Mindfulness And Meditation In The Western Tradition
Many spiritual seekers, having explored the far reaches of the globe’s religious and spiritual offerings, are returning to the religious faiths of their youth. They are curious to see if their own roots can offer them spiritual sustenance. Returning, these spiritual seekers are not passively accepting these traditions, but are testing and shaping them to respond to their needs.
Among many spiritual people in the West, it is common to see a superficial and critical stereotype of Western faiths, specifically Christianity and Judaism. According to these stereotypes, both religions are rooted in meaningless rituals and formulaic repetitions. Christianity, these stereotypes presuppose, is centered around dogmatic belief, while Judaism is centered around dogmatic behaviors. On the contrary, all religions including the faiths of the Western tradition are deeply mystical at their core. As practitioners struggle to recreate their own ecstatic experiences, formulas and structures emerge, and the fluidity of spirit is replaced with the rigidity of human invention.
Judaism and Christianity have also suffered from limiting access to their mystical traditions. Since the Second Temple period in Judaism (520 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.), Judaism has held its mystical practices as a "secret" knowledge only for the initiated. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan delineates the practice of one learned rabbi teaching the occult mysteries of the day similar to the advanced arts of Hindu yogis and adepts to his disciples and initiating them into an unbroken chain of masters. Later, Kabbalistic teachers were aware of the dangers of traveling too far into pardes, the divine orchard that is the fruit of mystical contemplation, and restricted the practice to those who were at least forty, had high moral standards, prior rabbinic learning, were married, and were emotionally and mentally stable.
Christianity, a religion founded on ecstatic spiritual experiences, nearly strangled its own meditative and mystical practices through the misguided attempts of the Inquisition to root out heresy. Contemplative or "mental" prayer became associated with the heretical practices. Today these "heresies" seem like mild differences of opinion, but their adherents were nonetheless brutally persecuted by church authorities. As a result, the contemplative practices that had flourished for the first fifteen centuries of the Christian faith went underground until the 20th century.
Because of both popular misconception and the differing historical practices of these religions, it requires a bit of delving below the surface to find the mystical training of Judaism and Christianity. But the searcher is rewarded, as both religions have long and fascinating traditions of meditation and mindfulness practices that are unfamiliar to most modern Westerners.
In searching for the ancient roots of Jewish or Christian meditative practices, it immediately becomes clear that the practices of the two faiths intertwine repeatedly with each other, like a pair of DNA strands converging and separating. At their earliest convergence, Jesus appears as one of many Jewish holy men. Like his near contemporaries, Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa, he practiced meditation. The latter two were famous for their contemplative prayer and their ability as "miracle workers." About them it is said that they would still their hearts before God before they would heal. The gospel record tells us that Jesus also prayed for hours at a time, sometimes all night long, and his record of miracles and healing is well attested.
Judaism and Christianity were both touched by Gnostic beliefs, and this strand of mysticism weaves through both their histories. While associated largely with the birth of Christianity, Gnosticism was an essentially Greek philosophy, spread across the ancient Mediterranean world by waves of conquering Greeks and Romans. It posits a radical dualism between matter and spirit, and its mythology is replete with imagery of descents and ascents from the world of spirit to the world of matter.
There are parallels between Gnostic imagery and two of the oldest Jewish mystical visions we know of, the merkavah and the hekhalot, fascinating and cryptic accounts of spirit journeys. Further, Gnostic influences clearly shaped the Sefer Ha-Bahir, the first Kabbalistic book written in the 12th century.
Gnostic views likewise shaped early Christianity, in spite of extreme opposition from the orthodox church. The Christian church embraced many Gnostic ideas about the evil nature of the world, notwithstanding the theology of the incarnation in which God takes human form. Alternately, the church also continued to act as a container for the quest of gnosis, or knowledge of God.
Later on in the Middle Ages, the influence of Gnostic ideas would travel through Judaism into Christianity in the mystical practices of the Kabbalah. Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides, one of the great minds of the Middle Ages, was greatly influenced by Kabbalistic thinkers. In turn, his writings were a tremendous influence on Meister Eckhart, a visionary Catholic monk. Both taught a form of meditation based on the concept of "seclusion," or sealing the mind off from internal and external distractions, and "inwardness," a training of the faculties to focus, transcending all fragmentation or dissipation of spiritual concentration.
The common roots of Judaism and Christianity have led to confluences of thought and practice, but they are separate faiths. While we will see overlaps in meditative and mindfulness practices such as the example just given, there are also distinct and fascinating differences in the paths each offers on the journey of faith.
Jewish Meditation Practices
Spanish practitioners of the Kabbalah in the 13th century developed an ecstatic form of meditation techniques. This technique emphasizes the recitation of divine names and combinations of the Hebrew alphabet based on one of the earliest Jewish mystical texts, the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Creation. The book combines Hebrew letters, numbers, and verses of the Torah to describe the creation of the physical universe. Mystic adepts were said to have used it to create life animals for food and, on rare occasions, a partially human creature called a golem.
Scholars date the writing of the book from 100 C.E. to 900 C.E. The introduction to a 10th century manuscript reads, "This is the book of the Letters of Abraham our father, which is called Sefer Yetzirah, and when one gazes (tazfah) into it, there is no limit to his wisdom." The Hebrew word tazfah denotes mystical insight and the book was intended for meditative uses.
The most prominent ecstatic Kabbalist was Abraham Abulafia. Born in Spain in 1240, Abulafia traveled and lived in Italy, Sicily, Greece, and the land of Israel. In his travels he may have been influenced by Sufism and yoga. He combined the teachings of the Sefer Yetzirah with Rabbi Maimonides’ teaching about prophecy channeling the divine intellect. According to Abulafia’s theory, our awareness is cluttered by sensible forms. The goal of his meditation is to "untie the knots" that bind the soul and to free the mind from definitions by meditating on the pure forms of the alphabet or the name of God. Through the lack of particular meaning or intellectual distractions, consciousness expands.
Rabbi Abraham Maimonides, the son of Moses ben Maimonides, wrote extensively on a form of meditation he called "seclusion." According to his interpretation, the Hebrew word hitbodedut refers not only to external seclusion, but to an internal meditative state. He instructs those who want to immerse themselves in the divine to achieve a complete cessation of perception and thoughts. "The motivating force of the consciousness is thus divorced from all worldly concepts and is inclined toward the Divine. The intellect then becomes enveloped in the Divine, and the imagination which is associated with the meditative faculty becomes activated through contemplation in God’s creation, gazing at the mighty things that bear witness to their Creator." Although the technique advises both personal isolation and the silencing of the mind, in characteristic Jewish earthiness it then rejoices in the glory of nature.
In Meditation and the Bible, Rabbi Kaplan understands one of the authors of the Psalms to have practiced this purifying meditation technique, cleansing his heart and mind of all things other than the Divine.
With You, I have no desire on earth.
My flesh and my heart fade away,
God becomes the Rock of my heart,
My portion forever…
I have placed my essence in God my Lord,
To express all Your transcendence.
— Psalm 73
Perhaps the most prevalent and least esoteric Jewish meditation practice is that of chesed, or loving-kindness. Chesed is not a practice removed from the world, but centered firmly in it. The practitioner works to steady the emotions and open the heart by treating everyone with loving-kindness. While the practice affects those around them, there is an internal transformation within the practitioner as well.
Chesed lies at the heart of Judaism, as it does in Christianity and Buddhism as well. Shortly after he received the Nobel Prize for Peace, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, said, "Human kindness and compassion, that’s my personal religion; maybe it is the universal religion."
Christian Meditation Practices
Throughout the middle ages, the method of prayer proposed for both lay persons and monastics was called lectio divina, literally "divine reading." The practice is meant to develop ever deeper levels of inward attention, to train the mind to find God. It is based on reading scripture, slowly savoring and reading the words out loud, so that the body and mind are united in the experience.
The first part of the practice is called the meditatio, the meditation. The mind reflects on the sacred words in an active fashion. Progressively, the prayer deepens, and the soul calls out spontaneously to God. This part of lectio divina is called oratio, literally "speech." As the reflections and emotions settle, the practitioner moves into a "resting in God" called contemplatio, contemplation.
In later years, theologians came to divide this unified practice into three divisions: discursive meditation, affective prayer, and contemplation. The Catholic church came to believe that the first two kinds of prayer were "safe" for everyone, but that contemplation was dangerous and only for the very few — even among priests and nuns. But originally the church saw no such artificial divisions and considered the prayers to be unified and interwoven. In Abbot Thomas Keating’s expressive words, "Like the angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder, one’s attention was expected to go up and down the steps of the ladder of consciousness. Sometimes one would praise the Lord with one’s lips, sometimes with one’s thoughts, sometimes with acts of will, and sometimes with silence, with the rapt attention of contemplation." Even today this image of lectio divina is a beautiful example of acceptance of the mind’s process in the meditative journey.
Like the Hindu religion and its modern day off-shoots such as Transcendental Meditation, Christianity has a long history of meditative prayer using only a word or phrase. Our first evidence of this practice comes to us through stories of the desert fathers and mothers. In the fourth century, two monks named John Cassian and Germanus set out to find a living tradition of prayer and meditation that they could not find in their monastery. Their long travels took them to the Egyptian desert, where they found Abba Isaac, a holy man who embodied their search for one whose whole life was devoted to the consciousness of God. Later, Cassian took Abba Isaac’s teachings and transmitted them to Catholic disciples in this form: "The mind thus casts out and represses the rich and ample matter of all thoughts and restricts itself to the poverty of a single verse."
The practice of using a mantra to still the mind traveled down to the Middle Ages. The unknown English author of a mystical book, The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote in the 14th century about this meditative practice, "Choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as "God" or "love" is best. But choose one that is meaningful to you… It is best when this word is wholly interior without a definite thought or actual sound."
In the 1970s, Catholics revived this dormant practice. As an example, the late Father John Main, who had been trained in mantra meditation by an Indian swami in Malaysia, rediscovered Cassian’s teachings. He went on to found the Benedictine Priory of Montreal as a monastery and retreat center dedicated to teaching meditation in the Christian tradition.
The via negativa is one of two great mystical traditions. The via positiva focuses on creation and daily life as a container for the divine. The via negativa, on the other hand, concentrates on the otherness of God. While this "path of negation" has a reputation for asceticism, sometimes taken to the extreme of masochism, its greatest practices are almost identical to those of mystical traditions around the world.
Central to the via negativa is the belief that God is essentially unknowable, so incomprehensible that the mind can only use negations to describe the Supreme Being. Travelling closer to the divine is a journey into darkness. St. Mechtild of Magdeburg wrote:
You must love no-thingness,
You must flee something,
You must remain alone
And go to nobody.
St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, wrote of the "dark night," and he distinguishes two "nights of the soul." The first is the night of the senses, when the sensual part of the soul is purified, and the second given only to a few is the night of the spirit, when the soul is entirely cleansed of self through the inflowing of God’s grace. Thus great darkness leads to enlightenment.
Mindfulness In The West
In contrast to meditation practices that call for seclusion from the world, both Judaism and Christianity contain practices of honoring the divine in the world that we can consider mindfulness. On a theological level, Judaism has always centered around the belief that the divine exists in creation, and Christianity is inherently and centrally about the descent of divinity to the human plane.
As an interesting aside, the current fascination with Gnosticism as a more spiritual and true version of Christ’s teachings however valid this belief may be overlooks the fact that Gnosticism is based on a radical dualism that posits the world of matter as completely evil. Further, Gnostic myths describe two gods: an evil god of matter that they equate with Jahweh of the Hebrew Bible, and a good god of spirit that they equate with the deity of the New Testament, a sinister and anti-Semitic theology.
In contrast, the orthodoxy of both Judaism and Christianity consistently portrays the world as created by and embued with God’s presence. Judaism in particular is filled with ritual prayers designed to make the most mundane activity washing the hands, for example an opportunity to be reminded of God. The comparison to Zen practices is easy to make.
The Hasidim follow a Kabbalistic practice called raising the sparks. They believe that the divine, in creating the universe, contracted its essence and later shattered, falling to Earth in sparks. These sparks animate people, animals, and objects. A religious Hasid concentrates on perceiving these divine sparks with every action, thus raising the sparks back to a divine plane.
On a less esoteric level, the Hasidim practice a kind of earthy joyfulness as an antidote to the intellectualism of Talmudic study. The movement arose in Europe when Jews were suffering terribly from pogroms and poverty. Their leader, the Baal Shem Tov, taught them to sing, dance, enjoy the conjugal bed, and to find God every act.
Among Christians, the Benedictines in particular are taught to practice mindfulness. St. Benedict, the patriarch of Western monks, taught his students to live apertis oculis and attonitis auribus, with eyes so open and with ears so alert that God’s presence shone through everyday activities. St. Benedict also taught his followers to treat every pot and pan in the monastery like the sacred vessels of the altar. Again, the similarity with Buddhist practices is evident.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a current day Benedictine monk, suggests particular exercises to awaken the senses and develop mindfulness. Among them is his suggestion to devote one day each week to one of the five senses. Monday, for example, would be dedicated to the sense of sight, to truly seeing the world present around us. Tuesday would be devoted to the sense of smell, and so on, leaving two days to the "atrophied" sense of touch. According to his teaching, this practice leads to the sense of joy at life experienced by the very young and is the very entrance to the kingdom of heaven. Take off your shoes, Brother Steindl-Rast exhorts, for, like Moses, you are standing on holy ground.
The image of the union of the human soul with the divine is common in almost all religions. In the West the most common image is found in the biblical Song of Songs. In exquisite poetry, the Song tells of the longing of a bride for her bridegroom, their unabashed and joyful sexual union, a heartbreaking separation, and their final reunion. It narrowly escaped being banned by both Jews and Christians, who managed, in theory at least, to submerge the sexual imagery by interpreting the Song of Songs as an allegorical story of the relationship between humans and God.
The union of the human soul with God, whichever metaphor is used to describe this ineffable experience, is the ultimate experience in meditation and mindfulness. In Judaism and Christianity, this image of union with the divine is central to both traditions. It appears in the meditative visions of those who renounce the world completely in meditative seclusion, as well as in the philosophy of those who embrace the divine in the world through mindfulness. In fact, the two practices of meditation and mindfulness converge at this image of union. Whether the path is the via negative or the via positiva the destination is the same.
Consider the words of St. John of the Cross, who expressed the via negativa in some of the most rapturous poetry written. His renunciation leads him back to the world in ecstasy.
My Beloved is the mountains,
And lonely wooded valleys,
And resounding rivers,
The whistling of love-stirring breezes,
The tranquil night.
In a similar spiral, a journey into the religious practices of any faith, including Christianity and Judaism, leads to a mystical treasure.
Catherine Faurot has written extensively in the fields of religion and spirituality, having graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Religious Studies, as well as training in the esoteric techniques of the Western mystical tradition. Ms. Faurot is currently working on a master’s degree at Dartmouth College, studying the influences of the Canaanite religion on Judaism, the Kabbalah, and alternative Christianity. She lives in Vermont with her husband and three sons.