God and mindfulness
This piece is in the latest Church Times, out today…
We are in the midst of a spiritual revival. It has touched the lives possibly of millions. It keeps books in the Amazon top 20 for years. It's bigger than the Alpha Course. And yet, the church seems hardly to have noticed it, or at least responds with nervousness. It is the practice of mindfulness - a technique and a state of being that the Oxford psychologist and Anglican priest, Mark Williams, has defined as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity."
The latest sign was the launch this week, on 7th May, of an all party parliamentary group, supported by the Mindfulness Initiative, a collaboration of Oxford, Exeter and Bangor universities. Seventy or more MPs have undergone mindfulness training, and the aim is to help spread the practice into health, education, criminal justice and work. So might the established church now start to take more serious note and, if so, how?
There is the nervousness to overcome, the sense that Buddhism is spreading across the land under the guise of teaching useful skills (Features, Lent Series 2013). One way to address this issue is realise that the concept of mindfulness is, in a sense, biblical. When scholars first translated the Pali word "sati" they landed on the word "mindful" by borrowing from the psalms: "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" The use there captures something of the power of attention - of God being intimately aware of us, and we of ourselves.
It is, therefore, truer to say that mindfulness is just one of a family of practices, now often forgotten, that have long been part of the Christian tradition too, practices that might include reciting the Jesus Prayer, sitting still, and contemplative communion with God. "The skill required is inner silence," Martin Laird explains in his excellent introduction, Into the Silent Land, because "It is the noisy, chaotic mind that keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of God as the ground of our being."
It can also be helpful to draw a distinction between "problem-solving" and "spiritual" mindfulness, as Alex Gooch puts it in a new collection of essays, After Mindfulness edited by Manu Bazzano (Palgrave Macmillan). Problem-solving mindfulness is a technique that, for example, tackles addictions (Comment, 3 January). There is lots of evidence it helps. Spiritual mindfulness is different in that it addresses not only individual troubles, but questions with which our culture as a whole is struggling - in particular the nature of the self and our relationship to the divine.
Why Christianity lost touch with its mindfulness traditions is a moot point. In his book, Silence: A Christian History, Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that western ecclesiastical authorities have long tended not to sanction silence as part of everyday Christian life because in Christendom, much of social and political importance rested on the beliefs of individuals being made public. Elizabeth I did not want to make windows into men's souls, but amongst leaders she is an exception. Western liturgies that to this day contain little or no silence is a byproduct. The worry about mindfulness as secret Buddhism might be another.
But like the many revivals of religious life across the centuries, of which Justin Welby is rightly making so much (News, 4 April), I suspect that the mindfulness movement can be seen as a spontaneous desire to recover this lost dimension of the spiritual life that contemporary Christianity is failing to provide.
That said, secular mindfulness teachers tend to steer clear of the s-word and it is theologically unlike, even opposed, to the Christian understanding of God, grace and salvation. Rather, it is presented as a method through which the individual might become skilled to save themselves from unnecessary suffering. But a closer look suggests that this might be only a surface difference and that mindfulness can be a route through which individuals rediscover the divine.
Consider this. A good mindfulness teacher will not try to sell the practice with promises of happiness or fixes for anxiety, though there is a lot of that around. (In this way, mindfulness is a step on from CBT that does offer techniques for directly managing troubling thoughts and feelings.) Rather, they will teach the profoundly counterintuitive insight that the effort in mindfulness training is, paradoxically, aimed at learning to do nothing. Do not strive to mend, but rather see more fundamentally what is going on inside; understand the machinations of the mind more clearly. Yearning to be happy or be free of psychic pain is, in fact, likely to compound the problem.
But why should someone trust this recommendation? What is the model of being human that lies behind it? It is that in spite of appearances, all is well. Creation is benign. Life can be trusted. Suffering certainly copiously exists but a stronger grace longs to be felt, if only we can ease up on our desperate self-holding and so know it in some silence. To put it another way, mindfulness is premised on the conviction that our worried egos and daily preoccupations veil the truth that our lives rest in a life that sustains and supports all things.
Again, mindfulness teachers will stick to secular language such as "training the observer" or "simply noticing". That's right, that's the practice. But why do that if letting go were letting go into a godless, heartless void? It seems to me that, in practice, mindfulness nurtures the experience of knowing the God "in whom we live and move and have our being".
I suspect that soon individuals will turn to the philosophical and theological questions mindfulness naturally raises, and about which the Christian tradition holds rich and compelling possibilities. Christians now might want to develop mindfulness groups, discuss it, above all practice it. Because if mindfulness is symptomatic of a spiritual revival then it is also a mission issue, in the sense of missio dei: God's work in the world with which the church is invited to join. To put it another way, in a secular age, mindfulness may prove to be a much needed experiential way back to belief in God.