Mindfulness – helpful practise or misleading fad?

I’ve been exploring the whole idea of ‘mindfulness’ in more depth recently.
There have been two books that have helped me with this Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality by Tim Stead, who is an Anglican priest and Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman. This last one is described as a “life changing bestseller” and that is certainly written by well-qualified people who are leaders in this field and based on a lot of creditable scientific research.

mindfulness1   minfulness2

But as I am a fan of another, rather more ancient,”life changing bestseller” (the Bible) I am interested to know what one might have to say about the other.  Is mindfulness a helpful approach to life for someone who already has a faith perspective. Do the two things complement one another helpfully or contradict one another?

So this post is not about what mindfulness is – it’s a reflection on whether mindfulness is a good and useful practice.

I have heard mindfulness described as’spirituality for the nonbeliever’and I do think there’s an element of truth in that. So my question therefore is, is mindfulness a helpful practice for those of us who are believers? How does it intersect with the faith view of the world we already hold? What does it have to do prayer?

Is mindfulness a helpful practice? And is it helpful for those of us who are believers?

My answer is a resounding YES, followed by a very small ‘but’.

Yes, absolutely, it is a good practise to learn. It is very definitely a practise of self-discipline for the mind. Just like a healthy eating regime is good for your body so mindfulness is an exercise regime for your mind. If you have a mind that jumps around like a monkey in a cage, firing off distress signals regularly causing you to become very anxious then mindfulness and its associated regime of meditation will undoubtedly help. It will help you lower your stress levels, it will silence the monkey it will allow you to be less driven by your anxiety. Keep practising it over time and you will become more aware of the negative self-destructive thoughts that lead you to spiralling downwards into an emotional state where eventually everything seems dark and impossible. Even if you are not an individual who is prone to anxiety, mindfulness will increase your creativity, make you far more aware of simple everyday pleasures and hugely increase the sense that you are actually living your life not just watching it go past you.
Those are all very big claims – I do totally recommend it, I am practising it myself, so why the very small caveat (the ‘but’ behind my YES)?

My biggest concern might not sound valid:  It will ‘work’, it has many, many very tangible benefits. My concern is that it will work so well that you might miss, dismiss or generally never get round to the spirituality for which it creates space. You might decide that spirituality is not what you are looking for in which case you will still get huge benefit from learning about mindfulness and practising meditation.

Naturally my personal feeling is that that would be a shame because mindfulness is not the whole story.  It also makes one assumption which I believe to be faulty: it assumes that once you’ve sorted out your wonky thoughts and compassionately accepted your negative emotions, once you have trained your mind then you will be able to be in touch with the ‘essentially happy and content person you really are at your core’.

You will be much happier and more content than you are now but there may not be a ‘happy and content person at your core’?

What if at the core of your being there is only a person who can’t find any peace because of something they feel guilty about or because of a sense of deep shame? Or what if, at the centre of  you, you find an essentially lonely person who is very afraid and easily made to be anxious about everything? Or what if there is a person who is so chewed by anger about what life has thrown at them they can’t find anything about which to be ‘content’?
And, even if the person you find at the core of your being is none of those things, even if the person at your core could be described as ‘essentially happy and content’ it still leaves that person all alone at the centre of you, which is a bit lonely.

How does it intersect with the faith view of the world we already hold?

What Christianity teaches is that we were not made to be alone, we were made to find our deepest sense of joy and connectedness when we connect to the God who created us and loves us.

img_4762.jpgYes I know it’s a corny diagram but it’s simply meant to express that life is best when I live it with an awareness of the one who gave it to me and who promises to walk through this experience called ‘life’ with me. God did not create humans so that we could be alone: the big G plus me (and you) was always the intention.

Faith in God inputs spirituality into a practice of mindfulness which is otherwise only physical (being still, becoming aware of your body and your breathing) and mental (learning to acknowledge the thoughts and feelings we have, learning that we can cut them down to size, that they do not have to control us).

Without a spiritual aspect to mindfulness we are still left alone in the universe-and if we are alone in the universe then there is no meaning to our lives. If we are alone in the universe then there is nothing beyond death. If we are alone in the universe, then we have no external objective source of truth. We have no-one to say over us “you are my beloved child with you I am well pleased”.

With only ourselves to tell ourselves that we are loved (or if we are lucky, a significant other to affirm this to us) then we are left propping up our sense of self-worth, security and significance by repeating a self validating mantra along the lines of “I am beloved”, “I am precious”, “I am valuable” and these things are true but you have to say that stuff pretty loudly if you want to avoid the inner critical voice saying “says who?”.

Plenty of humanists will tell you that you do not need an external source of validation to ascribe value to yourself but if we take away the word ‘validation’ and ‘value’, which sound a bit dry and psychological and simply use the word ‘love’ then it becomes pretty obvious that love is something you receive from an ‘other’. In fact love is incomprehensible without there being an ‘other’. So if there is no ‘other’ in the universe then we are at best simply applying positive thinking and worst deluding ourselves.

Christianity offers us ‘The Great Exchange’: we offer to God our week and flawed selves, accepting that we are guilty (mostly of being unloving or self protective) angry and anxious. When we offer this self to God we are given back acceptance, forgiveness and an everlasting commitment to be our companion through life and beyond death.

Now that’s an incredible exchange which is why it would be a great shame if you missed it. Some Christians might reject mindfulness because it stops short of making this connection with God.  And the truth is (as I’ve already said)  that you might be SO amazed by the potency of mindfulness to change you that it will be tempting  to think that it leaves no place or need for God/faith or spirituality and that would be a great shame because then you would be missing out on that connection which was always intended to be yours. (Big G plus you).

Mindfulness will create more space for God in your life. It will open a door and it is your choice whether or not to go through it. I do not think it will ‘open a door’ in any negative sense as in opening you up to harmful influences in the spiritual world (as a certain strand of Christians might fear although I suppose that depends on what you make the focus of your meditation), the main risk is that it simply opens a door to greater self-reliance which will take you away from God but it is equally likely to create a greater desire for God in your life.  It’s a tool or a process, it all depends how you use it.

It will help you create a calmer mind and yes,  I do believe that that what you most need is NOT simply a calmer mind, what you most need is to be connected to the divine presence that God offers you, but having a calmer mind maybe be a most useful way to create space for that connection.

We do not reject a diet because it doesn’t promise you peace of mind; a diet isn’t meant to do that, it’s meant to achieve weight loss. So why reject a helpful practice on the basis that it doesn’t necessarily offer you spirituality? It puts you in a place where you are more likely to become aware of God and that’s a good thing.

What does it have to do prayer?

If mindfulness offers you an open door to  spirituality then this is where prayer comes in.

I’ve tried out a number of mindfulness apps and so far I prefer Headspace as the meditations are straightforwardly about physically and mentally slowing down i.e. they are about body and mind and don’t become “spiritual” in a way that feels weird to me. I also like the guys voice – a warm friendly British accent, I don’t know who he is but there is nothing jarring about the way he speaks.

Some of the guided meditations on  the Calm app which aim to generate a laudable sense of compassion or kindness both to yourself and other people feel so much like praying that quite frankly I’d rather be praying! I accept that it  possible to generate this quality of compassion towards others without bringing a divine being into it but it just feels odd to me. Mind you, I’ve only listened to the free meditations on these 2 apps so I have no idea what the material is like if you pay a subscription. In Calm’s defense – it’s great if you like background sounds such as running water and birdsong – for anyone with tinnitus, this can be a very soothing alternative to the ringing in their ears.

Tim Stead’s book says that Mindfulness “makes space for God’.

“Whatever I am doing and however well or badly my life is going, someone (God, no less!) Knows I am here and is aware of my every move and every though; someone who is not being carried away by my experiences I am, often losing perspective completely, but someone who is in a position to be able to watch my experience as it flows past, seeing it all in the perspective of eternity. Even if I lose perspective, I know it exists because God is in that place where perspective can be seen. When I’m aware of being held in this sort of gaze I feel totally loved”

(Mindfulness and Spirituality p.46)

prayer-is-when-you-talk-to-god-meditation-is-when-god-talks-to-youWhen we practise meditation with the conscious awareness of being in God’s presence what we are doing is creating a less cluttered mind and in doing so we are making it easier to hear or sense the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Even if we don’t have any obvious ‘God thoughts’ or or words or pictures, even if we are not trying at all to do anything other than be still we can trust that God is at work within us in a way that is transformative.

I begin my prayer times with a period of silence using an app known as ‘Centering Prayer’ . It’s free to download and simply provides a timer, some sounds to begin and end the silence and prayer, a scripture or a quotation at the beginning and the end which help put your act of meditation consciously in the presence of God.

(Here’s what the app logo looks like)

centering prayerEven only a few moments of silent focusing on our breathing can make as much calmer when we come to pray. After my silence it feels very natural to flow into saying the Lord’s prayer very slowly and thoughtfully, using it as a structure to pray for all those things or people that I want to place in God’s hands. I almost always do this out loud and sometimes I will do with actions as using your body to express what you mean with your heart can be incredibly powerful.

After these two practices, I then turn to reading my Bible and I find I’m in a much better state to hear from it what God might be saying to me. Roughly I spend about 10 minutes on the three different disciplines. But if you can only find 10 minutes, you might still find you get more out of 3 or 4 minutes praying and 3 or 4 minutes reading if you have spent 2 to 3 minutes in silence first of all.

I’ll close with one of my favourite quotations which crops up on the Centering Prayer App which considers how very powerful this discipline can be:

“the contemplative journey [there are huge overlaps between contemplative prayer and meditation] is the most responsible of all responses to God because so much depends on it- the future of humanity, the healing of the wounds of humanity, our own deepest healing. It’s not just a method of meditation or a practice to find personal peace. It’s basically a total acceptance of the human condition in all its ramifications, including its desperate wounded nurse… Humans are fully capable of becoming God, not in the fullest sense of the term, but in a very real way, where the light, life, and love of God are pouring through them,d3b449d62d2853729f1c6702fb3e444c channelling a source of healing, compassion, and reconciliation wherever they go and whatever they do.They are rooted in the divine compassion and mercy, and are manifesting… The pure light of the image and likeness of God within them, which is the assimilation of the mind and heart of Christ in everyday life”

Thomas Keating Heartfulness: transformation in Christ

 

“Cure: a journey into the science of Mind over Body” Jo Marchant – Book Review

cure

This is an absolutely fascinating read. Written by a scientist, it explores the research into ways our minds influence our physical well-being, our tolerance of pain and our immunity. The first chapter is all about the placebo effect. So far so good, most of us have heard of this and feel slightly self-conscious about the truth that simply taking something we think will do us good, might actually do us good. But we think we have to be conned into thinking we might be getting the real thing in order for placebos to ‘work’.  However in chapter 2, we get into really interesting territory: how placebo treatments can still be effective EVEN when we know they are placebo treatments!

In these two first chapters Marchant has laid the foundation for the simple truth which she then  explores throughout the rest of the book and the truth is this: your mind can influence your physical well-being. There are psychological resources which can be harnessed which will materially affect our recovery from an illness or our ability to manage the symptoms of a chronic condition.

She is NOT talking about “the power of positive thinking” which is a concept that makes me cringe and I feel can load unnecessary guilt onto people who are already weighed down by their pain and the distress of their condition. At the extreme end of the “positive thinking” spectrum there are those people who would eschew normal and appropriate medical interventions, in my view a very foolish step. This is not a book which makes any suggestion along those lines, in fact it carries (in the final chapter) a very stark warning story about the dangers of relying on positive thinking alone.

The story that Marchant tells is about non-medical treatments and interventions which, used alongside appropriate pharmaceutical intervention, can make a huge difference. The kind of conditions she discusses are lupus, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue, IBS and pain management for burns victims.  The kind of psychological treatments she explores are: (warning, if you are from a conservative evangelical Christian background some of these will give you the ‘heebie-jeebies’) placebos and the power of rituals, hypnosis, meditation, mindfulness, counselling, the power of empathic communication (positive suggestions and visual imagery) and biofeedback.

The astonishing part of the story for me was not that these treatments merely “feel” effective but that over and over again she demonstrates from research that such treatments can physically change our bodies. For example, people who regularly meditate actually grow their cerebral cortex. In other words, the physical structure of their brains changes – in a good way!

It is a deeply fascinating book, and not only if you happen to be suffering from an illness and are wondering what you could do to help yourself. A chapter entitled “Fountain of youth” explores how social isolation is as dangerous for our health as obesity, inactivity or smoking, possibly even more dangerous than these. Alongside this information she reports that in the US 32 million people live alone-27% of households. In 1985 another American survey showed that in general people said they had three confidants, when this study was repeated in 2004, 25% of people said they had none! (This theme is also very fully explored in the book “The Village Effect” which I have already blogged about Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker ).

Every chapter had something new and thought-provoking, it would be hard to choose a favourite but from my personal perspective chapter 7 “Talk to me: why caring matters” gave me ideas I could immediately apply to those I care for. Chapter 9 “Enjoy the Moment: the Power of Meditation” was also extremely helpful. Mindfulness and meditation has been shown to reduce chronic pain and anxiety, also to reduce stress and improve our quality of life. It has been shown that when monks meditate their brains are highly organised and coordinated with neurons firing together and an increase of activity in the left prefrontal cortex which is the seat of positive thoughts and emotions.

Of course, as I’ve already said, some Christians have heebie-jeebies over the subject of meditation and mindfulness simply because those monks may not necessarily be Christians, they may be Buddhists. This book is written by someone who is not a Christian so she clearly doesn’t feel any need to justify meditation but she does tell the story of how a Buddhist medical researcher Jon Kabat Zim, recognised that many people were missing out on the benefits of meditation because they were put off by the religious baggage that surrounded it. So he stripped it of its spiritual aspects, developing a program called MBSR ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’.

To keep this blog from becoming too long (and also because some readers will not be interested in where spirituality fits in to all this) I will write a second reflection about how the book challenged me on a spiritual level. In her final chapter, Marchant turns her attention to whether or not religious experience and belief can also affect our bodies and our brains. I confess to feeling nervous about what conclusions she might reach but suffice to say that while she wasn’t entirely ‘converted’ neither does she debunk or reject the value of spiritual belief.

To conclude this review though, I heartily recommend this intriguing and well-written book. I read it as someone who teaches people skills designed to enhance their mental well-being (the Keeping Health in Mind Course http://www.keepinghealthinmind.org.uk) and I found in it much good common sense as well as a great deal of fascinating science.

 

It’s so much easier to be in control…

I’m reading a book about a woman through whom God does amazing things.

This is very challenging to me as my petty ego says to me ‘how come  God doesn’t do amazing things through you?’  (please don’t anyone answer that with reassuring platitudes about me being amazing, I get that I’m ‘amazing’ in the normal sense of everyone being amazing, but I’m talking about miracles here).

Anyway, this woman (who shall be nameless but who also has an admirable disregard for what people think of her) lies face down on the floor to pray.

face down

This is to express that she is willing to lay everything down to follow God and also to express her utter helplessness.  I get the second part of that sentence, I struggle to do the first part.

Anyway, laugh if you like, but this morning I thought ‘I’ll try this!‘ So I lay face down on the floor.

As soon as my nose touched the carpet the little internal voice in my head that I understand to be the presence of God in my life said ‘well okay,  but there may be slightly more to it than posture’. 

Hmm! There followed a short silence during which I had little internal debate about how willing was I to be helpless, to completely put myself in God’s hands and to possibly look silly.

After two more minutes I was ready to lever myself off the floor, thinking ‘Okay God, I’ve had quite enough of that little exercise’ when ‘POW!’  this big thought hit me:

“It is SO much easier being in control (doing stuff) than it is being passive and allowing yourself to be loved”. 

I’m not claiming that was God, it the ‘POW’ is just because it is such a big truth. We SO much prefer to do stuff, say stuff, change stuff, make stuff happen when what God wants to do first in our lives is to love us. Only when we are filled up with love by God can we over-flow with love for others. It’s not that he doesn’t want us to do stuff but the the source of my energy and all my actions needs to be God’s love.  (this is the meaning of Romans 5:5 ‘God has poured out his love in our hearts by his Holy Spirit’ which Peterson renders as ‘we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit’)

This is what I said yesterday in church – it was All Saints Day- I was talking about each of us being a local hero (aka a ‘Saint’) simply by being fully the person we are called to be (all the slides with names on were just making the point we are all called as individuals, starting with the names of the children being baptised yesterday):

Be loved

Click on the link and you should see the powerpoint. It’s pretty annoying when God reminds you on Monday morning what you’d said publicly on Sunday morning, especially when you have to be face down on the carpet in order to ‘hear’ it.

‘Yeah, God I know all that? I wrote that powerpoint…remember? It was me who gave that talk?’

‘Yes, Sheila, but you weren’t listening to yourself. Now shut up and just stay in the place (literally AND metaphorical) of being loved and leave the rest to me’.