Mindfulness is the topic of the moment. The father of one of our daughter’s friends was seriously injured in Iraq, and he has only been able to recover a sense of stability in life by means of mindfulness. (He was part of Gareth Malone’s Invictus choir at the Rio Paralympics.) Mindfulness is increasingly being seen as part of the NHS strategy for addressing growing levels of mental health problems across the country. But what should Christians make of it? Is it a backdoor to Buddhism?
The latest Grove Spirituality booklet addresses this. The author, Tim Stead, is both ordained in the Church of England and an accredited mindfulness instructor. The booklet aims to help Christians gain a fuller appreciation of mindfulness and addresses three questions: ‘Is mindfulness Christian?’ ‘Is it biblical?’ ‘Is it prayer?’ It also looks at three ways in which mindfulness might contribute to Christian spirituality. The first question is simply to understand what ‘mindfulness’ is.
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness on his website as, ‘Paying attention…on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ Or, more simply, ‘being here, now!’ On the whole, when we experience pain or discomfort of any kind we want to be anywhere other than here, now, and our minds have all sorts of ways and means to help us to be somewhere else. But reduction of stress and anxiety, management of pain and anything we might call healing will never come through our absenting ourselves from the situation. This, I feel, is also true of prayer.
There are four aspects to the definition above. Paying attention is simply a skill which needs practising and is always the starting point in mindfulness. Turning towards our experience is not quite as natural as we may think, as so often it is our experience we are trying to avoid. Staying with the present moment is also a skill to be learned as the mind seems to want to wander, either to replaying the past or planning or worrying about the future. And finally, even when we manage to spend just a few moments truly present to our experience in this moment, our minds are quick to judge it as either a good or a bad experience, something I should or should not be having or something I do or do not want to be having. But we cannot do anything about our experience in this moment and so judging it in this way will only add more strife and tension to our situation. We can do something about the choices we subsequently make once we have more fully engaged with our experience, but the experience itself is simply our experience, and all we can really do is to become more fully aware of it by paying attention to it.
So, in a nutshell, mindfulness is the learned skill of staying present to each moment of our experience throughout the day so that we can experience life more fully and make choices which lead to better outcomes for self and for others. Would it be reasonable to suggest that these are also things we would hope for through our prayer lives?
The remainder of this explanatory chapter then looks at the ways in which mindfulness is being taught and used, and asks how this might challenge Christian approaches to teaching prayer. Do we teach about prayer systematically? Should we? The central chapter of the booklet then tackles the key questions head on.
Is Mindfulness Christian?
This is often asked because people have heard about its connections with Buddhism and want to feel assured that they are not being asked to engage with a spirituality which is not Christian. There are two main answers to this.
The first is that the mindfulness which is found in the mainstream and clinical contexts of today is not part of any religious or spiritual tradition but is set in the scientific and specifically psychological sphere. Yes, some way back many insights and techniques were taken from contemporary Buddhist practices but the religious beliefs and spirituality were left alone. Since this early contact with Buddhism, it is the world of psychology and neuroscience which has developed mindfulness in order to respond to physical and mental health needs and not spiritual needs. So mindfulness, as I have received it, is not Buddhist any more than a healthy vegetarian diet is Buddhist. In his latest book, The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet, the TV science presenter Michael Mosley argues that for a healthy life we need three things: good diet; good exercise; and healthy minds, for which he suggests mindfulness practice. If Christians ought to be interested in looking after their ‘temples of the Holy Spirit,’ one might argue that mindfulness (or some equivalent, perhaps as part of our practice of prayer) is something Christians should be practising.
The second answer is to note how similar some of the techniques are to those suggested by the great mystics who have explored contemplative forms of prayer. My own inspirations have been Teresa of Avila and the Eastern Orthodox Jesus Prayer tradition, and I was struck by the similarity of many of the techniques used. So Christians have been using the same techniques that mindfulness employs for centuries, which leads me to suggest that, even if it is not explicitly Christian, it is entirely compatible with Christian spirituality. An excellent survey of contemplative prayer down the centuries can be found in Journey to the Heart, edited by Kim Nataraja.
Is Mindfulness Biblical?
The difficulty with this question is that the Bible contains very little about the practicalities of prayer. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he did not tell them precisely what he had been up to for the last hour or so on his own in the hills, but he gave them a set of words (‘Our Father…’) perhaps as a structure around which they could base their saying of prayers. Our sense of Christian spirituality comes mainly through biblical story but technique is almost entirely absent. Instead, technique is something we have learned from the great Christians who have found practical ways of allowing the person of Christ to become real and true for them in their experience, and is not primarily found in the Bible.
Having said that, I would also want to argue very strongly that the aspirations behind mindfulness are deeply compatible with many biblical texts. And these are, quite simply, the texts which have been used over the centuries to guide people in contemplative forms of prayer. Two of the most obvious are related here.
One of the central aims of mindfulness is to help people to ‘wake up,’ to become aware of what they were not aware of up to that point. A fuller awareness leads to an awareness of the choices before us and the opportunity, should we have strayed, to return to the path of following Christ. This is exactly what happened to the prodigal son after he ‘came to his senses,’ as the NIV puts it. Waking up to a fuller awareness of what is under our noses enables us to become more fully aware of God and God’s will for us. Mindfulness is concerned, perhaps more than anything else, with enabling this awareness to happen.
The other most often quoted example is that of Mary and Martha battling it out in Luke 10. It is, indeed, a wonderfully human picture of what we are all like, torn between action and contemplation, doing tasks for the Lord and listening to him. Jesus does not condemn Martha’s activism but does remind her, and all of us, that listening must come first. Mindfulness constantly teaches this.
Is Mindfulness Prayer?
Approaching God in prayer is a frustrating business at times, not least because God is a totally free being and will not simply turn up in the way we would want God to turn up just because we have made a specific request. There is a mystery about God that is and always will be beyond our understanding. This is why the contemplatives have learned that the only way to approach God is with a certain kind of open, loving attentiveness which does not demand particular answers but simply waits on, and is ready to behold, the vision of goodness, truth and beauty that God is. We come with no agenda but only a willingness to respond to whatever is revealed to us of the divine presence. This kind of attention is hard. In fact, it is very hard. The only way is to practise it daily and this is what we do in mindfulness—we practise this kind of attentiveness until it becomes a habit. The subtitle of my book on the subject is Making Space for God and my suggestion is that, even if it is not quite prayer itself, it can be instrumental in making space for prayer (or encounter with God) to happen.
On the other hand, a friend told me how he practiced 15 minutes of mindfulness before his personal Bible study and that he found that he was much more open to God’s word to him through the Bible as a result. He concluded that, therefore, the mindfulness practice when done with the intention of opening up to God must be prayer! Is preparation for prayer actually prayer? Perhaps it is.
The following chapters then explore the role that mindfulness can play in spirituality and discipleship. One of the comments that struck me most forcefully was the importance of rest as a theological priority.
In Christian spirituality it all starts, rather wonderfully, with rest. In Genesis 1 humans enter the scene when all the work has already been done. Good timing, you may say. In Hebrews there is an eloquent exposition of the principle of God’s people entering Sabbath rest (Heb 4.1–11). And it is no surprise that one of the best loved pieces of poetry in the Bible, Psalm 23, describes so beautifully the idea of rest in God’s care by cool waters. Jesus himself seems to affirm all this in his exchange with Mary and Martha by suggesting that, although the work does need to be done, it is resting and listening which take priority.
Other metaphors for God in the psalms align with this idea by describing God as our rock, our refuge, our shelter (cf Ps 91.1–6). And in the story of the stilling of the storm we have the image of Jesus being the still point in the middle of any storm (Mark 4.35–41).
And so this is where it must start for us human beings. Before taking a step forward with God we need to know we are safe, secure, in good hands. Only then will we dare to take the risks that need to be taken if we are to progress in the spiritual life. The difficulty is that we seem to find it so difficult to enter this promised rest. Perhaps it is our upbringing which taught us that to be acceptable we had to achieve certain standards all the time. Perhaps it is our culture which seems to demand the same. Or perhaps it is inbuilt into our psychological make-up. But, for many of us, the rest we long for does not come easily. We feel instead the constant drive to do things, to sort things, to fix things. Meanwhile God is just longing for us simply to be, to rest, ‘like a child in its mother’s arms’ (Psalm 131).
You can order the booklet, post-free in the UK, from the Grove website.
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