Here I am at El Palmeral Retreat House in Spain, which is a very friendly house. Before I came out I dreamt that there were orange trees here, and when I came out and found there were I was delighted.
Wandering around the little orange grove I was struck by the picture of oranges on the floor, decaying and drying out, and the vibrant ones still on the tree.
I know there are times when I felt like the orange on the ground, isolated and lonely and in need of friends and community. I also know what it is like to feel like the orange on the tree, connected vitally to sources of life. Those sources of life include friends, family, community and God.
We don’t always feel able to re-connect because of our state of mind. Then we often need someone to reach out to us, who has mindfully noticed what we are feeling. But also mindfulness practice can help us find another state of mind where we can see more clearly ourselves.
One of the ways we can find more mindful states of mind, contemplative and open states of mind is to come on retreat. The hope is that we have opened the door enough on retreat to keep it open when we return home.
Sometimes I talk to people and they describe the remains of a prayer life, like a discarded nest.
Spring is a good time though to start the process of rebuilding a prayer life again. We can take our lessons from the nest-builders.
The most difficult thing in prayer and mindfulness is a daily practice. It is also the most important thing. You have to gather the stuff of a nest, and the stuff of prayer consistently and regularly.
Just as with the birds the stuff we need is all around. In our prayer times God interweaves his Word with all that we bring into a place that we can begin to find, home in on, like a nest. It becomes a home.
Just as the birds find the stuff they need from the environment around, so can we. Time spent in nature, letting the grass whisper of the Creator, as embodied contemplation, adds to the nest. The flight of silence and solitude where we attentively look and listen for the footprints of the Invisible God who is already there with us. The encouragement of others we see flying in the sky, also looking to build a nest of prayer.
The building of a nest and the life of prayer require stability, the returning to one place, from which we can fly. In that place, just like the birds, we can nurture new life, that will grow wings of its own. Like the birds we also need to migrate, to find a place to retreat to. For me over the last 10 years that has been Worth Abbey.
Perhaps each year, like the birds, we need to re-examine the nest, and start the process of building a new one. Automaticity in prayer and life can be the thing that leads us to discard the nest prematurely, and not try to build again.
Building again asks us to hope again, to not give up, to become resilient in our prayer life. In our prayer life our ordinary, embodied and relational life is transformed, as we meditatively consider His Word, the work of His hands…
One of the biggest myths about mindfulness is that in mindfulness meditation you are trying to empty your mind. Ruby Wax who is good at answering questions people are asking answers the question this way in her book Sane New World, ‘With mindfulness the rumour is wrong that the point is to empty your mind; you need your mind to analyse, memorize, create and most importantly exist. It can never be empty while you’re alive, even in a coma your mind is still chattering away.’
Why can she say this so categorically? It is all to do with what we think the mind is and how we define it. Interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel J. Siegel points out there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the mind. He defines the mind to be ‘a process that regulates the flow of energy and information.’ The mind is always receiving information from a great many sources. This includes sources outside of our own self and body. So it isn’t possible to empty it.
Whilst not directly addressing the question of ‘am I trying to empty my mind in mindfulness meditation?’, Mark Williams looks at mindfulness and psychological processes. He says there are two modes in which the mind operates (sometimes called being and doing), but more technically ‘conceptual (language-based) processing versus sensory-perceptual processing.’ Again, that’s a lot of information coming into your mind from different sources.
He goes on to say ‘In every waking moment we are receiving sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touch: stimuli from the external and internal world, but these are generally ignored in favour of spending most of our attention in conceptual mode: thinking, planning, daydreaming, analysing, remembering, comparing, judging, analysing, and so forth.’
Our minds are very busy! Now in a very important and technical phrase Williams then defines what attentional training (mindfulness meditations or mindful awareness practices) is doing, ‘Attentional training in mindfulness programs cultivate the ability to shift modes as an essential first step to being able to hold all experience (sensory and conceptual) in a wider awareness that is itself neither merely sensory nor conceptual.’
This is a shift from doing to being, from the narrative self (conceptual mode) to the experiential self (sensory-perceptual mode), followed by an ability to hold both in an open wider awareness. Far from trying to empty our mind we are learning how ‘to pay open-hearted attention to objects in the exterior and interior world as they unfold, moment by moment. Attention is paid not only to the objects themselves but to our reactions to them…’
Why this is important is another question. But staying with the rumour or myth that in mindfulness meditation I am trying to empty my mind, it can also be addressed by approaching it from the angle of feelings and emotion.
Rimma Teper in an important article does address this question directly, ‘A common misconception about mindfulness, and meditation in general, is that it involves emptying the mind of thoughts and emotions.’ Mindfulness benefits executive function and emotion regulation and she asks, ‘Does mindfulness foster better executive control and emotion regulation because it eliminates emotional responding? We think not. Instead, we suggest that these effects accrue because mindfulness promotes an openness and sensitivity to subtle changes in affective states, which are essential in signalling the need for control and energizing its execution.’ In mindfulness your mind doesn’t work against your embodied mindful brain, but with it!
Mark Williams makes a similar point, ‘Mindfulness is not about “not feeling” or becoming detached from affect.’ What mindfulness enables is to see ‘something as it is, without further elaboration: for example, seeing thoughts as mental events, or seeing physical sensations as physical sensations…’
So are we trying to empty our minds in mindfulness meditation? No, we are not! It may be that in switching to awareness, our minds suddenly may feel more spacious, but we are not emptying our minds – we are looking clearly at what our minds are processing. Mindfulness is seeing clearly and feeling clearly. It is an embodied, relational awareness that faces reality, not avoiding it.
 Ruby Wax, Sane New World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2013), 136.
 Daniel J. Siegel, The Mindful Brain New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), 5.
 Williams, 2.
 Williams, 2.
 Rimmer Teper, Zindel V. Segal, and Michael Inzlicht, “ Inside the Mindul Mind: How Mindfulness Enhances Emotion Regulation Through Improvements in Executive Control,” Current Directions in Psychological Science XX, no. X (2013): 1, accessed April 5 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0963721413495869.
 Teper, 1.
 Williams, 4.
 Williams, 4.
The Buddhist technical term sati in Pali (or smrti in Sanskrit) was first translated with the English word mindfulness by T.W. Rhys Davids in 1881. So says Rupert Gethin in his article On some definitions of mindfulness (Contemporary Buddhism Vol. 12, No. 1, May 2011).
Previous dictionaries had translated this complex technical term with translations such as ‘remembrance, memory, reminiscence, recollection, thinking of or upon (any person or thing), calling to mind.’ (p.263)
One of the misunderstandings of the word ‘mindfulness’ is that people sometimes assume it is a Buddhist word, rather than an English word that translates a Buddhist term.
Gethin goes on to say that he is not surprised that this word is used. The OED ‘records the use of the English ‘mindfulness’ in the sense of ‘the state or quality of being mindful; attention; memory (obs.); intention, purpose (obs.).’ from 1530 A.D.’ (p.264)
Early uncertainty about how to translate the word sati gives way to mindfulness becoming ‘the only possible English translation of sati’ from 1910 with Rhys Davids influential translation of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. (p.265) It is not surprising then, with this OED reference to the date 1530, that the King James Version of the Bible published in 1611 has the word ‘mindful’ in it a number of times.
‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?’ (Psalm 8:4) Being mindful of God is becoming aware of when He ‘visitest’ us.
How can mindfulness be secular, Buddhist or Christian? Richard Burnett has written an excellent, well-researched, erudite and thought-provoking thesis called ‘Mindfulness in schools: learning lessons from the adults – secular and Buddhist (see link below). Within his thesis are important ideas that enable us to begin to answer the question above.
Firstly, mindfulness can be used in different settings because it is a universal human capacity for awareness and attention in the present-moment and must be distinguished from the meditative or mindful awareness practices that lead to this mode of awareness. In an important note on page 6 of his thesis Burnett says, ‘There is nothing ‘Buddhist’ about being mindful and paying attention to the present moment. Kabat-Zinn compares this to calling gravity ‘British’ because it was discovered by Newton.’
Secondly, it has a historical presence in Buddhism and Christianity, and in secular psychology there has also been a long focus on awareness and attention and the regulation of emotions. In other words people came across the capacity for mindfulness within different contexts, originally these contexts were religious. The other key idea, then, is to understand the context.
Richard Burnett is someone who has looked at this question of context within the setting of introducing mindfulness into schools (http://mindfulnessinschools.org/).
Thirdly, in counselling there is an important emphasis on client autonomy, respecting a person’s world view, experience and ethical values. That means boundaries are important. What is the context in which the client lives? An atheist might want to engage with a purely secular mindfulness.
This question of boundaries and client autonomy arises in mindfulness because it is a universal human capacity, and therefore appears in different contexts. These forms must be well defined and clearly articulated, although there is shared territory between the forms as well as distinctives. But a secular mindfulness course must not be ‘Buddhism by the back door.’ (p.32)
The key question is I guess: how do we ensure secular mindfulness is secular, Buddhist mindfulness is Buddhist and Christian mindfulness is Christian, for those to whom it matters? Someone looking at life through a secular lens for example.
Burnett argues, quite rightly that mindfulness in schools does not have the same objective as clinical psychology, because ‘in a classroom context we are not treating specific pathologies.’ (p. 24). Nor can it be introduced as a spiritual practice ‘as a classroom is not the place for religious instruction.’ (p.24) It can be used more generally to promote the key attitudes found in the National Framework for religious education of ‘self-awareness, respect for all, open-mindedness and appreciation and wonder.’ (p.27)
It then requires what has been called an ‘informational context’ (Feldman); or a ‘framework of understanding’ (Teasdale) or what Kabat-Zinn calls ‘scaffolding’. (p.28) Buddhist mindfulness is set within an ancient and complex scaffolding. (p.28) Helpfully, Burnettt argues that ‘The scaffolding in clinical mindfulness may be much smaller, but is very well constructed and arguably more effective in the treatment of specific conditions.’ (p.29) Mindfulness within Buddhism is set within religious or spiritual scaffolding, within clinical mindfulness it is secular (generally), although there are psychologists reframing Buddhism as a wise and ancient psychology and bringing in Buddhist insights that are psychological.
Burnett quotes from Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of clinical mindfulness, as saying that mindfulness ‘may have to give up being Buddhism in any formal religious sense.’ (p.31)
This clear boundary around clinical mindfulness to ensure it is secular is important as Burnett outlines in a quote from Michael Chaskalson, (one of the key figures in mindfulness he has interviewed): ‘If you don’t establish clear boundaries you will exclude some people. There will be practising Christians for example, or dedicated Dawkins style atheists coming on courses and I don’t want to exclude them from conversation.’ (p.31)
So within schools Burnett argues that mindfulness should not be Buddhist (almost certainly). (p.31) If you are doing a Religious Studies A-level in Buddhism you would refer to the Buddhist scaffolding. But when taught as a practice it should be within scaffolding that is clearly secular. In that context what it can address, as a backbone for the engagement, is what Mark Williams calls ‘universal vulnerabilities.’ Although specific vulnerabilities identified in the context of schools such as ‘anxiety of exams,’ peer pressure, or mood swings, could be indicated to pupils. (p.33)
Burnett argues that mindfulness, especially in schools, brings with it ‘a sense of possibility.’ ( p.33). Burnett highlights these other possibilities, pointing out that there are a broad ‘range of potential applications’, including functional, therapeutic, to more spiritual applications when the context is appropriate. (p.33)
What I have been trying to develop, through ‘A Book of Sparks: a Study in Christian MindFullness’ and other writings, is a Christian scaffolding, drawing on biblical and historical roots for the development of mindfulness within the Christian tradition, as well as looking at the benefits of engaging with it today.
Within this setting I believe it has spiritual as well as therapeutic benefits, because of the overlaps, and shared territory, and because we are ’embodied’ people. The evidence-based research within clinical psychology suggests that it would also be appropriate to point Christians, under the holistic guidance of doctors and therapists, to secular clinical mindfulness which might address ‘specific’ vulnerabilities they might be living with. For Christians are not immune from the universal and specific vulnerabilities that afflict all human beings.
Within this research I am keen to work collaboratively with other Christians who are interested in mindfulness, both psychologically and theologically. I am grateful for the collaborative partnerships that are beginning. Space doesn’t permit a description of the scaffolding that makes mindfulness Christian, I have done that elsewhere, but I do believe that for Christians, as well, as they rediscover their contemplative roots, it has a very real ‘sense of possibility.’