Some worry an­cient prac­tice is be­com­ing too re­moved from its re­li­gious roots

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MICHELLE BOORSTEIN

In­side the newly opened Med­i­ta­tion Mu­seum in Sil­ver Spring, ex­hibits re­fer to the pur­suit of “God,” the “Supreme Soul” and of­ten “The One.” A con­stant vis­ual theme is or­angeish-red­dish light em­a­nat­ing from a vague, oth­er­worldly source. The mes­sage is clear: Med­i­ta­tion is about con­nect­ing with the di­vine.

“If the mind can be in a state of experiencing the en­ergy of God’s light or pres­ence,” said Sis­ter Jenna Mahraj, a night­club owner turned spir­i­tual teacher whose or­ga­ni­za­tion opened the mu­seum this year, “it’s like Stat­ues and sculp­tures on dis­play at the Med­i­ta­tion Mu­seum in Sil­ver Spring, which show­cases ar­ti­facts from a va­ri­ety of re­li­gions in­clud­ing Chris­tian­ity, Hin­duism, Bud­dhism,

Ju­daism and Is­lam. ev­ery­thing we tend to find so di­sheveled — it starts to find its own pur­pose.”

Yet in gyms, busi­nesses and public schools in ev­ery di­rec­tion from the mu­seum — which sits on busy Ge­or­gia Av­enue — med­i­ta­tion is of­ten pre­sented as some­thing akin to men­tal weight-lift­ing: a secular prac­tice that keeps your brain and emo­tions in shape. Gyms list it along­side Zumba classes, and public schools say it can help stu­dents chill out be­fore tests by calm­ing the mind and train­ing it to look upon dis­rup­tive thoughts from a non-judg­men­tal dis­tance.

This rough jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween the reli-

gious and secular ver­sions of med­i­ta­tion epit­o­mizes a key de­bate about the an­cient prac­tice as it ex­plodes in the United States: What is the pur­pose of med­i­ta­tion? And who de­cides?

To Mahraj and her com­mu­nity, called the Brahma Ku­maris, pro­mot­ing the re­li­gious com­po­nent is part of the pur­pose of the Sil­ver Spring cen­ter, which is more about spir­i­tual ad­vo­cacy than a mu­seum in the clas­sic sense.

“This coun­try needs to stop think­ing med­i­ta­tion is about emp­ty­ing your mind,” she said dur­ing a re­cent tour. “I re­spect all med­i­ta­tion prac­tices, but I don’t nec­es­sar­ily be­lieve in a prac­tice that tries to ‘empty’ your thoughts. . . . I don’t think that’s nor­mal.”

Mahraj is not alone in her con­cern that med­i­ta­tion might be get­ting too secular, which can be short­hand for say­ing that to­day it is of­ten taught value-free — un­at­tached to a phi­los­o­phy or world­view. Hindu and Bud­dhist lead­ers in par­tic­u­lar have raised con­cerns that med­i­ta­tion may be go­ing the route yoga has in the West, where it has largely mor­phed from be­ing a tool for en­light­en­ment to one for a firmer tush.

“What are we teach­ing? That’s a very se­ri­ous ques­tion for any­one who is tak­ing th­ese tech­niques out of a re­li­gious con­text and into the secular world,” said Clark Strand, a for­mer Zen Bud­dhist monk who now writes and lec­tures on spir­i­tu­al­ity and the way Eastern philoso­phies are trans­formed in the West.

“Once you re­move them from the spir­i­tual con­text, then goals de­fault to those of the cul­ture, and that could be to win a war, or make money, or to self-med­i­cate so you can do a job you hate or for which you aren’t paid enough,” Strand said. “Who does [med­i­ta­tion] serve to­day? Who does it be­long to? Is its pur­pose spir­i­tual or just a com­mod­ity?”

Iron­i­cally, when med­i­ta­tion be­gan its ex­pan­sion a decade or so ago from Bud­dhist re­treats and al­ter­na­tive com­munes to the Amer­i­can main­stream, in­stitu- reli­gion was wary that the prac­tice was re­li­gious — but not in a suf­fi­ciently monothe­is­tic Judeo-Chris­tian way.

“The bi­b­li­cal world­view is com­pletely at odds with the pan­the­is­tic con­cepts driv­ing Eastern med­i­ta­tion. We are not one with an im­per­sonal ab­so­lute be­ing that is called ‘ God.’ Rather, we are es­tranged from the true per­sonal God” be­cause of our in­her­ent sin, evan­gel­i­cal philoso­pher Dou­glas Groothuis wrote in Chris­tian­ity To­day in 2004 — a piece typ­i­cal of what was found in re­li­gious me­dia as med­i­ta­tion be­gan its as­cent. “The an­swer to our plight is not found in some ‘ higher level of con­scious­ness’ (re­ally a de­cep­tive state of mind), but in plac­ing our faith in the un­matched achieve­ments of Je­sus Christ on our be­half.”

But med­i­ta­tion has spread too far and too suc­cess­fully into ar­eas such as the treat­ment of de­pres­sion, ad­dic­tion and post­trau­matic stress dis­or­der for the de­bate to re­main sim­ply: Is it too secular or too re­li­gious? This is be­cause med­i­ta­tion’s boom comes at a time of re­mark­able open­ness to ques­tions about reli­gion it­self, with peo­ple — par­tic­u­larly young ones — prob­ing much more about what, ex­actly, con­sti­tutes a “re­li­gious” prac­tice, be­lief or prayer.

For ex­am­ple, while some say med­i­tat­ing for stress re­lief is “secular,” doesn’t that ad­dress a very mod­ern-day type of suf­fer­ing? Or is some­thing else theo-tional log­i­cally meant by the word “suf­fer­ing”? If you prac­tice a type of fo­cus med­i­ta­tion that in­volves, for ex­am­ple, chant­ing a ba­sic word such as “love,” is that secular or re­li­gious?

And what is re­ally meant by med­i­ta­tion lead­ers who tell stu­dents to prac­tice “emp­ty­ing their mind”? Peo­ple such as Mahraj would see such a phrase as de­void of any phi­los­o­phy, but oth­ers would say secular-sound­ing phrases aren’t nec­es­sar­ily “empty.”

“That’s a straw man,” prom­i­nent brain-science writer Daniel Gole­man said of the idea that secular prac­tice teaches noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar. “It pays to stop your stressed-out mind state, let your psy­chol­ogy calm down and your mind clear, that’s just hu­man en­gi­neer­ing. In the Bud­dhist con­text that’s a pre­lim­i­nary state to a spir­i­tual jour­ney.”

Gole­man is the au­thor of “A Force for Good,” a book due out this month about prag­matic — one might say secular — ap­pli­ca­tions of the Dalai Lama’s teach­ings.

The blurry lines be­tween re­li­gious and secular are at play in Mahraj’s work, too. The Brahma Ku­maris, an 80-year-old spir­i­tual move­ment with roots in In­dia, teaches that med­i­ta­tion and prayer are about com­ing closer to God and “that each one of us is an eter­nal spirit or soul.” In an ef­fort to spread its teach­ings in the Wash­ing­ton re­gion, the group opened its mu­seum in down­town Sil­ver Spring six years ago. It re­lo­cated to the new space in April.

But in ad­di­tion to es­pous­ing the be­liefs of those be­hind the cen­ter, the mu­seum of­fers a broad range of more secular self-help ac­tiv­i­ties such as cour­ses on veg­e­tar­ian cooking and bud­get­ing. Mahraj, whose par­ents were Hindu and Catholic, speaks in area schools, to chal­lenged youth in par­tic­u­lar. She hosts a Web-based talk show called “Amer­ica Med­i­tat­ing.”

But Mahraj says that the pur­pose of the med­i­ta­tion her group teaches is re­li­gious. The regular prac­tice of the Brahma Ku­maris is to med­i­tate at home for 45 min­utes at 4 a.m., then at­tend a class to­gether at 6 a.m. that is part si­lent med­i­ta­tion and part teach­ing, she said.

“We’re not teach­ing peo­ple to empty their minds,” she said. “We’re teach­ing them to fill their minds with the right kind of things.”

The soar­ing in­ter­est in med­i­ta­tion has prompted many re­li­gious groups to re­vive their own an­cient med­i­ta­tive prac­tices. Je­suit med­i­ta­tion re­treats and church-run classes on “cen­ter­ing prayers” — a con­tem­pla­tive Chris­tian prac­tice— are pop­ping up ev­ery­where, as are pro­grams on Jewish med­i­ta­tion. Mus­lims are dis­cussing more if the clas­sic prac­tice of recit­ing many names of Al­lah is a type of med­i­ta­tion.

But the secular-re­li­gious de­bate is ap­pear­ing among faith groups, too. Some find cen­ter­ing prayers — which call for the prac­ti­tioner to fo­cus on a gen­eral word such as “mercy” rather than liturgy — too secular, said the Rev. Jim Martin, a popular Catholic writer on spir­i­tu­al­ity who leads re­treats in Catholic con­tem­pla­tive prac­tices.

“Some Catholics are sus­pi­cious about cen­ter­ing. They’ll say: ‘ That’s so Bud­dhist, is that a mantra?’ ” he said.

Martin and oth­ers see med­i­ta­tion as per­haps a secular so­ci­ety’s way of tip­toe­ing back to God.

“Some say the Chris­tian of the fu­ture will be a mys­tic or not a Chris­tian at all,” he said. “You have to have a spir­i­tual life.”



Sis­ter Jen­naMahraj at theMed­i­ta­tionMu­seum and in­ter­ac­tive space her group opened in Sil­ver Spring. Pro­mot­ing the re­li­gious com­po­nent is part of the pur­pose of the Sil­ver Spring cen­ter, which is more about spir­i­tual ad­vo­cacy than a mu­seum in the clas­sic sense.

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