Mindfulness is becoming a bit of a buzz word but, there is a lot we, Christians, can learn from it. In fact I believe that mindfulness can be practiced within a Christian context. It involves self-healing (physician heal thyself – Luke 4, 23), resting in the presence of God and, renewal of the mind (Ephesians 4, 23 for instance). The healing effects of mindfulness have been validated by hard neuro science – it really seems that we, or perhaps God, can, through mediation (and prayer), change the very structure of our minds. Changing, or healing, our minds will of course change the way we engage with the world. Mindfulness through changing our ‘being’ can have a profound impact on our ‘doing.’ yet, there seems to be some resistance to its practice within the Christian community alongside a perception by some ‘non Christians’ that ‘religious folk’ will be threatened by mindfulness. Ruby Wax, whose highly entertaining book, Sane New World – Taming the Mind is worth reading, repeatedly ‘apologies’ to people of faith when she discusses the benefits that mindfulness brings when the organic structure of the brain is altered. Quite why the faith communities should find this challenging, or alienating, I don’t know. To me it seems entirely in line with theologies of creation and redemption. Healing presumably is all about mending the broken bits!
Why is there opposition to mindfulness and other similar practices (mysticism for instance) in the Christian community? I can think of four reasons, presumably there are more?
First, antagonism towards, or suspicion of, practices primarily associated with eastern religions. Now there is no way, as a Christian minister, that I would ever advocate an uncritical incorporation of practices developed by other religions into Christianity. To do so may undermine the distinctiveness and authenticity of Christianity (allowing for the fact that they might also enhance ‘our’ distinctiveness and authenticity, whilst acting as a catalyst for unity – have I just undermined by own argument?).
Secondly, either an ignorance or deliberate rejection of Christian tradition. Mediation and contemplation are intrinsic to Christian tradition. Unfortunately, in today’s culture tradition is frequently viewed with suspicion. The throwing away of tradition may have noble motives as we seek to be more relevant and accessible (horrible buzzwords) but, in the words of C.S. Lewis an exclusive focus on the contemporary may simply render us ‘chronological snobs.’
Thirdly, a fertile fallacy that renewal of the mind can only be achieved through teaching. The research into the effects of mindfulness (and meditative prayer) by neuro scientists suggests that the very structure of the brain changes as a result of mindful practice. A further niggle of mine is that teaching is frequently reduced to instruction and the propagation of particular doctrines or dogmas. I need to fess up I always feel slightly anxious when churches spend a ‘disproportionate amount of time’ talking about teaching. I tend to hear instruction! In researching for my dissertation the rejection of ‘suspect’ approaches was revealed in the literature (thankfully not through fieldwork). The quotes below illustrate my point:
‘Reading, teaching and application of Spirit inspired testimony to Jesus surely have pride of place in any ministry among Christians. Neither sacramentalism, nor the development of the inner life, nor a preoccupation with issues of social justice can rightly usurp it,’ David Peterson.
And, from Vaughn Roberts: ‘The Christian’s heart and emotions on the other hand, are affected indirectly, via his mind, as his attention is focused in a tangible way,’ the focus on teaching provides the difference, in Robert’s scheme, between ‘a mystical and a truly Christian experience of worship.’
But surely what these authors are doing is to limit word to preaching and teaching (instructing?), failing to understand that renewal of the mind is a function of transformation of the inner life and, the word of God is frequently experienced when space is given for the ‘still small voice of calm.’ I think that they also make a category error in assuming that ‘word’ is tangible. Words possess an ambiguous and mystical quality. Surely?
Finally, is one of the reasons why some are suspicious of mindfulness, mediation and contemplation that it involves a giving away of the ability to directly influence? What might happen if people are simply left alone with God? If people take personal responsibility for renewal of the mind? These are scary questions.
So why am I so passionate about mindfulness. Easy, for this depressive it has worked. It has brought me closer to God, it has helped me renew the mind, it has made me more aware of the transcendent, it has helped me become more cheerful and relaxed. It has allowed me to come to the One who asks me to bring all my ‘heavy burdens’ replacing them with a far lighter load. It is a route into proper self-love. And, for these reasons I recommend it.