Mindfulness in the Christian Tradition

by Tim Stead

The story goes back to the 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn, with a PhD in molecular biology, began to develop a meditation-based program to help support people suffering from chronic pain. When he began to realize that the practices might have some significant health benefits, he developed an eight-week program that later became known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Mindfulness can be described as being more fully aware of your own experience in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. As he would be the first to admit, mindfulness was not invented by Jon Kabat-Zinn! As a Buddhist friend of mine once said in response to someone’s lazy assertion that mindfulness had been invented in America 25 years ago: “Perhaps you should change continents and add on a couple of zeroes!”

But many rightly will argue that something very similar to mindfulness has been around in the Christian tradition since the beginning too. We haven’t called it mindfulness. We’ve called it “silent prayer” or “contemplative prayer,” “the desert tradition” or “mystical theology,” but it has been there from Jesus, through St. Paul, all the way up to the present. Still, Christianity urgently needs to take on board the insights of mindfulness, and there are three things in particular I would like to note here.

Mindfulness can be described as being more fully aware of your own experience in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.

First, there is the particularly Western emphasis on the intellectual, with the corresponding caution, if not downright mistrust, of our experience. We are rightly proud of our intellectual tradition in the West, but there has been an equivalent danger of seeing spirituality as something that happens primarily in the head in terms of pure, beautiful and “correct” thoughts about God. Second, the Western tradition has a history of negative attitudes toward the body as well as the material in general. But God made us mind and body; furthermore, having made us this way, God declared us “good.” Third, we need to consider the consequences of our over-emphasis, in Western teaching, on personal sin and judgment. I fully accept that there are actions I may take that are harmful both to myself and to others and that these actions often originate in the mind or with body impulses. But many testify nowadays that the way we have spoken about these things and the guilt and shame that has been evoked has not, actually, led to changed lives. In fact, it seems more often that it has led to a very harmful kind of repression.

All these things are forms of the “dualism” that has marked recent centuries of Christian development in the West. Gradually we are coming to see such leanings as an aberration from earlier forms of faith and certainly not helpful for the path toward wholeness. The Gospels, though, seem to me to be full of this more holistic approach to spirituality.

The Parable: “Waking Up”

“When he came to his senses, he said: ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!’” (Luke 15:17, NIV).

The parable of the prodigal son is a beautiful story and one that perfectly illustrates the sense of awareness we are trying to explore. Have you ever had the experience of suddenly “coming to” while being fully awake, in the normal sense of the word, all the time? Maybe you were driving along without really thinking. And suddenly you realize where you are and what you have been thinking about for the past who knows how long. This is what happened to the prodigal. He had made some choices and followed them through on a very long journey until he was miles from home. He would have had to think quite carefully, on one level, about travel, board, and lodgings, choices of various forms of entertainment to spend his money on, and the various business transactions required along the way. So his brain was indeed operating, perhaps very effectively. But in another sense he was sleepwalking, with no real awareness of where he was going or where he would inevitably end up.

In the prodigal’s case, it was only when he was reduced to absolute poverty that he “came to his senses.” In other words, there came a moment when he “woke up” from his dream and realized where he was and what he was doing. Only then did he recognize the fact that he did have a choice. He could carry on as he was, or he could return to his father and start again.

We are only ever partly awake—partly aware. If we want to know God and God’s will for us, we need to wake up to where we are and what we are doing. Sometimes it takes a traumatic event to wake us up. But how much better it would be if we spent time practicing waking up. This is what mindfulness practice does.

Mindfulness does teach us the skill of opening things up so that, in God’s time and in God’s way, they might be healed or restored.

The Vignette: “Being” and “Doing”

“There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part” (Luke 10:42).

The visit of Jesus to Mary and Martha is an oft-quoted story, especially by those of us who would advocate the contemplative life over the active life. I remember the time a preacher opened this passage up to me by saying that there was a bit of Mary and a bit of Martha in all of us. We are not one or the other, but perhaps we ought to understand this as two ways of being in life. I don’t think we can assume that Jesus is saying that sitting and listening is better per se than getting the work done. But he may have been suggesting that there are two ways of being in life, and that we need both, but Mary’s way is of primary importance. Taking time to sit and become aware of Jesus’ words to us must be our starting point. Becoming more fully aware of the big picture must take priority before we rush to do stuff.

The trouble is that for many of us, “doing stuff” is all we know; sitting and listening is a bit of a closed book. Mindfulness, then, helps to develop this kind of awareness.

The Prophet: “Making Way”

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3).

It could be said that John the Baptist is to Jesus as mindfulness is to prayer or the work of God. John came not to save, not to do the work himself, but to help people get ready so that when the moment arrived—when the Savior came—they would be in a place where they were ready to receive what Jesus had to offer.

Mindfulness itself does not fix things but seeks to open up a space where things might (if appropriate) be fixed. In fact, it teaches us more about not fixing things and about learning that it is not our place to try to save ourselves. But it does teach us the skill of opening things up—bringing concerns to the surface—so that, in God’s time and in God’s way, they might be healed or restored. Jesus talked about how what is hidden will be disclosed and what is secret will be brought to light (Mark 4:22). This is what mindfulness does. Then, when things are disclosed and in the light, there is the chance that God can be more a part of them so that healing or “fixing” may come.

When I started sharing these passages with a group of mainly Christians who had just completed a mindfulness course, a number of other passages with a possible connection with mindfulness began to come to mind.

• On learning the way of not striving: “Look at the birds in the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).
• On learning to live in the present moment: “Jesus proclaimed, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’” (Mark 1:15); “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:5).
• On learning to perceive in a different way (not primarily intellectual or cognitive): Jesus declares that the purpose of the parables is that “they may indeed look but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand” (Mark 4:12).
• On receiving physical sight: the discourse in John’s Gospel after Jesus healed the blind man (John 9).
• On waking up to something that has been under our noses all along: the disciples who eventually recognized Jesus when he broke the bread at the end of the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–31).
• On the primary dynamic of spirituality of “being” not “doing”: Jesus told us to “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4).

There is a danger, of course, when you have started to think about mindfulness, to read mindfulness into every Scripture text you come across, but there seems to be enough here to give us certain confidence that, far from straying away from Jesus’ spirituality, we appear to be straying right into the heart of it.

Excerpted from Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality: Making Space for God. ©2016, 2017 Tim Stead. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press. All rights reserved.

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