Two weeks ago I started a Mindfulness course, in Oxford. For the previous year I had been using mindfulness as part of my prayer life, but, in very much a D.I.Y. fashion. I am glad I enrolled on the course, I have found it challenging and produroductive
I have always tried to approach mindfulness as a Christian (I can’t do it in any other way – my faith is my primary locus of identity).
In fact I get irritated by the way mindfulness is presented as ‘Eastern.’ I often think that the current interest in Eastern spirituality, by us westerners, is simply an extension of the modern, or should I say post modern, preference for an individualised, pick and mix, consumer oriented, all truths are equally valid,approach to religion, faith and spirituality. Such an approach may provide fleeting feel good moments but, perhaps, not longer term sustenance, as it is grounded entirely in self.
But, the focus on the experiential is important. Maybe the need for an experiential spirituality is one reason for the growth in charismatic expressions of Christianity and the recent upsurge in interest in mysticism? Another reason is, probably, the growing dissatisfaction with a particular form of western Christianity, which seems to have been largely shaped, in response to Enlightenment and Platonic philosophy. Such an approach focuses on the cognitive and finds its expression in disciplines such as apologetics and historical criticism, supported by a clearly defined, reductive and conservative, set of doctrines and dogmas.
What the western Church has failed to recognise is the extent to which it has been shaped and evangelised by the dominant secular philosophies.
Conservative protestantism has traditionally attempted to rid itself of all ambiguity. For enlightenment Christians mind, body and soul are clearly demarcated with renewal of the mind being preferred to renewal of the body and soul. David Peterson, a conservative evangelical theologian has put it like this: ‘Reading and application of Spirit inspired testimony must surely have pride of place in any ministry amongst Christians. Neither sacramentalism, nor the development of the inner life, nor a preoccupation with issues of social justice can rightly usurp it.’ Vaughn Roberts, vicar of St. Ebbs, Oxford, writes in a similar vein that ‘the Christian’s heart and emotions on the other hand, are affected indirectly, via the mind.’ The focus on the mind is, for Roberts, the ‘difference between a mystic and truly Christian experience of worship.’ So, for ‘enlightenment Christians,’ renewal of the mind is prioritised with experiential, mystic and, sacramental encounters being considered, possible, second order events.
Conservative catholicism with its almost exclusive focus on the sacraments can also be regarded as formulaic and functional. Both conservative protestantism and catholicism, because of their attempts to explain all things (just think of the various models that have been developed to explain the rationale for and, workings of the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular), have become highly functional and, dare I say it, transactional (even though both emphasise the role of grace). Conservative protestantism, at its most extreme, insists on a specific moment conversion ritualised through the ‘sinners prayer.’ Conservative catholicism stresses salvation through participation in the sacraments.
Both forms of conservative Christianity are reductive, formulaic and transactional; they couldn’t be anything else as they represent a form of Christianity shaped by secular, western, philosophy.
But, in the west many have started to be turned off by scientific and rational attempts to explain the deepest truths. This, combined with the absolute rejection of any form of universal truth, gives birth to the ‘spiritual but not religious’ category of being. The danger of this approach is that it leads to an excessive focus on the individual. Phrases such as ‘taking my communion’ show just how far post modernism can penetrate the life of the Church.
So what has this all got to do with Mindfulness?
Well, one of the most important features of mindfulness is the way that it regards mind and body (to which I would add soul) as an holistic entity. This is not to say that each is reducible to the other but rather to argue that, just as in the Trinity, each animates and interprets the other. In mindful meditation consideration is given to both the mind and the body simultaneously, through the simple process of breathing (spirit?). Mindfulness is simultaneously cognitive and experiential. Mindfulness is therefore unitive.
Before I mediating I pray for inner healing (I regard mindful practice as the living out of ‘physician heal thyself’) and revelation. Let me give an example:
One of the practices involves breathing down into the abdomen and noting the physical sensations that follow, pleasant or unpleasant, Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) for me the experience has been largely unpleasant (this is itself an interesting reflection on spiritual practices – as most spiritual but not religious folk seek relaxation and peace as a consequence of their ‘spiritual’ practices), the practice leaves me feeling sick and nauseous. Mindfulness encourages participants to investigate why they experience certain bodily sensations. Thinking and praying about my ‘stomach sickness’ I have started to believe that it is in the very pit of my abdomen that I store residual pain and fear and, that in allowing the Spirit to breathe into this area of my body is an essential part of my ongoing healing. No amount of sermonising or sacramentality could have revealed this or, perhaps, dealt with it.
Mindfulness can be, when entered into prayerfully, expression of authentic Christian mysticism, but more importantly healing. Why? Because it simultaneously pays attention to all three elements of our created being: mind, body and soul. Thanks be to God.
Frances Spufford, author of Unapologetic, states that ‘from my point of view it’s hard to see how a physical creature like myself could ever register His presence except through some series of other physically determined bodily states. I am not an abstract being, everything I feel I feel by way of hormones and neurotransmitters and nerve fibres.’
I agree with Spufford, do you?
Mindfulness is one way that we can experience God, and His healing grace, both physically and cognitively. Why not give it a go?