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Underscore: Meditation is Helping Americans Handle Stress, but is it a Safe Practice for Christians?

Meditation is Helping Americans Handle Stress, but is it a Safe Practice for Christians?

Story by Sherry English

It is probably no surprise that Americans are generally stressed out. But, a 2013 annual survey1 by the American Psychological Association (APA) reveals just how much. According to the study, adults reported an average stress level of 5.1 (on a 10-point scale), which is significantly higher than a healthy level of 3.6. Women reported higher stress levels than men (5.5 versus 4.8) and were more likely to say their stress is extreme (24 percent versus 17 percent). Additionally, the majority of respondents reported that their stress is causing a high number of emotional and physical symptoms, including irritability.

Jennifer Jill Schwirzer, a therapist who runs a private counseling practice and is a member of Pennsylvania Conference’s Chestnut Hill church in Philadelphia, offers more insight. She notes, “The most common diagnoses in the U.S. is anxiety. More than 18 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetimes.”

Bogdan Scur, associate professor of religion at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., suggests, “The pace of life is overwhelming. Deep down in our hearts, we know that’s not how we want to live. People are seeking peace.”

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Penchant for Peace

To find relief, an increasing number of Americans are looking to Eastern traditions like mindfulness. According to the APA, mindfulness refers to a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment. Several disciplines and practices can cultivate mindfulness, such as yoga or tai chi. Most literature, however, has focused on mindfulness developed through “mindfulness meditation”—self-regulating practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater control.

Born from the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness has enjoyed a surge in popularity in the past decade, both in the popular press and in psychotherapy literature. “As our society disembarks from Judeo-Christian paradigms and values, we have gradually become more Eastern in our collective spirituality. As a result, meditation has entered the mainstream of medicine, education, even business,” says Schwirzer.

Indeed, mindfulness has been discussed in the New York Times, Time and Financial Times. And, Arianna Huffington, author, columnist and a major founder of The Huffington Post, recently held a mindfulness conference and developed a page about it on her website. There are also publications and phone apps dedicated to the topic.

But, is it good for you? Click to the next page to read more.

But, is it Good for You?

“According to science, meditation can help us with many things, such as calming down, becoming more focused and increasing immune system function,” says Schwirzer. She adds, “A 2003 meta-analysis reported in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that mindfulness-based stress reduction helped with a number of both physical and medical conditions, including chronic pain, fibromyalgia, cancer and coronary artery disease.”

A Baltimore Sun article2 published this past spring discussed the work of Madhav Goyal, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Goyal and his team reviewed 47 clinical trials from the last 50 years and found that mindfulness meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants.

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Allan Handysides, retired Health Ministries director for the General Conference, agrees—somewhat. “The benefits can include deep relaxation and lowering of blood pressure. However, though the benefits of mindfulness sound good, there are cautions and concerns for Christians,” he says.

Schwirzer concurs. “We should be afraid of the Eastern ideas that often accompany mindfulness meditation,” she says. “For example, Eastern meditation emphasizes emptying the mind [while] detaching from the daily grind and contraptions of life. Anything that leads us to believe we’re good without God, or we can live without God, will lead us into spiritualism, not to mention sever us from heaven.”

Scur adds, “The idea of emptying the mind itself causes concern. Anything that is ‘empty’ will fill up with something else.” The question, he says, is what will it be?

Is there such a thing as Christian meditation? Click on the next page to read more.

What is Christian Meditation?

Although Christians need to take seriously the warnings about Eastern traditions, it is important to remember that Christ’s followers have practiced meditation for centuries. There are quite a few references in Scripture, like “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2, NIV), and "I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings" (Ps. 77:12).

Church co-founder Ellen White also wrote about it. In Testimonies for the Church, she said, “There should be much prayer, much meditation, for this is highly necessary for the success and prosperity of the work” (Vol. 1, p. 587). She also stated in Counsels on Diet and Foods, “We must be constantly meditating upon the Word, eating it, digesting it, and by practice, assimilating it, so that it is taken in the life current” (p. 89).

Scur explains, “Christian meditation is an essential principle all Christians should practice. It isn’t just for pastors, Sabbath School teachers or ‘super Christians.’ We’re all called by God to meditate on Him. It is the way we grow.”

Not only does it help Christians grow a closer bond with the Savior, but also helps give them a better stride through bouts of stress. In an August 2012 article, Seventh-day Adventist evangelist Mark Finley wrote for Ministry magazine, he said that meditation brings us peace by taking the focus off ourselves. “When meditating upon Him, we are transformed into His likeness,” he wrote, citing Colossians 3:1, 2. He added, “Christian meditation thus focuses our thoughts on the grandeur and greatness of God, lifting us from what is around us and within us to what is above us.”

So, exactly how do we do it? Handysides says that Christians meditate by focusing on being in the presence of God. Schwirzer says to “direct the mind to the promises of God.”

Scur agrees and says both are accomplished through one of two activities:

1. Commit to memorizing Bible verses and reflecting on them. Fill your mind with the Word, thoughts and principles of God. “I tell my students, ‘We are not changed by what we read; we’re changed by what we remember,’” he says.

2. Read for five minutes; reflect for 15. Think seriously on what you read and try to gain at least one significant insight or implication. Simplify devotions with these points in mind: How does the Scripture help me repent, rejoice in God or request of God.

However, Scur warns that it’s hard work. “It can be a delight or drudgery, depending on what you put into it,” he says. “Keep before your eyes what you’re getting out of this work: it is setting us free to be all God wants us to be.”

Schwirzer says the benefits are worth the effort and suggests that we make it a daily practice. “Be just as assiduous with your devotional life as Eastern-religion influenced people are with their practices. ... You’ll have [better results] because you’ll be connecting with a powerful, loving, life-changing God!”

1 Stress in America, American Psychological Association, February 11, 2014

2 “Getting Into the Groove of Meditation,” Baltimore Sun, March 10, 2014

What about yoga?  Read more here.

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