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.

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Comments

  • Meditation is something I’ve been very interested in recently. I’ve also been thinking about meditation in relation to visualization and practicing it. I definitely want to go on such retreats although I have to say it’s a bit expensive! But I definitely want to incorporate days of solitude and time spent alone with God into my calender and think it’d be very worth it spiritually in this busy world!

  • Dear Blogpastor

    Thank you this post on Christian contemplation and meditation. On a personal level,The “Jesus Prayer”, from the Russian Orthodox Church has been a blessing in my devotions and contemplation. Thomas Merton and Brother Ramon, two important comtemplatives, have also played significant roles in highlighting the importance of contemplation in our spiritual life. And of course Simon and Rinda are household names in the contemporary christian scene in Singapore in terms of silent retreats. .

    I have 2 comments to make concerning your post.

    First, Christian contemplation and meditation cannot be divorced from the living faith in the Christ of the Bible. Without a vibrant faith in Christ, the use of a biblical phrase as a mantra, albeit of some therapeutic use, is a meaningless exercise with zero significance in terms of personal salvation. Christian contemplation is not an esoteric exercise for the elite who refuse to repent and humble themselves before almighthy God. I urge MM Lee to seek the Christ of the gospels and to recieve Him as Lord and Savior. His chanting of Maranatha, without faith in Christ, will not reconcile him to God. He needs Christ more than the mantra.

    Secondly, Christian contemplation is not an other-worldly exercise but a complement to justice issues. Thomas Merton, the trappist monk, was a contemplative who had a social conscience. He campaigned aganist militarism and nuclear profileration. He and was also involved in the struggle for civil rights during the 60’s. I noticed that the interview with Mr Ng left does not mention the relationship between justice issues and contemplation. Christian contemplation which does not lead us to social conscientization and the love of our neighbour is an exercise in futility.

    Thank you blogpastor. God Bless!!

  • Thanks Bolivian Beat for adding the vital and holistic insights I have missed, especially the need for meditation to be inextricably linked to a faith in the living Christ.

    People think contemplatives are hermits with zero impact but quite the opposite is true: they make contributions beyond their small numbers.

  • If I understand correctly, MM Lee’s Ma-Ra-Na-Tha is more of a deep breathing exercise(closer to Yoga), even tho i do hope that his inner man was indeed ministered by “Come Lord Jesus”.

    I read this comment from another blog……….
    http://blog.omy.sg/mingde/2010/09/14/%e6%9d%8e%e8%b5%84%e6%94%bf%e7%9a%84-ma-ra-na-tha/#comments

    老李所练习的”持咒禅定法”(mantra meditation),是他在英国向一位天主教的本笃会修士Laurence Freeman所学来的。
    Laurence Freeman的导师,是另一位已经过世的本笃会修士John Main。
    而John Main的“持咒禅定法”是师承何处呢? 就是在马来西亚吉隆坡的一位印度宗教瑜伽大师(swami)。

  • Dear BB n BP,

    Thinking along the lines of a pragmatist….does it matter if it is a black or red cat so long as they catch rats??

    By definition “faith” is a belief in things unseen and yet to be proved – philosophy and views based on “faith” should and must remain necessarily private or within the confines of a society or gathering of the like minded. When these become intolerant zealots we will have persecution and strive in the name of some misguided faith, often called religion.

    Our personal meditative space should be completely free and personal and not subject to any doctrine.

    Meditation works regardless of anybody beliefs – if anybody’s is quantifiable richer, then it is personal like results of any chemical cascade resulting from mental imagery.

    God’s mind is limitless and I would like to believe we were all given a clone.

  • hello everyone,
    how do we you urge MMLee to seek the CHRIST of the gospels ?He listens to none but one person.Even if you were to send him an email,it will be blocked.
    May the Spirit of truth,reveal JESUS whenever MM Lee practises meditation.
    ” I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.”Isa 65:1

  • Dear Journeyman,

    Hope that all is well with you!!! Thanks for your comments. Here are some of my thoughts.

    MM Lee is free to use Maranatha in his meditation. God bless him. We are also free to comment on the limits of his use of the mantra as long we dont use language thats derogatory. My language appears to be blunt. MM is not a wallflower but a no nonsense tough guy who may respond to some straight talk! The man is searching for the truth or some semblance of the truth. My missionary instincts see a soul to be won for Christ. Ah Joe, asks for the Spirit of Truth to reveal Himself through MM’s meditations. Lets hope Ah Joe’s prayers are answered.

    The christian faith is not only private but also social and cosmic. Yes, there has been abuse of the social dimension in the church’s history but there have also been great blessings. Many of our institutions and values arose from the judeo-christian heritage. The living religions of our epoch have a strong social dimension. The solution is to correct our wrongdoings, be humble and dialogue with people who dont hold our beliefs. The solution is NOT to retreat into privatised faith but to engage humbly and meaningfully.

    Bolivian Beat

  • Dear BB
    Appreciate yr thoughtful concern – am well thank u – as much as the next human. A product of a pastoral heart?

    Hopefully u are in similarly hale n hearty existence.

    Back to your wonderful n sentiments – me thinks your rosy conclusion about the overall beneficience of Judeo-christian intitutions may be euphemistically optimistic. Slavery, apatheid, crusades, homphobia-u name it, “Christians” have intiated and institutionalize.

    Share your sentiments unfortunately the proclaimed ambassadors have fallen far short of your lofty sentiments.

    Truth is where belief become real.

    Show me the person who loves God and his neighbour – there will be when I meet Jesus in person (will it be in church? not that likely!!)

    Should we respect Mr Lee postion that he is an agnostic – absolutely no matter what we desire or wish. Love is not self serving.

  • Mr Ng Kok Song’s taped messages are available for purchase. I happened to find them via a monastic order’s website. I was impressed by what I heard.

  • Dear Journeyman,

    I hope you have the patience to read this.

    Christopher Hitchens always makes the point in his debates with Christian theologians that good works by christians is not unique to the Christian faith and that folk from other religions are as altruistic as Christians. I dont know if it was Tagore or Ghandi who said that Christians are ordinary people with extraordinary claims. There is truth in these comments. Our message is ultimately not our saintliness nor our moral rectitud but Jesus Christ: crucified, resurrected and coming king. And we have not concocted that which Christ has claimed for himself. Paul does not use his moral rectitud as his chief selling point. He calls himself the chief among sinners. His message his Christ.

    The church, even if it tried, can never really put a sucessful spin on its failures in history. Come to think of it God does not have a PR consultant to improve His image or the track record of his people in the Bible. No one gets a free pass in the Bible, be it Peter or David. But not all is original sin. Redemption does shed its light in the darkness. There are examples of Godly influence through the church in society – education, hospitals, works of charity, social justice etc…For every crooked pastor or priest one can point to saint. And the former normally get more publicity than the latter.

    The larger question of how the christian community should relate to other religions and civic groups in society is a challenging one. I dont advocate staying within a privatized sunday faith. Our faith is social and cosmic. Our schools, homes, family centres, kindergartens and charitable organizations are overly visible in society. Tolerance, acceptance, engagement and activism through civic groups and NGOs are some of our responses. And it would be laughable to tell the two greatest missionary religions of our time; Islam and Christianity, to not evangelise each other for the sake of social well being. These ancient religions in their histories have fought wars, made peace and are learning to live in harmony. Christopher Hitchens can slam religions as much as he wants too but there is no such thing as a world free from religion. It aint gonna happen.

    Am I painting an overly rosy view of the church and the faith?

    I have known cynical, burnt out and pessimistic pastors, priests and christians. They remain my friends. Some of them have given up on the institutionalised church. I dont judge these men and women, because, not unlike Job, I too have suffered disillusionment and continue to struggle with bouts of cynicism and pessimism in the ministry. Sometimes it takes more guts to surrender one’s clerical collar and start life afresh than to hang on to an ecclesiastical position for the sake of job security.

    God’s goodness is however too overwhelming and always has the last say. I cannot resist the God given grace to step into the light, fight the pessism, and to continue sharing hope with others, especially with the wounded and marginalised. The world is too infused with His goodness for me to remain cynical. Evil is a temporary intruder. Living these truths into the realities of the world is crucifixion and resurrection. None of us actually can claim to live our ideals to the fullest with the exception of Christ. He is our message: the one who wipes away out tears as He brings healing to the nations.

  • Dear BB,

    Philosophically my empirical baseline is base onthe following beliefs

    1. Existence of God ( but not provable)
    2. Duality of a human psychic – best summized by the Chinese yang-yang symbol

    In the purest soul there is a dormant most minute speck of darkness and in the darkest soul there is the faintest spark of goodness. Have not been able to meditate until there is an absolute perfection. Love without envy, good without bad, hot without cold, joy n grief

    Religion like other human innovations or development is about a
    battling over resources or what the sheep cN
    bring to institution. The most vibrant sections of Islam or Christianity are the most evangelical and the least are the most tolerant and placid. Zorastarians and Parsi come to mind.

    I guess in our journey, the talking and proclamation is the easy part. Does meditation lead to a more effective or a better person?

    Empathetized with the disillulsioned and burnt out believers – great to have u as a friend

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