The Meditative Mind

July 12, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

July 12, 2015


“The Meditative Mind”

Psalm 143: 1,6


Imagine walking alone down a dark street at night.  You are unfamiliar with this street, so your nerves are tensed as you take each step.  You concentrate on what and where you are:

  • the uneven surfaces under your feet
  • the sounds of the night
  • the shadows around you

You are hyper vigilant.  It is as if your very life depends on your senses.  And something runs out from a nearby bush.  Blood rushes through your system and adrenalin is released into your blood stream.  Your heart rhythm picks up as you decide whether to “fight or flight”.  It turns out to be a harmless little bunny, but it takes time for your physical system to adjust and for your breath to return to normal.


These kinds of situations are a normal part of our lives.  Over time, however, too many of the fight-or-flight occasions will change brain chemistry.  In fact, prison inmates are known to have larger brain stems than the general population and it is attributed to high numbers of fight-or-flight experiences over time.


In contrast, the group known to have the largest frontal lobe (the most highly evolved part of the brain) – which carries out higher mental processes such as thinking, decision making, and planning – is Buddhist monks.  Why?  Because they develop their brains by meditation.


Two years ago, I took a mental mastery class with Debi Johnson here in Wichita.  For 6 weeks, she taught me how to meditate and actually change my brain chemistry.


During this “build your own” sermon series, I received a suggestion to preach about meditation of varying kinds and the benefits.  Our traditional word for today…

 “Hear my prayer, O Lord;
    give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness;
    answer me in your righteousness.

I stretch out my hands to you;
    my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.”  Psalm 143:1,6  NRSV


There are at least 5 major categories of meditation and then numerous sub-groupings in each category:


Primordial Sound Meditation:  By repeating your personal mantra silently, you are allowed to enter deeper levels of awareness by reducing the impact from the intellectual side of the brain.  Deepak Chopra and Lady Gaga are proponents of this kind of meditation.  As Chopra said, “Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day.”


Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:  This technique uses both awareness and body scan.  By focusing on inhalation and exhalation, you focus attention on the physical body starting at the toes and working your way up with heightened awareness and relaxation.


Zen:  Zen emphasizes the attainment of enlightenment and the personal expression of insight in the Buddhist teachings.  You can acquire insight through observing the breath and the mind, and through interaction with a teacher as you sit to do Zen meditation.


Transcendental Meditation:  This kind of meditation was made popular by its famous followers like the Beatles.  It uses a mantra or series of Sanskrit words to help with focused meditation.


Kundalini Yoga:  The range and variety of meditation techniques in the yoga tradition is very large.  The founder of this kind of meditative work passed on hundreds of meditations tailored to specific applications.  Some reduce stress, work on addictions, increase vitality, etc.


Research shows that spending time in mindful meditation of any type can combat anxiety, stress and depression while at the same time, heightening optimism, creativity, vitality, and even pain relief.


Throughout the Psalms, we are implored to “be still”.  But in the modern world, we tend to spin around like whirling dervishes.  We scamper off to our jobs, running three errands on the way to work, talking on the mobile phone while driving, listening in one ear to the radio newscast and with the other ear keeping watch for emergency vehicles or the person in the car next to us who is talking on their cell phone!


When we are distracted by the noise of life, it is extremely important to listen.  God’s voice has many dimensions… waves crashing on the shore, birds singing, children laughing, and that quiet still voice without our spirit.  We kid ourselves when we think that talking to God is prayer.  Prayer isn’t about the words said or the length of the prayer or even the beautiful words used in it.  Prayer is about the depths of our souls – a depth we can seldom reach if we don’t meditate.


If you are looking to develop your spiritual life – or trying to make sense out of life – then quit working so hard at it and start just listening. Mystic Simone Weill says we dread being alone because silence requires great attention and that the cultivation of attention is an arduous, painful task.


Yet, meditation not only has a positive impact on our spiritual life, it also benefits our physical bodies… with:

* lower blood pressure

* improved blood circulation

* lower heart rate

* less perspiration

* improved attention & concentration – a couple of weeks of meditation training brought up verbal reasoning scores by 16%!

* less anxiety & depression – in fact, some studies show that medication and meditation produce comparable results!

* Lower blood cortisol levels

* more feelings of well-being

* less stress

* deeper relaxation and sleep

* better immune functions

* better memory & increased productivity

* diminishment of age-related effects on gray matter and the reduction of cognitive functioning.


In Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate benefit of meditation is liberation of the mind from attachment to things it cannot control, such as external circumstances or strong internal emotions.


Now we even have scientific evidence to show that those who meditate, when faced with a scary or upsetting sensation, can function rationally.  Remember the monks and the inmates?


My cousin, Gay Lynn, was raised in a Presbyterian home (her dad is a Presbyterian minister).  As an adult, Gay Lynn worships in a Quaker Church and practices Buddhist meditation.  During a very difficult time in my life, Gay Lynn invited me to participate in an informal week-long gathering of her friends at Grand Lake, Colorado.  After I got there, I found out that these friends included:

  • A Roman Catholic nun
  • The Christian Ethics professor at the University of Colorado and his wife, a Zen master
  • Gay Lynn and her husband, and me.

All of them were vegetarian – so I became a vegetarian that week.  All of them spent considerable time in silence every day, and suggested that we observe silence during the daylight hours – so I became a silent person (with some protest!).  We cooked together in the evenings and spoke around the dinner table.  You might think that 6 people who spent the days not talking would have animate conversations when darkness fell… but the conversation was easy, and had frequent comfortable pauses.  Every word seemed freely spoken and yet specially chosen.  The conversation was deep and rewarding.


I learned so much that week.  (Eric’s description was that I came home and continued to avoid meat, quit shaving my legs, became a hippy, and basically went off the left side of the earth).  I would tell you that Gay Lynn saved my sanity.  The week of silence and contemplation gave me peace to live and grow my faith.  It gave me serenity and depth.  Ever since, I have worked – more or less successfully – to be intentional about my quiet time.


Rick Fields wrote in Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life, “When we pay attention, whatever we are doing…is transformed and becomes a part of our spiritual path. We begin to notice details and textures that we never noticed before’ everyday life becomes clearer, sharper, and at the same time more spacious.”



Resources Utilized:

“5 Types of Meditation Decoded” by Tamara Lechner. “Meditation 101: Techniques, Benefits & Beginner’s How-to”  “7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain” 02/09/2015.

“The Power of Meditation and How It Affects Our Brains” by Belle Beth Cooper, August 21, 2013.

“The Inner Matrix; A Guide to Transforming Your Life and Awakening Your Spirit” by Joey Klein, 2014.