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The mission issue in a fresh spiritual revival

23 May 2014

Mindfulness is a religious practice in which Christians can share wholeheartedledly. They should join in, argues Mark Vernon

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 nervousness.

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, biblical.

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 God.

"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 this.

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 provide.

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 feelings.

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 nurtures 

the experience of knowing the God "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17.28).

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 God.

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.


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