On a recent Monday night at St. Andrew’s United in North Vancouver, 30 people gather in the sanctuary for the free weekly drop-in meditation session led by Jennifer Rodrigues, a Shambhala practitioner. She leads the group in a 20-minute guided meditation followed by a walking-and-sitting meditation, and finishes with a talk on Buddhist teachings. Most of the people here don’t attend St. Andrew’s, a congregation of about 100, and likely never will. That’s perfectly fine with Rev. Judith Hardcastle, who arranged for Rodrigues to offer the classes at her church.
“[Rodrigues] was blown away that a Christian church would allow Shambhala meditation in the sanctuary,” says Hardcastle. Increasing church membership isn’t Hardcastle’s motivation in offering access to this ancient eastern spiritual practice. “I’m not terribly concerned about who is on the church roll; I’m more concerned with how the church is being used by people who are interested in various spiritual practices,” she says. “The meditation classes are feeding people’s longing to connect with the Divine. I can see where that just wouldn’t happen on Sunday mornings for a lot of people.”
Those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious are wholeheartedly embracing meditation. Its secular appeal lies in the fact that it doesn’t require a particular belief system, ongoing monetary donations or any special ability beyond breathing from the belly. You can do it anywhere and anytime — sitting on the floor, while performing mundane chores like washing dishes, or as you’re thoughtfully munching on a meal.
Instead of gazing heavenward for assistance, meditation practitioners look within. Instead of saying prayers of lamentation and confession, they simply observe their thoughts and then let them go, like watching a leaf float on the breeze. The health benefits of this seemingly simple act are legion: clinical studies show meditation can modulate pain, reduce anxiety and depression and boost the immune system. Spiritual perks include a heightened sense of awareness, a feeling of calm and the potential for personal transformation.
“Most people who meditate are looking for peace — our monkey minds never turn off,” says Anna Taneburgo, who teaches mindfulness meditation to medical staff at McMaster University in Hamilton. “People need to turn inwards if they want to find answers. Meditation helps them come home to themselves.”
As church attendance continues to drop, millions are turning to meditation in hopes of improving their lives. In 2003, Time magazine reported that 10 million Americans meditate regularly, twice as many as the previous decade. And a 2007 study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Maryland found that almost one in 10 had practised it within the previous 12 months. Douglas Todd, a religion writer for the Vancouver Sun, calls meditation “this new millennium’s spiritual zeitgeist.”
Even the famous atheist author Sam Harris believes in the power of meditation to enhance spiritual well-being — “while offering no affront to the intellect.” You’d expect a fiery critic like Harris to be onside with those who dismiss meditation as a narcissistic pastime that encourages political passivity by urging people to just “accept things as they are.” But no: “Our minds largely determine the quality of our lives,” writes Harris. “The habit of spending nearly every waking moment in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts happen to be. Meditation is a way of breaking this spell.”
St. Andrew’s isn’t the only United Church laying out the meditation mat. At Rosedale United in Toronto, Rev. Karen Bowles, a certified hatha and ashtanga yoga instructor, runs ongoing yoga and meditation sessions for the general public. She says the church needs to find ways to engage a wide array of people throughout the week with a variety of spiritual offerings. “We can’t be your grandparents’ church anymore. Our churches are fabulous spaces, and in many cases they are hardly being utilized beyond Sunday mornings and UCW breakfasts.”
Hardcastle agrees: “The whole structure of the church is passé. We can’t restrict what we offer to just our congregational members. We need to reach out to the whole community. Many are fed up with church and don’t want to go to Sunday services.”
Monday night meditation classes, however, are a different story.
Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.
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