This is a question we get asked a lot, and it’s a question we ourselves wrestled with for a while.
When we first started looking into this, the first thing we started to learn was that there are many, many different types of prayer: group prayer, chant, spiritual reading, reflecting on your day, and much more. And each is unique in its own way. But the one that seems the closest to the Eastern, Buddhist, and Agnostic meditation practices is a type of prayer called Christian meditation. What we came to realize, though, is that this practice is different a number of ways. I’ll talk about 3 of the most important here.
1. Why we do it
So, the first difference comes down to why we’re doing it in the first place. To be honest, I was a big fan of many aspects of eastern meditation – I meditated largely through eastern and secular methods for 3 years. Those practices were always framed as a ‘self-improvement’ exercise. You spend the time ‘working out’ your mind to try to build the ability to be more present (aka mindful) and to better yourself. Now there is nothing inherently wrong or right with that, but Christian meditation and prayer is distinctively different.
The point of Christian prayer and meditation is to grow deeper in a relationship – a relationship with God. Sure, through this relationship you become a better person and more mindful, but that is not the primary goal. The primary goal is simply to sit with and spend time with a friend. It’s not to work out and to get stronger yourself, but simply to sit with God. It takes hard work, but it is less like a work out and more like simply spending the time to be with someone who loves you.
2. How we do it
The ‘how’ is the second biggest difference. The eastern and secular mindfulness meditation methods I had tried were focused largely inward. Focused on your body, your breath and your mind. Whereas Buddhism (caveat: I am by no means an expert in Buddhism) does explicitly teach a focus on selflessness – the practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown in some studies actually to increase self-centeredness. Recent studies conducted out of the University of Mannheim in Germany showed that those who practice eastern yoga and meditation have higher levels of ‘self-enhancement’ (a measure that includes how participants perceive themselves relative to others and slight narcissism) than those who didn’t.
This is where Christian meditation hopes to differentiate. It often begins with much of the similar focus on the body and breath in order to re-collect and ground yourself at the beginning of the session, but the session will always shift to the ultimate goal: to focus on something…or Someone outside of yourself. To humble yourself with the realization that you’re sitting in the presence of God. And through this new kind of mindfulness, to become closer to, and more like, God.
The other big difference I’ll cite in terms of the ‘how’ is who really is in control. In eastern practices, the more you practice letting your thoughts pass by, the better you get at it. They teach you to not force anything, but in the end, it’s you who is doing the work to improve. In Christian prayer, this isn’t the case. You’re not the one doing the work. Our work is simply to put ourselves in the position to let God take over. Simply to open the door to God. He’ll do the rest. Now I say ‘simply’ here, but there is still nothing simple or easy about this. In our world of business and noise, sitting in silence with God can be incredibly challenging. And that is why we’re here – to help. But at the end of the day, we’re not the ones moving the needle – not the ones doing the real work – and in our experience, that realization has been freeing.
3. What you get out of it
This is the last big difference I’ll talk about today. The goal of mindfulness meditation is often described as finding calm, escaping stress, relieving anxiety, becoming happier etc. It’s different in Christian meditation. While it is calming, peaceful and joyful in many ways to have God playing a bigger role in your life, the Christian life is by no means free from stress and anxiety, suffering or sadness.
Jesus had a pretty tough and difficult life. The night before He was tortured to death Luke writes “[Jesus] was in such agony and he prayed so fervently.” and in his distress, even Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me…”
He did not live an easy and stress-free life. He did not spend his time sitting by an ocean watching the waves pass in pure peace and tranquility. It was a life of difficulty and struggle. So, then what is the point of Christian prayer? If I’m not trying to relieve stress or anxiety, what’s the point? Well you may have noticed I left out a pretty critical part of that line above from Luke’s Gospel:
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me… still, not my will but yours be done.”
It is this last part that we strive for in our Christian meditation and our broader prayer lives. To somehow be willing to wake up each day, listen for God in our lives, and to say, “not my will but yours be done.”
The beauty of this is that it does end up leading largely to a life that is fuller with His joy and peace. A life in which we surrender our stresses and anxieties to God. After all, this is still the God who, as the psalmist writes, “makes me lie down in green pastures” and “leads me besides still waters.” The key in prayer is the seeking of peace, calm and tranquility is not the end-all be-all. It’s not what we put first. We instead put God first. Put first not just mindfulness, but a mindfulness of His presence in our lives. We pray for the courage and grace to grow closer to Him…to follow Him. Not to ask Him for the things that we want, but instead for what He wants. To drink from the cup that He asks us to drink. To trust that He is leading us just a little bit closer to where we are supposed to be, just a little bit closer to Love, just a little bit closer to Heaven.
Everyone nowadays seems like they want to change the world. And frankly, we’re no different. We desperately think the world needs to change. Needs to become a radically different and more loving place. The only difference is that through prayer we stop trying to change the world, and start trying to let Him change it through us. Start trying to let Him make our world holy through us – to let Him hallow our lives.