First of all, apologies for not posting anything on here for a month or so. I seem to have been busier than ever with university work and have just returned from a wonderful pilgrimage to Assisi - more on that anon.
For now I attach part of a talk I shall be giving at Durham University this Thursday for Prof Chris Cook's excellent spirituality and psychology seminar. More details on his website. I also attach a picture from Fr Vineeth's ashram of the season of Pentecost which we are about to enter. I pray that the Spirit of Truth will fill your hearts and minds in the coming weeks and months.
When the molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn first developed his mindfulness courses at the University of Massachusetts in the late 1970s he was not so concerned with the metaphysical implications of Buddhist meditation practices as their clinical and medical efficacy. This novel notion of giving mindfulness meditation a sound clinical and experimental basis is what proved the essential catalyst for the subsequent explosion of mindfulness (See Boyce 2011, xii- xiii). Thirty years later the clinical evidence for the efficacy of these methods in treating illnesses as diverse as depression, cancer and eating disorders is overwhelming (even though latterly there is the inevitable counter-movement expressing the ‘dangers’ inherent in mindfulness). This, alongside courses such Kabat-Zinn’s own Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme (MBSR) the eight week forerunner for many of the later mindfulness courses and the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) developed at Oxford by Prof Mark Williams and colleagues have contributed to the success of mindfulness as we know it today.
Kabat-Zinn himself defines mindfulness as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgementally’ (1994:4). This ‘bare’ definition is supplemented by many practitioners with wider values drawing upon something closer to the Buddhist notions we began with. Thus Chozen Bays (2011) suggests that it is ‘deliberately paying attention, being fully aware of what is happening both inside yourself – in your body, heart and mind – and outside yourself in the environment... it is awareness without judgement or criticism’ (Boyce 2011: 3). She goes further to state that ‘when we are mindful, we are not comparing or judging. We are simply witnessing the many sensations, thoughts and emotions that come up as we engage in the ordinary activities of daily life.’ We could continue multiplying these varying definitions yet, following Mace, what becomes clear when we analyse these contemporary understandings of mindfulness is that there seem to be two directions in current usage. First, the desire, as Mace himself puts it, to concentrate on the ‘bare attention’ to observe, Buddha-like, the passing show of sensations, thoughts and emotion with no sticky entanglement. As neuro-biologists and scientists have become interested in the subject this ‘pure bare mindfulness’ (difficult as it is to isolate) has become the main source of their study. On the other hand, writers such as Chozen Bays above or Shapiro (2006) link the practice with wider connotations of ‘heartfulness’ (see above), compassion and the general teleological development of character.
Esoteric though these debates sound I think they go right to the heart of the subject we are considering today: ‘How far, if at all, can mindfulness be accommodated into an established religious practice such as Christianity?’ And I think the answer will be (in typical philosophical fashion) – ‘it depends what sort of mindfulness you are talking about’. Let me explain further...