The Christian roots of mindfulness

The Christian roots of mindfulness
Mindful Living


Dr Noel Keating


I am looking forward to exploring in this column the ancient yet very modern practice of meditation and to reflecting on its deep fruits for individuals, families and communities. One of the wonderful things about meditation is that it can be practiced by anyone, of any age, at any time, in any setting. All over the world people meditate regularly as individuals and in groups and I see great potential for meditation in the context of family life. Children love to meditate and often take to it more easily than adults.

Meditation can be said to be very old and very new at the same time. Very new because of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed the secular practice of mindfulness which he introduced as a health practitioner for the benefit of his patients. New medications or health interventions are never accepted in the health sector until they have been tested and their benefits demonstrated beyond doubt and potential side-effects identified.

Since Kabat-Zinn first introduced the practice of mindfulness in the 1970’s there have been thousands of studies which have verified its practical benefits. For that reason, mindfulness has spread across the world in recent decades and is now regarded as a highly effective holistic practice. Over coming articles we will examine these benefits for adults and children alike.


Although the spread of secular mindfulness is a fairly recent phenomenon, its core practice of meditation goes back thousands of years and can be found in almost all of the wisdom traditions and religions of the world. The earliest written records on meditation come from the Hindu tradition around 1500 BC.

The Christian tradition can be traced to the Desert Fathers and Mothers at the end of the third century AD through the writings of St John Cassian, the early mediaeval Christian monk and theologian. Meditation also appears to have been part of Celtic spirituality and the Irish word for contemplation is ‘rinnfheitheamh’, which literally translates as ‘the edge of waiting’ or ‘waiting at the edge’.

Meditation, then, is a universal practice but one in which the intention and purpose of the practice differs from one tradition to another. All of these customs speak of the deep inner fruits of meditation, each one in the unique language of their tradition. In the Christian tradition, the intention is to be still and silent in God’s presence and its fruits are described in terms of personal transformation which leads to compassionate action in daily life.

As Pope Benedict XVI expressed it: “Silence has the capacity to open a space in our inner being, a space in which God can dwell, which can ensure that his Word remains with us, and love for him is rooted in our minds and hearts and animates our lives.”

We will explore the fruits of meditation, as experienced and described by adults and children, in future articles and we will consider how families might go about introducing meditation as a family practice.

Words can often mean more than one thing; sometimes a word can mean a thing and its opposite! For example, depending on the context of the word in a sentence, the word sanction can mean that a person has permission to do something or it could mean a punishment for doing something that was not permitted! Words can also have different understandings in different traditions.

The common understanding of meditation today is that it refers to the practice of being still in body and mind, especially quieting the mind.

But the word ‘meditation’ can also mean to think about something. In the Christian tradition the word meditation used to refer to reflecting on and thinking about, say, a passage from Scripture and to this day the term is often used in that sense; traditionally Christians have used to word ‘contemplation’ to refer to the state of being still in body and mind, to simply being in God’s presence.

However, when in 1975 John Main recovered the ancient practice of contemplation in the Christian tradition he named it ‘Christian Meditation’. So, in this column, when we refer to meditation, we are referring to the practice of sitting in stillness and silence with the intention of making ourselves present to God. Not thinking about God or talking to God but simply being with God. Meditation is not what you think.

In the Christian tradition meditation is a form of prayer, a means of leaving ourselves open and vulnerable to communion with God. We cannot make that communion happen but we can leave ourselves open to it. It is recommended as a daily practice where we leave our preoccupations to one side and turn to what matters most. Meditation is more than a form of personal development; ultimately, it transfigures our way of seeing and being in the world.

After 40 years in the education sector Noel Keating was awarded a PhD for his research into the child’s experience of meditation and its spiritual fruits. Noel now leads, in a voluntary capacity, a project which offers free in-service to primary schools who may wish to consider introducing meditation as a whole-school practice. Noel is author of Meditation with Children: A Resource for Teachers and Parents.