Updated: Feb 7, 2020
If you're any kind of endurance athlete, you've likely heard of Heart Rate Variability, the notion that when you're least stressed, the length of time between each heart beat is varied, so that it doesn't sound like a metronome, but a bit more random. Random is good! It means you're healthy and at rest, not feeling any sense of threat. There are lots of ways to determine your HRV (heart rate variability) including apps for your phone, and various watches. My watch gives me a stress score! Whether I'm watching an exciting basketball game, sitting in a meeting, or enjoying an after supper conversation, I'm able to see at a glance how my HRV is doing.
Meanwhile, there's a verse in the Bible that says, "above all else guard your heart", for from it flow the wellsprings of life." I've read that a few hundred times, at least, and always thought of it as purely synonymous with "spirit" as if they're exactly the same thing. As a result, I've applied the verse to mean, "make sure you don't anything that God doesn't like - anything unspiritual". This view led to a bit of fixation on avoiding sexual sin, bad movies, lying, and a few other notable evils.
Heart guarded? Spirit Preserved? Check
I'm not so sure anymore. As I've looked at my stress levels, and how they rise and fall, I've come to discover that my stress, and hence my heart, isn't rising and falling randomly, but rather in response to a cocktail of my cardiac health, life circumstances, the particular activity of the moment, and my response to that activity. What if, in God's wisdom, God is telling me to choose activities and thoughts that will allow my actual physical heart to enjoy the rest and peace that ought to be its default position much more than I presently do? What if guard your heart means, "pay attention to your stress levels and when you're constantly under stress and/or anxious, take the steps I show you in order to fix it" .
"There are steps?" you might be asking. Yes! There's a fascinating series in Psychology Today about this entitle "The Vagus Nerve Survival Guide" (because HRV is controlled largely by your vagus nerve). It turns out there are things you can do to increase your HRV, but what's simply amazing to me is that each of this things that the author exhorts us to do has a parallel in the universe of spiritual disciplines. Over time I'll show you all of them. The first one, covered here today is meditation.
Bergland calls it "diaphragmatic breathing exercises" but it's meditation. The Hebrew word for meditation is "hagah" and is used in Psalm 1, Joshua 1, Psalm 63, and elsewhere. The word includes the meaning of "chewing on" and even implies a vocal participation. We're told that those who meditate will be fruitful, confident, and courageous. That sounds like "not stressed", and I'll be such a person's HRV would be stellar. So how does meditation (on scripture or scriptural truths) touch our physical heart?
When you repeat a scripture like "the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" or "I am complete in Christ" or "Christ lives in me", slowly, over and over again, either silently or aloud, your breathing will slow down. Why? Because your breath responds to how you perceive the world at any given moment. When the world's a threat, you go into flight or fight mode and your breathing speeds up. Stress hormones pour into your body and your HRV goes down, while your pulse goes up. None of this is helping you live a longer life - it's only helping you fight for a moment or two, or run away. The trouble is that we're essentially facing the "flight or fight" perspective almost all the time these days, from the tension of meetings and production deadlines, to traffic, to the news out of DC, Syria, Iran, and everywhere, to our own brokenness, body image issues, wondering if we're "enough", and a host of other issues.
Meditation is like shutting your computer down when it's frozen and the spinning "wheel of death" won't let you do anything and the little fan motor is whirring because its overheating and the CPU thing says its using a ton of memory and energy, which is weird because the only thing open is a word doc, and youtube. So "shut her down" and start over. Meditation does that!
I sit, take a couple of breaths, ring a gong on an app that has a timer set for ten minutes, and then begin breathing slowly. On my inhale, I say my meditation verse for the day. On the exhale I say "thank you". It's prayer really, and an expression of gratitude for something that's true about my identity, a deep reminder, so that the truth doesn't get essentially stolen by the birds of worry, lust, fear, anger, traffic, shame, etc. etc.
My breathing slows down, my worries get swept away. The truth of who I am in Christ comes flooding in. And....
My pulse slows down. My blood pressure drops. My HRV goes up. I'm at rest.
I close by praying for people that God brings to mind. The bell rings again. I start my day. But I start my day with a guarded heart, bathed in the infinite love the creator. It's not a magic trick. It's meditation - which means saturating my being with the truth that I'm deeply loved by the creator of the universe.
People think that jogging and skipping bacon are the only ways to care for their hearts, and while at least one of those disciplines has merit, the habit of meditation has helped me live more deeply "rooted and grounded in love" as Paul desired all Christ followers be - and that's a pretty good way of starting my day. Try it!