Define “meditation,” give three examples

I realize that, at this point, the word “meditation” has evolved into a term that is used to describe cool things that cool people do instead of doing uncool things that journalists might think of as prayer. Perhaps we need an entry in the Associated Press Stylebook that states this clearly.

The problem, of course, is that many of these generic meditative techniques have their origins in major world religions and, in fact, they are linked to prayer in those traditions. The key, today, is that these spiritual techniques have been turned into consumer goods. Yes, there is an app for that.

It was a strange little news-you-can-use piece in The Los Angeles Times — “Meditation apps let the peace flow through the phone” — that got me thinking about this. Look it over, and we’ll return to its contents in a minute.

This story, if it is a news story, reminded me of an interview I did a decade ago with poet Rodger Kamenetz, author of the bestseller “The Jew in the Lotus.” He was worried that, as more and more people stopped practicing actual religious faiths, we would end up lots of people making up their own religions — stripping away the actual doctrines and ethical teachings until they were left with plastic substitutes that, essentially, calmed their nerves but never judged their lives.

Perhaps, he told me, it was time to list the actual prayer traditions of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam on some kind of “spiritual endangered species” list. Thus, I wrote:

Take Buddhism, for example, which appears to be flourishing and winning converts in media-soaked America. Simply stated, Buddhism is being bought and sold. And Kamenetz is not the only scholar who is worried about the rise of a consumer-friendly Buddhism in the spirituality marketplace.

There are other seekers — including growing numbers of “JUBUs” or Jewish Buddhists — who find Buddhism attractive because they see it as a form of spirituality without dogmas, creeds, beliefs, commandments and rituals that resemble anything they were required to learn as children. They simply ignore what traditional Buddhist leaders such as the Dalai Lama have to say about hot-button moral issues, such as abortion, homosexuality of sexual abstinence.

“Let’s face it,” said Kamenetz, “one of the reasons Buddhism has become so popular, with so many Americans, so fast, is that people have stripped away all of the rules and the precepts and the work that has to do with how you are supposed to live your life. In doing so, they have stripped Buddhism of its ethical content. You are left with a religion that makes very few demands of you. Is that Buddhism?

With that in mind, take another look at that Times piece, which centers on peace and tranquility via the smartphone. Think of this, in a way, as a parallel story to the whole wretched “going to confession online” media craze of a year or two ago, which was a news-gets-abused mess on multiple levels. Those apps allowed believers to PREPARE for confession, using printed materials and journals on their smartphones.

It appears that these new “meditation” apps go way, way, beyond that kind of thing. The story notes that a simple search for “meditation” in the iPhone App Store yields 1,000 possible downloads.

The guidance offered in these apps “allows you just to let go and stop worrying about whether you’re doing it right,” says Stephan Bodian, a psychotherapist in Tucson and the developer of the Mindfulness Meditation app. “You can just relax and let yourself be led.”

Plugging in to a meditation app — having turned off the phone’s ringer and other functions, of course — could have a host of benefits. Researchers have found that meditation reduces stress and makes people generally happier.

Here’s the journalistic key, for me. What does the word “meditation” actually mean, in the context of this story? What would differentiate “meditation” from “prayer”? What is the line between, let’s say, letting oneself “be led” in generic, commercialized meditation, as opposed to meditating by saying the prayers of the traditional Catholic Rosary?

Here is what readers get:

There are many kinds of meditation, but a lot of attention these days is going to “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the here and now — not the past or future, where stressors lurk — with an open, observant attitude, says psychologist Britta Hölzel of Massachusetts General Hospital. Frequently it involves focusing on one particular thing, like the breath.

“It helps me be more awake and alive to what’s happening around me,” Hölzel says.

Mindfulness can help with attention, memory and emotional control. It can help people deal with anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

The benefits of meditation aren’t limited to the brain; it can also lower cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure. …

In other words, the story offers little or nothing in the way of a definition or a description of the contents of these programs. Mediation is defined in terms of its alleged effects — that is all. You pay your money, you get the outcome that you want. Or you get your money back? This strange Times story does not address that point.

The story ends, of course, with blurbs promoting several of these generic, non-religious meditation products. Personally, I wonder what Kamenetz would say about this one:

For: Android, iPhone
Cost: $2.99

The lighthearted Buddhify program promises “appalicious goodness for you to play with,” including 32 meditations. It’s all about “urban meditation,” so you don’t have to find a quiet mountaintop or temple. Buddhify has meditations for walking, riding the bus, working out and the home. With no music, you focus on the sounds around you. You can further customize your experience by selecting specific “flavors,” such as clarity or stability.

I guess, in terms of journalism, we are living in a new age after all.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Mediation is defined in terms of its alleged effects — that is all.

    To be fair, there has been investigation of the physiological effects of meditation including research on its use to reduce stress, treat pain and so forth. And those facts are not alleged but proven by medical research.

    Of course some of the marketing surrounding this has not been proven such as whether or not apps really do help reduce stress so alleged is appropriate in that context.

    The real problem is that the word meditation can mean using specific techniques to achieve medically or emotionally significant results and techniques that are part of a religious tradition which are designed to have spiritual effects.

    But I’m not at all surprised that many reporters lack the knowledge of St. Teresa’s meditation techniques, Brother Lawrence’s Practice the Presence of God, techniques used in Eastern Christianity, Sufi, Hindu and Buddhist practices. Would one in 10,000 know that the words of the Psalm Be still, and know that I am God… is an invitation to a certain form of meditiation?

  • Julia

    What is the line between, let’s say, letting oneself “be led” in generic, commercialized meditation, as opposed to meditating by saying the prayers of the traditional Catholic Rosary?

    The meditation part of the rosary is focusing your mind on the various mysteries while saying the rote prayers like a mantra. Each rosary has five decades of Hail Mary’s (in addition to introduction prayers and other prayers separating the decades); each of those decades have a particular event to focus on.

    Here are the official sets of mysteries:

    The Five Joyful Mysteries
    Monday & Saturday

    The Annunciation: Humility
    The Visitation: Charity
    The Birth of Our Lord: Poverty, or detachment from the world
    The Presentation of Our Lord: Purity of heart, obedience
    The Finding of Our Lord in the Temple: Piety

    The Five Sorrowful Mysteries
    Tuesday & Friday

    The Agony in the Garden: Contrition for our sins
    The Scourging at the Pillar: Mortification of our senses
    The Crowning with Thorns: Interior mortification
    The Carrying of the Cross: Patience under crosses
    The Crucifixion and Death of Our Lord: That we may die to ourselves

    The Five Glorious Mysteries
    Wednesday & Sunday

    The Resurrection: Conversion of heart
    The Ascension: A desire for heaven
    The Coming of the Holy Ghost: The Gifts of the Holy Ghost
    The Assumption of our Blessed Mother into Heaven: Devotion to Mary
    The Coronation of our Blessed Mother: Eternal happiness

    The Five Luminous Mysteries [new ones added by JPII]

    The Baptism in the Jordan
    The Wedding at Cana
    The Proclamation of the Kingdom
    The Transfiguration
    The Institution of the Eucharist

    In addition to the rosary, there are the stations of the cross – where you meditate on what is happening to Jesus at each station in addition to saying a prayer.

    Besides these two examples of Catholic meditation, as children in the 1950s we were encouraged to just stop in Church for a visit where you could prayer or just meditate. I like to do that after softball practice before going home to a house full of rowdy brothers. It was great to just empty your mind and seek to commune with God for 15 minutes or so.

    So – like the techniques of St Teresa of Avila mentioned by Jerry, Catholic meditation isn’t “saying” prayers. Note that rote prayers are not considered empty and worthless, they are often used to clear the mind of outside clutter in order to try to get in touch with the infinite.

    BTW Many people think the inspiration for the Catholic rosary many centuries ago was Buddhist prayer beads brought back from the Far East by Jesuit missionaries.

  • Julia

    Sorry – here’s the link I used for the Mysteries of the Rosary:

  • http://!)! Passing By

    What a weird little article (in the LA Times). But this whole meditation thing does fit into the “spiritual but not religious” approach to doing what feels good and makes us feel good about ourselves.

    It is worth remembering that prayer can be understood in Kataphatic (or Cataphatic) forms such as the rosary, the Daily Office, and the Mass itself, but there is also a rich tradition of apophatic prayer. There are such classics as the English The Cloud of Unknowing, the Spanish mystics, and the whole Cistercian tradition. In contemporary times, that last group has produced a renewed interest in Lectio Divina and the rather controversial Centering Prayer movement, and, of course, Fr. Thomas Merton, who in his latter years wandered into a fascination with meditation as a subject independent of the Christian witness (i.e., he got wrapped up in Eastern thought).

    That’s pretty much Catholic stuff, but there is also the Eastern Christian tradition which, as I’ve been told, centered on the Jesus Prayer. It is from that tradition, with it’s knotted ropes and beads that our western Rosary developed, or so I’ve been told.

  • baber

    In the late 20th century mainline churches threw out all the good stuff of religion—the mystical spooky stuff manifest in liturgy. Liturgical revision destroyed the thrill, made religion dull, dead and didactic. But they didn’t throw out the rules and obligations so much as promote new, more onerous ones—the obligation to engage in social service and political action.

    So, is it any wonder why mainline churches are dying? They’ve taken away all the stuff of religion that makes it interesting and appealing—the mysticism, aestheticism, liturgy and metaphysical thrills, and burdened us with moral obligations that are even more unpleasant than the conservative ones. Social action and politics are boring, time-consuming and miserable. Why should I do any of this goody-goody garbage without a mystical/religious/aesthetic kick-back?

    Churches need to model themselves after pop Buddhism: provide enjoyable rituals and religious experience and demand nothing. No rules, no morality, no constraints—just aesthetic pleasure and metaphysical thrills. If religion isn’t fun, why should I bother with it?

  • Jerry

    I just watched the most recent PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and have to ding them for their mistake in defining meditation to be only one form of meditation: mindfulness. They should have known better and acknowledged other forms of meditation in their story even though some of the speakers obviously did not go there.

    LUCKY SEVERSON: Ohio Democrat Congressman Tim Ryan, talking with kids on Capitol Hill about his favorite subject: Mindfulness, what he sees as the result from meditation…

    He says there’s nothing complicated about the practice of meditation or mindfulness.

  • tmatt


    Just curious: What does your comment have to do with the journalism issues in my post?

  • baber

    Well you want to know why Buddhism, as popularly understood, gets good press but Christianity get’s trashed: it’s precisely because Buddhism as popularly understood provides benefits but doesn’t make any demands in term of belief or behavior …