Meditation Isn’t Mere Therapy — It’s a Living Relationship With Almighty God

Christian meditation is an active quest to live the life of Christ, which was anything but passive.

Vassily Maximov, “Prayer for a Sick Husband,” 1881
Vassily Maximov, “Prayer for a Sick Husband,” 1881 (photo: Public Domain)

Mental health has received greater emphasis this lockdown year — isolation, loss of jobs and businesses, the effect on churches and schools and the simple irrationality of the rules can be wearing. It has been so chaotic a year that it shouldn’t surprise us when meditation is promoted as a path to mental and physical health.

Breathe, a “self-care” magazine, touts “34 ways to lift your mood,” “embrace mistakes” and “find your purpose.” A smartphone app called The Calm collaborated with HBO Max for a “World of Calm” series, featuring celebrity narrators. In January 2021, the Headspace app launched the first of its Netflix shows titled “Headspace Guide to Meditation.” And the CARE channel screened in hospitals juxtaposes nature scenes with soothing music on endless loop.

In the process, meditation has turned a religious practice into therapy. It has gone beyond “spiritual, but not religious” to not being spiritual at all.

But when Eastern-style meditation first rose to popularity in the 1960s, its goals were finding divinity within oneself, the visualization of deities, becoming one with the cosmos and attaining enlightenment. Some forms of yoga involve Hindu gods. Tibetan Buddhist yidam meditation involves visualization of deities. New Age meditation promoted pantheism and polytheism. The promised enlightenment was transcendent.

The 1960s were also a turbulent time with the Vietnam War, assassinations and riots, yet meditation was still considered a path to nirvana beyond the mundane world. It was assumed that meditation would have a religious basis leading to a religious enlightenment.

But nowadays, meditation is more pragmatic. An example would be Andy Puddicombe, the founder of Headspace. He spent a decade trying to become a Buddhist monk, venturing to places such as India, Nepal and Thailand. In the end, he decided, according to his website, to “demystify the mystical.” The website states, “The techniques in the Headspace app stem from both the Burmese and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, even though some of the names have been changed from the original translation to make them more accessible.”

“Accessibility” and “demystification” mean draining meditation of its original religiosity. In a sense, it is Buddhism without the Buddha. It exemplifies the 9th-century koan attributed to the Chinese monk Linji Yixuan, who said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The koan is often interpreted as the rejection of external spiritual authority, be it from a monk or the Buddha himself. The seeker has the final say. It is completely subjective.

In this suddenly “complex” post-Christian world, subjectivity is good, and “demystified” meditation is now about increasing productivity, getting better sleep and lowering stress. Dave McKay, CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, wrote, “I know several colleagues who have begun the practice of meditation for the first time in their lives as a result of using the Headspace app, so I’m proud we’re giving all employees an accessible introduction to improving their mental health fitness.” This “fitness” seems to be congruent with productivity to the company. 

Headspace’s “Introduction to Meditation” video offers the simple directions of “Breathe in/Hold/Breathe out” as soothing music plays. The Calm app has a “Sleep Story” with comedian Stephen Fry telling a relaxed story about France’s lavender fields in “Blue Gold.” These meditations aren’t focused on the spiritual and transcendent. One could argue that “Blue Gold,” for example, is focused on the grandeur of creation, rather than how it reflects the greatness of the Creator.

This kind of meditation has a strictly utilitarian goal: calmness, even passivity. Stress relief is now its primary purpose. It goes beyond dealing with pressure — it seeks eliminating stress altogether in the name of “self-care.”

Taking care of oneself, though, is not enough. What if you’re not treating the “right” person? Then what? All that work would be for nothing. Discovering the “authentic self” is of prime importance.

The term “authenticity” used to be applied to reality. Is that money real, or is it a forgery? Is this painting or manuscript authentic? Is that signature authentic? The teaching of the Church is authentic when grounded in Tradition.

Today, however, it is applied to the self. “Authenticity” replaces truth. It is deeply relativistic because people differ and have differing experiences — and is the “authentic” self the self at 20, 30, 42 or 70? It devolves into a scornful (John 18:8), “What is truth?”

The modern “I am true to myself” supplants Our Lord’s “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). Our Lord’s statement is absolute and objective.

Church teaching shows how meditation can guide us beyond relaxation to God. A day at the beach is relaxing. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (2705), “Meditation is above all a quest.”

The concept of a quest is active. While current trends in meditation are centered on passivity and making people docile, a quest is an active march to a goal. The Christian epics of the Holy Grail, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and the Lord of the Rings are about striving. Quests are not relaxation; they are challenges.

In the case of Christian meditation, it is an active quest to live the life of Christ, which was anything but passive. Our Lord sought baptism from his cousin to begin his life of teaching. He called the Twelve Apostles. He actively healed, preached and performed miracles. He repeatedly told Sts. Peter, James and John that the endpoint of his mission was crucifixion, death and resurrection. He endured heroically, not passively. His mission is the foundational “quest.”

Crucially, Christian meditation — the quest — acknowledges suffering. It doesn’t promise the perfect escape from discomfort. In the Salve Regina, there is the line “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” St. Junípero Serra prayed the Salve Regina nightly as he founded missions in California from San Diego to San Francisco. Christian meditation doesn’t flee from pain but faces it by focusing on Christ’s many sufferings. It acknowledges reality rather than dismissing it as an illusion.

In sum, the greatest difference between Christian and Eastern meditation is that Christianity does not deny the reality of suffering, let alone stress. The idea of “escaping” the pressures of life because they don’t exist is nonsensical. And in the modern era, peace cannot be found in relativism either, because we don’t experience life relatively, but in stark, absolute terms.

Catholics look at the source of “authenticity,” the Bible. St. Paul, who knew his share of suffering, wrote (2 Corinthians 1:5, 7), “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. … For we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” In uniting our sufferings and stress with Christ, we find true comfort — the peace the world cannot give.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]