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Mindfulness stops short of God

The Very Rev Dr Frances Ward, Dean of St Edmundsbury ANL-161103-110230001
The Very Rev Dr Frances Ward, Dean of St Edmundsbury ANL-161103-110230001

Mindfulness is everywhere. It fills the shelves of bookshops. Mindfulness: a technique and a state of being that the Oxford psychologist, Mark Williams, has defined as ‘the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, with compassion, and open-hearted curiosity.’

Perhaps you’ve seen the Ladybird Book of Mindfulness. Great parody! We hear of Django: ‘People learn a lot about themselves from mindfulness. Mindfulness has taught Django to live in the moment. He used to live in the Peak District.’ Or Chris, who ‘likes to practise loving-kindness meditation. This is when someone thinks of a friend and then sends them love. Chris finds this easier than bothering to meet with his friends or lending them money.’

Seriously, though, mindfulness is really helpful to a number of us, to enable us to stand back, and retreat from the busyness of life. There is sound evidence that the regular practice of mindfulness does indeed work to help people feel calmer, more in control of their lives and to generally feel better, with fewer days off sick. So it has an enormous amount of public money invested in it. To train public sector workers as part of health and wellbeing strategies, so they can manage stress better, both in their work lives and at home.

Mindfulness comes from a Buddhist heritage. This helps, in today’s world, where established religion, like Christianity, so often has a toxic branding. It’s much easier to call it mindfulness, rather than prayer. Even though much contemplative prayer uses the same techniques of stillness and calm reflection, of awareness of an inner life, of something bigger than ourselves.

Christians have been practising contemplative prayer since the beginning. Just as Jesus did when he withdrew to pray in the mountains, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

There is a rich heritage stretching back through the Carmelite tradition to the Desert Fathers in the 4th century. The Contemplative tradition teaches us prayerful techniques that show us the truth of our experience of God’s presence in the present moment.

And that’s perhaps the main difference, the great stumbling block. Prayer is always about a relationship with God, with a personal being who is Other to us and surrounds us with love. Who is the ground of our being, in whom we live and move and have our being. Or so Christians believe. Mindfulness doesn’t take you there. It stops short of God.

But, interestingly, when we practise mindfulness seriously, often we find ourselves taken beyond ourselves, into a sense of encounter, of being in relationship with a loving presence that enhances our lives, reminds us that we’re not alone. That enables us to love others more generously. It can start to feel like prayer. Prayer for others; prayer that reminds us not to be too self-absorbed.

Prayer, that gives us everything that mindfulness gives us – and more!

-- The Very Rev Dr Frances Ward is the Dean of St Edmundsbury


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