Is meditation a sin?

There is a lot of speculation about whether or not meditation is a sin. Some say it is an invitation to evil spirits. Some say it is idolatry. So, is meditation a sin?

This might be a question that someone asks only when they feel they already know the answer. If some of the most popular responses I’ve found to the question are any indication, most people ask if meditation is a sin so that they can at least imply that it is. 

I won’t hide my opinion. I don’t think meditation is a sin, nor do I think it is dangerous. The question itself could use a little work, too. The fact that we need to ask if this is a sin should be at least some indication that there isn’t a clear and obvious answer. Wandering into unhelpful (and heavy handed) opinions when dealing with questions like this is easy enough to do. This question of sinfulness when asked about meditation is no exception, I think.

It is easy enough to get confused with regard to meditation itself. Most of the time, when I hear someone saying (or implying) meditation is a sin, the thing they are describing as meditation is a lot different from what I understand meditation to be. Rather than hash all that out, let me briefly say why I think meditation is good and should even be encouraged. Hopefully, the picture of meditation that comes out of that description is helpful.

Some biblical mentions before covering if meditation is a sin

The bible mentions meditation in a number of places. Some notable places are Joshua 1:8-9 and Psalm 1. In both of those examples, meditation is being commended as really ruminating over “law.” In that context, the law is the teachings of God and probably referred at the time as the writings and oral traditions handed down at the time. So, meditation in this case has a definite object, the teachings.

The meditation we are talking about is not that form of meditation (though that form is great). I am taking for granted that when this question comes up meditation means someone sitting quietly and engaging in an activity to foster attention and awareness in the present moment. That is loosely what I am taking meditation to mean with this question, though the word ‘meditation’ can seem pretty broad. A good image for meditation can do a lot to help clear this up.

Is meditation a sin? – An image for meditation

Where a lot of responses to our question, “Is meditation a sin?,” seem to fall a little short is their foundational image for meditation. Often the image that dominates the topic of meditation is a human being trying to “empty their mind.” There are a lot of possible sources for this image, so I can understand why it is so prevalent. However, it might not be the best gesture to use when describing meditation.

A better image for meditation might instead be a human being “watching their mind.” Rather than thinking of meditation as clearing out your mind, think of it as taking a genuine look at what you find when you really watch your mind. Consider, too, that your mind is not really distinguishable from the world outside. So, try to avoid thinking of watching your mind just as what is going on inside your head, but watching what is going on all around, both “inside your head” and “outside of you.” Alan Watts speaks to this watchfulness beautifully.

A particular highlight from what Alan Watts says in that talk is where he says, “When you don’t know what to do, you watch.” That not only seems right to my thinking but has a biblical resonance. Think of the numerous places where Jesus in the gospels tells people (his disciples, or crowds, or whoever) that they should be alert, stay awake, or keep watch when faced with the urgent, but unknowable.

Keeping watch

Many of these references to keeping watch occur around apocalyptic teachings. Let’s not forget that the subject of those teachings is the revelation of the world as it really is, the presence of God. Take this example from the gospel of Mark.

 35 Therefore, keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

Mark 13:35-37

You could read these words solely as watching out for signs of “the end of the world as we know it.” If the text describes the revelation of God, we might have to think bigger than one final event. Think about how these words change if we take them to mean awaiting God’s presence without being pulled around by whims, fears, pleasures, ideas, or flights of fancy. Instead of all that, looking at the world around us with all its complexity, joys, and sufferings in an honest way. An honest way that trusts the promise of this text that the “master of the house” is on the way to bring us into life’s fullness. Meditation as keeping watch is then watching our thoughts, being alert to the world around us, attentive to the promised presence of God and the fullness of life.

Watching it not wiping it out

Understanding meditation as watchfulness might clear away some of the less helpful concepts around “emptying your mind” that seem to clutter approaches to meditation (at least within Christianity). Hopefully, the difference between keeping watch and trying to get rid of something is easy enough to see. A person meditating is not trying to shut their eyes to the world or sweep their mind clean of content. Instead, the person meditating is looking at the whole thing, the world, their mind, and seeing what is happening there. Another text, Psalm 46, helps us with what all that watchfulness might mean, how we can relate to what we see.

The meditative stillness of Psalm 46

Be still and know that I am God.

from Psalm 46:10

Chances are decent that you have heard that verse quoted before. If you haven’t, I am glad to be the first person to point it out to you. When a Christian comes to meditate, they could do a lot worse than meditate in the spirit of this line from Psalm 46. Considering this verse by itself, the stillness probably sounds vague, and generic. Reading “Be still and know that I am God” in the wider context of the psalm gives the verse greater depth. 

The stillness and knowledge of God in Psalm 46 has everything to do with relinquishing control when the world is going through great change, when “the earth melts” (vs. 6) as the psalm says. Nevertheless the psalm does not recommend busyness and preparation as a response to circumstances when “the world should change” (vs. 2). Psalm 46 tells the reader to be still and know who God is. God is “in the midst of the city” (vs. 5) to “help it.” God is “a very present help in trouble,” (vs. 1) the one who is “with us” to be “our refuge” (vs. 11). When everything is turning upside down, or even just tilted a bit, God is a refuge for you.

Is meditation a sin? – Meditation as taking refuge

Sitting still in meditation, looking deeply at the world that God cares for, is abiding in the refuge of God. This is another image of meditation more than it is a commandment or recommendation for it (though it is a command for stillness in Psalm 46). Sitting in stillness in the knowledge that what you sit in is the presence of God, creator, sustainer, and refuge. Stillness is a faithful practice of attentive awareness to the care of God that turns the world. Attention and abiding in what is taking place all around you. Richard Rohr describes it better than me, though he is using the word contemplation, where I would use meditation. (As an aside, there are ways that people distinguish between meditation and contemplation. If you know that distinction, just be aware that I’m intentionally not really speaking to that specific way of defining meditation)

Meditation is stillness

Rohr’s description of meditation (contemplation) as a “long, loving look at the real” is powerful. It speaks to the stillness of Psalm 46 in a deep way. It isn’t a stillness that is disengaged with the world. This stillness involves relating to the world in a different way.

Rather than looking at the leaf Richard mentions in the video as something to be used to serve some other purpose (“How it can make me money” in his example). Instead you see the leaf, and you look at it with a stillness that refuses to turn it into something else.

This kind of stillness isn’t refraining from activity. You don’t empty yourself of activity any more than you empty your mind of thoughts. Your mind becomes still. Activity becomes more calm. You are still, even while you are moving. Your mind is clear, even while you are thinking.

In the stillness, you refrain from turning the world around you into a project. The stuff of life isn’t raw material for you to fashion into something productive. Life starts to take form outside of the frames of gain and progress. Instead you are free to let the world be the world without grasping at it, or trying to control it.

Meditation is a practice

You could probably object that all this doesn’t sound very practical. The only effective way to respond to that objection is to try to practice this watchful stillness. Give this long, loving look at the real a try. Since we are talking about practice, we should probably turn back to our question about whether or not meditation is a sin, whether or not the practice would be “right.”

To our question, could this stillness be a sin? At times, certainly, it could. Almost anything could be. Find the right bible verses, or the right quote from a respected leader, and you can make a case for the sinfulness of any one thing or another. Though reflecting on our actions has its place, should life be limited to an evaluation of the sinfulness of one thing versus another?

Anxious deliberation about whether everything is right and wrong sounds exhausting. If meditation is a problem, then we would have to worry about everything, too. With this question about meditation, we are asking about whether or not it is morally wrong to simply sit down in a free moment and watch what is happening. If we have to worry about that, there would be no limit to the things we need to scrutinize. Such a life would be circumspect, closed off, and anxious. There has to be another way.

Meditating out of freedom

For freedom Christ has set us free.

from Galatians 5:1

What kind of freedom could replace the fretful discernment we were just talking about? If Christ has set us free, what is the character of that freedom. A good compliment to the verse above is Galatians 5:6. “The only thing that counts is faith working through love”. Maybe we could pose our original question a different way. Instead of focusing too narrowly on whether meditation is a sin, there are a number of other questions to ask. Is meditation a way that faith works through love? Is it good for the life of faith to meditate? Can meditation be an act of love? Could the act of meditation foster a life of love?

It seems worthwhile to take the practice up and, if it helps you, ask yourself some questions about meditation. Does it lead to “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”? I certainly think it would, and maybe you will too. If so, you’ve discerned the spirit by its fruits, and then by all means go on meditating. You are free to do so. You are also free not to do so. Whether or not you do, Christ has made you free and you are free indeed. Go ahead and be free.

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