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Growing up churched: when meditation “puts your soul at risk.”
With knocking knees and a pounding heart, I opened the door and walked right into a meditation class—with a teacher and cushions and everything.
It was a radical and defiant act.
The golden Buddha statue, the gong and altar at the front of the room, the quiet stillness of the other attendees, and the solemnity of the room itself made me feel like an adventurer in another land. I loved it. I was afraid of it.
I loved it more than I was afraid of it.
And I was acutely aware of the implications.
Stepping over that threshold into that wood-floored room that was flooded with the warm light of the rising sun, I stepped out of the safe and tidy boundaries that had been handed to me as a teenager; I abandoned the formative, internal directives of my religious upbringing.
I took the risk that meditation might really be a gateway to the “dark arts,” as I’d been warned, and my soul would be lost.
I went alone. I consulted no one.
I could feel my old stories rattling around in my head, taking on the voices of evangelical pastors, Christian fiction authors, and dear friends from formative years. The stressed out, rule-abiding, good, fundamentalist Christian girl who was me, who had been hushed into her place for years, was jumping up and down in frantic protest, desperate to save her from herself.
The meditation teacher, a thin, radiant woman in her late 60s, with dark hair, wearing a brightly colored kaftan—of course she was wearing a kaftan—helped me perch on the edge of a plump cushion, legs crossed, knees lower than my hips. She was kind. I must have looked like I was ready for battle. She told me I needn’t take this too seriously and I could adjust my seat at any point if I got uncomfortable. She smiled. She touched my shoulder. I saw no sign of trickery about her.
Half an hour. Thirty bloody minutes.
It was an awfully long time to let down my defenses against dark powers, to hand over my free will to entities unknown.
And yet, I survived to tell the tale, unsullied by demons.
The Seeds of Fear
So, what could be so scary about meditation? Meditation is part of a Christian practice, even, but in the church I grew up in, it was confined specifically to meditation on “The Word of God.”
As a teenager, I learned that a mind or heart not actively and consistently focused on Godly matters is at risk. I learned that the devil loves a vacuum, and a clear mind was an open door for sinful thoughts, at the least, and evil influences or possession at the worst.
I read a powerful and well-written trilogy, This Present Darkness, when I was 19. It’s a Christian fiction that is all about spiritual battles between angels and demons. The demons and darkness flock and swarm, invisible, around a meditation center as though it were their hive. They have permission to be there because, God help us all, God gave people free will, and until we repent and ask for help and salvation, we are condemned to suffer the presence of darkness wherever we go.
When my dad was in the final months of his battle with terminal cancer, he read about alternative healing modalities.
He began to meditate and receive reiki treatments along with acupuncture and cupping. Throughout his illness, my Korean grandma, my mom’s mom, kept special ginseng imported directly from a special mountain in Japan simmering on the stove for tea. My dad was not Korean, but of Irish descent (my brother and I are white passing), but we all embraced Eastern healing practices and traditions to some degree.
During my dad’s final weeks, one well-meaning pastor challenged him on these practices. He pointed out that Dad was soon to stand in the glory of God, and how was he going to account for himself, with meditation and all this other business?
I was 19. I was outraged. I was protective of my dad and these practices and treatments that both gave him comfort and eased the side effects from the daily cocktail of pharmaceuticals.
That was the day I gave myself permission to start asking the big questions I had been pretending not to have.
It took 20 years for me to begin to explore meditation in many forms, to discover how helpful it was for me, and another five years to admit to it.
My Journey to Meditation
A meditation class could not have been my first step outside of the teachings. It was far too big a leap. I had to disentangle myself from the grip of other inherited beliefs, less scary ones, one by one.
First, I came out of the proverbial closet as a supporter of LGBTQ rights.
I had never made peace with the idea that “they” are different than “me.” I stopped nodding when people talked to me about “the sin” and I stopped trying to understand their view. I began to declare and assert whenever the conversation turned to matters of LGBTQ. I took a position—and I held it. I was willing to answer questions and engage in dialogue, but was clear enough there could be no misconception about my position.
It felt good and right.
I knew there were people praying for me in my confusion on that subject. The most loving sent private messages to remind me of “the way.” I received the love, but I rejected the request to reconsider.
Then, I came out of the closet as a feminist and an activist—to the degree my life allowed with small children at home. I came out as one who would use her voice. As a woman who saw God as much bigger than she was taught. God the Father became God the Mother and the Father and the Creator; Christ became flesh in the pain and suffering of every rejected or tormented child, woman, man, person, animal, and even our trampled Mother Earth.
It felt wild and life-giving.
I came out with my belief that our sweet animal friends have souls. If there’s a heaven we land in after death, my dogs will be there to greet me. I know it. As will horses I have loved, and trees who have held me in their care.
It felt delightful.
As I wound my way through those old stories and beliefs that chafed, I systematically rewrote and reclaimed them one by one. I did so quietly at first, deep in my own being, making peace with myself until my voice was ready to speak those truths into the world.
By the time I joined that meditation class, I was already convinced of my own worth and wholeness.
I already believed the healing, compassion, and love I give myself and others help us all to be more generous, loving, and compassionate in the world. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am loved and cared for in this great, wide universe, just as I am.
Only when I had been introduced to this peace, within, was I ready to brave a meditation center.
Meditation is a gateway, alright, but not to the despair and darkness I’d learned to fear. It’s a gateway to connecting to the many dimensions and aspects of myself, a path to steadying and calming my internal crazy when life is nuts. I’m a complex woman, a bundle of contradictions, with a tender heart and a fire for justice. I have a voice all my own and it’s a gift—even when it is inconvenient.
Meditation creates spaciousness between and among the pieces of me and the moments of my life. With it, I have more access to myself.
Which brings me to today:
I have Christian friends who are appalled and confused by my experience. There are others in my world, churched and otherwise, who love me, but disagree with some of my beliefs and practices. I have friends who are Buddhist, pagan, atheist, agnostic, Catholic, Muslim, Methodist, Alliance, and Presbyterian—and all other manner of faith structure and practice.
What they have in common are open and loving hearts.
I would hate, above all things, to be misconstrued as painting all Christians and all churches with one brush.
Writing this has my heart racing and my mind running lists of who I am afraid will walk away from me, if they haven’t already. Mostly, I think it will be okay. But those old fears? From formative years? I’m learning they aren’t ever really silenced, completely. The cost of walking away from the faith you grew up in is high, as this author so well describes.
As a meditating yogi (I try), or gay (I am not), or a healer (I am), in those old spaces, I might be met with looks of compassion for my confusion, or with repulsion—as though I carry some disease. In the most extreme fundamentalist churches I have been part of, elders inhale sharply through their teeth and nod solemnly, and my peers assure me they will pray for me openly, or they do so in secret as an act of service. It is lonely business to discover the love that I leaned on was conditional.
I am learning how all of this sounds to those who were not raised in a world where your value is measured and celebrated in large part by how many people you have led to Christ through prayer, and what it’s like to have been saved from a tough and traumatic story through being “born-again” into the family of Christ.
But if you were raised in a church like mine? Back in that day? You know.
Wherever you are in your journey, you are not alone. I see signs of change: we are the way-showers. Some of the most progressive, loving, compassionate people I know are in the church and are part of the change.
Today, I understand better how connected we are, and how much harm can be done in the name of these divisions. I believe our individuation is a gift of the human experience, as well as a curse, and even a bit of an illusion.
My peace comes from within, now, as I believe is true for us all. My meditation practice helps me to find it again when I forget or get lost in the noise of fear and old stories.
May that inner peace be also with you.