“Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment non judgmentally.”
It is easy for Christians to bemoan the secularization of Western culture, but is the unshackling of spiritual practice from religion always such a bad thing? Since the 1970s, there have been a number of health professionals exploring the benefits of ancient meditation practices for physical and psychological wellbeing. I recently took an opportunity to attend a five day mindfulness retreat in the mode of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) – an eight week course which is now run in many and varied contexts across the globe – which was an opportunity to explore this question.
The aim of this silent retreat was to maintain five continuous days of mindfulness drawing upon ‘sitting meditation’; walking meditation; mindful eating, drinking, listening and all other -ings involved in living. As a non-religious meditation tradition it focused on the resources of the body for slowing down the conscious mind and accessing more of the sub- and un-conscious resources of the brain and body.
By focusing on the breath, or some other single point (a candle flame, a mouthful of food, a movement) the ‘thinking’ part of your brain is invited to ‘rest’ and let other parts of your brain’s capacity come to the fore. By allowing the body to ‘speak’, or perhaps better said, setting aside time to ‘listen’, I became aware of desires and hurts that I’d not realized I’d been carrying, weighing down my body and tiring my mind.
The brain controls more than just limbs and ligaments: it is the command centre for the body’s emotions, instincts, memories and it translates all the information coming into the body from the senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Mindfulness is a strategy to move our conscious attention from physical sensations of the body to the feelings more difficult to categorise: a strategy that is acknowledged by the contemplative traditions within all world religions.
When the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating introduces ‘centering prayer’ in his book Open Mind, Open Heart (2002), the first thing he says is that silent prayer is not the same as relaxation. Prayer is always relational; it is an intentional opening of oneself to the divine, which for Christians is known through the person of Jesus Christ.
“When we say, ‘Let us pray’, we mean, ‘Let us enter into relationship with God’, or ‘Let us deepen the relationships we have’, or ‘Let us exercise our relationship with God’.”
In meditation I seek to make conscious my deeper, fuller self in relation to the universe, which I can then in turn, convert to prayer. This is ‘offering your body as a living sacrifice’ at the same time as ‘renewing your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2).
It takes a lot of concentration and a certain amount of determination, to gently lay aside rational (and irrational) thought in order to give room for sensation to arise without judgment. MBSR instructors will tell you that you need to ‘practice’ mindfulness for at least an hour every day in order to develop the habits that sustain these kind of physical and emotional benefits in everyday life.
This might include a half hour of sitting/lying meditation morning and night, in addition to brief exercises of mindfulness through-out the day: taking the time to notice the process of eating your lunch for example; or pausing at your desk for two minutes to notice what is happening with your posture; or slowing down to wash your hands in the bathroom, noticing the feel of the water on your skin, the movement of the muscles and ligaments in your fingers, the change in sensation from dry to wet to dry hands.
Everyone can benefit from knowing themselves better and stress management is now a health priority for many. MBSR has been shown to be an effective pain management technique when incorporated into an overall treatment plan for chronic illness; for example, it is proving to be a successful therapy for suffers of fibromyalgia (chronic, undiagnosable pain). How could the world’s religious object to such great health outcomes, even as they themselves are sidelined by the secularization of mindfulness as a tool for human flourishing?
However, Christians lose something precious if completely buy into the secularization of our spiritual practices. Christ reveals something beyond the mysterious depths of human wisdom; God is beyond the vast limits of human knowing. The mindfulness movement is an invitation to recover our own contemplative traditions and practices geared towards the contemporary world.
As a precursor for prayer, mindfulness illustrates that our relationship with God has at least two distinct movements – opening to ourselves and opening towards God – both of which are critical before a further dynamic opening ourselves up to the world. Taking the time to connect with oneself in such a deep way before turning towards God invites God into the deepest recesses of our hearts, mind, body and soul. It is consciously choosing to relinquish autonomy and alienation from the divine.
Towards the end of the mindfulness retreat I found myself convinced that every fiber of my being was Love, by no means an unfamiliar concept to me as a student of theology. However, this was knowledge I discovered held in my flesh, not just the pages of Scripture; and it is knowledge that directs my every move as the brain directs the actions of the body.