followers of the religion.
The teachings of Hinduism strongly contradict the Bible. For example Hinduism teaches that salvation which they like to call moksha is a result of karma. It teaches that our soul lives on forever (which by the way it does) and we will be incarnate into different species depending on our works here. That has always been a puzzler for me for two reasons sometimes you may want to look at some horrible people and think "Oh man you still haven't gotten it" or sometimes you may look at a fly or a mouse and think of how they could possibly be bad at being a creature living on the leftovers of human waste and cheese. Like how could you possibly get mad at that or be "noble" in that? ! Yes it doesn't add up. Where as Christian teaches we're all wretched and all sinners and no one is righteous and in need of a Savior! That's why Jesus is so important for everyone! Not just a few Christians but he is essential for the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Muslims and everybody else to attain salvation or "moksha".

Anonymous said...

Please understand that I have many many many wonderful friends who come from all sorts of religions and daily walks but to throw in this luke warm chaotic, all in one religion at them is despicable! I love them but I don't love them more than Jesus loves them. And God says whosoever believes in the Son will not perish but have everlasting life i.e. whosoever does NOT believe in Him will surely perish.
So now that we've established that Jesus is not just one of the ways but the only way- John 14:6 and that Hinduism and any other religion without Jesus can be counted for as paganism, let's proceed.
Your email on meditation had no mention of Jesus or meditating on the Bible. It simply said meditation, now if your reference is to transcendental meditation then yes I stand by my word- it is demonic and comes from a pagan religion, as the teachers of this meditation were Krishna and Buddha. It teaches to concentrate on nothing and breathe in and out as you chant mantras. It's like witchcraft. Again, contradictory to what the Bible tells us to do. The Bible tells us to take every thought captive to obedient to the Christ -2 Cor 10:5. There is no involvement of a sixth sense which by the way even if you were believe science, only teaches 5. There IS a role for meditation and it's about the meditating on the law of Lord, for whoever has my commandments and obeys them he is the one who loves me- John 14:21. Not that you sit around with your eyes closed and think about nothing for hours- that's Christ less and will eventually come down in ruins in it's futility. And if God speaks to you audibly then awesome but if he doesn't audibly then we can still hear from him, from the Bible!
I hope this is of some importance to you. and if I may suggest a book on other religions and Christianity, I would say read "Jesus among other gods" by Ravi Zacharias
In all humility and with a heart that aches for truth,
the angry young lady

M.V. Paul said...

We are gifted with the five senses that we can have discrete and independent decisions. St. Paul reminds that a person cannot live by spirit unless he put off his old nature. Our old nature is corrupted by deceitful desires. As Buddha says, it is our desires that lead to all miseries. Our senses are so attached to this world. St. John says (1 Jn 2:16-17), "the cravings of a sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does comes from the world....Only the man who does the will of God lives forever. In Gen. 6:5-6, we see "God was grieved that he made man on the earth, for every inclination of the thought of his mind was evil all the time. Our thoughts are influenced by the wickedness of the world. Our heart consisting of mind, emotions and will power are all prioritized to the world. We fail to control our SENSES to do the will of God. We often do not subject our senses to the control of the Spirit. Our Lord reminds us to "watch and pray that our hearts are not so weighed down on dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life. In today’s, world, our minds and hearts are so weighed down on livelihood, rather we do not "live by FAITH, but live by sight". (Hab 2:4).
All senses of a person who live by sight is closely attached to this world, rather a person who live by FAITH receives a supernatural sense to live by faith. Abraham would not have dared to sacrifice Isaac unless he had a supernatural faith that God is powerful to do miracle and get back Isaac. As long as our senses are attached to the thinking pattern of this world, we cannot live by faith. St Paul describes "Peace that surpasses all human understanding or human sense". How come Paul in the dark cells of the jail with his feet on stocks, arms in chains could rejoice singing to the Lord? Surely, he was out of his sense; not in his common sense. Michael enquired David how he could sing and dance before the tabernacle of God. With the thought of being the King of Israel, David could not have done that. It means he was out of the common sense and under a supernatural sense.

We are generally shortsighted and lack far sight with our inner eyes closed. Elijah’s inner eyes were opened and he could see the fiery chariots surrounding him to fight against his enemies. See, the miseries the Israelites had to undergo for 40 years due the unbelief of the spies who went out to explore Canaan. They lived in their common sense, and forgot the greatness of God who delivered them from the mighty hands of Pharaoh. But Caleb and Joshua lived on their supernatural sense and witnessed God

It is in my humble opinion that the old man in us who lives on common sense needs to be dead. This is why Jesus says we have to be born again and Paul narrates we need to put off our old man and put on the new man created in the very likeness of God. Indeed we have to put off our senses so influenced by the flesh and put on the new man with his senses attached to the sensitiveness of Spirit. Prophet Ezekiel (38) says, your hearts of stone will be removed. Heart of stone is the heart that lost sensitiveness to the Spirit. The heart of a common man as Jesus Christ narrated is weighed down on dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life.

It is only in prayer we get our senses detached from the world and get attached to the Spirit. This is really an awesome experience. Many times in my prayers, I had this experience - the experience of getting detached from the common sense and going through a supernatural sense - sometimes the whole body gets cooled and warmed up - where our prayer turned to be in spirit and truth - the sick get healed and miracles take place. So, we cannot ignore the scripture "floating in spirit". Let us now change our pattern of thinking.

May the Almighty God help all of us to move and float in spirit, our senses detached from the world and fully attached to the spirit. May God bless all of us.

M. V. Paul