‘The wild otter I saw would no doubt be out of the water and making tracks to its own musky holt, to curl belly upward, in a home of roots, peat and rocks. I imagine him enfolded in his fur, dreaming of water; a tight sleep-knot, enjoying the deep sleep of one who exists totally in the moment.’ ( Miriam Darlington, Otter Country, pp.40-41)
‘Up and down the banks are the complex root systems of ash trees, which otters particularly love to use as holts as they provide hidden shelter and easy access to water.’ (Otter Country, p.175)
As I read these words I imagined the roots of the ash tree making a coracle, floating the otter to sleep in its hidden shelter. So I drew this as a coracle sleep-knot.
The ash tree root
for the otter
of the wild
not going meek and mild.
The tree of mindfulness research and therapies is growing rapidly. It is hard to keep up-to-date with all the developments as they happen. But we can start somewhere. Important work is being done to arrive at consensus on such matters as defining mindfulness, and I’ll come back to that another time. In the meantime here are some definitions.
Mindfulness means different things. It is only fully understood by examining its historical situatedness. Mindfulness within most Western clinical practice has Buddhist roots, although it is not exclusive to Buddhist thought. Mindfulness in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) has a different topography deriving from Christian contemplative practices and Zen Buddhism (Lynch & Bronner, 2006).
Kabat-Zinn pioneered the use of mindfulness through Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) defining it as “the way of awareness” (2008, p. 19). Brantley, also an MBSR practitioner, calls mindfulness a “basic human quality” (2007, p. 4). It is a human quality based on inner capacities for relaxation, paying attention, awareness, and insight (Brantley, 2007). Brantley further defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, nonjudgmentally, and with a welcoming and allowing attitude. It means turning towards present-moment experience rather than away from it” (2007, p. 5).
Mindfulness meditation is different from other meditative techniques (Brantley, 2007). Brantley states that “Mindfulness is an awareness that is not thinking” (2007, p. 52). This is underlined by meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg who says “Mindfulness is often likened to a mirror; it simply reflects what is there. It is not a process of thinking; it is preconceptual, before thought”.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) talks about shifting mental gears from Doing to Being: ‘Mindful awareness -or mindfulness – spontaneously arises out of this Being mode when we learn to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment, to things as they actually are’ (Mark Williams & Danny Penman, Mindfulness: a practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (p.35).
Mindfulness in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is defined as “learning to see your thoughts in a new way” (Hayes, 2005, p. 6). Mindfulness in DBT is defined as “a state or quality of awareness that involves keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality” (Lynch & Bronner, 2006, p. 218).
Mindfulness as a universal human capacity needs to be distinguished from the meditative or mindful awareness practices that cultivate mindfulness, like paying attention to your breath, eating a raisin (or chocolate) mindfully etc. Most of these mindful awareness practices are ‘reality-focused’, they have no religous or spiritual component.
In the Being mode we learn to see differently, ‘It’s a different way of knowing that allows you to see how your mind tends to distort ‘reality’ ‘ (Williams & Penman, p. 35). These four treatments, MBSR, MBCT, ACT and DBT are the four main therapies out of many that are now incorporating mindfulness or are based on mindfulness.
I am also interested in mindfulness as it appears in Christianity, as well as in Buddhism. A very good introduction to mindfulness within psychology is Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. This is especially true because if mindfulness is to be truly understood, I think it needs to be practiced – and this book helps you do that, as well as understand your mind.
Mindfulness needs to be understood and practiced and reflected upon. Christians need to engage with it as they have some important distinctives to talk about, including mindfulness of God.
Here are some other books that I have referred to, or will refer to.
Baer, R. A., (2006). Mindfulness-based treatment approaches. Burlington: Academic Press.
Baer, R. A., & Krietemeyer, J. (2006). Overview of mindfulness and acceptance-based treatment approaches. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 3–27). Burlington: Academic Press.
Brantley, J. (2007). Calming your anxious mind. California: Harbinger Publications Inc.
Dahl, J., & Lundgren, T. (2006). Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) in the treatment of chronic pain. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 285–305). Burlington: Academic Press.
Hayes, S.C. (2005) Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland: Harbinger Publications Inc.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2008). Full catastrophe living. London: Piatkus Books.
Lynch, T. R., & Bronner, L. L. (2006). Mindfulness and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT): application with depressed older adults with personality disorders. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Mindfulness-based treatment approaches (pp. 217–236). Burlington: Academic Press.
Segal, Z., Williams, M., & Teasdale, J., (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. London, The Guilford Press.
Skiing is a doorway into the present moment and present-moment awareness. When you stand on top of that mountain with the sun in your face, the wind tugging at your jacket, the sound of silence following you, the smell of Alpine clean air, able to see the valley below you, and feeling the snow beneath your skiis, you are taken out of auto-pilot, out of ruminating about the past or the future.
You ski into the present moment, out of thinking and into awareness. It is like a wardrobe into a beautiful new land that has always been there, but we just couldn’t find the door.
There might be no visibility one day and you have to feel your way down the mountain with the soles (souls) of your feet – you are skiing on pure awareness. This is a mindful awareness practice. Your soul can express itself and feel through the soles of your feet.
I was talking about this to a group of skiers who also believe in God, and believe skiing brings them closer to God. Skiing is gloriously reality-focused like most mindful awareness practices (attending to your breath, your walking, what you eat). It enables us to experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’, ‘the sense of gratification that we enter when we feel completely engaged in what we are doing.’ (Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness, p.113)
Flow as a concept is related to mindfulness. Apparently Mihaly’s surname is pronounced ‘cheeks sent me high.’ Flow involves ‘deep, effortless involvement…our sense of self vanishes…time stops…'(Martin E.P. Seligman, Authentic Happiness, p.116) It sends us naturally high.
Skiing is intensely physical as is truly incarnated Christianity. Both pay attention to the body. Mindfulness also pays attention to the body.
The body is intelligent. The latest thinking is cognitive science of an embodied mind (Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, MIT Press). As Christians we would agree with that, we would just want to put Brain, Body, World and God together again.
It was Pope John Paul II who said, ‘The body, in fact, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and divine…'(quoted in Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners). As we ski in embodied minds in the mountains we begin to see the invisible, the spiritual and divine. We are present to a deeper Presence that has always been there.