The Guardian’s profile on mindfulness says, "In a first floor room above a gridlocked London street, 20 strangers shuffle on to mats and cushions. There’s an advertising executive, a personnel manager, a student and a pensioner. A gong sounds softly and a session of meditation begins. This is one of more than 1,000 mindfulness courses proliferating across the UK as more and more people struggling with anxiety, depression and stress turn towards a practice adapted from a 2,400-year-old Buddhist tradition."
The Guardian’s snapshot is fairly typical of what happens today. The other night we were chatting to a couple of high school students who were attending a seminar we were giving and they shared how mindfulness is naturally part of their school programme. They asked, should we fear our involvement?
The answer is "no", but qualified. The practice of mindfulness in the West takes different forms. It is an ancient Buddhist practice that has been transferred and adapted in the West by the professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn. You will find some teachers whose worldview is Buddhist but others have taken the best elements and adapted it in a secular fashion. It is fair to say that it now dominates counselling in the Western world, from those seeking peace of mind those desperate for release from chronic depression and addictions.
Briefly it involves steps such as connection (being in the present moment), defusion (to step back or to detach from worrying thoughts and memories), acceptance (opening up to painful feelings without being overwhelmed by them).
In corporate management circles mindfulness is a common stress-busting technique used in staff development workshops
In Taboo Or To Do? Is Christianity Complementary with Yoga, martial arts, Halowe’en, Mindfulness and other Alternative Practices? we set out the background, discernment issues and case studies for each spiritual discipline. We conclude with questions and contact points that would be useful for groups and individuals in parish life. With respect to mindfulness we raise the discernment issues of social justice and individualism. For example, in corporate management circles mindfulness is a common stress-busting technique used in staff development workshops. The implication can be that the individual is to blame for their problems and mindfulness is shaped as a tool that intervenes at a personal private level. The corporation’s structures get off scot-free while the work environment remains unchanged sapping the strength of employees.
The other concern is that mindfulness programmes may cater to a high sense of individualism that is divorced from any sense of community. As Christians we honour the individual but always see the individual as belonging in relationships to the community. Community well-being is just as important as individual well-being.
However, there are Christian churches, pastors and counsellors who have sought to bring mindfulness into a Christian framework. As we point out in the book, there will be three major pillars. The first is the Bible upholds the importance of the mind and its renewing. A second pillar is acceptance, Jesus calls us not to be anxious and we need to learn to let go of unwanted thoughts and feelings. The third is internal observation. It is helpful to learn how to observe the feeling that results from innuendo and unwanted criticism rather than be controlled by it.
There are Christian churches, pastors and counsellors who have sought to bring mindfulness into a Christian framework
Shaun Lambert is senior minister at Stanmore Baptist Church (London). He draws Christians and non-churchgoers together through his ministry Mindful Church Cafe. The cafe provides the barista and Shaun covers topics like health, stress, parenting, relationships, creatively drawing on the wisdom of Mindfulness and theology as he taps into the burgeoning interest in spiritual practices in our culture. He teaches mindful listening including focusing on passages like the seed and sower in Mark 4. It is about being fully present as we listen.
The Rev. Tim Stead is an Anglican rector in Oxford. For the past four years he has run a weekly drop-in session, courses for clergy as well as retreats. In the drop in session he explains, "we have one guided mindfulness meditation for thirty minutes and one silent meditation for thirty minutes." He indicates, "this is turning into a small community in itself with members not regular churchgoers but who are happy to join this event led by an Anglican vicar – interesting!"
There are proper concerns about mindfulness. However, if you know the practitioner and/or have a Christian framework there is nothing to fear. How many churches are discussing this issue in view of the fact that it is the operating paradigm in schools, work-places and counselling for personal flourishing and well-being? Perhaps more need to. It is a great topic for a sermon or Bible study.
Ross Clifford & Philip Johnson are the authors of Taboo Or To Do (Darton, Longman & Todd)