Mindfulness and flourishing
Baptist minister Shaun Lambert explains how mindfulness helps us live life in all its fullness - and addresses Christian objections to it
Mindfulness for health and mindfulness of God helped glue me back together during a time of anxiety, stress, burnout and the experience of falling apart. However, it is also the case that mindfulness practice is not for everyone at every stage of their life. This is because it has been likened to a form of exposure therapy. When we turn and face the reality of difficult experiences we have been avoiding, which mindfulness enables, it can be very overwhelming. So if you are receiving treatment for a mental health condition, check with your doctor or other mental health professional before formally practising mindfulness.
There is suspicion toward mindfulness by some Christians and the way to overcome this is to define mindfulness properly. I see mindfulness as our God-given capacity for attention and awareness. It is also the capacity that holds our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations in awareness. Just for a moment imagine your mind as a goldfish bowl. Picture three fish swimming around the bowl: one representing thought; one representing feeling; and one representing bodily-sensation. It's an image of what happens when we get stressed: afflictive thoughts and feelings rush in and stir up the bowl of our mind. The water in the analogy is awareness: that’s why we can know something of what we think, something of what we feel, something of what is going on in our body. This awareness holds what swims into that conscious presence, and we can witness our afflictive thoughts rather than be a victim of them.
Mindfulness is also used as an umbrella term and people can pick up on just one aspect of it as a phenomenon, for example, conflating mindfulness as merely meditation or mindful awareness practices. It is in fact much more than this, including innate psychological capacities, states of mind that are temporary or that can become traits, as well as practices and psychological interventions.  Mindfulness practices only work because there are innate psychological processes that can be enhanced through such practices.
These mindful capacities also include self-awareness, self-regulation and self-transcendence. I am developing self-awareness when I examine my inner life, or invite the Holy Spirit to search and know my heart, my thoughts and feelings (Psalm 139:23-24). Without self-awareness enhanced by the Holy Spirit, I cannot know what needs to change within me. Regulating our emotions is also a matter of our discipleship – Paul says ‘(you) regulate your anger so that you do not sin…’ (Ephesians 4:26, my paraphrase). We are called to regulate our emotions in our relationships in a godly way. Paul goes on to say, ‘(you) do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,’ (Ephesians 4:26, my addition). There are many scriptural references to us transcending our own selfish focus, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’ (Philippians 2:3-4)
In secular psychology mindfulness is for health and wellbeing, and is used to treat stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and many other conditions. But because it is to do with awareness and attention and other mindful capacities, it can be applied in many ways. All of these other applications can help us in our flourishing, living life in all its fullness – as well as in postgraduate or any other form of study.
I am particularly interested in mindfulness of God. The psalmist tells us that God is mindful of us, that God remembers us and cares for us (Psalm 8:4). However, as we are made in God’s image we too can be mindful of God. When I was researching the Jesus Prayer I came across a quote from 5th century Greek Bishop Diadochus of Photike which triggered my PhD research, ‘Let us keep our eyes always fixed on the depths of our heart with an unceasing mindfulness of God.’ This is a key idea in the Christian contemplative tradition, particularly associated with watchfulness.
Mindfulness is a form of attentional training and as such can be used to enhance our capacity for study, for critical analysis. The God-given capacity for attention and awareness we have has a number of beautiful elements. We tell our children to pay attention but never teach them how. Mindfulness can teach us how to focus our attention, to strengthen our muscle of attention. Invariably as we try and focus our attention on our work, or study, or Scripture, our minds will wander. One part of our mind can notice that another part of our mind has wandered, and what it has wandered too – this is meta-awareness. We can then direct our mind back to its original focus. This teaches us to switch attention, to sustain attention and ultimately cultivate what has been called deep attention, which is what enables our academic work to flourish. Mindfulness can also bring into awareness automatic cultural patterns that have fragmented our attention, into 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’.
Mindfulness is also used in the cultivation of cultural intelligence (CQ) to bring into self-awareness automatic cultural scripts (but can also bring automatic family or religious scripts into awareness). David C. Thomas defines cultural intelligence as, ‘the ability to interact effectively with people who are culturally different.’[i] This doesn’t happen automatically, as any cursory glance at the history of cultural engagement will show. There are three important components that enable one to demonstrate CQ. When you bring together knowledge, mindfulness and behaviour, argues Thomas, you get CQ.[ii]
CQ is a relational intelligence that recognises our interconnectedness and differences, and involves knowledge of culture and how to interact cross-culturally in a sensitive and appropriate way. Different cultures have different scripts, norms and values, and recognising this is part of CQ because these cultural scripts and norms become internalised and automatic, usually out of our awareness. However, cultural knowledge by itself is not enough; it needs to be translated into culturally intelligent behaviour.[iii] I might have scripts that come from family or culture or both that say things like, ‘I have a fixed amount of intelligence,’ or ‘I’m not very bright,’ or ‘I’m stupid.’ We could have a script that says ‘If I get something wrong I’m a failure.’ All these scripts get in the way of our ability to take on increasingly complex academic or other work. Mindfulness can bring these scripts into awareness and relativize them. How it does that is through the central insight of mindfulness, whether secular, Buddhist or Christian.
This is the answer to the question, ‘Am I my thoughts and feelings, are you your thoughts and feelings?’ The answer is that I am bigger than my thoughts and feelings. They are part of me but they are not facts, they are just passing mental events. I can observe my thoughts and feelings, notice them and let them go. I can relativize them. I used to think I was an anxious person, now I realise I just have anxious thoughts. Which are not facts.
When we realise our thoughts, even the difficult ones are just thoughts then we can find calm states of mind. One of those calm states of mind has been called ‘flow.’ It is in these states of mind that we can find our creativity, that we can produce our best work, that we can see clearly. Keats calls this ‘negative capability.’ He defines this as, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…’ Negative capability enables us to access our creativity, through an open awareness, a free-floating attention... this is being mindful!
In these states of mind, we can pay attention to the real around us and within us – and to the Real. Then we are mindful of God and good soil is cultivated, and the fruit of our lives, its flourishing, can be thirty, sixty or even a hundred-fold of what it was before.
Image | Lesly Juarez | Unsplash
Shaun Lambert is Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church. He is the author of A Book of Sparks – a Study in Christian MindFullness, and Putting on the Wakeful One: Attuning to the Spirit of Jesus through Watchfulness. He is speaking at the National Mindfulness Day for Christians on 23 March. This is a version of a lecture he gave to postgraduate students in Oxford at a recent conference on flourishing.
 See an article by Matthew Brensilver PhD, https://www.mindfulschools.org/research-and-neuroscience/response-to-the-guardian-article-is-mindfulness-making-us-ill/
 See 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.
 See David R. Vago, David R. Ph D., and Silbersweig A. M. D. David. ‘Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, and Self-Transcendence (S-ART): A Framework for Understanding the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness’. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6 (2012): 296. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296.
 Vago, 2.
 See Mental Health Foundation (2010) Mindfulness Report, London, 9.
 Quoted in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (London: New City, 2002) 204.
 N. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 12.
 Flow ‘describes the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives.’ See M. Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow (Basic Books, 1997), 29.
 See https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/john-keats-and-negative-capability.
[i] David C. Thomas, ‘Domain and Development of Cultural Intelligence: the Importance of Mindfulness’, Group Organisation Management 31, 1, (February 2006), 80.
[ii] David C. Thomas, ‘Domain and Development of Cultural Intelligence: the Importance of Mindfulness’, 81.
[iii] David C. Thomas, ‘Domain and Development of Cultural Intelligence: the Importance of Mindfulness’, 81
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