The Tennessean
The Tennessean

Meditation goes mainstream

As many mainstream Christians discover practice, others say it takes focus off God

By BONNA JOHNSON • Staff Writer • September 14, 2008

Like many churchgoers in the Bible Belt, Kristy Robinson teaches Sunday school with her husband and helps prepare communion at their Episcopal church in Franklin. Her daughter sings in the choir.

She rounds out her church- and prayer-filled life with another spiritual practice that's not quite as familiar: meditation.

"I'll see a difference in my day if I don't," says Robinson, who opens each day with 20 minutes of absolute silence. "It just feels more chaotic. Little things bother me more. I have lower coping ability."

All the chanting and incense and yikes even meditation altars may seem too New Age and mystical for some, but meditation has gone mainstream and been embraced by suburban moms and all types of busy people.

"I've seen a changing perception. In the past it's been viewed as a yogi sitting on a mountaintop," says Tammy Roth, a licensed therapist in Nashville who leads meditation retreats. "But people are now realizing there are all kinds of different forms of meditation and are finding different ways to slow the mind down and feel calmer."

Younger generations get an introduction in yoga classes, careerists escape on meditation retreats and boomers seek tranquility in meditation gardens. Meditation, it seems, is no longer associated as a counterculture activity made hip by The Beatles and favored by flower children.

Some approach meditation through Buddhism or other Eastern religions; more and more Christians meditate through the ancient ritual of centering prayer; while others develop their own style, whether it's patterned after the breathing techniques of popular guru Deepak Chopra or not.

Most sit on the floor or in a chair in their quest for inner stillness, usually focusing on a mantra or on their breathing, but you can even clear your mind while walking around, tending a garden or through movement-based activities, such as tai chi, quigong or walking a labyrinth.

Protestants take part

A report released this year showed an astonishingly high number of Protestants nearly half say they meditate at least once a week. Among the public, 39 percent meditate at least weekly, according to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

It's no surprise that people are seeking paths to peace and serenity in our high-octane, 24-hour world.

"We're a mentally focused, hard-core, achievement-oriented society," says Dr. J. David Forbes, a medical doctor and meditation teacher in Berry Hill. "People are finding it hard to quiet the brain down."

Once they do, he says, meditation may lead not only to new insights but also to a healthier, happier life, he says. Studies show daily practice can reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and even increase life expectancy in the elderly, he says.

"It makes me a more patient mother," says Robinson, 41, who has been meditating on and off since her college days 20 years ago. "I feel like I'm more connected to nature and my children and people in general."

Sitting cross-legged on a round, black cushion in her family room, before her twin 8-year-olds and 12-year-old are out of bed, she concentrates on her breath as she tries to suspend the stream of thoughts that nor mally occupies her mind.

This mind-clearing ritual helps her figure out her beliefs and hopes, her doubts and wishes.

Even more, those quiet moments in the early dawn are a time to process the sorrow she encounters as a gerontologist working with elderly people in nursing homes and in their houses, sometimes watching them die.

"I have to have some sort of outlet to deal with that or it would bury me," she says.

Robinson loves the way prayer gives her a chance to talk with God.

"With meditation," she says, "It's me listening for God's response."

She says her Christian faith deepened through meditation and she sometimes attends meditation retreats atop the hills in Sewanee, Tenn.. And she is taking a class on Buddhism, whose followers are among the world's best at clearing their minds.

"I enjoy being around different people studying different faiths," Robinson says.

Approaches vary

Various paths lead practitioners to their own style of meditation.

Chirping birds, a slate path and a rock garden puts Cheryl Tittsworth into just the right state to seek self-knowledge and connection.

In her backyard meditation garden, the 58-year-old accountant and grandmother meditates as she tends to her plants and walks around her sanctuary.

"I'm always sweeping and trimming and watering and raking," says Tittsworth, who lives in Nashville's Burton Hills development. "Part of Zen is in finding meaning for everything you do in life and doing it well."

She often stops to sit to do her breathing exercises, repeating her mantra and quieting her racing mind. "I lose the world for a while and immerse myself in my own meditative environment," she says.

Joe Scott, 61, got hooked on meditation in yoga classes about 16 years ago. At the time, he was an opinionated workaholic who had a need to always be right.

"I used to be a very angry, intense person," says Scott, who works in the quality assurance department at HCA.

Thirty minutes of meditation first thing in the morning completely changed his life, says Scott, who also meditates with members of Self Realization Fellowship in Berry Hill, which incorporates readings from the Bible and the Hindu holy book in their Sunday services.

For Carolyn Goddard of Nashville, she was drawn to centering prayer, a form of contemplative prayer, to deepen her connection with God. A Colorado monk revived this ancient ritual of "resting in God" in the 1970s as an alternative for Christians lured to transcendental meditation.

Today, there are about 25 centering prayer groups that meet throughout Tennessee with 13 in the Nashville area. Participants choose a sacred word to help them clear their mind of other thoughts.

"You don't have to go outside the Christian tradition to find methods of meditation. It's part of our heritage, as well," says Goddard, who attends Christ the King Catholic Church and is an instructor with Contemplative Outreach of Middle Tennessee.

Dangers cited

Meditation has been, at times, eyed with suspicion. The Vatican in 1989 went so far as to say that methods such as Zen, yoga and transcendental meditation, can "degenerate into a cult of the body" and be dangerous. Euphoric states, the Vatican warned, should not be confused with prayer.

And the notion that meditation is too way out there for Christians, if not rooted in the Bible, still exists today.

"The idea of emptying the mind is not biblically based," says Don Whitney, professor of biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "There can be a danger."

Referring to meditation's long association with Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions, Whitney says, "Some of the yoga stuff, where you're given a mantra, that is rooted in false religions." He sees no problem with stretching, but once you start chanting, you're treading on treacherous ground, he says.

His beef is that some people are seeking tools to help them live and de-stress. "That's very selfish," he says. "Our lives should be lived to the glory of God."

The Bible teaches to meditate only on the word of God, as well as God's creation, the works of God and the character of God, Whitney says. He even has a problem with centering prayer if it is self-focused rather than God-focused.

Quiet revives the mind

But for many Christians, meditation fits quite nicely into their religious life. They're drawn to biblical Scriptures, like in Luke, when Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is within you," or, in the Psalms, which says, "Be still, and know that I am God."

For them, meditation has brought deeper meaning to their lives.

"I was constantly driven and racing against deadlines," says Cassandra Finch of her former life as a Nashville television news reporter. "I didn't have time to chew my food or breathe deeply. I kept it up for a while, but it was taking a toll on my body."

She quit her job and cared full time for her father, who was dying from Parkinson's disease. After his death, she threw herself into meditation.

"I discovered my true self through meditation," the 42-year-old says. "Often because we are so busy, we don't make time for self-discovery."

A Christian who attends an interdenominational church and considers herself nondenominational, Finch has also been attending a Buddhist center to meditate.

"Going to church is where I'm being talked to. There is not a lot of silent time," Finch says. "I feel the power and presence of God through my meditation."

Now a media consultant, Finch's 20-minute ritual of meditation each morning, repeating her mantra, "Think and let go," releases a level of creativity previously untapped, she says.

"Once I sit at my computer for work, my thinking is clearer and my writing is so much better," she says."

Using a mantra is a common way to train the mind in meditation.

Mary Glesige, 58, of Joelton, a yoga, massage and meditation instructor, practices primordial sound meditation. Your mantra your sacred sound is determined by the date of your birth, the place of your birth and relationship to the moon at the time and place of your birth, she says.

Her goals for meditation range from seeking stillness to lowering her blood pressure.

"We have wonderful technology these days, but it creates stress in life and also breeds impatience," she says. "We want our bodies to react like computers. Meditation teaches patience."

Curtis Simpson, a meditation instructor in Brentwood, practices Heart Rhythm Meditation, where focusing on his breathing not a mantra helps him clear his mind.

The former high school teacher has been in the middle of a job search.

"I breathe that question 'How can I find work that is satisfying?' out into the universe," he says. "Then I inhale back in. At some point, during meditation or sometime later, I might get a flash of insight."

Contact Bonna Johnson at 615-726-5990 or bjohnson@tennessean.com.