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".
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,
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
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.