Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Meditation Without Myth

Seated Buddha, from the Chinese Tang dynasty, ...Image via Wikipedia
"Meditation Without Myth- What I Wish They'd Taught Me in Church About Prayer, Meditation and the Quest for Peace"  The title and subtitle of this book don't do it justice.  I picked it up because I recognize the author Daniel A. Helminiak from a great little book he wrote called "What The Bible Really Says About Homosexuality".  I am always interested in learning more about meditation, as I have been practicing it for a couple of years now.  The subtitle really caught my attention "What I Wish They'd Taught Me in Church about Prayer, Mediation and the Quest for Peace".  It does cover that. But, it's about so much more.

The book analyzes meditation, telling us not only how to do it but telling us how and why it works.  If it only did that, the book would be worth the read. But, it also gives us a model for understanding ourselves and our innate human spirituality without the often confusing and always controversial baggage of theology.  The author looks at meditation from a strictly humanistic point of view, making this book just as accessible for the atheist as the theist and the Christian as the Buddhist.  This is a book on spirituality and ethics that literally can  be read by anyone.

Daniel A. Helminiak former priest and is currently a psychologist.  The book does not deny the existence of God or God's value in our meditation.  But, it does examine human spirituality and meditation without invoking God, allowing us all to speak a common language.  The topics in the book include:
  • The Human as Body, Mind and Psyche
  • Stepping Out of Social Roles
  • Silence in Social Settings
  • Relaxation
  • Lifestyle
  • Mantra
  • Awe
  • Our Shrinking World
  • Timing and Posture
  • Ethics and Responsible Action
The author mentions that he has a background in Buddhism, which is pretty apparent when you read the book.  Buddhism is a very pragmatic, down-to-earth, minimalistic approach to spirituality and humanity.  There is no talk of grace, gifts of the spirit, or metaphysics.  Enlightenment (or as the author might term it- integration) is achieved through discipline and work.  Dr. Helminiak does a good job of explaining why this approach is desirable to him and why he used in in writing this book.  He gives the following example: Isaac Newton is famous for his explanation of the solar system.  In fact, Newton was an extremely devout Christian.  He believed hat he was explaining God's creation.  In his mind, he had figured out the mathematical marvels that God built into the solar system. But Newton did not include "God" in his mathematical equations.  Naming God would not have helped one bit. As Newton knew well, his equations regarded God's handiwork.  The physical universe is what concerned Newton, not God. God was outside of- God was beyond- the matter to be explained, so God had no place in Newton's mathematical formulas.

The book does not leave God entirely out of the picture.  After explaining a really good model for the human being as body, mind and psyche and giving practical tips on how to meditate and why it works to help us integrate the three and to grow spirituality, the author does discuss God (for those of us like me who really want to hear about it).  But, he makes it clear that a believe in God is not necessary to meditate or to grow spirituality and I believe that is the point he is trying to drive home early in the book (and again later in the book).  Meditation is beneficial for the atheist, agnostic and theist.  And, a belief in God is not a prerequisite to spiritual growth.

The book can be broken down into three general sections

  • How to meditate
  • How contemporary psychology (the body, psyche, spirit model) explains
    how meditation works
  • What this has to do with God, ethics, spiritual experiences and good

One of the key ideas put forth is that the human spirit is a natural aspect of the human being.  This is something people of all faiths (or non-faiths) can agree on and is a good starting point for the topic of meditation as well as ethical behavior and how we as human beings can co-exist without killing each other.  Buddhism focuses on the human mind rather than on God.  Underlying Buddhism is the principle that each human being has a self-transcending dimension that can be unleashed via  meditation.  In Buddhism, this is called "Buddha Nature".  In Christianity, this might be called "Christ Consciousness".  But, a key difference between Buddhism and "traditional" Christianity is Buddhists say this nature is present in every being (but let's stick to human for now). Humanistic psychologists speak of "human potential". The chapter on Body, Psyche and Spirit does a fine job of explaining what this human spirit is and how we can recognize it in ourselves.   It describes how the spirit relates to the psyche and how one is the stabilizing influence, while the other is the freedom seeking influence.  He also discusses some other models and why he thinks the model he has chosen is superior to those others.  Another way of expressing his model would be physical, emotional and spiritual (maybe more readily recognized). The author then talks about how there are different ways of accessing the spirit- either through the psyche through the body or directly.  Most practices will engage more than one aspect at a time. But, they'll focus on different aspects.  Meditation is a way of putting aside the psyche and the body (or at least moving them to the background) and accessing the spirit directly.  He uses the term "contentless meditation".  This is the first I've heard of this term.  But, I like it.  In the type of meditation he describes, we are seeking to calm the mind or the psyche to allow the spirit to expand.  He also uses the term integration to describe what we are trying to achieve through our meditation practice and spiritual growth.  I liked that term also.

The author gives a technique for meditation and some practical considerations. I really like what he says about "distraction" (what is what we usually call it).  He refers to the distractions we get during meditation as drifting.  This really helps those of us who sometimes struggle with the guilt that arises when we can't keep from drifting during meditation.  He talks about why those drifting moments are important.

All of the above is not even the first half of the book.  He goes on to discuss some topics that have very little to do with meditation.  I appreciated them.  But, I suppose some people might find them to be a distraction or a digression. He discusses social interactions and expectations, drugs and alcohol use, sex, and the pursuit of a simplistic lifestyle.  This is a very brief section of the book. 

In the second section of the book, Dr. Helminiak begins by discussing the Human Spirit.  He insists it is "merely human" and not a divine spark. He seems to be very concerned people will make the mistake that we are God and that we are not the source of the universe. I suppose some people who believe there is a divine spark in each of us have difficulty making those distinctions.  He points out that by saying "merely" human he is not belittling the human spirit or trying to put limits on its wondrous nature.  But he is concerned with what has become a common notion that we are divine and wants to squelch that idea.  One benefit of speaking of the human spirit as "merely" human is it does allow us to talk with atheists and people of other faiths without getting into metaphysical arguments.  Another problem with confusing humanity with divinity is it limits our understanding and appreciation of the vastness of our own natures and confuses what we mean when we do talk about the Ultimate Mystery- G-d.  I think this is an excellent point.  This part of the book really started me thinking.  For those of us who have meditated and have begun to open up this dimension of ourselves, we often (I know I have) talk about how we are reaching God.  This is something I may need to rethink.  I have experienced the awe and wonder he discusses in this chapter and maybe I've been too quick to attribute it to the divine. 

Dr. Helminiak then discusses expected outcomes of meditation (short and long term).  Like any responsible teacher of meditation though, he is careful not to lay out a blueprint.  Each person will progress on a different path and at a different pace. But, there are some general outcomes that can be expected. He wraps this section up by talking about sex as a spiritual exercise- an idea I found to be very interesting.

The third and last section of the book brings God and religion back into the picture.  Again, he explains why he left God out earlier (to my satisfaction anyway).  I loved Chapter 16 which discussed Spirituality versus Religion.  While he makes some sweeping generalizations about the effects of religion, he also raises some very good points and brings up a concept which will be frightening to many Christians- a humanistic spirituality.  That is a spirituality we all, as human beings, can embrace.  These would be the things we hold onto tightly, while leaving the peripheral religious beliefs to be held onto loosely.  He says:  'Doctrines differ from religion to religion, so insistence on them undermines human community. Absolute commitment to principles of love, justice and wholesome living is precisely what we need today.  We can do without screeching preaching about other-worldly doctrinal claims."

Dr. Helminiak then talks about God and meditation and how, while the experience of meditation is the same for a theist and a non-theist, a theist will put a larger frame on it- seeing not only human spiritual growth and integration but the working of God.  The last chapter is on ethics and human spirituality. 

Wow!  After writing this review, I realized this book had even more packed into it than I had realized.  It really is pretty far reaching going way beyond just techniques of meditation.  I found myself making a lot of notes and as I thumbed through it for the review made a mental note to read it again in the coming months. I'm sure some people would find the book too humanistic or perhaps even blasphemous.  But, I found it to be one of the most straight forward and easiest to understand books on meditation that I've read.

If you decide to get the book, let me know what you think about it.  I'd love to discuss it with you.


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