Mindfulness: A Christian Approach
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
There are over 20 references to meditation in the Bible. The first mention is in Genesis 24: 62. "Now Isaac (c. 2000 BC) had come from Beer Lahai Roi, for he was living in the Negev. He went out to the field one evening to meditate..." It is doubtful that Isaac was sitting in full lotus, with his hands in a mudra. Rather, he was probably in a contemplative and prayerful state. In the Book of Psalms, King David references meditation 19 times. Again, there is no mention of deep breathing, anapana, posture, body scanning, or mantras:
19:14 May the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord.
39:3 My heart grew hot within me. While I meditated, the fire burned.
48:98 We meditate on your unfailing love.
104:34 May my meditation be pleasing to him.
119:15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.
119:97 O How I love your law; I meditate on it all day long.
143:5 I meditate on all your works and consider what your hands have done.
Meditation, as David described it, is more contemplative and generative. By generative, I mean the cultivation of an affect or quality of mind: gratitude, humility, compassion, joy. In the Epistles, the Apostle Paul writes: Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. (Phil 4:7-8)
He repeats this instruction in a letter to Timothy: Meditate upon these things; that thy profiting may appear to all. (1 Tim 4:15)
By focusing the mind on virtuous qualities like compassion or loving kindness, we cultivate the feeling which then expresses outwardly in thought, word, and deed, such that the evidence of discipline "may appear to all."
Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, meditation is a spiritual discipline- which includes prayer, worship, service, fasting, charity, gratitude, asceticism, and chastity among others. The practice of Christianity is not identical across denominations, however, nor is there uniformity in rites, rituals, or beliefs among the many sects. But it is important to note that Christians have been meditating for millennia. It is not a new trend.
Hesychasm was one of the earliest techniques and originated in the Early Church sometime in the 4th Century, long before the schism in 1054 that split the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Hesychasm is Greek for "quiet; to rest." The practice was based on Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
The technique begins with katharsis (purification). In this technique, emphasis is on focus and attention. The hesychast, or practitioner, develops single-pointed concentration on his/her inner experience and repeats the Jesus Prayer:
Breathing in: O Lord, Jesus Christ
Breathing out: Have mercy on me.
With practice, they cultivate nepsis (vigilance). Like the watchman Christ speaks of in parable, the practitioner is enjoined to “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Mat 24:42)
“If the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief (distraction, wandering, ego) would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. (Mat 24:43)
The hesychast attaches eros “yearning” to overcome accedia (sloth) which leads, in time, to theoria (illumination). The mind approaches purity and stillness. Then finally, ego dissolves (kenosis) and the hesychast achieves theosis (union).
This map is similar to what meditators in other traditions experience. The terms are different, but the end is the same- dissolution of ego, the false idol "I."
Meditation is better suited to some temperaments. The early Desert Mothers and Fathers were hermits and ascetics, wandering sadhus of the 3rd Century, who retired to the desert and, in solitude, practiced meditation among other spiritual disciplines. The monks and nuns were the progenitors of monasticism.
In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, one hermit wrote: 'Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work." Abba Moses said: "Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all."
Apophatic meditation is another centuries old technique that began sometime in the 5th century. Apophatic means “approaching God by negation- without concepts, images or words.” to experience "the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding." It is a concentrative practice similar to the Vedantic technique of neti neti ("Not this, not this"). It is a rejection of whatever mind conceives as God. God cannot be grasped by the puny intellect from which it derives its source and light. God is the Ground of Being. We approach without concepts, receptive, expecting nothing, with an open heart thirsting for instruction and experiential insight- not more words or theories or ideas or theology- but direct experience.
In the Catholic Church, lectio divina is is a traditional monastic practice of scriptural reading, meditation and prayer intended to promote communion with God and embodiment of the Word. The technique consists in:
1. Reading (Oratio)
2. Contemplation (Contemplatio)
3. Meditation (Meditatio)
4. Prayer (Oratio)
The rosary, or prayer beads, are often used to train, discipline, and center the mind in faith.
Visualization techniques are as common in Christianity as in all contemplative traditions (e.g. the Mahayana or Tantric schools of Buddhism). We visualize Christ or a saint and contemplate their qualities. We try to generate these qualities within ourselves: the compassion of Christ, the altruism of a saint, the faith of an apostle.
Centering Prayer is another popular technique amongst Christian meditators. Father M. Basil Pennington suggests these steps:
Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God.
Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.
Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord's presence and open to His divine action within you.
Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations, etc.), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.
Father Keating adds: "The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts."
Many Christians practice secular meditation techniques. I integrate these with my faith. When focusing attention on the breath, for example, I might begin with Scripture: "All the while, the breath is in me, and the Spirit of God is in my nostrils." When I assume a meditation posture, I might think: "Ye are the Temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you... for the Temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." When scanning the body, I might think: "I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are thy works and that my soul knoweth right well." When discouragement arises, I might think: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." When fear arises, I might think: "God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind."
Christianity also informs my practice in a much deeper sense. The end is kenosis (self-abnegation, no-self). Like the Apostle Paul, I wish to "die daily" to self, to ego. Ego is the golden calf, the false idol. From my youth, I have sought God, having experienced the ecstasy of union early. There is no greater bliss. I know that "the kingdom of Heaven is within."
In the hymn, Be Still and Let the Spirit Speak, Antonio Haskell writes:
Be still, and let the spirit speak. Forego the worldly strain;
Your closet enter, shut the door. Let the silence in you reign;
The center of your being find, from it turn not away;
Wait on your Lord, give ear to Him in all He has to say;
The great I Am in you will speak, And you will wisdom find;
With seers who in the ages past, the hearing ear inclined;
The spirit unto you will give the knowledge that you need;
And daily will you grow in grace, If you’ll the Spirit heed.