Psalm 1: The Psychology of Meditation

“Blessed are those…
who delight in the law of the Lord
and meditate on his law day and night.
They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
whatever they do prospers.”
~Psalm 1: 1-3~

Meditation occupies an important place in contemporary society. What most people associate with the term “meditation” today is mindfulness-based meditation. This form of meditation originates in Buddhism and generally encourages individuals to empty themselves of difficult sensations, thoughts, and emotions by mindfully focusing attention, for example, on their breathing. Psychologists now widely accept mindfulness-based meditation and incorporate it into psychotherapy. Unfortunately, as recently argued in a major research review released by the Association for Psychological Science, much of the practice and hype for mindfulness meditation seems a bit premature given the lack of rigorous scientific study on the topic.

I personally use mindfulness meditation as a way to manage stress, anxiety, and pain. For instance, if I’m feeling anxious, I often will take some time to focus on what I’m feeling and where in my body I’m feeling it. Sometimes, I will mindfully observe my thinking and intentionally label my thoughts as “anxious.” Usually, when I connect with how I’m experiencing anxiety, I also recognize that the sensations really aren’t that bad, that I’m not in any real danger, and that my feelings usually have an understandable cause. This helps me to let my anxiety go and direct my attention toward something more productive.

ben-white-Unsplash

Source: Ben White | Unsplash

Although potentially very useful, this isn’t the kind of meditation the psalmist had in mind.

Whereas Eastern meditation seeks to empty, traditional Judeo-Christian forms of meditation attempt to fill. As discussed by Richard Foster in one of my favorite books, “The Celebration of Discipline,” Christian meditation comes in four major varieties.

1. Meditation on Scripture. 

Perhaps the most important form of Christian meditation, meditation on Scripture plays a vital role in the daily lives of many practicing Christians. Psalm 1 suggests some benefits to meditating on “his law,” for instance. Not the same as a “Bible study,” this form of meditation focuses on contemplation and application. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said:

“. . . just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart. . . That is all. That is meditation.”

Another valuable commentary on Scripture meditation comes from Ignatius of Loyola, who encouraged his followers to apply all the senses to the task. Foster provides an example:

“Suppose we want to meditate on Jesus’ staggering statement ‘My peace I give to you’ (John 14:27). Our task is not so much to study the passage as it is to be initiated into the reality of which the passage speaks. We brood on the truth that he is now filling us with his peace. The heart, the mind, and the spirit are awakened to his inflowing peace.”

Some preliminary research suggests how this practice may increase the amount and strength of spiritual experience. In one study, Christian research participants were randomly assigned to either pray imaginatively for 30 minutes per day, six days per week, for four weeks, or to listen to lectures on the Gospels for the same amount of time. Participants were told to use their imaginations “to draw close to God, to enter into the Scriptures, and to experience them as if they were alive.” At the end of the four weeks, participants who meditated on Scripture were more likely to report powerful spiritual experiences during the time of the study.

2. Re-collection.

Originally from the Quaker tradition, Foster describes another form of Christian meditation he calls “palms down, palms up.” He instructs:

“Begin by placing your palms down as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over any concerns you may have to God. . . Release it. . . After several moments of surrender, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord.”

This is a form of meditation I’ve been working on in recent months. I really enjoy it as a regular spiritual practice, sometimes as a part of a walk.

3. Meditation on Creation.

A third kind of Christian meditation directs itself toward the beauty of the natural world as a means to understand the beauty of the Creator. Foster writes:

“Look at the trees, really look at them. Take a flower and allow its beauty and symmetry to sink deep into your mind and heart. Listen to the birds. . . These are humble acts, to be sure, but sometimes God reaches us profoundly in these simple ways if we will quiet ourselves to listen.”

A well-publicized study on this form of meditation reveals some surprising benefits. One group of participants in this study were randomly assigned to gaze for one minute at a towering stand of eucalyptus trees, while another group was told to stare for the same amount of time at a nearby science building. Those who directed their attention to the trees were more likely to help another in need, show ethical decision-making, and report less of a sense of superiority over others.

4. Meditation on Current Events.

This fourth kind of meditation encourages individuals to focus on significant events and to seek spiritual significance and guidance regarding them. As we do this, Foster suggests, “we should ask for guidance for anything we personally should be doing to be salt and light in our decaying and dark world.” I personally really resonate with what Karl Barth said about this when he advocated that Christians keep a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

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