Meditation and Mind-Body Therapy: Health and Higher Reality

Precis: Shamanic healing and meditation mind-body therapy, along with other forms of Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM), are alive and doing well in Malaysia. Modern people who assume that mysticism, machinery and medicine simply cannot be mixed may be shocked to find out that some hospitals are incorporating mystical rituals like meditation mind-body therapy into their … Continue reading “Meditation and Mind-Body Therapy: Health and Higher Reality”

Precis: Shamanic healing and meditation mind-body therapy, along with other forms of Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM), are alive and doing well in Malaysia. Modern people who assume that mysticism, machinery and medicine simply cannot be mixed may be shocked to find out that some hospitals are incorporating mystical rituals like meditation mind-body therapy into their services.

What are some of the reasons for the rising popularity of Meditation and Mind-Body Therapy? Can these treatments be scientifically tested and verified? What physiological and psychological bases underlie reported mystical-meditational ‘extra-sensory’ experience? Finally, how should Christians evaluate meditation and mind-body therapy from a Biblical-theological perspective?


The Rise of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Traditional medicine, or what is now called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), may be eclipsed by modern medicine, but surprisingly, it is much alive and doing well.[1] The American National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) reported in 2007 that 83 million Americans, or over 40% of the adult population, sought out herbalists, chiropractors and other CAM practitioners.[2] Given the statistics, perhaps, traditional medicine can confidently echo Mark Twain’s quip, “My death has been greatly exaggerated.”

CAM has undoubtedly gone main stream. In 1992 the U.S. Congress developed the Office of Unconventional Medicine. Later renamed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), NCCAM is now one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Centers within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service with a budget exceeding $200 million. Meanwhile, some of the most prestigious universities like Stanford, Yale, Harvard and John Hopkins have launched The Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine “to help transform medicine and healthcare through rigorous scientific studies, new models of clinical care, and innovative educational programs that integrate biomedicine, the complexity of human beings, the intrinsic nature of healing and the rich diversity of therapeutic systems.”[3]

What are some of the reasons for the popularity of CAM? Obviously, the prohibitive cost of modern medical care encourages the public to seek cheaper alternative health care. There is widespread sense of dissatisfaction that doctors are being impersonal when they focus on the sickness rather than the sick person. CAM promises to be both cheaper and person-oriented with its emphasis on individualized treatments. As Edzard Ernst writes, “Mind-body therapies can be defined as a “patient orientated, proactive approach to health and healing that values personal responsibility and self-motivation. Lifestyle and personal attitudes are the focus to bring about personal transformation and gain mastery over the mind and body.”[4]

CAM promises less invasive treatment, unlike surgery and chemotherapy. It claims to address not only the symptoms of the sickness but also to promote natural healing processes of the body that result from a sound or harmonized body and mind. Richard Svihus, a past president of the California Academy of Preventive Medicine, has this to say:

Holistic Health is a state of being in which a person is integrated in all of his levels of        being: body, mind, and spirit…The attainment of this state of integration…brings into   existence an entirely new person, different from what existed before, and at a new      plateau of existence. I submit that this new state of being of an individual is a state of   self realization or self actualization or enlightenment.[5]

Meditation is the preferred vehicle to bring about body-spirit harmony and self-actualization. Meditation was previously associated with esoteric religious groups at the fringe of Western society but has gained acceptance by the Western academia. Many major universities such as University of Minnesota, University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work offer teaching and research programs in mind-body therapy. Princeton University Health Service includes meditation and mind-body therapy (MMT) in its medical services. According to a report by Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, an integrative medicine fellow at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, based on the U.S. National Health Interview Survey (2007), 3% of the US households (6.3 million people) used mind-body therapies after referral by a mainstream medical provider.[6]

Ronald Epstein claims that the meditation and mindfulness or critical self-awareness of practitioners enable them to listen attentively to patients’ distress, recognize their own errors, refine their technical skills, make evidence-based decisions, and clarify their values to enable them to act with compassion, technical competence, presence and insight.[7] Hence, for the clinician, the practice of cultivating nonjudgmental awareness in day-to-day life is a practical tool for self-awareness and self-reflection. Because mindfulness techniques foster individual acceptance and responsibility, the patient may feel more empowered in the pursuit of health and healing of a variety of chronic medical and psychiatric conditions. The ability to take charge of the desired change in one’s life is enhanced by regular cultivation of mindfulness.


MMT and Medical Benefits

CAM is also accepted by many Christians in the Southeast Asia region. These Christians will turn to modern medicine when they fall ill, but CAM is commended as holistic medicine offering preventive supplements that fortify the body and ensure a level of health that befits good stewardship of the body as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. However, CAM also includes holistic care that claims to bring harmony to the body and spirit. As such, Christians need to go beyond simple concerns for physical wellbeing and critically assess the spiritual aspects of CAM.

CAM is a catch all term for all therapies. For simplicity necessitated by the brevity of this article, I shall focus on MMT and analyze it from three angles. I shall 1) explore some of the dynamics of MMT and assess the claims of MMT to be an effective therapy, 2) outline the worldview and tenets of MMT and 3) determine if MMT is consistent with fundamental Christian beliefs. Hopefully, the analysis will challenge Christian to develop a biblical framework in dealing with matters of health and holiness.

Some of the popular forms of meditation are transcendental meditation (TM), yoga, mindfulness and insight meditation. Ann Cotter’s definition of meditation provides a useful common denominator: “Meditation may be viewed as a technique of focused attention in which the individual concentrates awareness on a single object, sound, thought, prayer, motion, or on the breath. The objective is to minimize outside stimuli and thus be open to inner awareness.”[8]

MMT has developed special techniques that use the mind to affect physical symptoms of sickness in body and restore harmony between mind and body.  Insight meditation begins by concentrating attention on one’s breath until the mind becomes quieter, which in turn allows for a better focus on the breath. This enables a careful and focused attention to be given to whatever new experience becomes predominant in each moment, including sensations, sight, sounds, thoughts, feelings, etc. Jack Kornfield explains, “The aim of the practice is to develop, through careful observation, an understanding of how the process of experience takes place. It employs the cultivation of mindfulness to foster a non-reactive awareness which allows a non-interfering appreciation of the entire range of life experience.”[9]

Kathy Sanders claims that mindfulness is a human mental function that enhances clarity of thought and a more heart-felt engagement with life by “maintaining awareness moment by moment, disengaging oneself from strong attachment to beliefs, thoughts, or emotions, thereby developing a greater sense of emotional balance and well-being.”[10]

David S. Ludwig and Kabat-Zinn spell out how mindfulness might influence susceptibility to, or ability to recover from disability and disease. It helps in pain management, reducing dependence on antidepressant medication, strengthening discipline to follow a treatment regime, and motivating change like smoking cessation and enriching personal and social relationships. They even claim that MMT can affect the autonomic nervous system, neuroendocrine function and the immune system. To be fair, they acknowledge that most of these possibilities have not been rigorously examined.[11]

Recent research has also shown that MMT and relaxation techniques have had some success addressing illnesses aggravated by psychological stress, such as high blood pressure, migraines, eating disorder, and nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy. MMT has also helped patients cultivate a calmer or more positive attitude to cope with pain ranging from labour pain to agony caused by chronic illness. The accomplished Harvard Professor Dr. Herbert Benson confirms that meditation induces various biochemical and physical changes in the body manifested as “relaxation response” accompanied by changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry. In 2013, the American Heart Association issued a scientific statement confirming Transcendental Meditation and other meditation techniques and biofeedback approaches modestly lower blood pressures.[12]

These research findings have increased the credibility of MMT and enable it to gain the acceptance of the medical establishment. The research not only noted some observable therapeutic benefits of MMT; they also identify some possible biological and psychic mechanism underlying the therapy. Kathy Sanders notes that there is evidence supporting symptom reduction on clinical scales for social insecurity, obsessiveness, anxiety and psychoticism found among meditation groups. She suggests a biological basis for  this evidence as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) “demonstrated activation of the left prefrontal cortex (increased attention) and diminution of amygdala activity (less emotional arousal) during mindfulness meditation, implying an increase of positivity and sense of wellbeing and less emotional reactivity…Such a brain state pattern activated by a mindfulness meditation practice may be the common mechanism (enhanced attention skills with less emotional reactivity associated with the focus of attention) that facilitates improvement for many different conditions.”[13]

The researchers’ evidence for therapeutic benefits of MMT is modest in comparison with the exaggerated claims of grass roots MMT practitioners.[14] The latter’s advertisement and publicity materials include a long list of benefits such as the cultivation of inner peace, compassion, enhancement of peak sport performance, competitive integrity and leadership, and the alleviation of asthma, epilepsy, stroke, Crohn disease, impotence and even AIDS and cancer. Such unqualified claims that are usually based on the subjective testimonies of a few satisfied customers and in-house experts should be treated with healthy skepticism. The old adage, “Let the buyer beware” should be flagged prominently whenever we meet MMT which claims to manipulate extra-sensory vibrations and “invisible energy” available through some altered states of consciousness.

The public enthusiasm and publicity for MMT somehow ignores the darker side of MMT. As early as 1971, a survey by the Stanford Research Institute involving 40,000 people showed that half the TM meditators suffered negative effects like anxiety, depression, agitation, frustration, muscle spasms and shaking, disturbing visions and inexplicable outbursts of antisocial behavior. It is tempting for researchers who are sympathetic to MMT to gloss over these disturbing manifestations which appear to be pathological, accompanying the experiences of many meditators.

Jack Kornfield has provided a list of unusual experiences observed in many of his meditation retreats:

1) Somatic experiences:
Involuntary jerks and violent shaking, arms flapping like wings, weird faces with drooling and pain.
2) Spontaneous alterations of body-image perception:
Body divided into half, torso expanding and becoming bulbous, body floating and disappearing, head detached itself.
3) Visual perceptions:
Camera light flashes, LSD melting-like vision, still objects moving, hallucinations, able to perceive vibrations of air, visual snowfield, vision of Buddha.
4) Emotions:
Intense emotions and dramatic mood swings from bliss to depression, serenity to heavy sadness, violent crying, incredible release of anger, hellish feelings.

Stanislav Grof confirms these observations and provided a comprehensive set of categories for these psychospiritual crises:

1. Shamanic crisis.
2. Awakening of Kundalini.
3. Episodes of unitive consciousness (Maslow’s “peak experiences”).
4. Psychological renewal through return to the center (John Perry).
5. Crisis of psychic opening.
6. Past-life experiences.
7. Communication with spirit guides and “channeling”.
8. Near-death experiences (NDEs).
9. Close encounters with UFOs and alien abduction experiences.
10. Possession states.
11. Alcoholism and drug addiction.

To be fair, there are also reports of great bliss, surreal light and calm.

Kornfield concludes, “Unusual experiences, visual or auditory aberrations, “hallucinations,” unusual somatic experiences and so on, are the norm among practiced meditation students.”[15] These pathological symptoms or psychospiritual crises have become a matter of serious concern for teachers of meditation. In the wake of Grof’s landmark report,[16] “Spiritual Emergencies”, meditation masters have formed Spiritual Emergency Networks (SEN) in various countries.

Grof gives a positive spin and suggests that far from being pathological, the word “emergency” suggests both a problem and opportunity to rise to a higher level of psychological functioning and spiritual awareness. He adds, “Psychotherapeutic strategy for individuals undergoing spiritual crises is based on the realization that these states are not manifestations of an unknown pathological process, but results of a spontaneous movement in the psyche that engages deep dynamics of the unconscious and has healing and transformative potential.”

To be fair, Grof does not underestimate the difficulties in addressing these manifestations and recommends, “When the experiences are very intense, all we have to do during the work with the clients is to encourage them to close their eyes, surrender to the process, observe what is happening, and find expression for the emerging emotions and physical feelings.”

In the end, MMT remains ambiguous like much human spiritual and psychic experiences. To be sure, more and more medical professionals are recommending CAM and MMT which is characteristic of the enthusiasm of ‘new converts’. Still it would be good to follow the cautious approach taken by Dilwar Hussain and Braj Bhushan:

Meditation is not only a technique, but also an art. Some people are predisposed towards it while others are not. Some can delve deep into the meditation and acquire all benefits while others may come out more disturbed. Such individual differences should also  be  considered  while  making  any  conclusion  regarding  the  benefits  of  meditation. It  appears  that  meditation  may  have  therapeutic  value,  but  limited  to  those  who  are psychologically healthy, well integrated and may have mild neurosis or psychosomatic disorders.  These  issues  need  serious  attention  from  researchers  in  future  to  get  firm conclusions regarding  the efficacy of meditation as an adjunct to mind-body therapy.[17]


MMT Worldview and Spiritual Dynamics

While the jury is still out regarding the benefits of CAM and MMT, it is important to point out that many alternative therapies are offered with a fuller package that go beyond medical issues and commend a distinctive worldview, spirituality or religious outlook. Indeed, one may suggest that MMT is readily accepted by Western society with its zeitgeist of post-modern and new-age sensibilities, and by Eastern society with its traditional heritage of Asian mysticism. Followers of MMT agree that the physical body is only a transient manifestation of a more fundamental spiritual reality. This spiritual reality is variously called soul, spirit and psychic energy. In this regard we have the paradox of postmodern and meditation mindset in which the inner self has become the central focus but it is a self that remains undefined and has no permanent or defining characteristics.

MMT shares with traditional mysticism the following fundamental assumptions: 1) Universal energy is the basic fabric of everything in the universe. 2) Disease results from a blockage or imbalance in the flow of energy in the body. 3) Universal energy can be activated or channeled by a healer, and may be used either constructively or destructively. 4) Alterations in universal energy are the basis for all events that have previously been called supernatural or miraculous. 5) Universal energy is what religions call God.[18]

Universal energy then is not only a form of energy; it is the energy which is the basis for all life. Several conclusions follow:
1) As this life force flows through our body, it affects our heartbeat, our respiration rate, our metabolism, our acid-base balance.
2) A healthy body maintains equilibrium of energy. Illness results from a blockage or imbalance in the natural flow of universal energy. The symptoms of illness are not simply a physical problem; it is an indication of the body striving to restore an imbalance of energy.
3) The body possesses inherent power to heal itself, provided intervention enhances rather than interferes with the natural flow of energy.[19]

MMT builds on these assumptions when it suggests that the key to controlling this energy is the art of meditation – how one understands, controls and alters one’s own consciousness. Meditation masters have over the centuries comprehensively studied and categorized the stages and dynamics of meditation. For the Buddhist, the classic and arguably unsurpassed text of meditation experience called Visuddhi Magga (The Path of Purification) and written by Buddhaghosa, runs into 838 pages in fine print. Readers daunted by this formidable text may opt for a modern appetizer offered by Daniel Goleman’s book The Meditative Mind.[20] These texts suggest that there are different levels of meditative consciousness shown in the following illustration taken from page 24 of Goleman’s book.

Landmarks Path Meditation InsightsGoleman suggests a progression beginning from loathing of food – loving kindness – equanimity – infinite space – infinite consciousness – no-thing-ness – kasinas, i.e. neither perception nor nonperception. Progress requires special exercises in which the meditator develops an increasingly receptive, that is, non-reactive mind. The meditator will experience mental states arising spontaneously. The spontaneity of the flux of experience convinces the meditator that mental states or awareness flow according to their own nature, regardless of “one’s will”. He realizes that “I am” is a misconception. Goleman concludes, “As the meditator realizes his private reality to be devoid of self and ever changing, he is led to a state of detachment from the world of experience.”

Such an account of progress in spiritual insights confirms MMT is not simply a therapeutic technic that is spiritually neutral. Goleman’s discussion is a good representative of various paths to insight or realization, of which MMT is regarded as the antechamber or ‘teleport’ to the real spiritual world.

The immediacy of these experiences described in great detail, naturally assumes a compelling quality. They are, after all, confirmed by people of integrity who have trodden the path themselves. Goleman claims that for the enlightened meditator, “Feelings of dread, despair, and misery cease. Body pains are absent entirely.” The meditator no longer engages in lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, physically harming others or earning his livelihood at the expense of others. The meditator’s “equanimity prevails towards all external objects. . . . having no feelings for the “self”, his acts are purely functional, either for maintenance of his body or for the good of others.” For the arahant (an awakened being or saint) “the least tendency toward an unvirtuous thought of deed is literally inconceivable.”

Goleman’s optimism is evident when he characterizes the meditative path as one of serene upward path ending in bliss or that insight arising from spiritual experience automatically results in moral virtue. It is regrettable that I have to deem Goleman as exaggerating. He apparently ignored reports that showed a high proportion of gurus had sexual relationships with their disciples. There are enough of such distressing episodes narrated in Anthony Storr’s book, Feet of Clay.[21]

Goleman has also ignored the many instances of psychospiritual crises and spiritual emergencies mentioned by Kornfield, Grof and Walsh. Still, the powerful and compelling manner in which experience of altered-state consciousness disrupts both the physical and psychic equilibrium of the meditators demands fuller explanation. We can achieve a satisfactory answer only if we can determine how these experiences originate, and situate the experience within a coherent psychological and metaphysical framework.

Pondering over the ambiguities of such experiences reminds me of the experience of a close relation of mine enduring a period of serious illness. I was puzzled by her insistence that she had visits from relatives from other towns and that she had some unpleasant conversations with them. Obviously she was having hallucinations, although she was not in a delirium. The doctors attributed her experiences the absorption of excess calcium into her bloodstream. The resulting imbalance of electrolytes in her bloodstream had caused the ‘visions’ and hallucinations.

This incident provides a clue in seeking the origin of altered-state consciousness. We can begin with the laboratory experiments in the 1960’s that investigated the effects of sensory deprivation on humans. In these experiments, scientists drastically reduced the normal flow of sensory information to the brain by placing subjects in a very monotonous and uniform environment. For example, student volunteers were kept in soundproof rooms, wearing translucent goggles so that all they could see was one diffused white light. They also had to wear earphones which deliver a monotonous hum and their sense of touch was minimized by soft cotton gloves. After two days, many of the volunteers reported mood swings and hallucinations. Flashes of geometric patterns related to classic migraines soon developed into cartoon figures, which in turn progressed into bizarre architectures and other realistic people and images. Other experiments that suspended volunteers in dark soundproof tanks filled with skin temperature water created dramatic mental visions within hours. These experiments demonstrated that experiences of altered-state consciousness can be achieved in non-religious settings. The key to understanding the mechanism that caused the altered states of consciousness lies in the process of sensory deprivation.[22]

Psychologist Arthur Deikman notes that just as our motor apparatuses function automatically, likewise the human psychological structures that organize, limit, select, and interpret perceptual stimuli are also automatized, that is, our brains process sensory and perceptual input automatically and subconsciously. Our nervous system also includes a built-in highly developed tactile sense of the boundaries of our bodies, and our visual system is “wired” to exaggerate boundaries of objects we see and touch. As a result, we perceive these objects as real and separate from us. Deikman suggests that meditation techniques deautomatize and break down these built-in sensory and perceptual processes that are automatic and subconscious.

Deikman elaborates on the earlier research on deautomatization by Gill and Brenman regarding how deautomatization begins with a manipulation of attention. He observes that the meditation technique prohibits the use of abstract categories and thought and privileges perception over cognition. In effect, meditation is a reversal of our normal perceptual and cognitive processes; it imposes ‘primitive and childlike’ imagery and thoughts that are a) relatively more vivid and sensuous, (b) syncretic, (c) physiognomic and animated, (d) dedifferentiated with respect to the distinctions between self and object and between objects, and (e) characterized by a dedifferentiation and fusion of sense modalities.

In general, it appears that sensory translation may occur when (a) heightened attention is directed to the sensory pathways, (b) controlled analytic thought is absent, and (c) the subject’s attitude is one of receptivity to stimuli (openness instead of defensiveness or suspiciousness). Training in contemplative meditation is specifically directed toward attaining a state with those characteristics.[23]

As noted, the goal of the various techniques of meditation is to break down the automatic sensory processes. One common characteristic of these techniques is that they create a passive mind that simply lets the mental events flow along and be experienced without any attempt to control them either through logical processes and mental judgment or discrimination. This passive state also naturally loosens one’s normal emotional restraint, which explains why meditators often experience mood swings from ecstasy to acute depression.

Psychologist Elizabeth Hillstrom suggests that “if experiencers’ awareness of the flow is significantly reduced, as it is during sensory deprivation and other altered states, they could easily conclude that their body boundaries were suddenly dissolving or that they were expanding or merging with other objects, even with God or the entire universe.”[24] People who interpret such experience as achieving spiritual enlightenment or union with ultimate reality are naturally ecstatic.

For some meditators, this unitive experience forms the foundation of mystical idealism, which considers the physical reality to be ephemeral compared to ‘reality’ they experience in altered states of consciousness. Others, like the Buddhist impressed by the ebb and flow, the spontaneous emergence and dissolution of mental events, conclude that ultimate reality is only an impermanent universal flux. That is to say, meditators may conclude that meditation-induced consciousness is superior to normal consciousness as the former provides insight into a ‘higher reality’. But one may dispute this conclusion and note that what is observed by meditators are not the normal functioning of the mind interacting with the perceived world, but merely sensory and perceptual processes that have been artificially disconnected from the mind by the intervention of meditation techniques.

Researchers are struck by the similarities between meditative experience of altered state consciousness and drug-induced consciousness. One may in this regard admire the ancient meditators for they were ahead of their time, that is, they have anticipated modern drug-induced ecstasy merely by deploying meditative techniques of sensory deprivation. On the other hand, we would never take seriously anyone who claims to have attained access to a higher and truer reality by using drugs. We would send him to a rehabilitation centre, make every effort to help him cease from indulging in delusions or hallucinations and try to restore his interests in everyday reality. But then should we not by the same token caution meditators not to conclude that they have gained access to a higher reality by virtue of having had an ecstatic experience?

A cursory check on standard anthologies on mysticism will show the striking similarities among the mystical experiences found in different religious traditions. Nevertheless, each religion attributes a different interpretation to the experience of oneness in meditative consciousness. A Buddhist may conclude from his experience of free floating mental states that there is no unchanging soul. A Hindu may believe he has become reunited with Brahman. But the Christian mystic would shrink from any talk about union with God. At most, he may exult about his communion with a transcendent God.

It is therefore naïve to suggest that we can settle religious differences by simply appealing to common meditative experiences. Indeed, meditative experience remains profoundly ambiguous and the diversity of interpretations suggests that the final evaluation of meditative experience must be sought elsewhere. In this respect, a scientific explanation is offered by Deikman,

A mystic experience is brought about by a deautomatization of hierarchically ordered structures that ordinarily conserve attentional energy for maximum efficiency in achieving the basic goals of the individual: biological survival as an organism and psychological survival as a personality. Perceptual selection and cognitive patterning are in the service of these goals. Under special conditions of dysfunction, such as in acute psychosis or in LSD states, or under special goal conditions such as exist in religious mystics, the pragmatic systems of automatic selection are set aside or break down, in favor of alternate modes of consciousness whose stimulus processing may be less efficient from a biological point of view but whose very inefficiency may permit the experience of aspects of the real world formerly excluded or ignored. The extent to which such a shift takes place is a function of the motivation of the individual, his particular neurophysiological state, and the environmental conditions encouraging or discouraging such a change.[25]

This conclusion would bring relief to a Christian who may be wondering why the Bible seems to lack mystical depth. The Bible appears too earth-bound with its stories of dysfunctional families and moral faults of its heroes of faith. The Psalms provide many expressions of intense emotions, but their focus is on the manifold wonders of God’s creation. The prophets preached with great passion but they were more concerned about social justice than religious experience. Indeed, the prophets’ experiences seem pale compared to the intense experiences of altered state consciousness meditators.

But perhaps the lack of interest in matters of altered-state consciousness in the Bible lies both in the ambiguity of these experiences and in the inherent danger of idolatry. In other words, the esoteric experience may become an end in itself. Furthermore, the promise of enhanced spiritual powers may tempt practitioners to consort with other spirits. Eventually, the meditator will rely on his own sense of spiritual achievement rather than on God. It is arguable that mental idolatry is even more damaging than physical idolatry.

To be fair, there are savants of meditative experience who warn against obsession with spiritual power. Instead, they commend meditation as the discipline needed to ensure perseverance in a path towards wisdom. That is to say, whatever one’s experience may be, one should act on new insight and reorder one’s life so that it becomes ethically harmonious with nature and with one’s neighbour.

Christians would agree with this approach. It is true that all religions, and that includes Christianity, should be avenues for higher spiritual experience. But Christian spiritual experience should not be an end in itself. It should also be a path or pilgrimage of wisdom. In this regard, the Bible has always had its own distinctive approach towards meditative experience.

Interestingly, many statues of the Buddha show him with his eyes closed as if to exemplify to the meditator that he must set aside the concrete world in order to take flight into higher spiritual reality to gain wisdom. In contrast, Biblical meditation focuses on how God has revealed himself in the created world and in human history. Christian meditation is thus the activity of recalling the revealed words and mighty deeds of God so that one may understand better the higher purposes of God and appropriate for oneself the promises of God. From this, it follows that Christian wisdom is the ability both to perceive things the way God sees them and to take ethical action that is congruent with God’s will and purposes. Christians should therefore remain levelheaded and maintain a critical posture towards any meditative, mystical and esoteric intervention in health care so as to ensure good judgment and discernment of life in all aspects of life and in our interaction with the world.

**NOTE – The above article was published in “Health and Wellness”, Church and Society in Asia Today vol.16 No.3 (December 2013), pp.149-161. Please contact Trinity Theological College, Singapore for printed copies of the Journal.


[1] For a good overview see Tonya Passarelli, Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the United States (2008).

[2]  Given at NCCAM website at Ralph Snyderman, M.D., Emeritus Chancellor for Health Affairs at Duke University reported that 50% of Americans use alternative medicine. See Integrative Medicine: Bringing Medicine Back to its Roots.

[3] Quoted by Tonya Passarelli above.

[4] Edzard Ernst, Barbara Wider & Kate Boddy, “Mind-Body Therapies: Are the Trial Data Getting Stronger?” in Alternative Therapies vol. 13 (2007), p. 62.

[5] Quoted in Paul Reiser, New Age Medicine: A Christian Perspective on Holistic Health, (IVP1987), p. 16.

[7] Ronald Epstein, “Mindful Practice” in Journal of American Medical Association vol. 282 (1999), p. 833.

[8] Ann Cotter, Alternative Medicine and Rehabilitation: A Guide for Practitioners (Demos Medical Publication 2003), p. 186.

[9] Jack Kornfield, “Intensive Insight Meditation: A Phenomenological Study” in Journal of Transpersonal Psychology vol. 11 (1979), p. 42.

[10] Kathy Sanders, “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy,” in FOCUS: Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry vol.8 (2010), p. 18.

[11] David S. Ludwig and Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness in Medicine” Journal of the American Medical Association vol.11 (2008), p. 1351.

[12] See Hypertension: Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Web edition accessible at

[13] Kathy Sanders, “Mindfulness and Psychotherapy,” p. 22 and p. 21.

[14] For a concise summary see, Maria Ospina et. al., Meditation Practice for Health: State of Research. This report was prepared for the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, U.S. Department of Health and Human Service 2007.

[15] Kornfield, “Intensive Insight Meditation,” p. 51. See also Roger Walsh, “Initial meditative experiences: Part I” in Journal of Transpersonal Psychology vol.9 (1977), pp.151-192. Also Roger Walsh, “Initial meditative experiences: Part II” in Journal of Transpersonal Psychology vol.10 (1978), pp. 1-28. Finally, see “Precipitation of Acute Psychotic Episodes by Intensive Meditation in Individuals with a History of Schizophrenia,” in America Journal of Psychiatry vol. 136 (1979), pp. 1086-1086.

[16] Stanlislav Grof, Spiritual Emergencies. Available online at the author’s website at

[17] Dilwar Hussain and Braj Bhushan, “Psychology of Meditation and Health: Present Status and Future

Directions,” International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy vol.10 (2010), p. 447.

[18] Reiser, New Age Medicine, pp. 33-49.

[19] David Sneed and Sharon Sneed, The Hidden Agenda: A Critical View of Alternative Medical Therapies (Thomas Nelson 1991), p. 109.

[20] Daniel Goleman, The Meditative Mind: The Varieties of Meditative Experience (Putnam Books 1988), p. 24.

[21] Anthony Storr, Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus  (Harper Collins 1996).

[22] For a readable account of these experiments, see Elizabeth Hillstrom, Testing the Spirits (IVP 1995), pp. 58-78.

[23] Arthur Deikman, “Deautomatization and the Mystic Experience,” in Charles Tart, ed., Altered States of Consciousness 2e. (Doubleday Anchor Books 1972), p. 33-34, 40. See also the accompanying article “Experimental Meditation,” pp. 203-223.

[24] Elizabeth Hillstrom, Testing the Spirits, p. 126.

[25] Arthur Deikman, “Deautomatization and the Mystic Experience,” p. 45.