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Crucial ‘sacred pause’

15 March 2013

Terence Handley McMath continues her Lent series

Some mindfulness practitioners and behaviourists share the orthodox Christian understanding of the human being as inherently prone to becoming rigid, entrapped in addiction or avoidance, and seeking control rather than freedom and grace.

The doctrine of Original Sin can be transposed into this therapeutic analysis, as it does not work from the premise that normal human behaviour is necessarily free, lovingly open, and responsive, if it is untroubled by untoward events or the behaviour of others. Yet it does believe that it can become like this through a consistent, mindful commitment to what is good and trustworthy - or what Christians would call "grace".

"Innateist" mindfulness teachers may have a more optimistic belief that our capacities for wise, loving behaviour are innate: with mindfulness practice, we are likely to make good choices, to feel and express lovingkindness towards ourselves and others, and to live in a non-grabbing, non-striving way.

When life is calm, it is relatively easy to have a holistic awareness of any given situation, and to deal with it wisely. But emotion, thought, interpretation, physical sensations, and behaviour are closely interwoven, and at times of stress, people find themselves trapped in confusing tangles of emotion, thought, and sensation, such as the classic combinations of rage-resentment-acid indigestion.

Often, people respond only to the physical sensation; so they might ask their GP to prescribe something for indigestion or recurrent headaches. Any decent doctor will try to find a cause of the problem, and might point to a stressful job, or a difficult relationship. But this is only the start of finding a solution.

Mindfulness is a means of becoming aware of the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that are triggered when we interpret what is going on in negative ways. Often these are closely intertwined, and, at such times, it is hard to work out which element is causing which symptom. These combinations of thought, emotion, and sensation can drag people into an unreal reality, one that reinforces their negative interpretation of events and experience, or, worse, overwhelms their sense of self.

Courses in mindfulness, such as those on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and on stress-reduction, are similar in practice. Those that are taught by teachers trained by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and Bangor Mindfulness Centre offer a series of techniques to help people observe, analyse, and interpret what is happening to them in any given moment.

They encourage a standpoint of "friendly curiosity", teaching the values of detachment, humility, hope, trust, and joy - which are, of course, essentially spiritual values - to be used in situations where they have been squeezed out by past or future anxiety.

This is why mindfulness works within the graced moment, the crucial "sacred pause" of the present moment. It also teaches people to treat themselves with more humility and patience. And it seems that this kindness then begins to be extended to others.

The Revd Terence Handley MacMath is an NHS chaplain, and a teacher of mindfulness in Christian and secular settings.

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