It’s a Sad, Sad Situation

At a wedding recently, I saw the groom standing with the most funereal look on his face. “Happiest day of his life,” I whispered to the person next to me. More than likely, this guy was just trying to keep it all together, but his expression said, “I’d rather be getting a root canal right now.”

For many humans, our natural expression, our natural emotion is not happiness. Why else would people who are taking our pictures have to so constantly remind us to “smile.” This is why I invested a dozen or so entries in taking apart Psalm 118:24 recently.

This is the day the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I wrote about the verbs and the nouns and the pronouns. I camped out on that verse for hours over the last couple of weeks. And here’s the weird thing: as I wrote about the necessity of rejoicing and being glad, I found myself bouncing along on the pot-hole-strewn road of depression.

What was wrong? What, as my father used to ask, “did I have to be depressed about?” In reality, I had nothing particular to fuel my depression. During those weeks, spring erupted in Kansas City. A new grandchild arrived in our life. My job is steady; my bank account healthy. My relationships have been stable, and nothing unusual has come my way to throw a monkey wrench into my mood. So what was wrong?

Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about go-to-the-doctor-and-start-Prozac depression. It hasn’t been friends-hide-all-the-knives depression. I’ve seen that in people, and I don’t trivialize it. No, this was just a general down season, perhaps what Jimmy Carter referred to as a “malaise.”

How could I remain down, not only knowing that “This is the day the Lord has made” but dwelling on that verse as a whole and in its parts nearly every day for two weeks? It doesn’t make sense, but then this is the human mind we’re discussing.

In trying to understand my feelings, I’ve had Psalm 119:14 pop into my head:

May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Over these weeks, I do believe that the words of my mouth (and my keyboard) have been acceptable to God, but I don’t know that I can say the same for the meditation of my heart. Yes, my head ran over Psalm 118:24, analyzing it to within an inch of its life, but for all that analysis, did I do the thing that I had hoped this entire project would accomplish? Did I implant not just its words but its meaning, its profundity into my heart?

Although I thought I was done with that verse, I believe I might camp out on it for a couple more days. Hopefully, as I fully process its depths, I can chase the blues from my life.

Meditation for Everyone?

YogaWhat could meditation possibly hurt? It’s not some wicked thing like Christianity. We all know the terrible things that Christians do. You know…there were the Crusades. And the Crusades. Oh yeah, and the Salem Witch Trials. That was only 400-plus years ago. And Christianity today is just as deadly, right?

On the other hand, meditation is all smiling people on hillsides saluting the sun and becoming mindful. It’s all about living in the moment. After all, wasn’t it the Buddha who told us, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”?

Yes, these thoughts might be an exaggeration of the attitudes of popular culture’s view of meditation and “mindfulness” practices as no-brainer, harmless, non-religious practices, but they are not utterly off base. A lot of people thought that Don Draper going to a meditation retreat at the end of Mad Men looked like a good idea. What would they have thought had he gone off to commune with Dominicans or Billy Graham? If Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, had been a Presbyterian, don’t you think the critics would have been all over that? Instead, he was obsessed with meditation.

From a purely anecdotal standpoint, if Russell Brand thinks meditation is terrific, shouldn’t we be skeptical? Just a thought.

As it turns out, a fair amount of literature by reputable researchers has been suggesting that meditation might not be quite as benign as people have been led to believe. A couple of recent articles (here and here) have given an overview. David Shapiro of UCLA did a study of a small group and found that 63% of them had negative outcomes from meditation.

The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion and disorientation. But perhaps only the least experienced felt them – and might several days of meditation not overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all had an equal number of adverse experiences.

Currently, researchers in England have been looking into the practice, especially as it has been adopted as a more mainstream psychological therapy.

And one in 14 of them suffered ‘profoundly adverse effects’, according to Miguel Farias, head of the brain, belief and behaviour research group at Coventry University and Catherine Wikholm, a researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey.

Granted, Farias and Wikholm have a book to sell, The Buddha Pill, but there findings should be enough to at least warrant some concern. If a medical procedure had severe negative effects for 1 in 14 patients, would the FDA permit its use?

It shouldn’t surprise the Christian thinker that Buddhist-style meditation, in which the practitioner attempts to empty the mind, would lead to negative results. The human mind doesn’t empty very readily, but it can shake off the restricting forces that keep our worst thoughts at bay. Left to its own, hopelessly sinful, devices, my mind can go to some exceptionally dark places, places I don’t want to visit without the Holy Spirit along for protection.

The Endless Hunger

woman-praying-silhoutte-168fe02ec159dbda85f31317c4972b91I’m writing this just before lunch at the office. A container of kung pao chicken is waiting in the fridge. I need to take a couple of steps behind me, loosen the lid, and then start the microwave. Or I could step to my right and open the file drawer that holds raisins (including yogurt-covered ones) and a few other morsels of non-perishable goodness. I am hungry.

Or am I? My guess is that when I say, “I am hungry,” I only mean that my body truly needs food about one time in twenty. Instead, I’m really saying, “I want to cram food in my mouth” for a variety of possible reasons. Right now, it’s probably to avoid actual work.

Esther Crain catalogs eleven reasons why you might be hungry. These include factors such as eating the wrong things (as opposed to not enough) as well as matters that have nothing to do with eating. One that caught my eye was eating because of stress.

Who hasn’t dealt with a high-pressure workday or relationship rough spot by giving into cravings for a pint of Rocky Road? But stress has a sneakier way of making you voracious. When you’re tense, your system ramps up production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, says Rumsey. Elevated levels of these hormones trick your system into thinking it’s under attack and needs energy, so your appetite starts raging. Stress also reduces levels of the brain chemical serotonin, and that can make you feel hungry when you aren’t, says Moon. Consider it a case for making it to yoga class more often, or cranking up a soothing playlist on your commute home.

I mention this because as pervasive as stress is in our culture, the Christian has tools at his or her disposal that can greatly diminish the weight that stress places on us. As therapeutic as yoga might be, prayer and meditation in God’s Word can certainly bring more power than twisting yourself into a pretzel and chanting “Om.” The problem is that too often we fail to make use of the spiritual disciplines.

Whether it is to grow closer to God or to eliminate stress from your life–and I’d argue that doing the first will inevitably lead to the second–you should not ignore the power that getting close to the Creator can provide.