Meditation (anxiety, prt. 3)

DON’T STOP READING!!

No matter how much the word “meditation” makes you want to tune out, I encourage you to hang in there.  Hang in there, even though meditation is seen by many as some esoteric practice, meant only for a) monks, nuns, and the hard-core religious; b) kooky, or touchy-feely people, both of which probably watch way too much Oprah.

Meditation, in fact, can be a critical practice in  helping us to relieve much of our anxiety.  Although it should not be viewed only as an anti-anxiety tool, it certainly can play a signfiicant role there.  In this post I am going to attempt to explain the reason why meditation is needed, and I will do this primarily from the perspective of alleviating anxiety.

I have established in previous posts that the root of anxiety is our thinking.  Anxiety is what results when the basic fear response, common to all sentient beings, joins up with imagination (as far as we know, found only in humans).  In other words, without imagination, there can be no anxiety.  Anxiety is always fear of this or that possibility, and a possibility, by definition, is something that 1) has not yet happened, and therefore; 2) is imagined.  Since anxiety is the result of the fear response combining with imagination, then learning to focus on the present moment will alleviate anxiety.  Meditation (called by Christians “pure prayer,” or “silent prayer”) teaches this in a way so profoundly simple that it seems almost too good to be true — or too easy to be effective.  But it is both true and effective.

Have you ever been completely lost in the present moment?  I mean so absorbed in a moment that you completely forgot about yourself and your own existence?  Perhaps you were watching your children play, or maybe you were having sex that took you to a place beyond all thought, or completely immersed in something funny, or just having so much fun you were simply enjoying it.  There is never anxiety in those moments, because we are simply in the moment.  No conscious “thinking” is going on, we’re just riding that wave — whatever it may be — and loving it.  Though we will often think about these moments afterwards, the thinking was not necessary for enjoyment of these amazing moments.

Normally we think in order to solve problems.  We think in order to make plans.  We think in order to do our jobs.  We think in order to do well in school, and have good conversations, and raise our children prudently and skillfully.  We think in order to analyze our situations and make good decisions.  These are all healthy ways of thinking.  But when thinking runs amuck, you have anxiety.  Anxiety comes from thinking about thinking.  It happens when our thinking leaves the real world, and the immediate need for it, and turns to possibilities.  It happens when we stop actually living in the present moment, and begin to constantly evaluate it.  “How am I doing?”  Probably terrible.  “How do I look”  Probably kind of stupid.  How am I sounding?  Maybe like an idiot.  “How am I coming off?”  Probably like you’re trying too hard.  How is it going?  Obviously pretty rough. “What’s really going on?”  Oh my gosh, I’m probably the only one who doesn’t know.  “Do they really like me?”  How could they? “Am I truly happy?”  What does that look like? “Am I at peace?”  What does peace feel like? “How will I know?”  Should I ask a therapist? “Is my world okay?”  I don’t know — it just seems like there must be more. “Is something wrong?”  Probably — there almost always is. “If so, what is it?”  I don’t know.  I should definitely ask a therapist. “What is that strange feeling in my side?”  Probably cancer. “Am I safe?”  Probably not – the world is very dangerous, you know. These thoughts, then, lead to emotions (as thoughts always will), and the result is anxiety.

Meditation is where we stop this ridiculous, and self-defeating cycle.  In meditation, we tell our incessant thinking to take a hike.  After all, as good as thinking is, life’s best moments don’t usually come from it.  It’s not the be-all, end-all of our existence.  The problem is that our minds have minds of their own.  They think even when we aren’t calling on them to do so.   They think when thinking is neither necessary nor productive.  They are just constantly presenting us with thoughts.  Thoughts filter in and out of our minds so quickly that we have come to associate our thoughts with our actual selves.  Most people are sure that they ARE their thoughts.  In truth, we are neither as good as our best thoughts, nor as bad as our worst.  And so we meditate.  We meditate to learn to stop thinking run amuck.  We meditate in order to bring some desperately needed basic discipline to our minds.  When we do this, the result will be a deepening of peace.

I have given some good background behind the reason for the necessity of meditation (there’s way more than this, but I won’t even try to cover it all).  If you are interested in learning actually how to meditate, you cannot go wrong by checking out The World Community  For Christian Meditation’s instructions.  These basic instructions will apply to Christians and people of other faiths (and no faith), but to read more about links between Christian meditation and meditation in other traditions, check out http://www.wccm.org/item.asp?recordid=welcome&pagestyle=default.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • Dave, I just have to comment on this…I know a lot of people are “put off” or confused by meditation..thinking it is wierd or new agey…I have also heard it called silent prayer and wonder if explaining it as this may open more hearts/minds…gracious as always..Holly

  • Chuck

    Dave:
    How do you perceive the relationship between spending time daily with God praying and reading the Bible with the practice of meditation? To the person who has already adopted the practice of spending about 30 minutes daily in this manner, are you now suggesting adding up to one hour per day on top of that time for meditation? Or do you see some sort of overlapping of time commitment and the two practices or does one spiritual practice take precedence over the other? Might meditation somehow become melded into a daily devotional time, or is it better to keep those two completely separate? I’m not so concerned about the total daily time commitment as much as I am confused about the relationship of those disciplines. Thanks.

    • Good question. I know daily prayer and Bible reading have been a habit you have kept pretty regularly for many years. I always wished I had picked up that discipline, and it’s certainly not for your lack of modeling that I didn’t!

      What I’m about to suggest might move your cheese big-time, so go with it if you can accommodate it, or ignore it and keep searching. Dallas Willard suggests that Bible reading is most effective in the context of commitments to other regular disciplines. He sets aside a couple of hours one day a week to study the Bible. This allows more intense time and he can get more “accomplished.”

      I can imagine there might be some effectiveness in adopting something similar, only you might wish to still read a couple of verses daily as a lead into your meditation. When I first started I did just straight meditation, and soon found myself “missing God.” It was so different from what I was used to that I couldn’t draw the connection to God hardly at all. Turns out this is not what is recommended. Meditation should always (usually) happen in a context of verbal prayer that starts and ends it, and combining it with reading a few verses is excellent. I have recently memorized a passage from Ephesians and I’ve been using it to open my times of meditation.

      The fun thing about spiritual formation is that you can experiment and find out what works for you. You’re one of very few people who has actually been able to settle into a focused time of daily prayer and scripture-reading, but still I think meditation would take you to places you will never reach without it. You might also consider starting with just doing it ten minutes twice a day, then as you work your way up, tweak your other disciplines accordingly.