Meditation: good to embrace

Mr Ng Kok Song in meditationInterest in meditation increased with a New York Times interview with Lee Kuan Yew, where he opened a small window into his soul: he was an agnostic, but he had learned meditation from a Christian friend whom he admired. With eyes closed and body relaxed, he now repeated in his “innermost heart” a “mantra”. He used “ma-ra-na-tha”, an Aramaic word from the new testament, which in English meant, “Come Lord Jesus”. He did it to help him sleep when he felt helpless and pained with his wife’s discomfort in the room next door. His late wife, Mrs Lee (Mdm Kwa Geok Choo) had suffered several strokes and had been bedridden and speechless.

The NYT interview was followed up with an appropriate and illuminating interview with the Christian friend who has been meditating for 22 years and who taught Mr Lee how to meditate. His name is Mr Ng Kok Song, 62, and he spent 40 years investing Singapore’s reserves as group chief investment officer of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC).

He was interviewed by senior writer Lee Siew Hua, of the Straits Times, who also gave us the Glitz and the Gospel, a  weekend feature on the megachurch scene several weeks back. Drawing from excerpts from the chat with Mr Ng (ST, pg A 10, 22 Sep 2010), you could see what he thought of meditation and its benefits to all (headings in bold are mine).

What is meditation?

“You can practise meditation with a secular mindset for relaxation and serenity. These are laudable objectives. But it could be a self-centred motivation. Or you can practise with a spiritual mindset. If you go deeper, and your are nourished by reading the scriptures or by your religion, this takes you into the dimension of relationship and prayer. Prayer is relationship with God. Christian meditation is a form of prayer. That opens you up to the dimension of transcendence. You move from self-centredness to other-centredness. In the Christian tradition, this is love.”

On the benefits of meditation, Mr Ng has much to say:

Discernment and clarity

“I think it gives you greater clarity of mind, which helps in times of chaos and great stress, to see what’s the cause of things, what’s passing, what’s enduring and what’s really important.”

Serenity

“It helps you not to be kan cheong(anxious, panicky). After doing your work to the best of your ability, you take a step back and go home, with some detachment from the results of your action.”

Activates whole brain thinking

Mr Ng quoted scientific studies that indicate meditation benefits the right brain, which is linked to intuition and the big picture. Most executives are left brained which is linked mainly to logic and linear thought. “To be a whole person you need to tap into the untapped.”

Shapes the way you lead

“The will to lead cannot be an ego trip or domination. I would call it acceptance of responsibility. With meditation, your mind is remade. The way you see leadership becomes quite different. You see it as serving. You see it as the ability to admit that you don’t know everything and can make mistakes. Otherwise, you can lead your folks into disaster. In the silence of your meditation, in a very mysterious way, you come to understand yourself better. You come to a state where you see your limitations and also your potential…..and gradually you learn to love yourself as you are.”

Contentment and joy

“”The problem in Singapore is the consumerist tendency to measure our well-being too much in terms of lifestyle and material possessions, so much so that you don’t have time for expansion of the spirit. But the human being is not created for the self, but for others too. The way to experience joy in everything is not to seek to possess. This is in contrast to our material life.”

Christian meditation, in particular, those ancient forms of prayer, mainly preserved and maintained by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox streams, have seen a revival among evangelicals for over two decades. Conservatives and fundamentalists have generally been wary and suspicious of these as they have thrown away all things Roman with the Reformation. However, with our foundation soundly established in who Christ is and what He has done, we should wisely embrace some of these practices into the mainstream of evangelical respectability.

Having been exposed to the writings of Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster and others has helped me personally. More importantly I had colleagues like Rev Simon and Rinda Tan, who were thrilled by the retreat ministry during their theological training in New Zealand Bible College. Open to these ancient forms of prayer our church staff became the guinea pigs of “experimental prayer”. We were privileged to enjoy the Spirit’s breeze through the open windows of our minds and hearts.

We tried many ancient practices of prayer and meditation like lectio divina, examen, centering prayer, meditation, silent retreats, having spiritual direction and journaling. Certain practices have stayed with me over the years.Practices like journaling, lectio divina, examen and what Mr Ng does. Meditation is a form of prayer all Christians should feel comfortable with. Sitting in outer and inner silence, relaxed and breathing slowly and deeply. Repeating silently some love or scripture word or phrase in the inmost heart is edifying. My favourite is “Papa” or  “speaking in tongues” in my inmost heart. Another practice I love to do is going on regular several day retreats with others or in solitude. If you are interested you may want to sign up for a retreat with Simon and Rinda Tan who are now full-time spiritual directors and lead the ministry called Listening Inn.

“Spirituality” and “Intimacy with God”: screwed up?

eugene petersenWhat is the most misunderstood aspect of spirituality?

That it’s a kind of specialized form of being a Christian, that you have to have some kind of in. It’s elitist. Many people are attracted to it for the wrong reasons. Others are put off by it: I’m not spiritual. I like to go to football games or parties or pursue my career. In fact, I try to avoid the word.

Many people assume that spirituality is about becoming emotionally intimate with God.

That’s a naïve view of spirituality. What we’re talking about is the Christian life. It’s following Jesus. Spirituality is no different from what we’ve been doing for two thousand years just by going to church and receiving the sacraments, being baptized, learning to pray, and reading Scriptures rightly. It’s just ordinary stuff.

This promise of intimacy is both right and wrong. There is an intimacy with God, but it’s like any other intimacy; it’s part of the fabric of your life. In marriage you don’t feel intimate most of the time. Nor with a friend. Intimacy isn’t primarily a mystical emotion. It’s a way of life, a life of openness, honesty, a certain transparency.

Doesn’t the mystical tradition suggest otherwise?

One of my favorite stories is of Teresa of Avila. She’s sitting in the kitchen with a roasted chicken. And she’s got it with both hands, and she’s gnawing on it, just devouring this chicken. One of the nuns comes in shocked that she’s doing this, behaving this way. She said, “When I eat chicken, I eat chicken; when I pray, I pray.”

If you read the saints, they’re pretty ordinary people. There are moments of rapture and ecstasy, but once every 10 years. And even then it’s a surprise to them. They didn’t do anything. We’ve got to disabuse people of these illusions of what the Christian life is. It’s a wonderful life, but it’s not wonderful in the way a lot of people want it to be.

Yet evangelicals rightly tell people they can have a “personal relationship with God.” That suggests a certain type of spiritual intimacy.

All these words get so screwed up in our society. If intimacy means being open and honest and authentic, so I don’t have veils, or I don’t have to be defensive or in denial of who I am, that’s wonderful. But in our culture, intimacy usually has sexual connotations, with some kind of completion. So I want intimacy because I want more out of life. Very seldom does it have the sense of sacrifice or giving or being vulnerable. Those are two different ways of being intimate. And in our American vocabulary intimacy usually has to do with getting something from the other. That just screws the whole thing up.

It’s very dangerous to use the language of the culture to interpret the gospel. Our vocabulary has to be chastened and tested by revelation, by the Scriptures. We’ve got a pretty good vocabulary and syntax, and we’d better start paying attention to it because the way we grab words here and there to appeal to unbelievers is not very good.

Looks like Eugene Peterson, pastor and lecturer, and famous author of Bible paraphrase “The Message” and other notable books, is passionate when talking about how the church’s language has been held captivity by the culture it finds itself in. He has even more to say in the full interview with him done by Mark Galli for Christianity Today(30th June 2010) titled, “Spirituality for all the Wrong Reasons”