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
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
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
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
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
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
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.