Meditation and Incarnation
A few months ago, I began to incorporate the practice of guided meditation into my daily schedule. This particular form of meditation focuses on embodiment, which involves being more in tune with and aware of the body. What I have discovered so far is that this form of meditation not only has concrete benefits, such as remaining calm and being “present,” but also profound theological implications. In fact, I would go so far as to say that meditation is not only an effective way of managing anxiety, but can also be an important spiritual discipline that enhances the Christian life.
Our Gnostic Heritage
A significant portion of Christian theology and practice has inherited a fairly gnostic skepticism toward physicality. For many Christians, the earth is just one stop along our journey, where the ultimate destination is an ethereal heaven where we’re free from our bodily prisons. There are plenty of reasons for the prevalence of this perspective, one of which is Western philosophy, which has a long and entrenched history of promoting the idea that humans are (and should be) thinking things instead of enfleshed creatures.
This gnostic heritage leads many of us to dissociate with the cycles of nature, including bodily rhythms and needs. The phrase “denial of the flesh” is taken to imply the suppression of physical manifestations of both pain and pleasure. (If you want to see an example of this, just watch some of the older movies depicting Jesus, where he is virtually no different from a stiff, expressionless, cardboard cutout incapable of voice inflection). Such resistance to embodiment not only has negative consequences for bodily health and emotional maturity, but also prevents us from experiencing the richness of a physically-positive Christian spirituality.
Intentionally living in my body has never been easy for me. Sure, I try to pay attention to its needs (and, when I’m really motivated, try to address them). But even then, I value my body for its utility: it is the vehicle for transportation, nourishment, productivity, and so on. But fortunately, through meditative practice, I’m learning how to better appreciate my bodily existence as a gift.
In Genesis, God creates material reality, including humans, and calls it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The goodness of creation is a doctrine that’s easily lost in our affinity toward escapism. And yet, even when we intellectually acknowledge that creation is good, we rarely live like that’s the case. We go through life as if materiality is a tool to be used, not a blessing to be enjoyed. We divorce the spiritual from the physical, creating a false dichotomy that prevents an accurate understanding and experience of either.
Fortunately, the incarnation offers a promising model for living the Christian life. In the incarnation, God became flesh (John 1:14), simultaneously affirming the goodness of creation and redeeming it from the sin that ails it. Our ability to cognitively assent to truth while failing to embody it is, ironically, a byproduct of our gnostic anti-materialism. Yet Jesus highlights how truth, and the Christian faith, is something that is lived out in the body. Truth is not just a proposition to be believed, but a reality to be incarnated.
Physically Affirming Truth
In Christ, we have an image of truth that is physical, and meditation can help us follow his example of embodying truth. Meditation has enriched my life by helping me appreciate my physical existence. I’ve always had a surface-level appreciation of breath and what it does for the body, but I’ve only recently sat with my breath, allowing myself to experience the miracle of oxygen reverberating in my lungs. Now I experience the myriad of sensations that come with sitting in sunlight. And we can rest assured that the joy of these sensations was not lost on the God who became flesh, the one who created sensation in the first place.
Taking time to meditate and drink in these physical sensations enables us to genuinely experience the privilege of being physical creatures. God does not just provide us meals to get us through the day, God wants us to savor the richness of texture and flavor. God wants us to marinate in the physical pleasure of laughter. God desires for us to sit and enjoy sunlight and a cool breeze. And in so doing, we allow the goodness of creation, the wonder of the incarnation, and the love of our creator to be inscribed into our flesh.