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What does mindfulness offer the Christian? 

Shaun Lambert offers a compelling explanation why mindfulness should matter to Christians

 
One of the questions I have been asked to talk about recently to a Christian counselling service is, ‘what does mindfulness offer the Christian?’ It is an important question. This week is National Mental Health Awareness Week sponsored by the Mental Health Foundation, and it focuses on mindfulness for mental health.

No doubt many Christians will simply not pay attention as mindfulness gets airplay on social media, radio or TV – as there is still a lot of suspicion in Christian circles that it is somehow suspect given its Buddhist roots. But Jon Kabatt-Zinn, the American doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness in Western medicine, puts it like this, ‘Saying mindfulness is Buddhist is like saying gravity is British because Isaac Newton discovered it!’

Praying
xymonau/ RGB Stock

The fact is that mindfulness is our universal (God-given) capacity for awareness and attention. This needs to be distinguished from the meditative or mindful awareness practices that help us become more mindful.

Awareness (mindfulness) is like gravity in that it is a central part of our life, but we usually don’t pay attention to it. What mindfulness as a practice enables is to help us walk freely within the gravitational pull (often negative, selfish, and distorted) of our own minds.

Because mindfulness (awareness) is plastic, like our minds, it can be worked with in different ways. All the faith traditions discovered the gravity of awareness and attention early on, and work with it in different ways. It is in more recent times that Western science has started paying attention to it through research and the development of mindfulness-based and mindfulness-incorporating therapies.

So what does mindfulness offer the Christian? Firstly, Christians are frail human beings just like everyone else, and are as susceptible to psychological vulnerability as the next person – we live in the same stressful world. There are two main dimensions to mindfulness, mindfulness for health and mindfulness of God. Both should engage Christians.

In terms of mindfulness for health The UK Mental Health Foundation’s 2010 Mindfulness Report lists a number of significant mental health conditions that mindfulness is being used for, through a number of different mindfulness-based or mindfulness-incorporating therapies, including depression, insomnia, anxiety disorders, stress, chronic pain, psoriasis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, drug abuse, psychosis, eating disorders, self-harm, borderline personality disorder, as well as improving mood and reducing stress for those being treated for cancer. [1] Many more conditions could be added.

When I look at this list, I don’t just see medical terms, I see people. People I know, and people who have had their distress alleviated through mindfulness therapies. That’s why it matters for Christians, not just for Christians we know who are suffering from mental health conditions, but because we should be concerned for the common good of all.

The main definition that secular psychology uses to define mindfulness is, ‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’[2]  Working in this way enables a shift in perspective, where we don’t try and change our afflictive thoughts and feelings, we change our relationship to them, so thoughts are seen just as passing mental events and people ‘no longer relate from their thoughts but to their thoughts, as objects of awareness.’ [3] In this way we move from being a victim of our thoughts, to a witness to them.
 


mindfulness of God is central to our discipleship goal of becoming like Christ



I first came across mindfulness in secular psychology when I was studying counselling at Roehampton University part-time, and suffering from stress, anxiety and depression. Very close to burnout I started using mindful awareness practices and found them very helpful.  At the same time a little book called The Jesus Prayer by former Bishop of Coventry, Simon Barrington-Ward jumped off the shelf at me. I started using this ancient Christian mindful awareness practice, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,’ which you use repetitively with your breath in an embodied way. That also helped ease my anxiety.

I realised there was a lot of overlap between what secular mindfulness was saying in terms of working with your afflictive thoughts and what the early Christian contemplatives were saying.

When it comes to mindfulness of God I am reminded of a verse in Genesis, chapter 26 and verse 15, ‘So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.’ Mindfulness is one of our ancient spiritual wells, but it is not anyone else that has filled it in, we have done it ourselves, by ignoring the biblical witness to awareness and attention, and the Christian contemplative tradition which is concerned with mindfulness of God.

As I began to research the Jesus Prayer as a form of watchfulness (another form of mindfulness for Christians) I came across this phrase from 5th century Greek Bishop Diadochus of Photike, a pioneer of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Let us keep our eyes always fixed on the depths of our heart with an unceasing mindfulness of God.’ [4] In A Time to Heal a report for the Anglican House of Bishops on the ministry of healing, the authors make the point,  ‘Jesus’ healing ministry was also one of the restoration of vision. Jesus came into the world and it was a place of darkness, a place of a lack of the vision of God.’ [5]

Mindfulness of God enables us to restore our broken, fragmented and distorted vision of God, and frees us to see with His eyes rather than our own. In this sense mindfulness of God is central to our discipleship goal of becoming like Christ.

In addition to using secular mindful awareness practices for health and to turn down the noise in our heads (also good for our prayer lives), we can use ancient Christian meditative practices like lectio divina, a slow meditative reading of Scripture inherited from the Jewish tradition, and the Jesus Prayer which also helps us to still our minds, as well as be watchful and mindful of God. Above all we cultivate what Jesus commends and the early church called diorasis, a clear seeing, discernment or spiritual insight.

Mindfulness as a human capacity is a collection of jigsaw pieces. The interesting thing is, with these pieces we can use them to make different jigsaw puzzles. The central strand of these puzzles is to do with healing, wholeness and the transformation of our perceptive faculties. Mindfulness matters for Christians, not just for us, but for our neighbours, for God, and for creation itself.

 
Shaun Lambert is Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church and currently researching a PhD project in mindfulness at the London School of Theology. He is also the author of A Book of Sparks – a Study in Christian MindFullness.
 


[1] Mental Health Foundation (2010) Mindfulness Report, London, 9-10.
[2] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life (New York: Hyperion, 1994), 4, quoted in Zindel V. Segal, J. Mark G. Williams & John D. Teasdale, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression (New York: Guilford Press, 2002) 40.
[3] Segal et al, (2002), 248.
[4]  My italics and quoted in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 2002) 204.
[5] A Time to Heal – A Report for the House of Bishops on the Healing Ministry (Church House Publishing, 2007), 20.
 

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