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Meditative Prayer

by Gary F. Zeolla

In this article I will explain what I believe appropriate Christian mediation is, or what I'll call "meditative prayer."

Relaxation Techniques

First, a distinction needs to be made between meditation and simple relaxation techniques. Meditation usually has a "religious" component to it. That is to say, the mediator is seeking some sort of religious experience or communion with God by meditating.

However, the goal of relaxation techniques is not religious but emotional relaxation or relief from stress. Now overlap between these two can occur such as when attempts are made to divorce a traditional religious practices from its religious "roots" and make it a purely secular practice.

But some relaxation techniques, although possibly practiced by religious mediators, are devoid of religious connotations. The simplest of these are simple breathing techniques. And I have found practices like "deep breathing" to be a great way to relax. It is also a way to clear the thoughts of the day from the mind so that one can focus on God.

Specifically, a simple deep breathing technique entails either sitting or laying down in a comfortable position. Preferably, it should be in a quiet environment and one free from distractions.

To learn the technique, one begins by putting one hand near the bottom of rib cage and the other on the stomach. The idea is to breathe in deeply using the diaphram rather than the chest. So the stomach should rise but not the chest.

Close your eyes and concentrate on the breathing itself. Notice the air as it is coming into your lungs and as it is being exhaled. Then try to slow the down the breathing. A slow count of one - two for the inhale and for the exhale is helpful.

The idea is to try to become relaxed by concentrating solely on the breathing or counting, and not on extraneous thoughts. If your mind wanders, don't get upset, just begin concentrating on the breathing.

Now before anyone objects that this is some kind of "New Age" technique, I personally see nothing whatsoever "New Age" about breathing! That is all this is, helping the body relax by having the mind concentrate on a simple body function rather than the cares of the day.

Now this technique in and of itself is a great way to relax. But there is nothing spiritual about it. So I mainly use it as a preparation for meditative prayer. By becoming relaxed and clearing the mind of the cares of the day, this technique is a good lead-in to prayer.

Kinds of Prayer

But how should one pray once relaxed and focused by the breathing technique? Various methods are possible.

Repetitive Prayer:

One often cited technique is the repetition of a word or short phrase. Such a practice has been shown to have beneficial health benefits.

Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper is the person who coined the term "aerobics" in reference to aerobic or endurance type of exercise with the publication of his book Aerobics in 1968. Since that time, he has published many books on health and fitness. He is also a Christian. So his books generally have a Christian slant to them.

In his book Faith-Based Fitness he writes, "Its long been known that relaxation techniques--such as prayer or meditation accompanied by regular breathing and the silent repetition of a Bible verse or other short phrase--can have beneficial health effects" (p.28).

He writes further in his book Can Stress Heal?:
So a person whose personal faith is based on the Bible might meditate in this way:

Sometime in the morning sit in a comfortable chair with your eyes closed, and concentrate on breathing regularly. As you breathe out, repeat silently a word or phrase that conforms to your beliefs. For example, you might choose "The Lord is my shepherd" from the Twenty-third Psalm.

Continue repeating these words silently for ten to twenty minutes. If outside or distracting thoughts interfere with your focus on your belief words, don't become tense or upset. Maintain a passive attitude; gently turn from the distraction and back to the Biblical words you have chosen.

Then engage in a second, similar session at some point later in the day (pp.137-8).

This is a good description of how this type of meditation is practiced. Copper adds, "Accompanying physical changes may include lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and a generalized feeling of being stress-free" (Copper. Stress, p. 136).

So there are health benefits from such meditation. But how Biblical is it? Jesus told us, "And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Matt 6:7). Moreover, repeating the Lord's name over and over again would seem to me to border on taking the Lord's name in vain, which we are commanded not to do (Exod 20:7).

So for these reason, this type of repetitive prayer makes me uncomfortable. At best, such meditation should be considered a purely relaxation exercise, rather than a spiritual one. In other words, I don't see how such mindless repetition could improve someone's relationship with God, even if there might be health benefits to it.

However, there are other ways to pray that would give the same health benefits, but which would also be spiritually beneficial.

Mental Praise:

In his sermon, "Jesus, Our Example of Holy Praise," C.H. Spurgeon discusses different methods of praising God. What he calls "Mental Praise" would be a spiritually beneficial way of meditating:

Spurgeon describes the practice:
Take care to mentally praise God also. The grandest praise that floats up to the throne is that which arises from silent contemplation and reverent thought. Sit down and think of the greatness of God, His love, His power, His faithfulness, His sovereignty, and as your mind bows prostrate before His majesty, you have praised Him, though not a sound will have come from you (pp.52-53).

In this type of prayer, one is not mindlessly repeating a word or phrase, but engaging the mind in thinking on the glories of God, and praising God for who He is. So as one meditates, God is being praised and the meditator is reflecting on God and His various attributes. Such praise brings one into the presence of God and reminds one of who God is.

But does such mental praise have the same health benefits as repetitive prayer?

Cooper describes a similar type of meditation, and the benefits thereof:
Medical studies have been done on the effect of an advanced form of meditation known as "mindfulness meditation." This approach involves first establishing a breathing rhythm, as with simple meditation. Then, you repeat silently a personal belief word or phrase, such as "God is love." But instead of sticking to a mental repetition of this belief word, you allow your mind to move about among different ideas and feelings.

Usually, these thoughts are related in some way to the basic belief word. For example, if you begin with "God is love," your mind might move to a contemplation of the meaning of love--as described in 1Corinthians 13--or the different manifestations of God in the Old and New Testaments.

In a review article produced by the MRC Applied Psychology Unit, Cambridge, England, the authors found encouraging evidence that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress and relieve depression (Cooper, Stress, pp.139-40).

So it is not necessary to "still the mind" as advocated in mystical circles in order to attain health benefits from meditation. The mind can be fully engaged in meditation with similar results. Moreover, there is Biblical support for such meditation.

A search for "meditat*" in the Bible will show that Biblical meditation is meditating on the Word of God (Josh 1:8; Ps 1:2; Ps 199:15,23,148; 1Tim 4:15); the Person of God (Ps 63:6; Ps 145:5); the works of God (Ps 77:12; Ps 119:27; Ps 145:5); the name of God (Mal 3:16); and most generally, on "good" things (Phil 4:8).

To meditate on the contents of the Bible, on the various attributes of the Person of God, and on the manifold works of God would definitely would require a "mindfulness." A mindless meditation would not do. Moreover, as one thinks about God's attributes and His works, this would naturally lead into praising Him for who He is and what He has done.

So "mental praise" or "mindfulness meditation" is a Biblical practice which provides both spiritual as well as health benefits.

Meditative Singing:

In working on the Analytical-Literal Translation (ALT), I came across a verse that brought to mind another possible method of meditation. The verse was Ephesians 5:19.

It reads in the NKJV, "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord."

But this translation never made much sense to me: "speaking to one another in psalms ..." In church we sing WITH one another to God in Psalms, but people are not in the habit of singing to another!

However, as I was working on the ALT, I found out that a more literal way of translating "to one another" was "to yourselves." Moreover, the word "heart" in Greek metaphorically means the entire "inner self" including the intellect, emotions, and volition, not just the emotions as it does in English (see the above mentioned "Christian" Mysticism article for more details on this point).

So putting these points together, rather than referring to corporate worship, this verse seems to me to be teaching a private, "singing meditation." We are to sing to God quietly within ourselves, utilizing our entire "inner selves." And this singing meditation could easily be combined with "mental praise," so that we quietly sing praises to God.

Moreover, the next verse reads, "giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." So at least part of this singing meditation would include thanking God for all He has done for us. And as one sings, many things can easily come to mind for which God can be thanked.

So either by praying or singing, one can utilize the entire inner self in praising God for who He is, and thanking Him for what He has done for us. And such meditative prayer can be both spiritually and physically beneficial.

Meditative Prayer vs. Regular Prayer

So what is the difference between meditative prayer and other forms of prayer? The first is physiological. In meditation, part of the goal is to reach what is variously called the "meditative state" or "relaxation response."

The relaxation response is opposite to the "fight or flight response." The latter is the reaction of the body to stress. Heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure increase, and various hormones, like adrenaline, are released in order to prepare the body for a physical response to a perceive threat. But in today's society, a physical response is generally out of place. So this increase in body reactions can "build up" in various ways and lead to a variety of health problems.

The relaxation response is the opposite. It lowers the heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure. And hormones might be released, but these are different from the above. Basically, this relaxation response calms the body down, rather than excites its.

Simply put, the relaxation response feels like the half-awake, half-asleep state we all are in at least twice a day. Think about when you are just falling asleep, or even better, when you are awaking gradually (and not jolted awake by an alarm clock). At such times, you're conscious, you know you're in bed, but you're not quite fully awake enough to get out of bed. At such times, you're in a fully relaxed state. This is the feeling of the meditative state.

So a goal of meditation is to extended this relaxed state from a few minutes to several minutes, usually 10-30 minutes, once or twice a day. It is by extending this state that stress relief can be attained, with the resultant health benefits. Moreover, once one learns how to enter this state, during times of stress, one can meditate for even a few minutes and help bring the stress under control.

But meditative prayer goes farther than just the physiological benefits. By calling upon God, a spiritual experience is incorporated with the physiological benefits, thus bringing spiritual benefits.

So one difference between meditative prayer and regular prayer is the former has a dual goal: both health and spiritual benefits are being sought. Specifically, one is learning to relax by meditation. So the type of prayer engaged in is prayer that will relax someone, not excite them.

For instance, although petitionary prayer is definitely a legitimate type of prayer, this may not be the best time for it. A the every least, this may not be the best time to pray about particularly disturbing circumstances in your life. Such prayer is appropriate. We are to cast our cares upon the Lord (1Peter 5:7), but if doing so excites you rather than calms you, then engage in such prayer at another time.

Furthermore, meditative prayer is a "mindfulness" prayer. The mind is fully engaged, but in a relaxed manner. For instance, this is a good time to dwell on the sovereignty of God, to think about all the ways He has been working in your life, and to praise Him for it. However, this is probably not the best time to try to solve theological difficulties like the relation of divine sovereignty and human "free-will."

In other words, you should be in praise mode. Dwelling on God, and who He is, and what He has done. But this is done in a relaxed manner with the eyes closed. But solving theological puzzles requires an open Bible and, obviously, open eyes. Basically, if your thoughts are relaxing they are appropriate. If they are in any way troubling, causing your heart rate to increase, then they are not.

The same would apply to meditative singing. The types of songs to be sung are relaxing ones, not ones designed to arouse you. So a song like "This is the day the Lord has made" might be great for public worship (and to get the congregation awake for the Sunday service!), but now is not the time for it. A slower song sung quietly in a relaxed manner is more appropriate.

Moreover, the emphasis here is on quiet. There should be no audible prayer or singing. God can hear you in your thoughts; you don't need to speak out loud to Him. Even moving of the lips should be avoided. Basically, any kind of bodily movement would break the meditative state. So sorry charismatics, but this is not the time for hand-raising and clapping.

So the main differences between meditative prayer and other forms of prayer is meditative prayer is definitely a private affair. It is purely silent and should be relaxing. Such solitude and quietness enables one to enter privately into the presence of God, while enabling the body to engage the relaxation response, with the accompanying health benefits of stress relief.

Pain Control

I first became more interested in meditation as a result of looking for a way to control my chronic back pain. I read several books on back pain, looking for common threads between them. And relaxation techniques was one such commonality.

The reason for relaxation techniques being recommended has to do with one current theory on what causes chronic pain. Basically, some doctors now believe the muscles in the pain area remain in spasm, or a "contracted" or tense state. This tension then reduces blood flow, and consequently, nutrients and oxygen to the area, along with leading to a build-up of toxins. And it is thought these deficiencies and build-up leads to the chronic pain (Prust, pp.22-23).

By engaging in relaxation techniques, the muscles tend to relax, thus allowing blood, nutrients, and oxygen to flow more normally to the area, and the toxins to be taken away, thus reducing the pain.

But I struggled with some of the suggested relaxation techniques. Things like Yoga and hypnosis made me very uncomfortable from a Christian perspective.

But the breathing techniques as described above seemed to make sense and to be devoid of any spiritual associations. And I knew meditation could be done in a Christian manner, as the word does occur many times in Scriptures. But meditation utilizing word repetitions did not seem Biblical.

But the "mental praise" and "singing meditation" described above did have Biblical support. So I began engaging in daily meditation, starting with deep breathing, then going into meditative prayer and singing.

And after a few weeks, the meditation did seem to be helping. My back pain was improving somewhat. But just as important, I seemed to be more calm throughout the day, and I seemed to be dealing with stress a little better.

Moreover, since my meditation involved focusing on God, I also felt like my relationship with Him was improving. So I was beginning to realize the physical and spiritual benefits of meditation.

Moreover, I also found that engaging in mediation particularly helped when my back pain "flared up." As with most forms of chronic pain, there are times when the pain gets much worse than normal. And stress can often be the reason for the flare-up. But whatever the cause, the meditation seemed to help bring the flare-up under control quicker.

But after a few weeks, I was in a bicycle accident. In the accident, I collapsed my right lung, bruised my entire right rib cage, broke both bones in my right shoulder, cracked the shoulder socket, fractured my left elbow, sustained a concussion, and had various cuts and bruises all over my body.

When I became aware in the ambulance, needless to say, I was having much difficulty breathing, was in great pain, and I was confused and frightened. But I quickly realized by being scared and upset I was only making it more difficult to breathe and increasing my pain. So as best as I could, I tried to stop hyper-ventilating, and began to breathe more slowly and deeply, and to call upon the Lord for help.

At one point I was saying out loud, repeatedly, "Jesus help me," To which a nurse relied, "He is." It was then I realized I needed to calm myself down. So I went into quietly praising God. And it did seem to help. I became more calm, and was able to breathe somewhat more easily, and the pain lessened. Of course, by that point, I was given morphine, but I am sure the meditation was helping as well.

Throughout that day, and on many subsequent days, there were episodes of intense pain, but each time I tried, not always perfectly, to not tighten up, as I knew that would only worsen the pain, but instead, to invoke the relaxation response, and call upon the Lord via silent meditation. It helped lessen the pain each time. In fact, I was able to stop all pain medication (except for some aspirin) rather quickly, within three weeks after the accident. So for both chronic and acute pain, meditation can be beneficial.


Cooper writes:
I know some Christians are uncomfortable with the concept of meditation because they associate it with transcendental meditation and other Eastern religions. But I believe it is important not to toss out a legitimate devotional practice just because another tradition uses something similar (Stress, p.138).

On this point I am very much agreed. In my article "Christian" Mysticism I compare the type of mediation Guyon recommends to TM, and for good reasons. Much of what she says parallels TM.

But I do believe there is a big difference between the type of meditative prayer I am suggesting above and what TM practices. The biggest differences is, the above described meditation is one in which the entire inner person, including the intellect, is involved, whereas in mysticism and TM the mind is "stilled" or considered to get in the way of meditation.

Moreover, there is Biblical support for the type of meditation recommended here, as indicated above. So the Christian should not be hesitant to engage in meditative prayer. Spiritual and health benefits can result if you do.

Cooper. Dr. Kenneth H. Can Stress Heal? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997.
   Faith Based Fitness. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995. (Note: This is the paperback edition. The hardback version is titled, It's Better to Believe).
Prust, Randall S., MD. Conquering Pain. New York: Berkley Books, 1997.
Spurgeon, Charles. H. The Fullness of Joy. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 1997.

Disclaimer: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet or exercise program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.

Note: All Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.

Meditative Prayer. Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this Web site September 15, 1999.

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