Yoga Methods in Christian Mysticism



Freedom Through
Self-realisation

Yoga Methods in Christian Mysticism

IN THE CHRISTIAN tradition the spiritual life has been classically divided into three stages, called by the saints and mystics the stage of purgation, the stage of illumination and the stage of union. When one reads the writings of the Christian mystics it is clear what they mean by these three stages. The first concerns the purification of the soul, to render it fit for the spiritual path, the second is concerned with the training of the mind in recollection and contemplation and its progress towards a knowledge of God, and the third describes that state, sometimes called the unitive life, which the greatest of the mystics have attained in this life, where the fullest spiritual perfection which can be achieved while in the body has been attained.

In Yoga exactly the same three elements in the spiritual path are distinguished, but it is important not to be confused by the different terminology, in particular the use of the word 'illumination'. The word 'illumination' is used in the Christian tradition to describe the second stage of the path, the stage particularly concerned with the practice of recollection and contemplation, i.e. meditation. The same word, 'illumination', in the Yoga tradition is used to describe the third or culminating stage of Self-knowledge or God-realisation - what in the Christian tradition corresponds to union or the unitive life. For the yogi, the stage of purgation, the refinement and purification of the mind, corresponds to the stage of the arurukshu, which means 'the one attempting to climb to the steps of Yoga', the second stage of illumination corresponds to the stage of the yunjana, 'the one who is actually engaged in the practice of Yoga', while the third stage of union can be said to correspond to the yogarudha, 'the one who has already reached the highest stages of Yoga'. Different means and methods are enjoined for aspirants at each of these stages. In this short outline it is impossible to cover all this ground, but an attempt will be made to give examples of the close parallels between the teachings of the mystics of both the Christian and yogic traditions in regard to the object of each stage of the spiritual path and some of the key individual practices recommended.

It is at once apparent that both paths insist on the need for purification and refinement of the mind and heart - in other words of the thought and feelings - as a necessary prior qualification for the practice of the inner enquiry into spiritual reality through the higher meditation. In Yoga this is called the acquisition of 'sattva-shuddhi', purity of the mind. And it is acquired through the practice of Karma Yoga (see, for example, Shankara's commentary on the Gita 3.20), benevolent and enlightened action and the acquisition of the sixfold spiritual wealth.

As the Gita says:

Work is said to be the means for the 'arurukshu', the (wise) man who wishes to attain to Yoga; when he has attained to Yoga and become a 'yogarudha', serenity is said to be the means. (6.3)

It is no good thinking that one can dispense with this moral preparation for the spiritual path, because it is an essential pre-requisite. As the Katha Upanishad says:

This true Self cannot be reached through right knowledge by one who has not desisted from evil ways, nor by him who has not a concentrated mind, nor even by one whose mind is not composed. (I.2.24)

Karma Yoga, the practice of benevolent and disinterested action, and the unselfish sacrifice of time and energy for the good of others and as an offering to the Lord, is an important element in the spiritual path. It is part of what is called 'purgation' in the Christian tradition.

The American Cistercian monk Thomas Merton writes in his Seeds of Contemplation:

One of the greatest paradoxes of the mystical life is this: that a man cannot enter into the deepest centre of himself and pass through that centre to God, unless he is able to pass entirely out of himself and empty himself and give himself to other people in the purity of a selfless love.

In the Bhagavad Gita, the sovereign secret, by which one can be liberated from evil, is given to Prince Arjuna by Shri Krishna in the ninth chapter. He speaks of it as the supreme purifier, very easy to perform. And it is clearly a particularly potent and effective way of performing Karma Yoga, based on the recognition that, as the Lord explains: 'By Me all this world is pervaded...all beings dwell in Me' (9.4). The Lord goes on to say: 'The Mahatmas...worship Me with mind turned to no other, knowing Me as the imperishable source of all beings' (9.13). And one is reminded at once of the first commandment to the Christian: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.' (Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27). The words 'with mind turned to no other' exactly parallel this thought. Perhaps few Christians stop to think what the words 'with all thy heart and with all thy mind' actually mean. Note that the love of the Lord is not to be separated from the love of our fellow-men: 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.' (Matthew 25:40) Who is our neighbour? Not necessarily the person who lives next door or our near acquaintances. The Good Samaritan was a stranger to the man who had fallen among thieves, but he treated him as he would have wished to be treated himself. (Luke 10:29-37)

The sovereign remedy for man's ills, which the Lord gives in the Gita, is contained in the simple advice:

Whatever thou doest, whatever thou eatest, whatever thou sacrificest, whatever thou givest, in whatever austerity thou engagest, do it as an offering to Me. When one offers to Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that I accept, offered with devotion by the pure-minded. (9.27 and 26)

And the fruit of this simple but all-embracing practice of offering what we do to the Lord, promised in the next verse, is:

Thus shalt thou be liberated from the bonds of action which are productive of good and evil results; equipped in mind with the Yoga of renunciation, and liberated, thou shalt come to Me. (9.28)

If one of even very evil life worships Me, resorting to none else, he must indeed be deemed righteous, for he is rightly resolved. Soon he becomes righteous and attains eternal peace; do thou, O son of Kunti, proclaim that my devotee never perishes. (9.30-31)

Having reached this transient joyless world, do thou worship Me. Fix thy mind on Me, be devoted to Me, sacrifice to Me, bow down to Me. Thus steadied, with Me as thy Supreme Goal, thou shalt reach Myself, the Self. (9.33-34)


This is the central message of the Bhagavad Gita with regard to the practice of Karma Yoga and it follows closely the injunction laid down in the first commandment in the Gospel.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this practice, applied in the midst of practical life in exactly the way in which the Gita advocates, is given by the teachings of Brother Lawrence. A lay brother who served in the kitchen of the Carmelite monastery in Paris during the seventeenth century, he made his whole spiritual practice depend on this sovereign secret. He says:

That practice which is alike the most holy, the most general, and the most needful in the spiritual life is the practice of the presence of God. It is the schooling of the soul to find joy in His divine companionship... We search for stated ways and methods of learning how to love God, and to come at last to that love we disquiet our minds by I know not how many devices; we give ourselves a world of trouble and pursue a multitude of practices to attain to a sense of the presence of God. And yet it is so simple. How very much shorter it is and easier to do our common business purely for the love of God, to set His consecrating mark on all we lay our hands to, and thereby to foster the sense of His abiding presence by communion of our heart with His. There is no need of either art or science; just as we are, we can go to Him, simply and with a single heart.* (* From the Practice of the Presence of God.)

Here in Brother Lawrence's teaching we find the same message as in the Lord's words in the Gita:

When someone offers to Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water - that I accept, offered with devotion by the pure-minded.

As Brother Lawrence says, it is not needful that we should have great things to do. The secret of Karma Yoga is to do the actions that we have to do, unselfishly as an offering for the good of all, without concern for the consequences.

George Herbert, who was a seventeenth century parish priest in Wiltshire, makes the same point as Brother Lawrence in his poem 'The Elixir', a title which refers to the mythical elixir sought by the alchemists which had the power of changing all to gold:

Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in any thing
To do it as for Thee...

A man that looks on glasse,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,
And then the heav'n espie.

All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture, 'for Thy sake'
Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine;
Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th'action fine.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for lesse be told.


With regard to the key practice leading to the purification of the mind, therefore - the first stage of purgation spoken of by the Christians - the sovereign secret prescribed by both the Christian mystics and the yogis is the same. Not to refrain from one's duties in life, but to act in an entirely different way from one's ordinary way of acting. To rob the action of its selfish and individualistic object by doing it as an offering for the good of all. Of course, in both traditions, it is accepted that the individual must desist from evil action. No action is too trivial to be offered and sanctified in this way, but it must be a good action and inspired by love.

Perhaps enough has now been said about the main teachings of both traditions on transforming the outer active life or the practice of Karma Yoga. Let us now look very briefly at some comparable aspects of the inner practice of mind control and meditation. Again we have to be careful not to be misled by the different terms used in the two traditions. For instance, the word 'prayer' in the writings of the Christian mystics is an all-embracing term, covering virtually all the practices of the inner life, including all the stages of meditation, both lower and higher, as well as the introductory practices leading to the control of the mind. It is in precisely this sense that one finds St. Teresa, for instance, speaking of the four degrees of prayer. Nonetheless there are fairly precise terms used in the Christian tradition for particular practices. And it is worth giving some examples of these in order to bring out the parallels with the methods of Yoga.

Let us start with one of the most simple, called by the Western spiritual writers 'vocal prayer'. It involves the constant repetition of a spiritual thought again and again, and it is very comparable to the repetition of the 'mantram' prescribed by the Eastern mystics. In both traditions one finds it recommended that the repetitions should be done with a rosary, so that the number of repetitions of the prayer are counted. One of the best examples of this in the Western tradition is the Jesus Prayer or the Prayer of the Heart, practised in the Russian Orthodox Church. Here the aspirant is told to repeat the formula 'Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me', saying it aloud with the lips, although quietly, and repeating this many thousands of times until the prayer becomes continuous. As with the mantram in the Yoga tradition, the object is said to be that the prayer will become automatic and will eventually continue even at a time when it is not being consciously said. While at the outset it is recommended that it should be said with the lips, when it has become established through practice over some time, it can be said silently in the heart.

One of the best accounts of this practice is given in the little book The Way of a Pilgrim, the manuscript of which was found in one of the monasteries on Mount Athos. It was written by a member of the Russian Orthodox Church who describes setting out to find out how to obey the injunction of St. Paul to the Thessalonians: 'Pray without ceasing.' He was led first to the teachings of St. Dmitri who wrote: 'The words of the Apostle "pray without ceasing" should be understood as referring to the creative prayer of the understanding. The understanding can always be reaching out towards God, and pray to Him unceasingly.'

But he did not fully understand from these words what the method is by which the understanding can always be turned towards God. How can it never be disturbed and pray without ceasing? With the burning desire to answer this question, he went to a monastery and consulted the elderly abbot about his problem. He was told by him that the main task is to learn how to pray:

The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart, while forming a mental picture of His constant presence, and imploring His grace, during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep.

In this passage one is reminded at once of the verses in the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita:

Fly unto Him for refuge with all thy being, O Bharata; by His grace shalt thou obtain supreme peace and the eternal resting-place... Abandoning all [dependence on] righteous deeds, seek Me as thy sole refuge; I will liberate thee from all sins; do thou not grieve. (18.62,66)

The thought is the same, but still the actual practical method has to be learnt. The abbot drew the attention of his enquirer to the instruction by St. Simeon:

Sit down alone and in silence... shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, i.e. your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say: 'Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.' Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.

Here we have a practice which could be found in the yogic classics themselves. In the same way the individual who is setting out on the yogic path is given the mantram to repeat inwardly. Many of these mantras express the most beautiful spiritual thoughts. For instance, one mantram means in translation: 'Wherever my mind goes, there I find Thee. Wherever my head goes, it is there at Thy feet.'

The Russian pilgrim in his account describes how he learned to say the prayer of the heart and of the way in which it transformed his life. In one passage he says: 'Sometimes, by calling upon the name of Jesus, I was overwhelmed with bliss, and now I know the meaning of the words: "The kingdom of God is within you".'

So much for vocal prayer and the repetition of the inner prayer of the heart. But this is only one of the preliminary practices of the inner life. An even greater importance in both Eastern and Western traditions is given to the practice of meditation. This too can be divided into a stage of preparation and a stage of practice. In the Christian tradition the stage of preparation is called the practice of recollection, while the stage of the practice of higher meditation is called contemplation. Recollection has been defined by a Christian writer, Evelyn Underhill, as 'no more than the subjection of the attention to the control of the will'. In other words it corresponds exactly to that preliminary stage of meditation described by the yogis which consists in the restraint and control of the functions of the mind. This is part of the conscious living, of which the Yoga speaks - to actively take charge of the mind and transform it into an ally and an instrument of spiritual progress. The most characteristic thing about the mind when it is uncontrolled is its rapidly shifting focus of attention. And it is only when it has been controlled and focused that it can attend effectively to the practice of meditation.

In the Bhagavad Gita the mind is likened to the flame of a lamp and, remembering the time at which this classic was written, it is no doubt an oil lamp which the author had in mind. Like a flickering flame, the thoughts of the irresolute, those who have not controlled and restrained their minds, are said to be many-branched and endless. In other words the flame flickers, caught in every draught of wind raised by the roving senses. In this flickering light one cannot see clearly. It is only in a steady bright light, with undistracted gaze, that one really begins to see clearly what is there. In the same way, say the yogis, two things are necessary in preparing the mind for meditation. Firstly the quality of the mind-stuff, which is to say its thought content, has to be refined and purified. The wick must be clean and trimmed, the oil pure. Otherwise the flame is smoky and dim and the lamp becomes blackened by deposits of soot. And, secondly, the mind must be brought under control and focused, like the flame of a lamp in a windless spot. Then it provides what the Gita calls steady knowledge, 'stitha-prajna'.

The Christian mystics speak of the same two processes, the refining of the mind being what they call purgation, which we have already mentioned, and the control and restraint of the mind being what they call the practice of recollection, 'the subjection of the attention to the control of the will'. If you read what the Christian mystic, Evelyn Underhill, has said on this simple practice, you will appreciate how closely it corresponds to the techniques described by the yogis. Indeed Miss Waterhouse, in her book Training the Mind through Yoga, gives an almost identical account of the process. But here is what Evelyn Underhill writes. She speaks first of choosing any topic or thought from the ordinary furniture of the mind. It does not matter what:

But the choice once made, it must be held and defended during the time of meditation against all invasions from without, however insidious their encroachments, however spiritual their disguise. It must be brooded upon, gazed at, seized again and again, as distractions seem to snatch it from your grasp.

A restless boredom, a dreary conviction of your own incapacity, will presently attack you. This too, must be resisted at sword point. Never before has the stream flowed so slowly, or fifteen minutes taken so long to pass. The first quarter of an hour thus spent in attempted meditation, will be, indeed, a time of warfare; which should at least convince you how unruly, how ill-educated is your attention, how miserably ineffective your will, how far away you are from the captaincy of your own soul.

This is the process of getting control of the mind which the Christians call the practice of recollection and the yogis, the practice of 'yama' and 'niyama', control of the senses and control of the mind. As the Gita says:

The dangerous senses forcibly carry away the mind of a wise man, even while striving to control them. Restraining them all, a man should remain steadfast, intent on Me, the Lord. His knowledge is steady whose senses are under control. (2.60-61)

It is not possible in this paper to go on to consider the most advanced stages of meditation, or, as the Christians call it, contemplation. Suffice it to say that in the early stages the practice of meditation is a matter of the application of the will to control and direct the mind in the way in which it is desired to go. Later, the higher meditation transcends this stage and the will is no longer the controller. But that is the stage only attained after considerable mastery in Yoga. In St. Teresa's famous simile, the garden of the soul has in the first stage of prayer to be watered by laboriously lifting the water from a well, a process requiring much effort and bringing little reward in return. But as progress is made and the second stage of prayer is entered, the watering process becomes like that to be found in the Spain of her time, where the water was often raised by a string of many buckets mounted on a wheel. Effort is still needed to raise it, but it is very much more effective. A much greater volume of water is raised for the same expenditure of will-power, time and energy. This is the stage, says St. Teresa, when the soul begins to be recollected, in other words when some degree of control and restraint of the mind has been achieved by the earlier practice.

In a yet more advanced stage of meditation, which St. Teresa calls the third degree of prayer, the watering process becomes analogous, she says, to the watering of the garden by a stream. Here the stream flows spontaneously and continuously and the only effort needed from the will is to direct the water towards the part of the garden which it is desired to cultivate. The will is becoming less important and the process easier, because of the degree of mastery of the mind which the individual has attained. And the culmination of the meditation process is in that fourth stage of prayer of which St. Teresa speaks, where the garden is watered by the downpour of rain. It is the most effective way of watering the garden and the one which most clearly ensures its fertility and prosperity, and it is completely independent of the will of the meditator.

This is the state of the illumined mind, receiving its spiritual light and nourishment from the Lord Himself, seated within the mind. This is the state which in Yoga is called 'samadhi'. As it says in Panchadashi:

At the time of samadhi the will is not applied to the process of meditation on the Self. The mind achieves the state of 'samadhi' as a result of the effort... of will made prior to its achievement. (Panchadashi 1.57)

And the same author almost echoes the simile of St. Teresa when he writes:

The experts in the science of Yoga call 'samadhi' a rain-cloud of dharma because it showers forth countless streams of the water of immortality. (1.60)

Let me end with the words of another Christian thinker, Kierkegaard:

The present condition of the world is diseased. If I were a doctor and was asked for my advice I should answer, create silence, bring men to silence - the word of God cannot be heard in the world today. And if it is blazoned forth with noise so that it can be heard even in the midst of all other noise, then it is no longer the word of God. Therefore create silence.

Freedom through Self-Realisation
A.M. Halliday
A Shanti Sadan Publication - London
ISBN 0-85424-040-3
Pgs. 195-208



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