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Press: Lifting the lid on the limits of mindfulness

15 March 2019

Universal Pictorial Press and Agency Ltd

THE Financial Times does not often cover religion, but one of its management columns had a good piece about the benefits of mindfulness meditation in the office.

Two behavioural scientists compared the performance of people who had meditated for up to 15 minutes with those who had simply goofed off reading the news. “When the two groups were asked to do typical work jobs, such as write a business memo, the meditators performed the tasks just as well, but did not feel like spending as much time or effort on them. In other words, mindfulness seemed to be demotivating.”

This is surely testimony that mindfulness works, in as much as it gives meditators a sense of proportion, and suggests to them the existence of a reality more profound than even the best-written business memo can approach . . . but that is not how the practice is sold in companies. So, the researchers were attacked by Arianna Huffington, Deepak Chopra, and even Phil Jackson, “the US basketball coaching great”.

You can see their point. The business of detachment is huge, as the FT points out. “The meditation market was worth an estimated $1.2bn in 2017. . . One can now buy mindful AirBnB tours, mindful mayonnaise, and mindful yoga pants.”

I’m not quite sure about the mindful mayonnaise. There’s a jar in the back of my fridge which may by now be approaching sentience, but it will probably be smeared across a tomato before it attains conscious enlightenment.

ANOTHER area of uncertainty came up in the obituaries for Lord Habgood. They were, on the whole, large and deservedly generous. But The Daily Telegraph repeated as a fact the claim that he had been placed second on the list to Lord Carey when Lady Thatcher chose Lord Runcie’s successor. (All the titles make them sound like participants in some intrigue of Terry Pratchett’s Lord Vetinari. And perhaps that’s right.)

Other versions of the story had his as the first name. A third version, which I lean towards, is that he never made the shortlist at all, after Thatcher let it be known that he wouldn’t be chosen if he did. In that case, the second name might well have been David Sheppard’s — and if you were trying to manage the selection process so that she would choose Lord Carey, Sheppard’s would have been the perfect alternative. She might have chosen Donald Trump for Canterbury if Sheppard’s had been the other name.

Imagine, for a moment, what we missed in that alternative timeline: “We’re going to have a decade of evangelism, a big beautiful decade of evangelism. It’s going to be yuge. And the Methodists will pay for it.”

The thing that interests me about the intrigue now is the way in which the myths agglomerate around a skeleton of quite unknowable facts. One of the things that a journalist who wishes to be respected must never say is “I don’t know,” or “I don’t have enough facts to make a judgement.” So, it is better for your reputation and your self-esteem to be confidently wrong about something than tentatively ignorant. This must be one of the dynamics of rumour-formation in the outside world, but it feels differently wrong when journalists do it.

THERE was a very nice interview with Richard Holloway in The Times. He says: “I’m still troubled with the possibility of transcendence. It’s such an extraordinary mystery that, after 14 billion years, an apparently insensate universe has created meaning in us. We humans have achieved this intelligence that makes life and our own life. That keeps me from being an atheist.”

So the interviewer asks him how he coped with people in extremis who wanted him to pray to a God in whose existence he was increasingly doubtful: “I’m not the focus in these situations. The focus is the ministry to the person. We’re not there for our struggles with faith, we’re there for a purpose towards others, the way doctors are.

“So you un-self yourself in that situation: it’s not your doubts or belief that count, it’s the need of the individual. So you empty yourself and you focus on the need of the person.”

This seems to me so obviously right, and not just ethically. Which comforter gains more in such a situation: the one who gets to share his or her certainties, or the one who gets to forget his or her doubts?

POPE FRANCIS, meanwhile, has had a fairly busy week. On Saturday, he met the leaders of Mormonism, an event reported at some length in The Washington Post, and hardly at all by the official Vatican media. If the meeting actually signifies, as the Mormons hope, that the Vatican accepts them as legitimate Christians, this would be remarkable.

On the other hand, the Mormons were the main funders of agitation against gay marriage in the United States in the past decade. Perhaps they are thought of as useful allies there.

In that case, why had the Pope welcomed a delegation of English LGBT Roman Catholics on Ash Wednesday? It is a very great shame that the schedulers did not get the two groups mixed up.

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