the Door JANUARY 2013
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The power of m
Mindfulness may be a current buzz word, the latest ‘big thing’ that can transform our lives. But Christians and people of other faiths have been using ‘mindfulness’ techniques through what we call contemplative prayer and Christian meditation for thousands of years. The Door looks at how these techniques can help ordinary people in today’s fast-paced world.
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A statue of St Benedict at the St Benedict Retreat Centre, Schuyler, Nebraska. A Benedictine monk founded the World Community of Christian Meditation. Photo: Istock.
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indfulness is being used in new contexts to enable both general ‘wellness of being’ and, in clinical settings, to help people cope with a huge number of health issues such as chronic pain, severe depression, stress and anxiety, addiction, child birth and brain damage, to name just a few, writes Tim
So, what is going on and how does this Mindfulness link with the Christian tradition of prayer? Well, Mindfulness itself is really about coming to a state of greater awareness of the reality of what is, in the present moment – both within us and around us – in a non-judgmental and compassionate way. It is about living more fully this present moment and learning to let go of anxiety about the past or the future. It is about deepening the compassion, peace and joy in our lives. For me, this is very similar language to the art of learning to be present to God every moment of every day – alive and awake and trusting in God’s goodness and God’s on-going work of healing within me. It is about opening ourselves up to the constant work of grace. Grace is there all the time – all we have to do is be present to it. The trouble is, just as Martha was, we are “worried and distracted by so many things” and we find it very difficult to be still and just listen as Mary did and was told by Jesus that she had chosen the “better way”. As it happens the first person who began to apply Mindfulness practice to health needs had a Buddhist background. John Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s began to explore how the meditation practices that he had
learned could be applied to the management of chronic pain. He taught the practices in a non-religious way. The results were dramatic – as were Canon Professor Mark Williams’s results when he combined some of these same practices with his own area of expertise, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to cases of severe chronic depression. When I began to study Mindfulness I recognised a huge similarity in the practical teaching being given to that I had been learning over the last 20 years through practice of contemplative forms of Christian prayer. Most notably, the 16th century Spanish mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avilla and those taught in the “Jesus prayer” tradition in Eastern Orthodox Christian practice.
‘It is about about deepening the compassion, peace and joy in our lives.’ So what are these Mindfulness practices? Well, the start of it is learning a basic form of concentration. In mindfulness this involves focusing on your breath, but Christians have used short repeated prayers, prayer ropes or rosaries to do the same. We also seek to become aware of our God-given bodies by bringing different parts of our physical being into focus. We may also stand and move our bodies gently. This is not yoga as such but simply another way of becoming more aware of and attuned to our own bodies and more present to ourselves. The practice is also taken out into the day as we try to bring awareness and
presence to everyday activities. This just like the early monks making digging the earth a prayer to the Lord in response to St Paul’s injunction to “pray constantly”. However, Mindfulness cannot be taught through this article. It can only really be learned by practising it and then reflecting on the experience. It is normally taught through an eight week programme which involves practising at home and then meeting in a group with an experienced teacher to reflect on how everyone got on. I am running a trial course in my church for Christians. We offer each session to God and trust that God is present and working in us through the mindfulness practices. The general experience is that this deepens the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control in our lives. St Paul would be pleased. The best practical book to help us get started is Mindfulness – A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams & Danny Penman. This is not an explicitly Christian book but we have found it to be entirely consistent with our Christian understanding and practice. The Revd Olivia Graham said: “The heart of all prayer is being attentive to God. And it’s so hard in the busyness of our lives to do this. Mindfulness gives us brilliant tools for staying present and attentive to God-in-us and allowing God to transform us from within, so that prayer is not the ‘holy’ bit, or what we do on Sundays, but a way of living. I would encourage anyone who prays, or who would like start, to consider exploring the rich help that Mindfulness can offer.” The Revd Tim Stead is the Vicar of Holy Trinity Headington Quarry.
The Door Newspaper January 2013 edition