Mindfulness: How it works and why Christians should practise it
A Buddhist Society conference has heard warnings about the 'mindfulness movement' being turned into a commodity, "a product to be bought and sold on the free market". One of the speakers, social psychologist Steven Stanley, told the audience that it was becoming possible to make a living out of mindfulness and that it was becoming increasingly professionalised.
There are now about trained 2,200 mindfulness teachers and an all-party group of MPs last week urged the government to fund the training of 1,200 more.
But what is mindfulness, and how does it relate to Christian discipleship? Christian Today asked Rev Shaun Lambert, who has trained extensively in counselling and psychotherapy, to explain it:
1. Mindfulness is our God-given, universal capacity for awareness and attention. All faith traditions recognise some form of mindfulness, but in recent years it's come to the attention of secular psychologists.
2. One example of how it works is in dealing with anxiety. A non-mindful person might think, "I am an anxious person". Someone trained in mindfulness might think, "I am having an anxious thought." Mindfulness teaches us that we are not our thoughts and feelings. We are not defined by our stress, anxiety and fearfulness. As Lambert puts it: "We can hold them and witness them rather than being a victim of them. It's the difference between being on a train of thought and on a hilltop looking down at the train."
3. It's not quite a spiritual discipline, it's more about being fully human. We've emphasised rational, critical thinking too much and neglected our senses. But the Bible is very aware of our bodies. Rational critical thinking can't solve emotional problems.
4. When Jesus said, "See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin" (Matthew 6:28) he was advocating mindfulness. He was encouraging people to focus on the present. Lambert believes that the words echo Psalm 8, where the Psalmist says, "When I consider your heavens...what is man, that you are mindful of him?" "The insight the Psalmist gets is of God's care for him," he says. "God wants us to do the same thing."
5. Mindfulness spans the spiritual and the secular worlds. Secular practitioners say it's useful for mental health and chronic pain. Any Christian should want to do it and shouldn't have a problem with it, says Lambert. But Christians are especially mindful of God.
6. It's not Buddhist in origin, but has a long history in Christian devotion as well. Lambert refers to the 5th-century ascetic Diadochos of Photiki, who developed the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"). Diadochos called it "watchfulness".
7. For Christians, mindfulness in prayer is about coming into the presence of God. In an article, Lambert writes: "Traditionally the church has been about developing deep attention, an attentiveness to our need for transformation, to God, to the needs of others, to our stewardship of creation."
8. Mindfulness corrects a major problem in our modern world. Nowadays it's all about information, sleeting into our minds at a colossal rates. We're being turned into 'hyper-attentive' people. One writer, Katherine Hayles, says this characteristic "has a low threshold for boredom, alternates flexibly between different information streams, and prefers a high level of stimulation".
9. Because of this we are simply unable to focus on just one thing for any length of time. We're losing our capacity for paying deep attention to one thing. Mindfulness enables us to sustain attention. So it might help a teenager in an exam, for instance: the stress response triggers panic, but mindfulness can switch that back.
10. More and more Christians are learning and teaching it, though it's still early days. Many Christians – and evangelicals in particular – are suspicious of things like meditation. There's no need to be. Learning mindfulness is like learning any other skill. It's what you do with it that counts.
Rev Shaun Lambert is the minister of Stanmore Baptist Church. For more about mindfulness visit his website.
Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.