3. The value of mindfulness for Christians
“This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”” Jeremiah 6:16-17
Much of mindfulness is about relearning lost skills and it reminds us to value the wisdom of what has been tried and tested in the past.
Mindfulness has much overlap with the ancient mystical/contemplative traditions of the church which centred around meditation and silence. In fact, until the sixteenth century contemplative/silent prayer was the ‘bread and butter’ of the Christian life. However, as the Reformation gained momentum, focus shifted from this, to the teaching of scripture. By the nineteenth century contemplative prayer had all but disappeared, except among cloistered Catholic orders like the Benedictines.
In the 1960’s it’s popularity began to grow again due to the influence of Buddhist meditation which was filtering in from the East. At this time many young Christians started to visit the French monastic order of Taize, which was becoming famous for it’s Christian meditation and chants.
Today the trend towards contemplative practices is continuing to see a resurgence in the church due to prominent voices like Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr. He advocates contemplation as an antidote to dualistic, ‘black and white’ thinking which makes it hard to hold the many paradoxes of the Bible in tension and appreciate that God will always be to some extent mystery.
Some Christians have attempted to christianise mindfulness by creating meditations with Christian mantras and themes and calling it Christian Mindfulness. It could be argued that this is to miss the true value of mindfulness which creates space for people to reconnect with their own thoughts instead of having more thoughts imposed on them.
Many of the valuable insights of mindfulness exist in the Bible but have not been distilled down and made as accessible as they have in mindfulness. The attraction of mindfulness is that it is a very user friendly form of spirituality and does not require people to believe any particular dogma before getting started.
In this chapter I have drawn attention to areas where I think mindfulness brings new light to some commonly held beliefs and practices in the church.
Note: When I refer to the Church I am inevitably making broad generalisations. The Church is a diverse and broad ranging, complex and confusing mass of individuals, organisations, belief systems and theology. There is probably almost nothing that the Church agrees on across the board and there is equally not one thing that the Church gets wrong across the board.
1. Value being, not just doing
Mindfulness reminds us to place value on ‘being’ as well as ‘doing’.
There is a tension in Christian teaching between ‘being’; believing in a God who loves us regardless of what we do, and ‘doing’; the challenge to respond to God’s love in what we ‘do’.
The church sometimes gives out a mixed message whereby God’s love is dependant on what we do or believe. We need to recognise that our inherent value is not in what we do but in who we are. When God made the world, the objects of his love were ‘human beings’ not ‘human doings’. In other words, we are loved simply because we are loved.
Churches are sometimes guilty of over-stretching people and making them feel that they have to justify their own existence? Ultimately we must value and affirm everyone whether they do a lot or very little.
2. Recognise the value of the present moment
A pivotal teaching of mindfulness is to wake up and be fully present in our lives. It invites us, not just to smell the coffee, but to taste it as well.
In the church there can be a tendency to think about the past ‘sin’ and the future ‘afterlife’ and not always place value on the present moment.
It is only when we slow down and ‘wake up’ that we see the miracle of God’s world around us, remember that God makes himself available to us in every moment and that how we inhabit each day is meaningful. When we stop to see the little joys and comforts of each moment we realise that the present really is God’s ‘present’ to us.
3. Believe in your inner goodness
Self-compassion is helpfully defined by Wikipedia as “extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.” It is an essential pillar of mindfulness.
For Christians there can often be an underlying double-mindedness, that welcomes self-acceptance in one breath, “I am a child of God” but accepts self-loathing in the next, “I am a wretched sinner”.
The teaching that people are born inherently sinful is not a good starting point for self-compassion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and has listened to perpetrators and survivors describe the worst of human behaviour and experience, has a very strong theology of original goodness. He says,
“The way we see ourselves matters. If we are at core selfish, cruel, heartless creatures we need to fight these inclinations at every turn. But if we are fundamentally good, we simply need to rediscover this true nature and act accordingly. This insight into our essential goodness has shifted how I interact with other people, it has even shaken how I read the Bible.”
The well known commandment of Jesus to, “love your neighbour as you love yourself” presupposes that we know how to love ourselves and that it is right and necessary to do so. Without self-compassion we will struggle to show true compassion to others, and to make room for their inadequacy, failure, and suffering.
4. Practise being non-judgemental
Another core pillar of mindfulness is being non-judgemental. It encourages people to observe thoughts and situations with interest and not be quick to categorise them as good or bad. The rationale being, that only when we have perceived what is really going on, can we make wise decisions.
Sadly many people’s perception of the church is that it is judgemental. Despite Jesus words, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” the church can be a place where people, too quickly, pass judgement on themselves and others.
Jesus frequently provoked criticism for eating with the ‘sinners’ and outcasts of society. It was the profound love and acceptance which Jesus showed people that seemed to transform them at the deepest level. It was his teaching and example that guided people towards a more loving and fulfilling life. Being non-judgmental doesn't mean that we should accept everything. There are some things about ourselves and our situation which we may be right to challenge. For example Jesus stood up against injustice and calls us to do the same.
5. Celebrate being yourself
Mindfulness invites people to become acquainted with themselves and to ask exploratory questions like, “Who am I? What depletes me? What nourishes me? What brings me feel alive inside?” Ultimately it tells people to find out who they are and to love and accept that person. Mindfulness also encourages people to discover their dreams and challenge the negative thoughts which hold them back.
The Bible says that God has made everyone in the world unique and we are to function like parts of a body. It says each part has a job to do and no part is greater than another. Sometimes the church can press people into roles which are not suited to them or give the impression that church related work is of greater value than other work.
In his book, Made for Goodness, Archbishop Desmond Tutu includes a meditation on the theme of being who God made you to be, “Do you imagine that I did not know who you were when I made you? Do you think I planted a fig tree and expected roses to bloom? No, child, I sowed what I wanted to reap. Seek out your deepest joy and you will find me there. Find that which makes you most perfectly yourself and know that I am at the heart of it. Do what delights you and you will be working with me.”
6. Listen to your body
Mindfulness respects the wisdom of the body and reminds people that it is not just a mechanism for carrying our heads around. The practices of mindfulness teach people to take time out to listen to and care for the body and recognise the mind-body unity.
There has been a tendency in the church, to mistrust the body and ignore what it is trying to say to us. This is based in part on a number of verses from the Apostle Paul’s letters which could be interpreted as, the ‘flesh’ symbolising ‘bad’ desires and the Spirit symbolising ‘good’ desires. “For the flesh craves what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh.” This has added to the view that somehow the body is trying to lead us astray.
This interpretation ignores the fact that God created our incredible bodies, gave us the five senses with which to engage with the world and even chose to inhabit a body himself when he came as Jesus.
7. Proactively care for nature
Mindfulness encourages us to spend time enjoying and observing the world around us. A sense of awe and curiosity is awakened and with it a new found respect and sense of the interconnectedness of all life and our responsibility to look after it.
Christian attitudes to nature stem from the two creation stories in Genesis. In the Creation story of Genesis 1 man is instructed to “rule over” creation. In the Creation story of Genesis 2 man is instructed to “work it and take care of it.” The different emphasis has created two common schools of thought. One that we have been given the earth to use in any way we please, and another that we have been given the responsibility to care for it.
Doctor of the Church, philosopher, and mystic, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio (1217-1274) noted that once we stop seeing God in everything, we stop seeing him in anything. He wrote that God is “within all things but not enclosed; outside all things, but not excluded; above all things, but not aloof; below all things, but not debased.” He spoke of God as one “whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” Every created things bears the ‘fingerprints’ of God.
When we look into the eyes of another human being we are gazing at the handiwork and image of God. It could be said we are standing on holy ground. A belief in the sacred nature of the whole of Creation should mobilise us to do everything we can to protect and care for the world.
8. Make room for silence
Silence is arguably the most valuable gift which mindfulness has to bring to the west and to the church.
Most church services are awash with words, with people endlessly trying to verbalise a mystery that can never be fully put into words. There appears to be a discomfort, even a fear, of silence, such that, even when a time of quiet is announced, it is frequently breathtakingly brief. This over reliance on words creates barriers, as people feel they have to understand or agree with everything in order to live life in relationship with God.
Jesus constantly sought out places of silence. The Bible mentions him going off by himself in the morning, in the evening and in the midst of the daily rush. Many believe that there is a deep need in the church for more silence as it is through this primal language that we awaken to the presence of God. Trappist monk, Thomas Keating said “Silence is God's first language; everything else is a poor translation.”
9. Keep prayer simple
Without actually mentioning prayer, mindfulness brings a beautiful clarity to those struggling with it. It grants permission to be silent and to practise gratitude. It also provides simple ‘blessings’ which can be said to wish people well.
Like many things in the church, prayer can seem hopelessly complicated. It is hard to get a short answer on what prayer is, how to do it and what result to expect.
Jesus himself encouraged people to keep prayer simple, “when you pray, do not babble on like pagans, for they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
10. Be disciplined and reap the reward
Mindfulness is unapologetic about the discipline required and asserts that you have to practise to experience the benefits.
The church generally encourages people to have their own private devotions but is often shy about emphasising the need for discipline in the spiritual life.
The Bible notes that Jesus regularly withdrew to pray and would sometimes get up “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, to go off to a solitary place to pray.” Private, regular prayer is of foundational importance for it is here that our attitudes and behaviour are transformed and we experience the inner aliveness which a relationship with God brings. To quote Richard Rohr, “Those who pray a lot, change a lot.”
11. Regain control of your attention
Another great gift of mindfulness is that it helps people to “wake up” to the busyness of the mind. It teaches people to become aware of their thoughts, process them more wisely and regain control of their attention.
There are so many things vying for our attention that we can become completely distracted from a desire to live in relationship with God. The Bible says that in God we find peace “which surpasses all understanding” but we can become so overwhelmed with stimulus, that we are prevented from seeking or finding it.
People often rush into a church service or private devotions and struggle to connect with God because, even though God is present in the midst of our busyness, it is hard for us to be present to God. Mindfulness meditation at the beginning of a church service would help people to still the mind and open up to God’s presence.
12. Restart the conversation
Mindfulness has opened up a way for people to discuss and explore what their deepest needs are as human beings.
The church often struggles to communicate because of the barriers presented by religious jargon.
Mindfulness is unthreatening and gives people of any faith and none a new vocabulary with which to discuss common values, desires and difficulties. Today, more than ever, dialogue is needed to help people recognise the common humanity which binds us. We need to listen to each other in an attitude of love and respect and celebrate our God-given differences, which have the potential to enrich us rather than create division and make us afraid of one another.
13. Don’t rely on spiritual experiences
Mindfulness emphasises the importance of daily meditation and practices instead of unique events.
It is interesting that Buddhism, the birth place of mindfulness, is quite dismissive of visions and cosmic experiences. The advice given to people on Buddhist retreats is, don’t take them too seriously, that is not what it is all about, get back to the practices of meditation and compassion (or in Christian terms “loving God and loving neighbour.”)
Different parts of the church place different emphasis on Spiritual experiences. Brian McLaren explores this in his book, ‘Naked Spirituality’,
“Dramatic spiritual experiences do happen but by definition they are pretty rare otherwise they wouldn’t seem so dramatic. Some people develop an addiction to them which disrupts their life as other addictions would. Whatever the value of extraordinary dramatic spiritual experiences, to which some people appear more prone than others, I’m convinced that what matters most - and is available to everyone is daily ordinary spiritual experience. Dramatic experiences can awaken some of us to the reality of the spiritual life but they are not sufficient to strengthen, sustain and deepen us as truly spiritual people.”
14. Make space for God to speak
In mindfulness people are taught to become more aware of the busyness of the mind and to practice daily meditation.
Sometimes Christians get anxious, trying to discern God’s guidance and looking for signs or feelings to help them decide what to do. The problem is that so many voices and ideas arise in the mind - which one is God’s voice?
Stilling the mind gives people more chance of recognising something that has the authenticity of the divine. The emphasis in mindfulness on daily meditation also creates more opportunities in which God can speak to us.
15. Journey inwards to find a place of stillness and safety
Like the Christian mystics of the past mindfulness directs the search for a place of stillness and safety inwards. It teaches people to focus on the breath which is central, unchanging and always present. The act of focusing on the breath is often called an ‘anchor practice because it gives people a sense of safety during the ‘storms’ of life.
Interestingly the ancient Hebrew word for God is Yahweh meaning breath or spirit. To be said correctly it must be breathed, yah on the in-breath, weh on the out-breath. In this way the Spirit, or breath, of God becomes the focus and the ever present still point at the centre.
An area of teaching which may hinder people from making the journey inwards is the discussion about whether God is angry. The church often presents an unworkable image of God as being, both infinitely loving, but also willing to send much of what he has made to eternal punishment. Few would want to spend time in silence, solitude, or intimacy with such an unsafe God?
I think that Jesus famous parable of “The Prodigal Son” offers an interesting insight into the character of God. It tells the story of a young man who disobeyed his father and eventually returns to him unsure of the reception he will receive. He discovers to his amazement that his father was not angry and had never been angry. In fact the story says that “While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
It is in the safety of this kind of relationship that people make the journey inward
16. Treat depression as an illness
Mindfulness is not a magical cure for depression but studies have shown that it is at least as effective as taking prescribed anti-depressants and without the side-effects. Mindfulness helps lay down new neural pathways in the brain which activate areas associated with wellbeing and dampen down areas associated with anxiety, fear and depression.
Mental illness suffers from a lot of misunderstanding and the church has at times been guilty of adding it’s own layers of stigma as well. Sometimes well intentioned advice, to take heart from the “wonderful promises of God”, causes sufferers to feel guilty, that they “ought not” to be feeling that way. Unbalanced, unrealistic teaching about healing can lead people to feel that their continued suffering is down to “lack of faith”. At worst it might be suggested that their mental illness is down to unrepented sin or even demonic possession. All of these responses compound the suffering already being experienced.
I think one of the ways in which the church can learn from mindfulness is in it’s aim to create safe, non-judgemental spaces in which those suffering from mental health issues can share their story and not be rushed into finding a solution or cure.
17. Let the adventure begin…
Pre-empting the tendency to become overly serious when talking about meditation, mindfulness helpfully reminds people to remain playful and adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’ i.e. trying to see everything through fresh eyes. Humour and play help the brain to be approach everything in a more creative way.
There is a tendency for people to become hushed and serious as they enter a Church.
A number of times Jesus tells the crowd that they need to become like children, recognising the benefits of a simple, playful faith, unburdened by pretence or expected behaviour. On one occasion he defends the children who are shouting praises and singing in the Temple (Matthew 21) quoting a Psalm which says this kind of joyful, child-like response is a great delight to God.