Meditation in the Christian Tradition

Meditation is almost always assumed to be an Eastern spiritual discipline and many people, including practising Christians, are often surprised to discover that there is, in fact, a well-established tradition of contemplative spirituality within Christianity. That said, we should not simply assume that practices fulfilling a similar role within two different traditions are necessarily analogous or in any way equivalent. This cautionary disclaimer is necessary because we tend to see things the way we want to see them, rather than the way they actually are – a habit that meditation seeks to mitigate. The truth of the matter is that when looking for evidence of meditation in the Christian tradition, much of what we are likely to find may at first glance appear to be quite unlike those familiar meditation practices, including mindfulness, loosely based on or derived from Indian religious traditions such as Buddhism. Generally speaking, in Christianity, meditation means chewing over the word of God in Holy Scripture, perhaps involving recitation of the psalms, or ruminating on passages from the life of Jesus in the Gospels. The emphasis tends to be on content rather than technique, theology rather than psychology. This is meditation in the ordinary English sense of the word meaning ‘to think deeply’ about something, and for the Christian contemplative, that ‘something’ – the content of the practice, in other words – is what’s important. Meditation in a Christian context is more than just a psychological technique for cultivating greater emotional wellbeing: it’s a spiritual exercise designed to deepen our understanding of the truths revealed in the faith and draw us closer to God.

In practical terms, meditation in early Christian tradition meant reciting texts over and over again, usually out loud. At first glance, this would seem to suggest a practice quite different from many of the forms of meditation with which we are most familiar today. What could pondering on the Bible, or reciting the psalms, have in common with silently focussing one’s attention on the basic experience of breathing? In the popular imagination meditation is not generally concerned with actively thinking about anything at all. Indeed, in the case of mindfulness meditation, it is explicitly contentless, with the emphasis – in its secular applications at least – on helping the practitioner cope better with stress or other personal problems. Meditation in this sense tends to shy away from metaphysical considerations or doctrinal propositions. And whilst we can possibly see how repetitive chanting might lead to calm, one-pointed awareness, and ruminating on the scriptures might bring insight, the content – not to mention consequences – of that insight is likely to be quite different to the insight gained by simply observing the activity of one’s own mind. On the face of it, we would have to admit that the audible recitation of scripture does not seem to have much in common with silent non-judgmental awareness of the content of consciousness.

That said, it is worth noting that contrary to what may sometimes be supposed, content can also be important in Buddhist practice. The purpose of meditation for the Buddhist is to come to a deeper understanding of the teachings of the Buddha, by seeing the truth of them in one’s own experience and thus gaining insight into the way things are according to the doctrines of Buddhism. This could be taken to suggest that traditional Buddhist approaches to meditation arguably have more in common with Christian traditions of meditation and contemplative prayer than with the secular therapeutic approach to mindfulness and meditation as a prescription for coping with stress or a technique for improving performance.

Christian Monasticism

In Christianity, as in other religious traditions, the more advanced spiritual exercises and contemplative practices have historically tended to be the preserve of specialists, namely those who enter the monastic life, designed as it is to enable someone to devote themselves fully to a life of prayer and contemplation. One of the definitive texts of Christian monasticism is the Rule of St Benedict, a little compendium of practical guidance for the regulation of all aspects of monastic life, from matters of institutional governance to the timing and conduct of daily prayer. In it, Benedict urges his monks to keep careful watch over all that they do, aware that God sees everything. He gives advice on how to deal with distracting thoughts, and he counsels against harmful or deceptive speech, foolish chatter and immoderate laughter. This strikes me very clearly as a set of instructions closely analogous to the teaching and practice of mindfulness meditation, including the cultivation of awareness of the content of consciousness, the dispatching of distracting thoughts, and the practice of being mindful in our everyday social interactions with others.

Crucially, however, Benedict places what we might see as the cultivation of self-awareness in the context of seeing the self as an object of the awareness of an other; in this case God. Thus, he says, we should guard against sins of thought, speech or action, avoiding selfishness and desire, and remembering that we are seen at all times by God and that everything we do is reported by angels at every hour. He returns to this theme on a number of occasions, stressing the need for a high degree of vigilance with regard to our behaviour. Whether or not we actually believe in the idea of an all-seeing deity, the point is that if we conducted our lives as if it were so, really believing that we were accountable for all our thoughts and deeds to a source of authority other than the self, it would certainly concentrate the mind and keep it firmly fixed in the present. If we really believed – and acted – as if everything we said, thought or did, in private, was effectively public, then we would surely think twice before doing many of the things we do in fact do. We would, in short, live more mindfully. One might argue that this does not accurately describe mindfulness practice as we normally understand it – and that may be so – yet who could doubt that cultivating such an attitude would make us more aware of, and attentive to, the reality of the present moment?

Being Present to the Presence of God

Another way in which something similar to mindfulness has been described in the Christian tradition is ‘the practice of the presence of God’. This notion, taken from the title of the well-known little book of conversations and letters ascribed to Brother Lawrence, the 17th century Carmelite lay brother, is surely an example mindfulness in the ordinary sense of the word, denoting a state of being more present and aware. Brother Lawrence describes the practice of the presence of God as a conscious effort to think of God, and God alone, at all times, rejecting all other thoughts, so that everything he does is done for the sake of God. One of the best-known illustrations of this attitude is his insistence that there was no real difference between the time spent in formal prayer and doing the washing up – if the latter is done for the love of God. Brother Lawrence encourages those who would seek God to dwell permanently in the awareness of God’s presence, to do everything, however menial, in the spirit of an offering to God. In his case, this was demonstrated by his practice of constant spiritual recollection, even when going about his duties in the communal kitchen.

As has already been suggested, however, there is an important but obvious difference between contemporary secular mindfulness and the self-awareness that Brother Lawrence and St Benedict urge us to cultivate. Whilst both approaches require us to be more aware of the content of consciousness, the latter implies a relationship – and accountability – to a reality that transcends the self. Self-awareness is thus not simply a matter of introspective knowledge of oneself, but rather it is an exercise in seeing ourselves as others see us. The former may be informative, as far as it goes, but the latter – unnerving though it might well be – has the potential to be totally transformative. Believing, as St Benedict did, that the divine presence is everywhere, and that we are accountable for everything we think and do, provides a very different context and motivation for the practise of mindfulness, compared with a desire to de-stress or make better business decisions.

Further glimpses of mindfulness can be detected in what Benedict has to say on the subject of murmuring: the constant commentary in our heads, which is – if we are honest with ourselves – very often critical of other people. Murmuring is invariably judgemental in some way or other, and – if taken to the extreme – can be utterly poisonous. I have written about murmuring elsewhere, and we will return to it again in a later chapter; the only point I wish to make here is that murmuring is the opposite of mindfulness. We cannot be truly present to reality as it is if there is a voice in our heads adding a layer of commentary and evaluation to the basic fact of experience. Murmuring is what we very often find ourselves actually doing when we are trying to meditate and be more mindful.

Desert Monks and Greek Philosophers

Benedict was the inheritor of a tradition going back to the so-called ‘desert fathers’. During the 4th century, large numbers of people – inspired by the example of the forty days Jesus spent being tested in the wilderness – renounced the worldly society of their day in order to seek God in the uncompromising environment of the Egyptian desert. One of the most articulate of these early Christian monastics was the fourth century desert monk, Evagrius of Pontus (c.345-399). Evagrius wrote a number of treatises on the spiritual life and he has had a huge, if largely anonymous, influence on the development of Christian contemplative spirituality. In his writings, he divides the path of spiritual progress into two broad stages: first the life of ascetic practice, or the practical life, and second and the life of mystical knowledge, or gnosis. The former is concerned with some of the basic foundations for spiritual practice. These include withdrawing from the obligations and distractions of everyday life in order to establish stillness, and a process of careful self-examination, known as the ‘discernment of thoughts’ in order to cultivate apatheia – a word literally meaning ‘without passion’, but perhaps better translated as equanimity. We could describe this equanimity in terms of non-judgemental awareness, or bare attention. Apatheia is deemed to be the necessary precondition for the second stage, which is the practice of pure prayer leading to the direct knowledge of the inner truth of things, the unitive knowledge of God, or gnosis.

Evagrius gives a great deal of attention to the cultivation of apatheia, or equanimity, and in particular, to the practice of the discernment of thoughts necessary to achieve it. It is only by cultivating apatheia – which in turn is the result of what we might today describe in terms of the practice of mindfulness – that one can hope to approach the threshold of contemplation. Only when the mind is truly settled can it gain insight into a deeper or higher knowledge of God, or that which is ultimately real and true. Evagrius calls apatheia the ‘flower of the ascetic life’ because it is the necessary foundation for the contemplation of, and ultimately union with, God that Evagrius refers to as the ‘gnostical life’. He makes it clear that what prevents us from having uninterrupted communion with God is the content of our worldly mind: in other words, our thoughts. Evagrius describes prayer as ‘the laying aside of mental representations’ – thoughts, in other words – which perfectly describes something that I think many would recognise as analogous to the practice of mindfulness meditation.

Evagrius borrowed heavily from various schools of Greek philosophy, in particular Stoicism, but his path of stillness, equanimity and knowledge also resonates with certain aspects of Buddhist teaching. Indeed, there may be some profound affinities between Buddhist meditation teachings and contemplative Christian spirituality: the Buddhist emphasis on tranquillity and insight and the Evagrian notions of apatheia and gnosis seem to have more than a little in common. This may not be as much of a coincidence as it may at first seem. Although the historical record is patchy, there is compelling evidence for the spread of Buddhist ideas along the well-established trade routes that linked the civilisations of Asia with those of the Mediterranean. When Alexander the Great embarked on his ill-fated invasion of India, he had in his retinue a philosopher named Pyrrho, who is reported to have encountered Buddhist sages. Upon his return to Greece, Pyrrho adopted a life of solitude and, though he wrote nothing, he founded a school of sceptical philosophy whose doctrines bear many striking resemblances to Buddhist teachings. Amongst other things Pyrrho taught that true knowledge of things is impossible – we only have impressions – therefore the most appropriate attitude is to suspend judgement and cultivate ataraxia, literally meaning something like freedom from worry and disturbance, peace of mind, serenity and tranquillity. Giving up the beliefs we have about things – based as they are on assumptions and projections – and instead just accepting the ultimate unknowability of things, sounds a lot like the way contemporary meditation teachers talk about non-judgemental awareness.

Similarities and Differences

The similarities between contemporary mindfulness practice, and some of the other traditions I have mentioned – including the Christian contemplative practice of the presence of God, the philosophical cultivation of equanimity, and even the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels – should be obvious enough not to need pointing out. But – and it’s a big ‘but’ – there is very significant difference between the therapeutically focussed practice of contemporary secular mindfulness, and the analogous practices in both Buddhism and the Christian contemplative tradition.

In Buddhism, the point of meditation is to gain insight into the way things are; specifically the nature of the self as a construct, the process of attachment that gives rise to it, and the suffering that results from it. In Christianity the purpose of contemplation is to deepen one’s connection with or relationship to the transcendent reality referred to by the term ‘God’, or that which is ultimately real and true and also, therefore, the deepest reality of what we are. In both cases, there is an emphasis on understanding certain doctrinal truths of the worldview in question. But more importantly, there is a purpose to the practice that somehow relates to a reality beyond the self and in relation to which the self is to be transformed.

There is, in other words, a big difference between self-improvement and self-transformation. An emphasis on the former tends to nurture and reinforce the ego, which is the exact opposite of the purpose of meditation. It is this element of deep and total self-transformation that is, I believe, missing from the popular narrative of contemporary secular mindfulness, which seems focussed on treating the part rather than redeeming the whole. When mindfulness is used merely as a means to function better under stress, for example, rather than being seen as integral to a way of life that could radically transform the causes of that stress and the one who experiences stress, then we’re clearly missing something. Marketed as a self-help technique, a tool for self-improvement, mindfulness becomes part of the religion of consumerism that we have all bought into, whether consciously or not. It is both a product of late capitalism’s subjective turn, and a further cause of our ever-increasing tendency towards narcissistic self-indulgence. By contrast, the contemplative practices and spiritual exercises that we find in Buddhism, Christianity and other traditions, are disciplines of self-transformation, that teach us to see that the self as we normally understand it is a construct, an illusion, and – because it is the cause of so much of our suffering – definitely not something to be reinforced and affirmed! 

For more about meditation in the Christian tradition, see: The Wilderness Within: meditation and modern life, Canterbury Press, 2014.

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