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Is mindfulness God-given?

Mindfulness is both a secret in much of the church, and feared by others. It shouldn't be so, writes Shaun Lambert


Mindfulness as our universal God-given human capacity for awareness and attention is part of natural and incarnational theology. Alister E McGrath defines natural theology as an ‘open secret,’ that is ‘a publicly accessible entity, whose true meaning is known only from the standpoint of Christian faith.’[1]

In that sense we look at nature from the standpoint of faith and discern its status as creation. Mindfulness is a natural capacity, but it has Christian significance because it is a capacity that has been created by the Christian God as Creator. In its created capacity it enables us to be aware and attentive to God, to others, to our own salvation, to creation and so on. This would not be the focus in secular psychology. Ironically, it is also an open secret in the sense that the world is open to it as a natural capacity, but it still seems to be a secret in much of the church. Indeed it is feared by some in the church.

Defining mindfulness: it is part of being human

If we define mindfulness clearly then the fears some Christians have about it can be allayed. It is not simply a Buddhist construct as some imagine and fear. It is part of being human. Because  mindfulness is a universal (God-given) human capacity of attention and awareness, all the faith traditions work with it in some way, with different intentions and different practices. However, it is the cognitive neuroscience of attention and awareness that can help us see mindfulness clearly as it is.

If you hold it up to the light of this empirical research, much as you might hold up a diamond, a complex, multi-faceted human capacity emerges. A capacity that can lead us to a beautiful mind.
Principally mindfulness is awareness, our universal human capacity for awareness and attention.[2] Attention and awareness are central to human consciousness and perception, and so mindfulness can be defined as a quality of consciousness.

Measuring mindfulness

Because it is a quality of our consciousness it has also been observed as a state of mind, and a trait or disposition that occurs naturally within us as human beings. I want to focus particularly on this aspect of mindfulness, as a state and trait, which is often missed, but I do need to point out the other aspects of mindfulness. As a trait it can be measured and there are a number of scales that do this.[3]

Attention and awareness can also be broken down into key psychological processes such as the ability to focus attention, to sustain attention, to switch attention back to the object of focus when our mind wanders; the ability to be openly aware of our internal and external environment. These processes enable us to regulate our emotions, to shift one’s cognitive perspective, to respond wisely to stress rather than react automatically in unhelpful ways.

Research coming out of neuroscience supports this idea of mindfulness as a state of mind, a trait, with evidence about what they call neural correlates, the link between a process and a particular area of the brain connected to that process. In particular neuroscientists have observed links with areas of the prefrontal cortex that are to do with emotional regulation.[4]

The relationship with meditation

All of this needs to be distinguished from the mindful awareness or meditative practices that enable us to become more mindful. The negative reaction to mindfulness for some Christians is also in part a reaction to the word meditation. The word is often used without any clear understanding, and no appreciation that there are different families of meditation. For example, mindfulness as embodied awareness and attention, which is about facing reality, is not the same as transcendental meditation.

Within mindfulness the word meditation is simply to do with ‘attentional training.’[5]

Christian discipleship also has to do with attentional training, ‘Do not attend to your own interests but rather to the interests of others.’[6]

Mindfulness as a trait or state of mind is not dependent on meditation. In fact aerobic exercise can increase dispositional mindfulness,[7] as can simply cultivating our natural ability to notice things.
The other main strand of mindfulness is the therapies that are based on mindfulness or incorporate it, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).

These have mainly been developed for mental health and psychological well-being, with MBSR having a number of applications including stress, and MBCT particularly developed to help those with recurrent depression. They also incorporate sophisticated maps of how the mind-body works.

Christian distinctives of mindfulness... and sermons

None of the above takes into account Christian distinctives of mindfulness like mindfulness of God, or ethical and relational aspects we would value that see this natural capacity as having a created element and purpose from God.

A thoughtless dismissal of mindfulness not only loses the richness of its created possibilities but also means that we are turning our back on a number of human abilities we actually hold dear.

For example, let’s take the central position of the sermon in our services. We hope that the congregation through listening to the Word and the words are focusing their attention on the passage and to what is being said. Sermons range in length but congregations can learn to listen for up to 40 minutes or more, in an act of sustained attention, and if their mind wanders hopefully they have learnt to switch their attention back to the message. In this process we have the possibility of being openly aware to what God might be saying – a closed mind is no help at this point of change and transformation.

During the message they might be challenged about regulating their emotion through Paul’s words to the Ephesians, ‘do not let the sun go down while you are still angry’ (4:26).

If we turn away from mindfulness then we are turning our back on these processes, those of focused attention, sustained attention, and emotional regulation and so on.

The historical tradition of the church and our self-focused culture

But there are other problems in not paying attention to what mindfulness teaches us and what is affirmed about attention and awareness within the biblical and historical tradition of the church.

Our culture is increasingly dominated by a self-focused attention that centres on anxious preoccupation with self and rumination, to the detriment of our mental health.[8] Jesus warns against this self-focused anxious and fearful attention, when he says in Mark 8:35 ‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it.’

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.

Culturally, because of the virtual world we now live in, we are moving away from cultivating deep attention to what N. Katherine Hayles calls hyper attention, which ‘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 are also much more likely to live our lives on autopilot, mindlessly and automatically reacting to people and events unwisely and without emotional regulation, usually in a narcissistic and self-centred way.

Mindfully choosing God in a distracting world

To come back to the standpoint of Christian faith with which I began, this discerning standpoint also enables us to shift our perspective. When a crisis happens in our life, and we are bounced by circumstances into a place of fear and doubt, our wider faith perspective of trust in God’s care for us, enables us to shift our perspective back to one of trust. That faith perspective relativizes our human reactions, and enables us to respond with trust.

The heart of Christian mindfulness lies in Jesus’ statement to Peter in Mark 8:33, ‘‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’’

By developing our capacity to be attentive and aware in the present moment of ethical choice, we can mindfully choose the things of God over the human things jostling for our attention.

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.

Image: Kevin Carden/Creationswap

[1] Alister E. McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 2008.
[2] J. Mark G. Williams & Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins, and Multiple Applications at the Intersection of Science and Dharma,” in Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins, and Applications, eds. J. Mark G. Williams & Jon Kabat-Zinn (London: Routledge, 2013), 15.
[3] See below for the Toronto Mindfulness Scale.
[4] Richard Chambers, Eleonora Gullone & Nicholas B. Allen, “Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review,” Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2009): 566, accessed September 11, 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2009.06.005.
[5] Chambers, 561.
[6] Philippians 2:4 as translated by Stephen E Fowl in Philippians The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 77.
[7] Hendrik Mothes et al, “Regular Aerobic Exercise Increases Dispositional Mindfulness in Men: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Mental Health and Physical Activity 7, no.2 (2014), 111.-119, accessed September 14, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mhpa.2014.02.003.
[8] Mark A. Lau et al, “The Toronto Mindfulness Scale: Development and Validation,” Journal of Clinical Psychology 62, no. 12 (2006), 1447, accessed September 11, 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20326.
[9] N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 12. 

Baptist Times, 30/09/2015
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