‘Mindfulness saved my life!’ These words in a short email arranging a time for an interview grabbed my attention. The message is from Shaun Lambert, senior minister at Stanmore Baptist Church, north London. I want to know more, but I have to wait until the following day, when I have arranged to give him a call.
‘I’d been working in the church for seven or eight years, and I was very stressed, anxious and close to burnout,’ Shaun explains when I speak to him. ‘I literally felt I was going to fall apart.’ That was back in 2006, just before he discovered mindfulness. It proved to be perfect timing. In his own words, ‘Mindfulness glued me back together.’
Shaun isn’t the only one singing the praises of mindfulness or employing its practice in the name of anxiety reduction. Parliament has formed an all-party committee to consider how mindfulness could be used in health, education and criminal justice. More than 90 MPs have taken part in mindfulness meditation courses inside the Houses of Parliament. It is being used in British schools by pupils and teachers to create calm classrooms, reduce stress around exams and foster creativity. The NHS promotes mindfulness as a way of encouraging ‘good mental wellbeing’, and an estimated 30% of GPs have referred at least one patient to mindfulness training. Some NHS trusts are offering mindfulness to hospital patients as a way of managing chronic pain.
Mindfulness glued me back together
Major businesses including Apple, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Yahoo have invested in mindfulness training for their employees. Google even has a head of mindfulness, whose job description is to ‘enlighten minds, open hearts [and] create world peace’. It seems mindfulness has become part of the pattern of the world around us. And it’s increasingly being embraced by Christians.
Mindfulness goes to church
Retired nurse Barbara Matthews recently set up a mindfulness course at Linden Church in Swansea. The course itself is in secular mindfulness, though most people on the course are active churchgoers. Barbara’s journey into mindfulness was similar to Shaun’s. ‘I’ve had some bouts of quite low mood, stress and anxiety,’ she explains. ‘For a long time I was anxious to the point of lying awake all night.’
As part of that recovery, Barbara adopted a slower pace of life: ‘I needed time to tread water and ask, “What’s next?” I started walking more, and taking notice of what was around me.’
Barbara shared her new approach to life with her sister-in-law, a mental health nurse, who said that her approach sounded like mindfulness. ‘It’s about living in the now rather than turning over the past and worrying about the future,’ her sister-in-law explained.
Barbara signed up for a mindfulness workshop and then decided to set up the course at her church. The level of interest took her by surprise. ‘I had to say no to some people because we were full up,’ she says.
Practising mindfulness has proved to be an important step in Barbara’s ongoing journey out of chronic anxiety. ‘I’m becoming more aware and I’m seeing things with more dimensions,’ she says. ‘I feel happier to just be in the quiet…I just enjoy the quietness. Something is shifting in me.’
What is mindfulness?
The course Barbara organised is in secular mindfulness and, like most secular courses, it is based on a programme established by Jon Kabat-Zinn. If any one person is responsible for mindfulness going mainstream it’s Kabat-Zinn, who developed an eight-week course in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) during the 80s. The course was initially created as an adaptation of Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, although Kabat-Zinn subsequently played down the connection to Buddhism, instead focusing on the scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness.
The course includes training with a mindfulness teacher, as well as up to two hours of daily mindfulness meditation. The daily meditations can include a body scan, breathing meditation and mindful approaches to everyday practices such as eating, brushing teeth or washing up mindfully.
What does doing something mindfully mean? In his book, Mindfulness for Beginners (Sounds True), Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as ‘paying attention on purpose in the present moment as if your life depended on it’.
Pádraig Ó Tuama, whose book In the Shelter (Hodder & Stoughton) provides a gateway into mindfulness from a Christian perspective, says that mindfulness is about ‘looking at the here and now’ with a sense of curiosity and wonder. Instead of getting caught up in emotions or thoughts, you step back from your thoughts, observe them, and say: ‘Well, hello, look at that, there it is.’
Pádraig continues: ‘It’s so easy to get addicted to a cycle of only describing the present by how you think it should be, or shouldn’t be, or where you should be going, or why you wish you weren’t where you are. While those things are valid, there is such deep human wisdom in describing the way things are right now.’
Is mindfulness good for Christians?
For many Christians, the ‘deep human wisdom’ of a mindful approach to life is evidenced by their own experience of practising mindfulness. However, not all Christians are happy with the turn to mindfulness, particularly because of the perceived Buddhist roots of the practice.
Claiming mindfulness is Buddhist is like claiming that gravity is British because Sir Isaac Newton discovered it
Shaun, author of A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian MindFullness (Instant Apostle), feels his role is to help people make informed choices about practising mindfulness.
‘I get emails from Christians saying: “I suffer from recurrent depression, my doctor said I should try mindfulness, and somebody in the church has said I shouldn’t touch it because it’s got Buddhist roots,”’ he says.
Annie (not her real name), an evangelical Christian from Northern Ireland, has practised mindfulness in both secular and Christian forms for more than a decade to help with anxiety management. When I requested an interview, she asked to remain anonymous. ‘Some of the circles that I move in would not understand,’ she says.
Annie explains that in the church she attended as a young woman, ‘any form of meditation was seen as almost of the devil’. Later in life, she discovered mindfulness meditation through one of Kabat-Zinn’s books.
She found the practice helpful, but had concerns about how compatible it was with her faith. ‘I found it extremely difficult,’ she says. ‘The fact that it has a Buddhist foundation was a huge problem for me.’
Annie wrestled with her misgivings, and eventually decided that the benefits of practising mindfulness outweighed her concerns. ‘Reading Kabat-Zinn, I could see an awful lot of common sense in letting your feelings be,’ she says.
Having now practised mindfulness for more than a decade, mainly through a Christian form of mindfulness known as centering prayer, Annie sees mindfulness as ‘a lost strand of evangelicalism and the Reformation’. ‘It’s something that we really need,’ she says. Coming to terms with the Buddhist roots of mindfulness meant a shift in theology for Annie. She now believes: ‘We’re all made in the image of God, and within that image – whether we’re Christians or not – there is a certain human wisdom.’
‘Claiming mindfulness is Buddhist is like claiming that gravity is British because Sir Isaac Newton discovered it,’ says Shaun, quoting Kabat-Zinn. Pádraig has a similar view: ‘For people of faith, the source of all goodness is God, whether or not it comes with a Buddhist or Christian stamp on it.’
The 'lost gospel'
For Shaun, mindfulness isn’t only a gift that can be encountered through other faith traditions. Mindfulness has a rich history in the Christian tradition through the ancient practice of contemplative prayer, which dates back to the Desert Fathers
and Mothers during the fourth and fifth centuries. ‘For some reason, in evangelical and charismatic churches, we didn’t embrace the contemplative tradition,’ he says.
Contemplative prayer is about being with God rather than talking with God. It involves stilling the mind by focusing on a simple word or phrase that is repeated with every breath, such as ‘maranatha’, ‘love’, or – Shaun’s preferred focus – the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
Shaun believes the contemplative tradition – or Christian mindfulness – is the ‘lost gospel’. ‘It’s that central,’ he says. How did this gospel get lost? Shaun cites an overemphasis on reason, logic and propositional truth. ‘That’s been a big Western problem,’ he says.
Richard Johnston, author of Introducing Christian Mindfulness (RHH Johnston), concurs with Shaun’s analysis. For Richard, mindfulness prompts ‘a movement from propositional truth statements – such as “God is love” – to actually experiencing the reality of that truth’. In other words, mindfulness takes us beyond truth that can be expressed in words into truth that can only be experienced. For those who practise mindfulness, that’s a deeper level of truth.
Richard also points out the practical benefits of mindfulness for Christians. ‘Many Christians struggle with the battle for the mind,’ he says. ‘Negative thought patterns weigh us down and can cripple us in our walk with God.
My experience is that mindfulness can be hugely beneficial to reducing negative thought patterns.’
For Richard, this process reflects the ‘renewing of the mind’ that Paul cites as being central to the Christian faith in the book of Romans. ‘Being mindfully aware is about cooperating with the Holy Spirit and with the grace of God in renewing negative thought patterns,’ Richard says.
He continues: ‘As Christians, so often we suppress how we are really feeling. You may be genuinely angry about a situation, and you say to yourself, “I can’t be angry because I’m a Christian.” You deny how you’re feeling, put on your big Christian smile and pretend that everything’s all right.’
In Richard’s view, this suppression is unhealthy, and mindfulness provides an alternative. ‘Mindfulness enables you to be like the psalmist who expressed his raw emotions and thoughts,’ he says. ‘That’s healthy, because it enables you to acknowledge the reality of where you’re at, then let go.’
Lindsay Melluish, associate pastor at St Paul’s Ealing, a New Wine network church, started practising mindfulness after attending a seminar with Shaun. She puts it this way: ‘Jesus didn’t judge. He told us not to judge. But so often we judge ourselves. “I’m such an angry person,” we say. But we don’t need to. We can be compassionate to ourselves.’
For many Christians, mindfulness sits comfortably alongside their faith theologically, biblically and in terms of their relationship with God. And for some, mindfulness has become integral to their faith. Richard points to Psalm 8. ‘There you have God himself characterised as being mindful,’ he says. ‘I would say that God is the most mindful being that exists. He is omniscient, all-knowing, and he is aware of all things, all the time.’
Lindsay has also found that mindfulness integrates well with her faith. ‘We read in the scriptures, “Be still and know that I am God”. Being still before God and hearing him speak, that’s something Christians have practised for years and years. For me, it’s a real fit.’