in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Friday, 20 July 2018

Christian Mindfulness

Dear Friends,
I am enjoying going through the proofs of the above on these long hot summer days. SCM-Canterbury are doing a wonderful job. Below is some of the first chapter for your interest. We hope to have it launched in the autumn.
best wishes
'We seem to be in the midst of a mindfulness storm.

            Until very recently comparatively few people, apart from a few dedicated practitioners, had heard of this form of meditation. Yet today there seem very few areas of healthcare, psychological intervention, education or even business and commerce that have not in some way been touched by what has been termed ‘the mindfulness revolution’. Why this should be so is anyone’s guess but the trend, especially in the older Western democracies, for formal religious belonging to be replaced by looser forms of spiritual expression, as traced by sociologists of religion such as Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas, seems by now well documented and well entrenched (see inter alia Heelas and Woodhead 2004; Bullivant 2013). That this is related to the coming era of ‘mindfulness’ is no doubt linked.

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 what were originally 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, pp. 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 as 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 Professor 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 non-judgementally’ (Kabat-Zinn 1994, p. 4). This ‘bare’ definition is supplemented by many practitioners with wider values drawing upon something closer to traditional Buddhist notions of mindfulness. 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, p. 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 (see Mace 2008). 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’, compassion and the general teleological development of character.

            Esoteric though these debates may sound I think they go right to the heart of the subject we shall be considering in the present volume: ‘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.

            Mace makes the point that Kabat-Zinn’s original 1990s formulation of the basic notion of mindfulness as commonly used today has ‘something of the spirit of the US Founding Fathers’ in that he wanted ‘to make mindfulness available without any requirement to accept or reject particular religious beliefs’ (Mace 2008, p. 59). And there can be no doubt that this agnostic method assuming no adherence to any particular religious belief system (as expounded by Kabat-Zinn et al) has clearly filled a hole in the collective psyche that was left when the box ‘no religion’ was ticked in numerous surveys, censuses and questionnaires (see Bullivant 2013).

            The sceptical outlook of the Buddha himself – he always advised his followers not to trust his teachings but to test them and scrape them (like a goldsmith) to see if they were counterfeit – adds to their ability to fit into the prevailing zeitgeist of sceptical humanism within which we find ourselves. As Mace puts it, ‘part of the genius of Buddhism has been to link aspects of spiritual attainment with psychological changes that can be expressed in cognitive terms. This has made it appealing to people in the West who are respectful of reason, and who believe in human potential, but distrust deist religions’ (Mace 2008, p. 161).

            So faced with the question, ‘How far, if at all, can mindfulness be accommodated into an established religious practice such as Christianity?’ as well as asking ourselves what concept of mindfulness we are applying we also need to ask ourselves a more fundamental question – what concept of religion are we applying to ourselves? Indeed, a similar question might arise for any practitioner of mindfulness whether they considered themselves a Muslim, Jew or Sikh as they came to terms with the implications of the practice for their own religion.'

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