Category Archives: Spiritual Disciplines

Many Problems; One Solution

Recently, I took a rather frenzied call from my wife as she drove home from downtown Kansas City. My memory of it is as an echo of the lead-in to the old Six Million Dollar Man TV show with the aircraft crashing to earth: “I can’t hold altitude. She’s breaking up. She’s breaking up.”

In reality, Penny just informed me that everything in her car was acting strangely. Needles were rocking, lights were flashing, and the navigation screen was blanked out. “Should I pull over?” She asked.

I determined that if the engine kept running she should just drive on toward home. She made it home and left the engine running to allow me to experience the show. The air conditioner cut in and out. The gas and temperature gauges were going crazy. In short, nothing seemed to be working properly. And then the engine sputtered and died.

My first thought was that some hyper-expensive computer unit, something more costly than the car, had died. Such a problem would have fouled up our summer budget. But then I wondered about the alternator.

What made me blame the alternator? I don’t know, but, after charging the battery, I checked. (Start the car. When running, remove the negative cable from the battery. If it dies, the alternator is no good.) Sure enough, I had a bad alternator.

As I replaced that unit, I had time to think. Since I’m a rather slow and inexperienced mechanic, I had a great deal of time. What symptoms did the car show? It showed many. In the end, everything that required electricity was failing or acting strangely. It seemed that the vehicle had many problems. Yet in the end, there was only one.

What does an alternator do in a car? Basically, it’s a little electric generator. A tiny fraction of the engine’s energy drives a belt that turns a wheel that creates juice. The resulting current sparks the spark plugs, powers the air conditioning fan, keeps the radio playing, and does everything else that involves electricity–which is basically everything.

When I look at the problems in my life or the lives of people around me, many of them can be traced back to the alternator. When we do not receive sufficient current from the source of power–God–then we’re going to experience a variety of miscues and failures.

Can’t stop smoking, eating, watching porn, or drinking? Sounds like a power problem.  Can’t maintain relationships, jobs, or other responsibilities? It’s the alternator. Can’t get excited about a life of worship or genuinely care about the people around you? Again, it’s that power source.

Just as not all problems with a car can be traced to the alternator, not all those in life can be blamed on the connection to God’s power. Still, many problems that seem to have various sources are really focused on that one connection.

 

How Yoga Came to America Via Russia

YogaA recent interview on NPR’s show Fresh Aire featured Michelle Goldberg, author of a book on yoga as it is known in the United States.

Her book traces the modern Western practice of yoga to a Russian woman named Indra Devi, who was born in 1899 with the birth name Eugenia Peterson. Devi became interested in yoga after reading about it in book written by an American new-age thinker. She studied the practice in India before introducing it to political leaders in Russia and Shanghai and, in 1947, bringing it to America, where her students included Hollywood celebrities like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson.

So if Goldberg is correct, then yoga as we now know it in a zillion studios is about as authentically Indian as Taco Bell is authentically Mexican. Who would have taken seriously a yoga teacher named Eugenia Peterson. Indra Devi just sounded so much more exotic!

Goldberg explains that not only was the teacher not exactly the real deal but the yoga that Peterson brought from India was probably not terribly similar to the yoga that had been practiced in the dim and distant past along the banks of the Ganges,

There’s no mention of warrior poses or sun salutations in any ancient text at all. That might be a little disillusioning to some people, [but] what I hope and what it ultimately meant to me, is we don’t have to feel so anxious about the authenticity of our modern practices because like anything … it’s a modern adaptation and that might, I hope, let people feel a little less anxious about adapting it for their own needs.

That means that those sun salutations that Don Draper was dragged into doing in the final episode of Mad Men were just about as traditional as the advertisements that poured out of the man’s imagination.

I’ve written about yoga before, explaining my mixed feelings on the topic. At its heart, I think my biggest beef with yoga is its pretensions to be something that it is not. When it turns out that the modern versions of evangelical Christianity are every bit as “ancient” as is yoga (as practiced in the U.S.), I feel a great deal more spiritual than I did before.

Meditation for Everyone?

YogaWhat could meditation possibly hurt? It’s not some wicked thing like Christianity. We all know the terrible things that Christians do. You know…there were the Crusades. And the Crusades. Oh yeah, and the Salem Witch Trials. That was only 400-plus years ago. And Christianity today is just as deadly, right?

On the other hand, meditation is all smiling people on hillsides saluting the sun and becoming mindful. It’s all about living in the moment. After all, wasn’t it the Buddha who told us, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own”?

Yes, these thoughts might be an exaggeration of the attitudes of popular culture’s view of meditation and “mindfulness” practices as no-brainer, harmless, non-religious practices, but they are not utterly off base. A lot of people thought that Don Draper going to a meditation retreat at the end of Mad Men looked like a good idea. What would they have thought had he gone off to commune with Dominicans or Billy Graham? If Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, had been a Presbyterian, don’t you think the critics would have been all over that? Instead, he was obsessed with meditation.

From a purely anecdotal standpoint, if Russell Brand thinks meditation is terrific, shouldn’t we be skeptical? Just a thought.

As it turns out, a fair amount of literature by reputable researchers has been suggesting that meditation might not be quite as benign as people have been led to believe. A couple of recent articles (here and here) have given an overview. David Shapiro of UCLA did a study of a small group and found that 63% of them had negative outcomes from meditation.

The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion and disorientation. But perhaps only the least experienced felt them – and might several days of meditation not overwhelm those who were relatively new to the practice? The answer was no. When Shapiro divided the larger group into those with lesser and greater experience, there were no differences: all had an equal number of adverse experiences.

Currently, researchers in England have been looking into the practice, especially as it has been adopted as a more mainstream psychological therapy.

And one in 14 of them suffered ‘profoundly adverse effects’, according to Miguel Farias, head of the brain, belief and behaviour research group at Coventry University and Catherine Wikholm, a researcher in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey.

Granted, Farias and Wikholm have a book to sell, The Buddha Pill, but there findings should be enough to at least warrant some concern. If a medical procedure had severe negative effects for 1 in 14 patients, would the FDA permit its use?

It shouldn’t surprise the Christian thinker that Buddhist-style meditation, in which the practitioner attempts to empty the mind, would lead to negative results. The human mind doesn’t empty very readily, but it can shake off the restricting forces that keep our worst thoughts at bay. Left to its own, hopelessly sinful, devices, my mind can go to some exceptionally dark places, places I don’t want to visit without the Holy Spirit along for protection.