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Should Christians "Empty Their Minds" Through Meditation?

As I wrote in my previous article "Should Christians Practice Meditation":

There are different forms of meditation, but the commonality to them is to focus the mind, usually by intense concentration upon a word or phrase (mantra), which may be repeated continuously in the mind, or breathed, or chanted, or by visualization (e.g. of a deity or of one’s own deity) in the hope of “blanking” the mind and opening it to communion with the divine … [whereas the] meditation in the Bible is careful rational thought designed to achieve cognitive understanding, and with a view to acting upon that understanding and even sharing it.

Now, it should be noted that many Christians who teach meditation as an element of “spiritual formation” insist that this has nothing to do with emptying the mind, and they may be sincere in that assertion. However, it is essential to understand what “emptying the mind” means in order to assess this claim.

First, it is necessary to understand what the Bible says about the mind. For example, when Jesus enjoins us to love the Lord with all our “mind,” what does that mean? Or what does it mean to say that “with the mind I myself serve the law of God”? (Romans 7:25b)

There are two words in the Greek that are translated as “mind” in the NT:

The word “mind” occurs in many other places in the NT where the underlying Greek has a completely different word. These are in idiomatic translations, such as using “call to mind” to translate the Greek word for “to remember.”

νους (nous) and διανοια (dianoia). Dianoia appears thirteen times, including in Matthew 22:37/Mark 12:30/Luke 10:27, which records the command to love the Lord with all our minds; in Hebrews 8:10 and 10:16, in which God promises to put His law in our minds in the New Covenant; and in the following:

Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ … (1 Peter 1:13)
Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder … (2 Peter 3:1)

Nous appears twenty-four times, for example in Romans 7:25a “with the mind I myself serve the law of God” and Romans 12:2

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

Now, what do these terms mean? The key to note is that both terms focus on rational, logical cogitation.

Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

According to BDAG, dianoia means “the faculty of thinking, comprehending, and reasoning, understanding, intelligence; the mind as the organ of this faculty,” and vous means “the faculty of intellectual perception; understanding; mind as faculty of thinking.” The essence, then, is the critical reasoning faculties of the human brain that should be operating whenever we are awake, and not on emotion or feeling or intuition. It is this critical reasoning faculty that is used to “test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and that is used to determine our proper action in things pertaining to the Christian life (Romans 14:5b).

But the critical reasoning faculty of the mind can be debased by sin (Romans 1:28), blinded by “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and be corrupted by false teachings:

But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:3)

That is why we are commanded to use them and keep them in good working order (Romans 12:2).

So the Bible considers the faculty of thinking and reasoning and testing to be a good and essential thing that should be in operation at all times in order to “test all things.” Eastern mysticism, on the other hand, has a diametrically opposed view; it sees rational thought as an obstacle to achieving union or communion with the void, the Tao, the god-force. It denigrates rational assessment of what is entering the mind.

As Robert W. Dillon, jr., (Ph.D) puts it, we should “cease the constant evaluation-centered mind chatter that characterizes much of low-level consciousness.”

Robert W. Dillon, jr. Ph.D. “Kan, Ken: Seeing with the Heart and the Eyes,” Inside Karate 13(4), April 1992, p. 18.

So when Eastern mysticism speaks of emptying the mind (or “blanking” the mind), it means shutting off the critical reasoning faculties of the mind, and ignoring or disabling “evaluation-centered” thought.

There are different methods used to achieve this. One method is chanting, and another is meditation. One meditates upon a mantra, a koan, a word, a phrase, or even a line of Scripture, so its practitioners will claim that the mind is not empty (“we’re filling it with the chant/mantra/koan/word/phrase/word of God!”), but they are not bringing critical thought to bear upon what is put into the mind. Critical evaluation, as we have seen, is positively discouraged, and it is a psychological fact that this sort of repetition or concentration in the absence of rational thought does tend to put the brain in “neutral” and empty it.

Look carefully at what Johnny wrote about his class:

Lectio Divina … does not seek information or motivation, but communion with God. It does not treat Scripture as texts to be studied, but as the “Living Word”. The second movement in Lectio Divina thus involves meditating upon and pondering on the scriptural passage. When the passage is read, it is generally advised not to try to assign a meaning to it at first, but to wait for the action of the Holy Spirit to illuminate the mind, as the passage is pondered upon.
They will say that it isn’t about “emptying” your mind, but “linking” or “connecting” with the Spirit of God. The question then is how? The problem, they will say is that often we are too busy, or have too many preconceived notions to hear the voice of God, therefore, we need to quiet ourselves.

Does this sound at all like what the Bible says about loving the Lord with your critical thinking faculties, or does it sound more like Eastern mysticism’s instruction to “cease the constant evaluation-centered mind chatter that characterizes much of low-level consciousness”? The answer seems obvious.

The upshot of this seems clear. The Christian teaching such techniques may be very sincere when he insists that his practice is not about emptying the mind, but that is what does happen. These techniques may be described as ex opere operato; they achieve their purpose when they are done correctly, regardless of the intent of the person doing them. In sum, then, the techniques of Christian meditation are not Biblical, are diametrically opposed in their nature to what the Bible demands of us, and are completely inappropriate for Christians.

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