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Bedfellows, but how comfortable?

23 October 2015

Terence Handley MacMath considers fears that mindfulness and Christianity are incompatible

I HAVE sometimes been contacted by people who have heard of the help that courses on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), can offer. They believe that doing a course would help them with anxiety, depression, cravings, chronic pain, or just with their sense that the wear and tear of life is getting them down.

But they have also heard that the course is a form of Buddhist teaching, or at least founded on Buddhist philosophy; so they are afraid that it might lead them into apostasy, or open them to demonic influences. To discover that they can learn it from an Anglican priest, through a cathedral study-centre, is very reassuring. Some then ask if the course, which includes a great deal of meditation practice, will help them to pray. It will.

Mindfulness is not, of course, a thing that we need to be taught: it is the way we responded to a stick and a puddle, a windfall apple, raindrops on a window pane, or a plate of spaghetti, when we were small, unhurried, and curious, safe to explore the reality around us; and — at least, if we were lucky — secure in love.

Some people don’t lose these qualities in their response to life; but most of us do, at least to some extent. Very human fears and desires — which are often deafening in Western society, but were well known to people like St Paul in the ancient world – undermine our experience that “all thing shall be well”. Rushing, judging, striving, clinging, avoiding, wanting: these all make us excellent employees and consumers, but they knock us off balance. In our rush, we make the clumsiest attempts to offer ourselves or others comfort, and miss the mark, more or less disastrously. Addictive behaviours, obsessions, anxieties, unkindness are the result — confirming our fear that we are intrinsically helpless and hopeless.

Only by struggling to keep on the right side of God — and our boss — will existence be possible. Accurately experiencing ourselves, others, God, with kindness and contentment, happens, perhaps, only in odd moments: waking early after a refreshing sleep; on a country walk; when we find ourselves with nowhere to go and nothing to be done. In that moment, we are now, here. These moments are a powerful reminder that this is the real world. What passes for the "real world" is actually the stuff of fantasy.


JON KABAT-ZINN's MBSR course, later adapted by Canon Professor Mark Williams (an Anglican priest) as MBCT, teaches what is, by its very nature, incommunicable — if one is willing to learn. Maggie Ross, author and solitary, believes that not since the death of Nicholas of Cusa has the Church been able to teach consistently about how to experience this reality, now, here, perhaps because, whatever its teaching, most people experience the Church as being just as driven, judgemental, and competitive as the secular world.

In the centuries of a mission-shaped drive to communicate its truth, it has forgotten that prayer, at heart, is the silent exchange between the Holy Spirit within the heart, and the Holy Trinity. To speak of this experience of silent exchange is as useless as trying to describe the experience of love-making, or eating an apple. But it can be taught through shared experience, and it is transfiguring.

The commitment to mindfulness practice, over the eight weeks of the course, is just a glimpse, with lasting consequences for some, of what this total self-surrender reveals. To be mindful of this reality, God, now, here, requires the commitment of daily, hourly practice. It is the prayer that Jesus prayed, that his disciples witnessed with bewilderment — "the silence of eternity interpreted by love" — in the long nights in Galilee. The gospel is so much more than this; but it is not less than this. Why wouldn’t Christians learn and practise this together?


THE Buddhist elements, and the CBT, do not deny the lordship of Christ. The Buddha, of course, predated Jesus by centuries, and his teaching is derived from manuscripts written by his disciples. It offers a pragmatic insight into the nature of human suffering, and a matching discipline of meditation that enables people to cultivate a compassionate response to their own and others’ suffering, through committed self-observation, detachment, and love, made possible and nourished by the practice of meditation.

CBT, derived from Behaviourism, has developed into a more balanced set of observations of the human person, and is less deterministic and materialistic than its parent. It offers insights into the tendency of human minds to create and inhabit virtual worlds; to remember negative experiences more clearly than positive ones; to confuse thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations; and to interpret the raw data of the world subjectively: in short (and in the interests of evolutionary advantage), to make itself unhappy.

The demons that Jesus went out into the silent desert to confront and conquer were not fairytale hobgoblins, but the desires, temptations, and delusions of the human mind.


WHILE the WCCM, the Centering Prayer movement, and older monastic orders still teach Christian prayer in the silent traditions of such saints as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, John Cassian, Benedict and Teresa, MBSR and MBCT courses offer this first-hand experience of silence to people of all faiths and none.

When I am teaching Mindfulness myself, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry that people are paying me for, and are so excited by, something so absurdly simple. Perhaps financial comparisons are unhelpful. Perhaps we have come to the point where we have to buy silence and kindness, even as we must now pay for land, shelter and water. What people are investing in here is equally life-giving: the opportunity to discover the transfiguration of stopping, and consciously to see themselves with eyes of grace and compassion. Some students – many of them life-long practising Christians – tell me that for them this is a totally new experience, and that they are amazed.

Madeleine Bunting is right to point out that mindfulness can be used to control others, or to achieve a personal end, and this is to subvert it completely, however "spiritual" that end may be. But the Church itself has not been above that, and the way to counter these temptations is to practise greater mindfulness.

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