A Quick History of Meditation and Mysticism

Christians have used meditation or contemplation to open to God since the time of Jesus. Early Christian monks and nuns such as the Desert Fathers and Mothers certainly meditated. Saint Francis, Saint Benedict and Teresa of Avila or, in Protestantism, George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers), are a few well-known Christian mystics. Almost all Catholic saints meditated or contemplated.

The word mysticism means having a direct experience of the Divine. Mystics usually come to this direct experience by using meditation or contemplation techniques. The word gnosis (pronounced “know-sis”) means a person who experiences God directly. The historical sect known as Gnostics is not the same thing as the general concept of gnosis.

For Protestants, the idea of meditation sometimes feels difficult for two reasons:

1) In about 1550 Martin Luther and John Calvin were preaching the beliefs of the Reformation, the foundation of Protestantism. Just a few years later, in about 1600, the philosopher René Descartes was teaching that reason and analytical thought should be paramount in human life, leading to the Age of Reason. So in the early 1600s, many people came to believe that—even in religious belief— reason mattered more than intuitive experience.

2) Many Protestants feel the Catholics really got it wrong. For example, praying to saints is something Protestants do not accept as valid. Many Protestants know nothing about saints and have no interest in praying the way a saint prayed.

While the Catholic Church’s history includes contemplation and meditation, none of the Protestant churches except the Quakers have taught meditation. And today, no Catholic seminary in the West teaches meditation, even though it was the path of most Catholic saints.

Finally, some Christian scholars today feel Jesus was a mystic, especially after the discovery in 1945 of the Nag Hammadi scriptures. Christian scholars Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault teach Christian meditation because they feel that Jesus must have meditated as a way to pray. Cynthia Bourgeault’s book The Wisdom Jesus is a perfect introduction to seeing Jesus as a mystic . Click here to look at Rohr and Bourgeault’s books in the Bookstore.  Other well-known Christian scholars who have taught meditation are John Main, Thomas Merton, and Thomas Keating.

Meditation in Other Religions

Throughout human history, in every religion, believers have used some form of meditation. Like reading or singing, the practice of meditation itself is not part of any one religion. For example, nowadays people meditate to lower their blood pressure and to relieve stress.  It is the content of the mind and the intention that makes a meditation religious or not.

India’s main religion, Hinduism, has taught meditation for more than 3000 years. Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, the Vedas, were written in about 1500 BC and the Upanishads in about 700 BC.  Hindus worship many gods, such as Shiva, Krishna and Kali, which they see as manifestations of a single divine unity. Many see this divine unity as the one God. While Hindu prayer today may not involve meditation, Hindu mysticism laid the foundation for many other religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The “Hari Ram, Hari Krishna” movements of the 1960s used these Sanskrit words as Hindu mantras as did the TM or Transcendental Meditation movement. A mantra is simply a word used during meditation to improve concentration.

The religion that focuses most on meditation is Buddhism, the main religion of East and Southeast Asia. Buddhism has no god. Buddhists do not worship Buddha. Buddhism teaches compassion towards all living beings, and Buddhists learn meditation as a way to end human suffering. Because Buddhist teachers have studied and used meditation since about 500 BC, they really know the in’s and out’s of learning to meditate. They practice thousands of meditation techniques. Zen is a kind of Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama is the leader of a large Tibetan Buddhist sect.

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. Just as in Spanish, “agua” means “water,” in the Arabic language, “Allah” means “God.” For example, Syrian Christians who speak Arabic use the word “Allah” when they say the Christian Lord’s Prayer. Muslims worship God and follow Mohammed as their main prophet, in addition to Jesus and Moses. Sufi whirling, as in whirling dervishes, is one type of meditation technique. The Sufi poet Rumi is enormously popular around the world. The poets Rumi and Hafiz have made Sufi mystical concepts available to everyone.  However, not all Muslims agree that Sufis are still part of Islam.

Mysticism has been recorded in Jewish thought since about 100 BC, and the Torah includes stories of prophetic dreams, visions and angels. Kabbalah is a well-known form of Judaic mystical thought. The Zohar is a text written in the Middle Ages that gathers together Judaism’s teachings on mysticism. Chasidic Jews include prayers from the Kaballah in their prayer books.

Here is a Sufi poem about God:

Now be silent.

Let the One who creates the words speak.

He made the door.

He made the lock.

He also made the key.

— Rumi

For more about scripture, meditation and mysticism in other religions, look at the books by Easwaran, Rumi and Hafiz in the Bookstore.