by John Hall-Matthews
from Signs of the Times No. 62 - Jul 2016
Whenever I have a prayer time, I prepare myself by doing some stilling exercises.
I sit usually on a chair with a straight back, and then focus on different parts of my body relaxing my muscles, so that the whole of me becomes loose and relaxed. I then spend some time concentrating on my breathing, noticing the air as I breathe in and out. I pay attention to any noises either in the room or outside, and tell myself not to be distracted by them during my time of prayer. And finally I try to still my mind, laying aside any things I have brought with me from the past or any anxiety I may have for the future, so that I become more aware of being in the present moment. Imagine my surprise when I discovered in this book that what I have been doing for years was very similar to mindfulness, so quite naturally I found it a fascinating read.
What is mindfulness? Tim Stead suggests it can be described as being ‘more fully aware of your own experience in the present moment in a non-judgemental way’. The four vital strands to this definition are: awareness, experience, the present moment and non-judgement. He suggests that each of these four aspects is counter-intuitive, against the grain of much of our brain activity, and therefore needs a lot of practice to achieve; and that each aspect plays a significant role in reducing anxiety and living more freely. There are throughout the book many different exercises in mindfulness, which are worth spending time exploring. So it is not so much a book to read to find out more about mindfulness, but rather a book to use and take to heart.
The story of mindfulness goes back to the 1970s when Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biology professor in the USA, began to develop a meditation based programme to help people suffering from chronic pain. He had been influenced by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn, though he does not identify as a Buddhist. The course he developed and taught significantly reduced stress and anxiety in his patients, enabling them to find an alternative way of managing their pain. Later, a group of cognitive behaviour therapists, led by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford, incorporated mindfulness in their programme for treating patients with depression, with dramatic results including a reduction in episodes of relapse. Thus it was discovered that mindfulness could be of value for all of us, whether we were struggling with milder forms of stress or anxiety, or simply wanting to live a fuller, healthier life. Mark Williams published Mindfulness; a Practical Guide to finding Peace in a Frantic World, an eight week course designed to respond to a wide set of aspirations of people living everyday lives. The course which author Tim Stead (Vicar of Holy Trinity Oxford and Vice Chair of Modern Church) teaches is based on this book.
In outlining how he sets about teaching his course, he gives us three practices which show us how to become more mindful in daily life.
The first is the Focus Practice: Sitting with a straight back in a relaxed way, as I did in my stilling exercise, bring your attention to noticing your breathing. If your mind wanders off, just take note of this and return to your breathing focus. Simply notice what happens.
The second is the Awareness Practice: Begin your focus practice, and continue this process for a longer period of time. This is awareness. It can be very simple to start with but it can reveal profound things to us. Do not judge or analyse what is going on.
The third is the Kindness Practice: Sit in a chair, close your eyes and say this phrase: ‘May I be kept safe, and may I know kindness.’ Say this several times. What did you notice? In doing this you have begun an attitude of kindness towards yourself. Tim always starts a session on his mindfulness course by dedicating it to God, then inviting people to trust God to look after them in whatever happens during the session, and he always ends with a blessing. He describes that the real joy for him has been finding in the feedback how mindfulness is making such a difference to the lives of his course participants.
Tim points out that something akin to mindfulness has been around in the Christian tradition since the beginning. It has been called contemplative prayer, silent prayer, the desert tradition or mystical theology. In the twentieth century, writers like Bede Griffiths, Thomas Merton, Anthony de Mello and John Main have shown how important it is to engage with Eastern spirituality. So mindfulness overlaps with Christian tradition and writers, and he points out three insights which mindfulness seeks to address. In the Western tradition there has been a great emphasis on the intellectual, with a mistrust of experience. We have thought a lot about God in our heads and not taken notice of the importance of experiencing God in our hearts, bodies and daily lives. Secondly there has been a history of negative attitudes to the body as well as the material world in general. A mindful focus on the body makes space for us to encounter God in the experiential rather than the intellectual way. Thirdly we need to consider the consequences of the Western teaching on sin and judgement. These have led in many cases to a harmful repression and rejection of those parts of ourselves that have been associated with shame. Mindfulness, on the other hand, helps us to become more aware of ourselves, our thoughts and our body impulses in a non-judgemental way. He also gives examples of how mindfulness teachings are implicit in the Gospels, and illustrates this by three practical exercises, on the Prodigal Son, Mary and Martha, and John the Baptist.
In part two of the book, which he calls: ‘From Believing to Knowing’, Tim says belief is not about reciting a set of words, but about knowing something to be true in our experience. In the light of this, he has chapters showing how mindfulness had helped him to reflect on God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and he shows how it might enrich our faith as we move from simply believing in something in our heads to knowing something in our lives. He experienced God in all things, as One, as Love and as a Living Presence. He had a felt experience of Jesus, through his resurrection, as the awakened one, who beckons us to follow him - to dare to wake up to all of life. And the Holy Spirit is all about how all this can become real for us in our lives; how we too can live the embodied, liberated and awakened life that Jesus showed was possible for human beings. I found these chapters to be clearly written and very insightful.
Part three he calls: ‘From Doing to Being’. Mindfulness suggests we need to distinguish between a ‘doing’ mode and a ‘being’ mode. When a mind is ‘doing’ it is concerned with analysing situations, getting tasks done, planning for the future and organizing. There is a feeling of ‘should’, ‘ought,’ and ‘must’ in the mind. The ‘being’ mode is marked by a greater and wider awareness of the present moment and a sense of opening up space to see more clearly the true nature of what is before us. There is less of a drive to do, to fix, or to plan, and much more of a sense of a curious interest of the various possibilities of a situation becoming apparent. With this in mind, Tim explores in subsequent chapters ‘Knowing God’s presence’, ‘Trusting God’ and ‘Knowing God’s will’, which again I found were clearly written and true to my own experience. Knowing God’s will, for example, begins with my being more fully aware of my own will in the form of desires and aversions. Mindfulness helps this discerning process - once we have becoming more fully aware of our own will, we have a greater chance of discerning God’s will.
The book concludes with more practical applications of mindfulness in our daily living, with chapters on ‘Finding peace’, ‘Inner healing’ and ‘Prayer and worship’. Prayer is sitting before God in loving attention. This is what leads the Christian from understanding God to knowing or being at one with God. That is at the heart of all Christian prayer, and why mindfulness practice can have a central role in achieving this. More helpful exercises are in a chapter on ‘Practicing love’, which begins with an extended Kindness Practice, focusing on ourselves first, next someone we know well, then a neutral person and finally on someone we really dislike.
He also reminds us of the importance of reconnecting with nature, by going on an awareness walk, or even choosing a single plant or flower and noticing this unique experience using all our senses as we do so. Tim ends by saying that mindfulness has enabled him to open up to life, people, friends, music and pleasure, and that it made him realise that life is more than just one task after another. The word of Jesus in John Chapter 10 verse 10 sums it up for him:
‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’
I am reminded of the words of St Irenaeus:
‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’
In the foreword, Professor Mark Williams says:
‘Tim Stead’s book is addressed to his own Christian tradition, but people of other faiths or none will find it offers enormous potential, for it points towards a universal source of healing. You can read this book in a day, but take it to heart, and it will last a lifetime.’