What Is the Christian Meditation Lab All About?
In the contemporary clinical psychology literature, meditative practices are quite common, with researchers exploring their core ingredients, mechanisms of action, mediating influences and efficacy in ameliorating a range of psychological disturbances. Several types of meditation permeate the current discussion, including concentrative (e.g., focusing on one aspect of experience, such as a mantra, a phrase, the breath or the senses), insight (e.g., noticing inner experiences with an attitude of openness and flexibility), and directed (e.g., deliberately attending to certain content in order to pursue a specific purpose) (Kristeller & Johnson, 2005).
More recently, Buddhist-informed loving-kindness and mindfulness meditative practices have been operationalized, researched and utilized as clinical strategies to ameliorate a broad range of psychiatric disorders. With loving-kindness meditation (which blends concentrative and directed elements), practitioners notice unhelpful inner patterns (e.g., perseverative thinking), then shift towards a mantra to cultivate compassion for the self and others (Kristeller & Johnson, 2005). For mindfulness meditation (which is a form of insight meditation), practitioners cultivate sustained attention by focusing on one aspect of awareness in the present moment, along with acceptance by relating to inner experiences with nonjudgment and flexibility (Coffey, Hartman, & Fredrickson, 2010).
Yet, some Christians may prefer to draw from their own rich, well-developed religious heritage, instead of meditative practices with Buddhist underpinnings, for ameliorating psychological problems and improving physical, psychological, social and spiritual health. In the Christian tradition, we have several types of meditation, which began to develop some 1,700 years ago, that are firmly anchored in a Christian worldview.
Christians in the first half of the first millennium started moving to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria to simultaneously let go of their preoccupation with societal distractions (e.g., possessions, material wealth) and focus on God (see summaries by Harmless , Laird , and Paintner . Like Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11), they sought to face their temptations, turning to God for help in the scorching desert terrain. Over time, they started reciting the Psalms as a way to shift their wandering attention from tempting, compulsive thoughts to God, reminiscent of Jesus’ use of Scripture as a response to the devil’s temptations in Matthew’s gospel. Gradually, they developed the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”—which seems to combine the Apostle Paul’s teaching to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18) and instances in the gospels that involved people asking Jesus for mercy (Luke 18:38).
Fast-forward to the 14th century, and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing argued that we should strive to reach out to God in love, rather than merely rely on knowledge, placing everything other than God beneath a “cloud of forgetting” during meditative practice (Bangley, 2006). In his instructions, the author recommended using a single-syllable word (e.g., love, God) to keep our full attention on God (Bangley, 2006).
These two types of meditation are referred to as apophatic, given they downplay the use of thoughts and images in our time spent with God. Rather, in apophatic meditation, we focus on the name of Jesus in the Jesus Prayer, and place everything beneath a “cloud of forgetting” (minus a short word that captures our efforts to reach out to God in love, rather than knowledge) within the instructions from the Cloud of Unknowing. Like someone yelling “help” in an emergency situation, the request involves employing one simple word or phrase—rather than overly relying on a lengthy, convoluted request—to turn to God (Bangley, 2006).
A few hundred years later, the Puritans—Christians from England in the 1500s and 1600s who advocated for turning to the Bible to guide every aspect of life—developed their own version of meditation, recommending that practitioners deeply ponder a range of Christian content (e.g., God’s attributes, God’s actions, passages in Scripture) to conjure up a powerful emotional reaction in preparation for Christ-like behavioral action (Beeke & Jones, 2012); this type of meditation is referred to as kataphatic, in that the Puritans relied heavily on words to guide their meditative practice.
Returning to the discussion of concentrative, insight and directed forms of meditation (Kristeller & Johnson, 2005), the Jesus Prayer, instructions from the Cloud of Unknowing, and Puritan meditation all combine concentrative and directed forms of meditation, given they typically advocate for the use of a word, short phrase or description of God to deepen Christians’ relationship with our Creator, with a central difference being how much each form relies on the use of words and images. Stated differently, a continuum exists within the Christian meditative tradition, with apophatic (wordless and imageless) residing on one end and kataphatic (words and images) residing on the other. Interestingly, some forms of Christian meditation, such as lectio divina, even combine both, asking participants to move from reading a passage in Scripture, to meditating on the passage, to responding to the passage, to resting in a wordless state of contemplation (Benner, 2010).
Ultimately, our lab’s aim is to empirically investigate both types of Christian meditation to help Christians ameliorate psychological problems and improve physical, psychological social and spiritual health, recognizing that concentrative and directed types of meditation can be combined in the Christian tradition so as to, foundationally, help practitioners deepen their intimacy and communion with God, the Author of all. Thus, we are learning to dually concentrate on him and develop a more trusting, loving experience of God’s active presence.
Bangley, B. (Ed.). (2006). The cloud of unknowing: Contemporary English edition. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press.
Beeke, J., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan theology: Doctrine for life. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.
Benner, D. (2010). Opening to God: Lectio divina and life as prayer. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Coffey, K., Hartman, M., & Fredrickson, B. (2010). Deconstructing mindfulness and constructing mental health: Understanding mindfulness and its mechanisms of action. Mindfulness, 1, 235–253.
Harmless, W. (2004). Desert Christians: An introduction to the literature of early monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kristeller, J., & Johnson, T. (2005). Cultivating loving kindness: A two-stage model of the effects of meditation on empathy, compassion, and altruism. Zygon, 40, 391–407.
Laird, M. (2006). Into the silent land: A guide to the Christian practice of contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Paintner, C. (2012). Desert fathers and mothers: Early Christian wisdom sayings. Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing.