Elements of #mindfulness emerging in early Christian spirituality

Elements of mindfulness emerging in early Christian spirituality


 A very rare bird from Africa, a Hoopoe was spotted by an attentive home owner in Poole recently, blown a thousand miles off course from its planned destination on the shores of the Mediterranean. It was amazing to see his photo, the last one I had seen used to land in our garden in Nairobi.

 Also making the news each week is mindfulness, which some might categorize as an Eastern import blown thousands of miles off course, and not native to the West or Christianity.

 However, if you look at the desert ascetics within early Christian spirituality you find elements of mindful awareness practice emerging, because mindfulness as an ability to be attentive and aware is a universal human capacity.

 What are these elements?

 The first is the self-regulation of attention, and in particular the ability to sustain one’s attention. This is called nepsis or watchfulness, ‘One should always stand guard at the door of one’s heart or mind..’[1]

 This unceasing attentiveness is learnt through the use of the Jesus Prayer where we learn to switch our attention back to the repeated prayer and our breath when our mind wanders, ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.’

 This was all part of a consistent strategy, ‘nepsis (vigilance), watchfulness, the guarding of the heart (custodia cordis) and of the mind, prayer, especially the invocation of the name of Jesus, and so forth.’[2]

What the ascetic is guarding against is the afflictive thoughts. These early Christians developed a sophisticated psychology which mirrors that of modern cognitive psychologists.

 The modern psychologists emphasise the importance of the mindful person avoiding elaborative and ruminative secondary processes in their mind. Rather than ‘getting caught up in ruminative, elaborative thought streams about one’s experience and its origins, implications, and associations, mindfulness involves a direct experience of events in the mind and body.’[3]

 The early Christian ascetics differentiated between the first thought and secondary elaborative and ruminative processes:


‘There is the prosbole (suggestion in thought), which is free from blame…Next follows the syndiasmos (coupling), and inner dialogue with the suggestion (temptation), then pale or struggle against it, which may end with victory or with consent (synkatathesis), actual sin.’[4]


Through a process called exagoreusis ton logismon (revelation of thoughts) the beginning stage of the process of awareness/mindfulness is to catch the first thought before it moves into elaborative and secondary processes of thought, ‘One must crush the serpent’s head as soon as it appears.’[5]

 Just as modern psychologists recognize that a thought, once it has been noticed, loses its power, so the early ascetics noticed the same thing, ‘As a serpent flees instantly as soon as it has left its hole, so an evil thought dissipates as soon as it begins to be disclosed.’[6]

Now, obviously before the thought can be disclosed to a spiritual father or mother, you need to become aware of it.[7] There was no experiential avoidance, each thought was rigourously named, each element of temptation recognized and labelled. As with any act of awareness of sustained attention it requires the ability to be aware in the present moment. There is no thought suppression, the first thoughts are disclosed to a spiritual elder immediately they are noticed. It is intentional and investigative. This mindfulness has an ethical and community dimension.

 These terms – sustained attention, switching attention, self-regulation of attention, being in the present moment, elaborative and secondary processes, rumination, experiential avoidance, acceptance, intentional investigative awareness – are all terms and insights from the world of cognitive psychology.

 They are also the first part of a proposed operational definition of mindfulness from a team of researchers.[8] Mindfulness as a mode of awareness that is a universal human capacity needs to be distinguished from the meditative, or mindful awareness practices, that evoke it.

 Bishop et al. (2004) propose a two-component model of mindfulness: ‘


The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.’[9]


 Those of you familiar with mindfulness definitions will recognise the echoes of present-moment awareness, and paying attention to the streams of thoughts, feelings, ruminations, etc. within our minds.

 The second component of their proposed operational definition involves adopting ‘a particular orientation towards one’s experiences in the present moment,’ which we will come back to.[10]

 To continue our look at the self-regulation of attention, Bishop et al. (2004) point out the link to mindfulness. Mindfulness brings awareness ‘to current experience.’[11] What is required to maintain such an awareness are ‘skills in sustained attention.’[12]

 One of the main meditative, or mindful awareness, practices is attending to your breath. This is a reality-focused, neutral practice that anyone can do. It is not religious or spiritual.

 Attending to your breath develops your skills of sustained attention so that ‘thoughts, feelings, and sensations can be detected as they arise in the stream of consciousness.’[13] In mindful awareness practice the practitioner needs to ‘bring attention back to the breath once a thought, feeling or sensation has been acknowledged.’[14] This develops skills in switching attention which in turn makes our ability to be attentive more flexible.

 There is another benefit to this self-regulation of attention. Bishop et al. (2004) conclude that the notion of mindfulness as a metacognitive process is implied in their operational definition because it involves monitoring and control.[15]

 The monitoring element is important and involves a certain orientation to experience , including curiosity and acceptance. Acceptance is defined as ‘being experientially open to the reality of the present moment.’[16]

Acceptance is often misunderstood as passivity, but it is about ‘allowing’ current thoughts, feelings and sensations (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson)’.[17]

 Acceptance can helpfully be seen as the opposite of thought-suppression or experiential avoidance; it is facing the reality of the thoughts, feelings and sensations we have.

 As the authors argue ‘most forms of psychopathology involve, in some way or another, the intolerance of aspects of private experience, as well as patterns of experiential avoidance in an attempt to escape private experience’ (see Hayes et al., 1996, for evidence supporting this view.)[18]

 A more skilful response to situations that provoke these more difficult feelings and thoughts can be cultivated through mindfulness.[19] With this orientation of curiosity and acceptance towards one’s experience, a further clarification of the definition of mindfulness can be put forth, as a ‘process of investigative awareness that involves observing the ever-changing flow of private experience.’[20]

 This is an intentional effort because the client:


is instructed to make an effort to notice each object in the stream of consciousness (e.g., a feeling), to discriminate between different elements of experience (e.g., an emotional ‘feeling’ sensation from a physical ‘touch’ sensation) and observe how one experience gives rise to another (e.g., a feeling evoking a judgmental thought and then the judgemental thought heightening the unpleasantness of the feeling).[21]


 This is worth quoting in full because it points out how much of this is acute observation of what actually goes on in our minds, usually out of our awareness and automatically.

 This monitoring of the stream of consciousness is likely to correlate to increased emotional awareness and psychological mindedness.[22] Within this monitoring is the insight that we are not our thoughts and feelings, that these are passing events and not a direct readout of reality or necessarily inherent aspects of the self.[23]

 The Desert Fathers and Mothers, and those who came after them also recognized thoughts as passing events, with some that were harder to deal with, ‘One should not ask questions about all the thoughts that are [in your mind];they are fleeting, but [ask] only about the ones that persist and wage war on man.’[24] Thoughts were also relativised, through recognizing they might have been prompted by demons, ‘One should always stand guard at the door of one’s heart or mind, and ask every suggestion that presents itself, ‘Are you one of ours, or from the opposing camp?’[25]

 In summary, there are a number of things that can be said in this look at the first part of this proposed operational definition (Bishop et al., 2004)’s article. This is what they say:


we see mindfulness as a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of non-elaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance. We further see mindfulness as a process of gaining insight into the nature of one’s mind and the adoption of a de-centred perspective (Safran & Segal, 1990) on thoughts and feelings so that they can be experienced in terms of their subjectivity (versus their necessary validity) and transient nature (versus their permanence).[26]


 They also summarise mindfulness as ‘a mode of awareness that is evoked when attention is regulated in the manner described.’[27] They argue that this mode, or psychological process, is only evoked and maintained whilst attention is being regulated in the manner they describe, with the open orientation to experience.[28]

 There are fascinating parallels here between the proposed operational definition for mindfulness by cognitive psychologists outlined above, and the spirituality of the early Christian ascetics, which deserve to be explored further.

[1] Haussher, Irenee, (1990). Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East (Cistercian Publications, p.225).

[2] Ibid, p.157.

[3] Teasdale, J.D., Segal, Z.V., Williams J.M.G., & Mark, G. (1995). How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness) training help? Behavior Research and Therapy, 33, 25-39, quoted in Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (232).


[4] Haussher, Irenee, (1990). Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East (Cistercian Publications, p.157).


[5] Ibid, p.157.

[6] Ibid, p.157-158).

[7] Ibid, p.223.

[8] Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (230-241).

[9] Ibid, p. 232.

[10] Ibid, p.232.

[11] Ibid, p.232.

[12] Ibid, p.232.

[13] Ibid, p.232.

[14] Ibid, p.232.

[15]  Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 p.233.

[16] Roemer, L., & Orsillo, S.M. (2002), quoted in Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (233).

[17] Quoted in Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (233).

[18] Hayes, S.C., Wilson, K.G., Gifford, E.V., Follette, V.M. & Strosahl, K. (1996).’ Experiential avoidance and behavioural disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment’. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(6), 1152-1168. Quoted in Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (237).

[19]   Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (235).

[20] Ibid, p.234.

[21]  Ibid, p. 234.

[22] Ibid, p.234.

[23] Ibid, p.234.

[24] Barsanuphius quoted in Haussher, Irenee, (1990). Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East (Cistercian Publications, pp.227-228).


[25] Ibid, p.225.

[26] Ibid, p.234.

[27] Ibid, p.234.

[28] Ibid, p.234.

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