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.

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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

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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.

 

Struggling towards the light

I have learnt a spiritual lesson from growing potatoes.  Just when they begin to show little green shoots just above the surface of the soil like this:

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you are supposed to dump another inch or two of soil on top of them!

I was so excited to see these little shoots begin to appear, it felt very counter intuitive to cover them up again just as they’d reached the light, so I consulted my gardening friend Roy.

“Yes” he said, “cover them up as soon as they appear, don’t leave it too long or when you do cover them up you might break the stem”

So having done all that hard work growing, struggling towards the light, along I came with my shovel and drowned them once again in soil.

I was thinking about this process when I woke up this morning.

“It doesn’t seem very fair” I said to God, the poor little plants must feel like they are only just getting somewhere when ‘whoosh, all the lights go out again’.

There was silence from the the divine end of this conversation… he was waiting for the penny to drop.

Finally it did, with a clunk almost loud enough to be heard outside my brain:

It makes them more fruitful – the deeper the soil you bank up the more potatoes you will grow in your pot”.

So if life feels like one step forward and two steps back at the moment, try to remember that when the lights go out and you feel buried in a deep dark hole, you might be growing in a way that will become far more fruitful than you could ever have imagined.

About 18 months ago I found this flower growing straight out of the hard, dry ground on a hillside:

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I took the photo and adopted it as an image of me on my phone screen to remind me that beauty and life can flourish in unexpected places.

Growing Potatoes

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Where Memories Go – book Review

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This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. That’s not to say it isn’t good, it is.  But it is also pretty unrelentingly sad.

Sally Magnusson, daughter of the well-known writer and TV personality,  Magnus Magnusson, writes both her mother’s life story and the story of the mother’s descent into dementia. Along the way, she also writes an account of what is currently known about dementia and Alzheimer’s as well as offering a critique of the care options available.

It was incredibly moving and there was so much I recognised as my own mother has dementia but she is not yet as bad as Mamie became before she died. You’d think it would be obvious that I’d find it hard to read but it caught me off-guard. Sally writes so movingly, I found myself experiencing my own sense of sadness and loss, vicariously through her and this made me realise that, for the most part (and for very good reasons),  I don’t regularly examine or even allow myself to experience my sadness over mum’s decline.

This might sound unfeeling but I’d be not much practical use to my mum as a sobbing wreck so mostly we just get on with stuff and I don’t dwell too much on how much she is drifting away from the person she was and how much I miss the mum she was to me.  I’m sure these psychological birds will come home to roost at some point, I will have to grieve sometime.

So this book snuck in under my radar. I admit I only skimmed the final few chapters, I couldn’t bear to read what might lie ahead for us. But I read enough to know how Mamie died and what choices the family made about her care. Sally is brilliant at explaining the complex dynamics at work over every decision but if I had one criticism of the book it would be this:  I felt they had it easier than many people. I know it’s unfair to compare one family’s hardship against another family’s but there were a number of factors for the Magnusson family that, in my view, made it ‘easier’ than for others. They had the choice to keep her at home within the family and whilst that is harder (but only in some ways) than putting a loved one into care, at least they had the power to make that choice.  Many people do not. And it is also very hard to put a loved one into care and then worry incessantly about whether they are safe, settled and as well-cared as you’d like them be. Secondly there were four siblings to share the load which had to help. Undeniably they all had their own major life issues going on concurrently but don’t we all?  I don’t know if Sally was just being extremely generous to her siblings (and who is to say, she may have been) but their story seems devoid of the rancour and fall out that can so easily occur when the care of an elderly parent falls unevenly on one or more sibling.  I felt at times like I’d been given a insider pass to a rather glorious, golden, almost Dickensian extended family full of songs, japes and jolly traditions.

I don’t mean to be unkind, I’m sure the Magnusson family are every bit as lovely as she described them but the point I am making is that in many families dementia can be the final straw on already strained relationships. Not everyone inhabits a golden world where marriages are in tact, siblings are in harmony and  where elderly but competent spinster aunts can ‘live in’ long-term (and what a long extra period of care than gave them). Plus not everyone can keep their loved one in their own home. The slight sense that any other choice would be disloyal or unloving left me feeling uneasy.

Decisions taken on behalf of vulnerable people are never straight-forward or easy. There is no better way through only the ‘best way through’ for each individual case and when relatives are doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt then it’s not for us to make a judgement. Dementia is hard enough without adding any sense of failure to someone’s already burdened shoulders.

Would I recommend it? It depends what you are looking for. If you are looking for a scientific account, it’s not fully that. If you are looking for tips and suggestions for living well with dementia, it’s not either.If you like reading about other people’s  lives then this is for you. If you want someone help you understand just how sad and devastating it is lose someone you love to dementia, then this is book for you (even if you already know that from insider experience) It’s not upbeat and cheerful but it is very interesting and very well written.

 

 

 

Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker

Watching this powerful video made by Steve Cutts for the song ‘Are you lost in the world like me?’ reminded me of how much I was impacted by reading The Village Effect by Susan Pinker earlier this year.

Pinker makes one point. Yes, only the one point! But she makes it really effectively and what makes her book worth reading is the huge amount of fascinating and well-researched evidence that she uses to back up her point. She discusses how social bonds will alter the outcome of serious diseases, improve our mental well-being and alter the lives of our children.

Her point is this: we would all be better off emotionally, physically, psychologically and in just about ever other way if we simply increased the amount of face-to-face interaction we have regularly with the people we love.

Loneliness, exacerbated by the modern tendency to only interact via social media, texts or emails, is literally a killer. If we meet friends regularly to drink, hang out, knit, exercise, discuss books, eat, or whatever, we will lower our cortisol and blood pressure levels, we will live longer and the effect can be more marked than taking regular medication or quitting smoking. Incidentally out of  ‘seven billion people in the world, six billion think religion helps them to live a long, meaningful life’ and they are are on to something. Attending a religious service at least once a week hugely increases your longevity. (Yay! what about us ‘professionals’ who go 4 or 5 times?)

Some of the stories and data that she shares are literally jaw-dropping: how much you can alter the outcome for your teenage daughter by simply ensuring you eat a main meal with her daily and converse. We instinctively feel that that would be a good thing to do but Pinker has collated the research and, if she is right, then its a VERY good and powerful thing to do. And yet, it is also simple and achievable. In a chapter called ‘Teens and Screens’she tells the story of an ordinary young teenager called Allison who sent or received 27,000 texts a month, often 900 a day, keeping around 7 conversations going at a time – that’s a full time job!! How the heck did she fit in eating, sleeping and studying whilst managing this  ‘tsunami of texts’? Okay, so it turns out Allison was at the extreme end of text use, Pinker informs us that in 2012 4,000 texts a month was the average for teenage girls in the States. Even so, that still works out at 6-7 every waking hour. And texts are so ‘bare’: no eye contact, no tone of voice, no softening of message with emotion, no irony. For young people with notoriously less than adequate social skills and often with a skewed, paranoid perspective on life its not hard to see why texts can be so brutal.

I have changed my life on the basis of reading this book (which is not quite the same as saying that my life has changed entirely due to reading this book but it’s close). But I have made a concerted effort to increase the amount of face to face contact I have with those people who I love and those whose presence in my life I value deeply. I have also tried to replace digital contact with human contact wherever reasonable and practical.  I have to say though, it’s not as easy as it sounds. If you are introverted vicar (as I am) and you only have one day off a week (as I do) it feels hugely difficult to drag yourself out on your one day off to see a friend. Because the job involves so much face to face contact for so much of the day, for me and my introverted kin, our instinct is to pull up the social drawbridge and go for a long walk with the dog.  I know it’s good for me to see friends regularly but it’s also really important to have some solitary time too, so finding time for both is constant challenge.

Of all the images in the video above the one I find the  most tragic is of the young girl in her bedroom snapping ‘happy selfies’ in a drab and desperate bedroom. It brought back a vivid memory from a month ago: whilst sitting reading and enjoying the sunshine on a very crowded Italian beach surrounded by happy family groups, couples and cousins, kids and grannies. I observed a young Japanese woman who came to the beach all on her own, took out her towel and then her phone and then her selfie stick. For the next hour, all alone in the midst of that mad crowd of connected people, all she did was pose and take selfies of herself ‘having a good time at the beach’ but she was so clearly not having a good time, she was having a lonely time.  I found myself thinking ‘ I hope to goodness you at least have someone who loves you, a granny, a mum, a lover. Someone who would genuinely want to see even just a few of the 500 + photos you have taken of yourself this afternoon’. She didn’t connect to anyone on the beach.  Even the ‘selfie stick’ (a purchase I steadfastly refuse to make) has robbed us of that simple moment of human trust when we used to hand our camera over to a stranger and say ‘would you mind taking our photo?’.

It’s a desperately sad video. The opening image of being a tiny little person in a very big world was the one with which I personally most identified. Simply spending a day in London, gives me ‘face exhaustion’! But even so, I ‘m glad that  I can’t agree with the sentiment of the singer: I don’t feel lost in the world: I know I’m known, I know I’m loved and not by just anybody (and  certainly not by anyone who’d be interested in 500 selfie photos) but by the one who created the stars and knows them by name, the God who says he knows how many hairs are on my head, the one who formed me in my mother’s womb. He has ‘all of the days of my life written in his book before one of them came to be’ (Psalm 139). And I trust that I’m known and loved by many friends but was challenged by this book to make sure I nurture these friendships face to face.

So I must get out more –  Gotta dash, I’m going to see a friend. I don’t know if I’ll live any longer for it but I do want to live better.