WE ARE in the midst of a spiritual revival. It has touched the
lives of possibly millions. It keeps books in the Amazon top 20 for
years. It is bigger than the Alpha course. And yet the Church seems
hardly to have noticed it, or at least responds with
It is the practice of mindfulness - a technique and a state of
being that the Oxford psychologist and Anglican priest the Revd
Professor Mark Williams has defined as "the awareness that emerges
through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with
compassion, and open-hearted curiosity". His book, Mindfulness:
A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world
(Piatkus, 2011), is a best-seller.
The latest sign was the launch, earlier this month, of an
All-Party Parliamentary Group on the subject, supported by the
Mindfulness Initiative - a collaboration of Oxford, Exeter, and
Bangor universities. More than 80 MPs have undergone mindfulness
training, and the aim is to help spread the practice into health,
education, criminal justice, and work. So might the Established
Church now start to take more serious note, and, if so, how?
THERE is the nervousness to overcome, the sense that Buddhist
ideas are spreading across the land under the guise of teaching
useful skills (Faith, 8 February-28 March 2013). One way to address
this is to realise that the concept of mindfulness is, in a sense,
When scholars first translated the Pali word "sati",
they landed on the word "mindful" by borrowing from the psalms:
"What is man, that thou are mindful of him?" (Psalm 8.4). The use
captures something of the power of attention - of God's being
intimately aware of us, and we of ourselves.
It is, therefore, truer to say that mindfulness is just one of a
family of practices, now often forgotten, that have long been part
of the Christian tradition, too - practices that might include
reciting the Jesus Prayer, and contemplative communion with
"The skill required is inner silence," Martin Laird explains in
his excellent introduction to Into the Silent Land: The
practice of contemplation (DLT, 2006), because "It is [the]
noisy, chaotic mind that keeps us ignorant of the deeper reality of
God as the ground of our being."
It can also be helpful to drawa distinction between
"problem-solving" and "spiritual" mindfulness, as Alex Gooch puts
it in a new collection of essays, After Mindfulness,
edited by Manu Bazzano (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
Problem-solving mindfulness is a technique that, for example,
tackles addictions (Comment, 3 January).
There is a great deal of evidence that it helps.
Spiritual mindfulness is different, in that it addresses not
only individual troubles, but also the questions with which our
culture as a whole is struggling - in particular, the nature of the
self and our relationship to the divine.
WHY Christianity lost touch with its mindfulness traditions is a
moot point. In his book Silence: A Christian history
(Allen Lane, 2013), Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests that Western
ecclesiastical authorities have long tended not to sanction silence
as part of everyday Christian life because, in Christendom, much of
social and political importance rested on the beliefs of
individuals being made public.
Elizabeth I did not want to make windows into men's souls, but
among leaders she is an exception. The way that Western liturgies,
to this day, contain little or no silence is a by-product of
Like the many revivals of religious life across the centuries,
however, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is rightly making
much (News, 4 April), I suspect that the mindfulness movement can
be seen as a spontaneous desire to recover a lost dimension of the
spiritual life that contemporary Christianity often fails to
That said, secular mindfulness teachers tend to steer clear of
the s-word, and see mindfulness as theologically unlike, or even
opposed to the Christian understanding of God, grace, and
salvation. Rather than viewing it as something spiritual, they
present it as a method through which the individual might become
skilled to save himself or herself from unnecessary suffering. But
a closer look suggests that this might be only a surface
difference, and that mindfulness can be a route through which
individuals can rediscover the divine.
GOOD mindfulness teachers will not try to sell the practice with
promises of happiness or fixes for anxiety, although there are a
number of such claims around. In this way, mindfulness is a stepon
from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which does offer
techniques for directly managing troubling thoughts and
Rather, they will teach the profoundly counterintuitive insight
that the effort in mindfulness training is, paradoxically, aimed at
learning to do nothing. Do not strive to mend, but see more
fundamentally what is going on inside; understand the machinations
of the mind more clearly. Yearning to be happy or to be free of
psychic pain is, in fact, likely to compound the problem.
But why should someone trust this recommendation? There is a
model of being human which lies behind it. It is that, in spite of
appearances, all is well. Creation is benign. Life can be trusted.
Suffering exists copiously, but a stronger grace longs to be felt,
if only we can ease up on our desperate self-holding, and so know
it in some silence. Mindfulness is premised on the conviction that
our worried egos and daily preoccupations veil the truth that our
lives rest in a life that sustains all things.
Mindfulness teachers will stick to secular language such as
"training the observer" or "simply noticing". That is the practice.
But why do this, if letting go were letting go into a godless,
heartless void? It seems to me that, in practice, mindfulness
the experience of knowing the God "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts
I suspect that soon individuals will
turn to the philosophical and theological questions that
mindfulness naturally raises, and about which the Christian
tradition holds rich and compelling possibilities.
Christians might now want to develop
mindfulness groups to discuss it, and above all to practise it. If
mindfulness is symptomatic of a spiritual revival, then it is also
a mission issue: God's work in the world, with which the Church is
invited to join.
In a secular age, mindfulness may
prove to be a much-needed experiential way back to belief in
Mark Vernon's latest book
is Love: All that matters
(Hodder & Stoughton).
The Church Times Bloxham
Festival of Faith and Literature is hosting an introduction to
mindfulness, led by Chris Cullen, on 31 May.