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A search for wholeness

28 March 2013

Terence Handley MacMath concludes her Lenten series on mindfulness


IS MINDFULNESS Christian? The Vicar of Headington Quarry, Oxford, the Revd Tim Stead, has been trained by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, and is exploring mindfulness with his congregation. His view is that: "Mindfulness doesn't harmonise [with Christianity], but I think it does show that the two traditions are certainly coming from perhaps a single source -- the source of honest humans seeking to become more whole."

A mindful Christianity, in Mr Stead's view, would have certain characteristics: it would cultivate awareness, not autopilot; it would be open, not judgemental or problem-solving. It would also encourage self-directed, experiential learning and practice, and responsibility for one's own spiritual growth rather than doctrinal orthodoxy.

It would emphasise self-care and the physical more than the intellect and a driven moralism; it would promote stillness, not noise; and acceptance, not a striving for predetermined or wished-for outcomes. It would involve waiting, not asking; more silence, less liturgy; more abiding, less busy-work. I would also suggest that it has a strong anti-hierarchical element.

Mr Stead can trace these elements from Jesus's own practice of withdrawal and silence, through the Desert Fathers, St Francis, and St Ignatius, to the 20th century, and Thomas Merton, Henry Le Saux, Bede Griffiths, and John Main.

These men, all formed in Western monasticism, believed that the Church was too dominated by institutions, over-structured prayer, negative attitudes to the body and the material world, and narrow judgementalism. Each independently sought a deeper Christian practice through adopting aspects of Eastern spiritual traditions.

Cynthia Bourgeault's The Wisdom Jesus (Shambala 2008) is a theological study of Jesus and the Christian faith, shaped by her own practice of "Centering Prayer", taught by Thomas Keating. This approach is shaped by the same beliefs, and one of the practices is very similar to a mindfulness-based stress-reduction exercise.

THE contemporary practice of mindfulness in the West has been developed by both religious and secular people for a variety of spiritual and practical purposes. Mindfulness as a skills-set to help people with chronic pain or depression, is entirely secular in approach, and does not need a faith to be effective. But it is obviously useful for clergy, whose need for help in handling stress is still as largely unmet as it is UNacknowledged.

Mindfulness more generally, however, draws on the earliest streams of Buddhist teaching, and many of its attributes harmonise with Jesus's teaching and practice: it is non-judgemental, trusting, encourages detachment ("Do not fret"); it is essentially non-tribal, non-sectarian. It encourages compassion.

It has something to offer all Christians who want to learn to live more compassionately, and to pray more deeply, even though, for Christians, the narrative of Jesus and our experience of him as a living presence in the present moment is still the heart of faith. Jesus, incarnate in human form, shows us the human face of love.

Mr Stead is right: mindfulness is, like Christianity, an expression of human beings' search for wholeness. I wonder, though, whether the source of both is the Holy Spirit, bringing the mind that is in Jesus alive in secular language in a post-Christian culture?

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

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