Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

Truth be told, this really isn’t a story about “meditation.” If it was it would have covered a wide array of meditation techniques and traditions, some religious, some (in this day and age) semi-religious and some completely secular.

Instead, the folks at the newspaper that lands in my front yard had a very specific form of meditation in mind in this story when planning this story and all other forms were omitted, for one reason or another.

So the “Jesus Prayer” doesn’t count.

Ditto for ancient Jewish forms of prayer and meditation.

How about meditations linked to the Rosary? No way.

Charismatic or Pentecostal believers standing rapt in ecstasy speaking in what they believe are celestial tongues? Don’t go there.

Instead, the producers of this story had a much narrower definition in mind — almost certainly the definition used by people in the newsroom who are suddenly into “meditation.”

Meditation seems to be everywhere lately — on talk shows, in yoga studios, even on our smartphones. A recent Time magazine cover story announced that we’re in the midst of “The Mindful Revolution.” Celebrities including hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Ellen DeGeneres promote the benefits of meditation, and how-to classes abound.

The ancient practice is gaining traction in the mainstream and in medicine. Studies show that regular meditators boast the ability to tune out distractions and even lower blood pressure and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The. Ancient. Tradition. Singular.

There is only one of them, you see, and it’s the one on television and in the self-help stores at the shopping mall.

As it turns out, the members of the Sun team knew that there were some religious overtones in this story.

But there can be confusion about what meditation is meant to be, and how to do it. To a lot of people, meditation looks like sitting around doing nothing. Practitioners say otherwise.

“It’s a systematic process of increasing your awareness,” says Dr. Madhav Goyal, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and leader of a recent meditation study published by JAMA Internal Medicine. “It’s not daydreaming. It’s not just relaxing. It’s an active process of going deeper into your mind and body and becoming aware of it.”

Goyal and his colleagues reviewed 47 clinical trials from the past 50 years and found that “mindfulness meditation” — often used as a catchall term for Buddhist-based techniques — appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants. Meditation also showed promise in alleviating some pain symptoms as well as stress.

Goyal notes, however, that in Eastern traditions, meditation is not meant to be a treatment for any health condition.

Which Eastern traditions? I assume we are not talking about the ancient Desert Fathers?

Please understand: I think it would have been perfectly valid for the Sun to publish a story on the latest wave of interest in neo-Buddhist meditation techniques, even though that story has been around for several decades now.

That is still a valid story, if there is a new local hook.

My problem is that this was billed as a story on “meditation,” not on one form of meditation to the exclusion of all others.

As journalists, the members of the Sun team should have made it clear what this story was about and what it was not about. They should have carefully defined terms and, at the very least, have mentioned other ancient forms of meditation that are practiced by thousands of people in the newspaper’s region. They should have mentioned, at the very least, the national studies that found similar benefits to other forms of prayer and meditation.

I mean, that’s what they should have done if this is actually a story on “meditation” — period.

Oh, and that list of suggested “meditation” centers at the end of the story? The “news you can use” section?

Totally predictable.

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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.

  • Julia B

    This is a late response to this post – but geez. I’m 69 and learned meditation in Catholic gradeschool in the 1950s!!!!! It wasn’t just about meditating on the mysteries in saying the rosary or doing the stations of the Cross. One of the things people don’t understand about the old Mass is that participation also meant what is now called “mindfulness” – everything going on was in Englilsh in your Missal. We were participating through mindful focusing in an ancient ritual where something was actually supposed to be happening on the altar, it was not an entertainment dependant on the music or sermon. We were also encouraged to stop by the church for a visit apart from Mass – to sit still and meditate on Jesus’ life. Now that that understanding has been stamped out, the public has blessed the re-introduction of a religionless meditation that is OK after all ?????

    Sorry – I’m showing my age. It’s depressing. This calls to mind Flannery O’Connor’s story about the Church of Christ without Christ.

  • Lee Johnson

    I was thinking earlier today about the cultural changes that occurred. I am only 50, and as I get older, I realize that it’s somewhat of a misnomer to talk about things changing in the 60s. But I believe there was a generational shift, and out of that grew an attitude. I was thinking, there were many threads of the “new” culture (it wasn’t new; it was just old ideas made more popular). Mass media, the pill, antibiotics, the open road … there were opportunities to explore freedom in ways that had never existed before, because the technology was limited.

    All this to say is this: Somehow, there grew up a new cultural attitude that united all the new threads: And that is opposition to traditional religion. You can find meaning and purpose anywhere, as long as it’s not in traditional religious practice.

    By the way, I came up with several basic groups:
    1. Nuts, fruits and flakes. Basically, hippies.
    2. Working class drug culture.

    3. Secular middle-class professionals.

    4. Leftists of various sorts.
    5. Exotics, from the perspective of white folks.

    What is the one thing they all have in common? It’s at best a condescending attitude toward traditional religion, which they believe is at best an outmoded and superstitious way of thinking, a now-obsolete way of talking about morality and meaning. Once it may have been useful, but no more … now it stands in the way of progress. And in fact, they believe it probably always hindered mankind’s progress. Traditional religious principles are OK only if they can be described in secular terms, a standard they don’t apply to their own mystical concepts, unaware as they are of the mystical origin of many of them.


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