Ten degrees, below zero. Bitter wind chills. Snow to shovel. Nasty head cold. Stuffy and sneezy. Coughing. But I choose to control my thinking. I choose not to ruminate on todays’ struggles, real and difficult though they are. Instead, I choose to meditate on the beauty of God’s creation and the wonders of his works.
Meditation exists in two primary forms. In one form, mantra-based meditation, you chant syllables in an attempt to rid your mind of all content. Rid yourself of all meaningful thought. Open yourself to experiencing the spiritual universe.
In the second form, sometimes called mindfulness-based meditation, you choose to think about rich content that overcomes your tendency to fixate on self. You meditate on the beauty of the snow. You meditate on the rich plot of the novel. You consider the tapestry of history.
In fact, mindfulness-based meditation is an ancient aspect of religious faith and practice. It is a part of Buddhism, designed to facilitate a deeper self-awareness of one’s position in the larger universe. It is a part of Judaism and Christianity, receiving significant attention in the book of Psalms, especially Psalm 119. In all three faiths, the focus is on mindfulness rather than a mantra-based process of trying to empty the mind.
In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul wrote, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." In this verse, he suggests that our thinking, our meditation, needs to be content-based, especially with positive content. Meditating on negative content (a behavior I practice far too often) should not really be called meditation; I call it rumination. Instead, we are told to meditate on the positive elements of God’s being and His creation.
Fifty times in Scripture the text uses (across all translations) our English word "meditate." In two of these cases, the content of the meditation is not indicated. For example, in Genesis 24, "He went out to the field one evening to meditate." In the other 48 uses of the word, however, the text always indicates the content on which the meditation focuses. Sometimes the text speaks of negative content, where the meditation serves sinful and selfish purposes. In most uses of the word, however, we are told to meditate on the teaching, the works, or the person of God. Never, however, is there a clear case in which the meditation is mantra-based. Biblical examples of meditation are focused on the content of our minds.
Research in the field of psychology has investigated the impact of meditation. A current article by Madhav Goyal (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) and his colleagues (in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine) summarizes 47 clinical trials. They found no evidence that mantra-based meditation improved personal outcomes. Mindfulness-based meditation, however, provided moderate improvements in anxiety, depression, and pain and small improvements in stress and quality of life.
Goyal is quick to note that additional research and evidence is needed. The current evidence, however, suggests that meditation is a helpful strategy, but that meditation therapy should focus on mindfulness rather than a mantra-based approach.
It does matter what we think about and dwell upon. If you find yourself contemplating the mundane, the difficult, the selfish, or the painful, I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to practice mind control—control over what we choose to think about. Again, as Paul instructed, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."
As I go out tonight to shovel the snow, I will also being going out to the field to meditate.
–Dr. Gary L. Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values. He is a recipient of a major research grant from the Templeton Foundation to investigate positive youth development.