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  • Writer's pictureJ Felix

The Sunday Service

Updated: 1 day ago

This summer, I want to share a Christian approach to meditation and am offering 2 Sunday sessions on June 11 & June 25 from 10-12. It's for people like me. I am the son and grandson of ministers. I respect the tradition, but found more peace in silence and stillness than in preaching and rituals.


Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, meditation is a spiritual discipline- which includes prayer, worship, service, fasting, charity, gratitude, asceticism, and chastity among others. The practice of Christianity is not identical across denominations, nor is there uniformity in rites, rituals, or beliefs among the many sects. Meditation is, arguably, the least practiced of the disciplines, but it is important to note that Christians have been meditating for millennia. It is not a new trend.

There are over 20 references to meditation in the Bible. The first mention is in Genesis 24: 62. "Now Isaac (c. 2000 BC) had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate..." It is doubtful that Isaac was sitting in full lotus, with his hands in a mudra. Rather, he was probably in a contemplative and prayerful state.

In the Book of Psalms, King David references meditation 19 times. I share seven here:

19:14 May the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord.

39:3 My heart grew hot within me. While I meditated, the fire burned.

48:98 We meditate on your unfailing love.

104:34 May my meditation be pleasing to him.

119:15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.

119:97 O How I love your law; I meditate on it all day long.

143:5 I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.

There is no mention of deep breathing, posture, body scanning, or mantras. Meditation, as David described it, is more contemplative and generative. By generative, I mean the cultivation of an affect or quality of mind: gratitude, humility, compassion, joy. In the Epistles, the Apostle Paul writes: Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. (Phil 4:7-8)

He repeats this instruction in a letter to Timothy: Meditate upon these things; that thy profiting may appear to all. (1 Tim 4:15)

By focusing the mind on virtuous qualities like compassion or loving kindness, we cultivate the feeling which then expresses outwardly in thought, word, and deed, such that the evidence of discipline "may appear to all."

These meditations are familiar to most Christians and not very different from preliminary practices of sila, or morality, in Buddhism or ethical precepts found in the Vedas, Islam, Judaism, or other faiths.

Indeed, religions of the world share the same lessons and practices. When I was young, I stumbled upon a transformative and powerful meditation technique: the mantra.

A mantra is a word, sound or phrase we repeat to ourselves during the course of a meditation. It could be a meaningless syllable (Transcendental Meditation, Somatic Experiencing, etc), a word like "calm" or "relax," a phrase ("May all beings be free from suffering), a prayer, a verse.

When I was 24, I came across a book in the family library by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a Protestant clergyman and author. I thumbed through his book: The Power of Positive Thinking. Dr. Peale invited readers to use mantras to condition the mind. Dr. Peale was a minister. My father and grandfather were ministers, so the content was not unfamiliar to me.

"With God, all things are possible." I knew the verse, but never considered using it as a mantra. If, according to his claims, repeating the verse had helped others overcome their obstacles and obtain their goals, why deny myself this gift? Why not experiment and verify the claim for myself?

I repeated it to myself over and over throughout the day, every day, as Dr. Peale had suggested. “With God, all things are possible.” It would become my mantra on my bike ride to Mexico. The idea to cycle to Mexico was planted by a dreadlocked cyclist I met at a stoplight. As we rode together, he told me he had raced from Los Angeles to Mexico. It was the kind of feat that fell outside the circle of what I thought was possible. I could cycle 7 miles to work, but 175 miles to Mexico? I wanted to do something like that. This stranger, whose name I never knew and whom I never thanked, gave me a gift and inspired thousands of miles of adventure which followed from that first trip.

This was my introduction to the power of mantra meditation, the repetition of a word, sound, or phrase to condition the mind. This practice transformed my mindset. I found it eminently practical.

When I took up kayaking, I would repeat my mantras on long paddles across the sea. With another mantra technique, recommended by Peale, I could empty the mind of fear, impatience, stress, or whatever was troubling it. I would repeat to myself over and over: “With God’s help, I am ridding my mind of anxiety…” until I felt my mind being emptied of fear. Then I would repeat: “My mind is empty of fear” until I believed this. Finally I would think: “With God’s help, I am filling my mind with confidence.” I repeated this until the mind was convinced. This was all I needed to correct my course.

The sea could be a hard and unforgiving taskmaster. A heavy sea could swallow me up, toss me, crush me, pummel me. The sea would undo the man who lacked a disciplined mind. With discipline, a man could check his anxieties or any other negative thoughts which siphoned off his energies. When you’re 8 miles out to sea, there aren’t many options. Paddle forward or paddle back, but, whatever you do, keep paddling. Tired? Can’t quit. Pain in your wrist? Better keep moving. Scared? There's nowhere to go but forward or back.

Whether paddling to the Channel Islands off the California coast, the smaller islands off of the Japanese archipelago, or the Elizabethan Islands in New England where I now live, I never left shore without my safety gear or my mantras. I found a disciplined mind to be indispensable.

Mantras are a tool to keep the mind anchored and a way to set its course.

Hannes Lindermann, who had spent 200 days and nights alone at sea, wrote: “I had learned a great deal that could help castaways. I know that the mind succumbs before the body, that although lack of sleep, thirst and hunger weaken the body, it is the undisciplined mind that drives the castaway to panic and heedless action. He must learn command of himself and, of course, of his boat, which is his strongest and most resilient ally. Morale is the single most important factor in survival.”

Repetitive prayer is a variation of the mantra. Reaffirming our beliefs, repeating a verse over and over is a powerful technique. We "pray without ceasing." (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Hannes Lindermann called prayer “the invisible weapon of man, which brings him healing power and relaxation and renewed energy. Prayer, which brings hope and with hope, optimism and relaxation, is a powerful aid to self-mastery.” It’s enough for me that I believe it works. I pray and paddle, paddle and pray, repeating my mantras over and over- sometimes in the form of a word, sometimes in the form of a sentence, sometimes in the form of a prayer.

One weekend, I decided to paddle to Santa Cruz Island, 30 miles off the Santa Barbara coast. Halfway out, the winds began to stir and churn up the sea. Soon I was surrounded by whitecaps. Waves were breaking over my kayak. I worried and began paddling in desperation, but tired quickly. My muscles were tense, my breathing was shallow. Anxiety corrupted and siphoned off energy. I began to chant a mantra and timed it to the breath and paddle stroke. I breathed in “calm” on the inhalation and “strong” on the exhalation. Soon, I was in rhythm. My mind settled. My limbs relaxed. The muscles in my face softened. I assessed my situation with a calm mind. Although the wind had slowed me to 2 knots, I was still making progress and decided to continue paddling into the wind. Every thought, every stroke, every muscle was trained on getting me to shore. I paddled with my attention on my breath and strokes. My confidence invigorated me. I sang a haka to the winds. I would switch mantras in response to conditions. When the muscles would tire, for example, I might use words like "power" or "endurance." 8 hours later, I beached at Scorpion Anchorage.

As you continue on your life journey, you may encounter rough seas and contrary winds. To paraphrase Jim Rohn, don't wish it were easier, cultivate strength, courage, endurance, calm. Don't wish for fewer problems, develop the skill sets to meet your challenges.

Mantra is a Sanskrit word. Christians are skittish around ideas or concepts from other religions. Yet, within the Judeo-Christian tradition are more formal meditation practices similar to those found in other religions. Hesychasm was one of the earliest techniques and originated in the Early Church sometime in the 4th Century, long before the schism in 1054 that split the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Hesychasm is Greek for "quiet; to rest." The practice was based on Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

The technique begins with katharsis (purification). In this technique, emphasis is on focus and attention. The hesychast, or practitioner, develops single-pointed concentration on his/her inner experience while repeating the Jesus Prayer:

Breathing in: O Lord, Jesus Christ

Breathing out: Have mercy on me.

This practice is similar to the gathas of Buddhism or the mantras found in the Vedic traditions. And the emphasis on focus and attention is similar to samadhi (concentration) in the the Threefold Trainings of Buddhism- which includes sila (morality) and prajna (insight or wisdom).

With practice, the hesychast cultivates nepsis (vigilance). Like the watchman Christ speaks of in parable, the practitioner is enjoined to “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Mat 24:42)

“If the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief (distraction, wandering, ego) would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. (Mat 24:43)

This practice is also similar to mindfulness practices in Buddhism where practitioners are enjoined to remain watchful and vigilant over the mind on and off cushion.

The hesychast attaches eros “yearning” to overcome accedia (sloth) which leads, in time, to theoria (illumination). The mind approaches purity and stillness. Then finally, ego dissolves (kenosis) and the hesychast achieves theosis (union).

This map is similar to what meditators in other traditions experience. Indeed, those familiar with Buddhist teachings on the 5 hindrances (sloth, desire, ill will, doubt, and worry) will find some parallels here. The terms are different, but the end is the same- dissolution of ego, the false idol "I"; liberation from the prison of thought, awakening, transcendence, union, "the peace that surpasseth all understanding." (Philippians 4:7)

The path, too, is similar to the ones walked by contemplatives and mystics in other traditions. All contemplative traditions have a suite of moral codes that encourage moderation, sobriety, compassion, service, selflessness, charity, generosity, chastity, altruism, patience, and forgiveness. An ethical life is foundational. Morality is itself a path, a limb in the Yogic tradition, sila in Buddhism. Christianity is bhakti, or devotion in Sanskrit. Christianity also emphasizes bodhichitta, or loving kindness in Pali. Most Christians practice their faith this way- devotion, prayer, and service.

Meditation is not as entrenched in Christianity as it is in other traditions. Meditation is better suited to some temperaments like mine. I live like a monk. I prefer quiet and solitude.

The early Desert Mothers and Fathers were hermits and ascetics, wandering sadhus of the 3rd Century, who retired to the desert and, in solitude, practiced meditation among other spiritual disciplines. The monks and nuns were the progenitors of monasticism.

In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, one hermit wrote: 'Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work." Abba Moses said: "Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all."

Apophatic meditation is another centuries old technique that began sometime in the 5th century. Apophatic means “approaching God by negation- without concepts, images or words.” to experience "the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding." It is a concentrative practice similar to the Vedantic technique of neti neti ("Not this, not this"). It is a rejection of whatever mind conceives as God. God cannot be grasped by the puny intellect from which it derives its source and light. We approach without concepts, receptive, expecting nothing, with an open heart thirsting for instruction and experiential insight- not more words or theories or ideas or theology- but direct experience.

In the Catholic Church, lectio divina is is a traditional monastic practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and embodiment of the Word. The technique consists in:

1. Reading (Oratio)

2. Contemplation (Contemplatio)

3. Meditation (Meditatio)

4. Prayer (Oratio)

The rosary, or prayer beads, are often used to train, discipline, and center the mind in faith.

Visualization techniques are as common in Christianity as in all contemplative traditions (e.g. the Mahayana or Tantric schools of Buddhism). We visualize Christ or a saint and contemplate their qualities. We try to generate these qualities within ourselves: the compassion of Christ, the altruism of a saint, the faith of an apostle.

Centering Prayer is another popular technique amongst Christian meditators. Father M. Basil Pennington suggests these steps:

  1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.

  2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.

  3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.

  4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.

Father Keating adds: "The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts."

Many Christians practice secular meditation techniques. Neuroimaging shows that meditation promotes structural change to the brain. Meditation is manifestation of Romans 12:2- "Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind."

I integrate the science of meditation with my faith. When focusing attention on the breath, for example, I might begin with Scripture: "All the while, the breath is in me, and the Spirit of God is in my nostrils." (Job 27:3) When I assume a meditation posture, I might think: "Ye are the Temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you... for the Temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." (1 Corinthians 3:16) When scanning the body, I might think: "I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are thy works and that my soul knoweth right well." (Psalm 139:14) When discouragement arises, I might think: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Philippians 4:11) When fear arises, I might think: "God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7) When my spirit is troubled, I can take refuge: "The Lord is a strong tower, the righteous runs into it and is safe" (Proverbs 18:10) or "The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold" (Psalm 18:2) or "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." (Psalm 46:1)

Saturating consciousness with these verses purifies the thought stream such that the only thoughts are encouraging ones. Confidence grows and I am lifted up. Even in my distress, I find refuge in the Scripture and rise above the darkness and heaviness of despair. “The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valor.” (Judges 6:12) There are hundreds of verses like these which we can ingest like vitamins or minerals to keep the spirit strong on its earthly pilgrimage.

Christianity also informs my practice in a much deeper sense. The end is kenosis (self-abnegation, no-self). Like the Apostle Paul, I wish to "die daily" to self, to ego. Ego is the golden calf, the false idol. When I was a boy, I recited Solomon's prayer with all the sincerity and innocence of a child: "I am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in... So give Your servant an understanding heart... to discern between good and evil." (1 Kings) From my youth, I have sought God, having experienced the ecstasy of union early; I have known no greater bliss.

Christianity, practiced in this way, becomes more of a way of being in the world, and less of a religious system bound by doctrines, traditions, creeds, rituals, and rites. Many Christians may feel disenchanted or disillusioned with the hierarchical and bureaucratic nature of organized religion. Others find themselves in disagreement with certain teachings or doctrines of their particular denomination or church.

Instances of hypocrisy, moral failings, or scandals involving church leaders have also impacted the faith of believers. When leaders or members of the church fail to live up to the values they preach, it erodes trust. While I prefer to live like a monk, I do not pretend to be righteous. I give myself license to be fully human, but choose to live like a stoic, willingly subjecting myself to a life of discipline.

Some Christians may feel a lack of genuine community or meaningful connections within their local church. If they don't find the fellowship, support, and spiritual nourishment they seek, they may seek alternative avenues for connection or spiritual growth outside of traditional church structures. As individuals engage with diverse perspectives, they may develop doubts or skepticism regarding certain aspects of their faith- especially those that challenge scientific reasoning. It is possible to reconcile the contradictions.

So, I feel it is time. Meditation was my path back to my faith. This summer, I want to share a Christian approach to meditation and am offering two Sunday Services on June 11 & June 25 from 10-12.

What to expect:

Sessions will be somewhat similar to the secular classes I've taught in the past (lightly sprinkled with Scripture). Add prayer, a little music, and silence. No rituals, rites, or creeds. No evangelizing, pageantry, conversions, confessionals, or formality. No sermons. Expect Zen-like simplicity and tranquility.

Below is a sample meditation:

To register, click here.

Republished 5/23

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