(Wendy Reed photo)
Like the duck we need to stay at the rim of our thoughts, where we can observe them. It is too easy to be sucked into the whirlpool of our thoughts, believing them to an accurate readout of reality rather than passing events.
It takes attention and awareness to stay on the rim of our thoughts, observing them gently and compassionately. The natural pull of their gravity takes us towards the whirlpool where we lose perspective.
On the rim of my thoughts I am aware, through my senses, of what is around me. I can find inner freedom and peace, the whirlpool is not all there is.
the duck on the rim
of the circle of water
is me and my thoughts
In the stillness and silence of Easter Saturday the green blade is rising, the moments that approach the resurrection are increasingly charged until God emerges in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazereth.
It seems that silence and stillness lead to charged moments at other times as well. Christina Feldman who teaches mindfulness says that people ‘practising Buddhist mindfulness are seeing liberation in bite-size pieces.’ (quoted in ‘Mindfulness in Schools’ a dissertation by Richard Burnett, p. 23).
Terence Handley MacMath in her article in the Church Times recently writes about her experience of attending a secular mindfulness-based stress-reduction course (MBSR), and says ‘for many it became a revelation of what I would call a spiritual way of life.’ (Church Times, 22nd March 2013, p. 17)
I heard someone else say recently that meditation had led to deeper insights about reality.
In silence and stillness different insights emerge as we practice attention and awareness. Human attention and awareness are gifts from God. Meister Eckhart says this about gifts, ‘God never gives, nor did He ever give a gift, merely that man might have it and be content with it. No, all gifts which He ever gave in heaven or on earth, He gave with one sole purpose – to make one single gift: Himself.’ (quoted in The Silent Cry, Dorothee Soelle, p. 21) As Dorothee Soelle points out all gifts that are given point back to the Giver (p.21).
The gifts of attention and awareness point back to their Giver. This particular time, that stretches from Good Friday to Easter Sunday is a time to pay particular attention. It is the time that can stretch our awareness infinitely.
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.’
Columba poem by Kenneth C Steven, the poet reads… (click on this link)
In Josephine Hart’s book Words That Burn – How to read Poetry and why, she begins her introduction with these words.
‘How do you possess a poem? Well, ‘same as for love’. Pay attention to it. Listen to it. It will speak to you on the page. Silently. Or you may wish, as the critic Harold Bloom advises, to speak it out loud to yourself…’ (p.1).
You can also (best of all) hear it read out, live with the poet, or a recording of it. As Josephine Hart goes on to say, ‘The poetry sounds out and I ‘trip..into the boundless’, as Frost described it.’ (p.1)I think the oral performance is the most primal form.
This is a poem by Kenneth C Steven called Columba. Click on the link and you can hear the poem sound out…and you may trip into the boundless. A perceptive person introduced me to his poetry.
The mindful experiment is becoming aware of where the poem takes you…
Though autumn wind blows/spring lake in me is greening/fear not winter snows
This is a Haiku inspired by a road sign.
Frank Cottrell Boyce is a children’s writer who said this in an article in The Daily Telegraph recently, ‘I believe my job is not to dazzle with new wonders, but to scrub off the patina of familiarity so that my readers can see again how dazzling things already are.’
He is a mindful writer.
The ordinary is dazzling. An ordinary road sign can be seen in a new light. Why don’t you look out for road signs that catch your eye and write a Haiku or some other reflection on it? Our eyes are smeared with the lard of familiarity. Seeing with new eyes requires us to access the streams of awareness in us, moving out of ruminative and automatic thinking. We often dismiss people in the way we dismiss road signs. Mindfulness is seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary.
The rhythm of alternate
Mindfulness/MindFullness can be set at the centre of an alternate rhythm of life. It has an important community aspect within Christianity. It has to do with an aware and attentive rhythm of life that is alternate, that is other-focused.
When our lives are out of rhythm we suffer. If the rhythm of waking and sleeping is off-balance life becomes about mere survival. If in a marriage the rhythm of intimacy, affection and sex is imbalanced or missing then we experience emotional pain and depression. If we do not eat regularly, or we overeat or eat the wrong things we will experience ill-health as well as emotional roller-coaster rides.
But having a rhythm of life is more than just a life-work-home balance. Rhythm is built into the created order – whether it is the rising of the sun or the setting of it. Our bodies run to rhythms from the obvious heart beat, to less obvious beats.
But the rhythm of life we are seeking to establish seeks to do something else – it is a counter-cultural response to the cultural trends of our day – consumerism, individualism and narcissism. These trends make us too busy.
The wisdom about rhythms of life is to be found in the monastic movements both new and old. These rhythms used to be called rules – in the sense that they help us measure what is right and wrong.
How important is a rhythm of life? It is as important as breathing. If we do not live consistently within a spiritual rhythm of life we shall die of spiritual asthma.
There are a number of key scriptures that inform our rhythm, and should inform the discipleship of any Christian. Romans 12:2 tells us that our transformed mind becomes the rule(r) that establishes and tests the rhythm of life for us, ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…’
What are we to be transformed into? We find the answer in 2 Corinthians 3:18, ‘And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness…’ We are looking to create an inner sanctuary that we can carry around with us into all of life. The most famous Rule is that of St Benedict. In his Rule Benedict explains how to live ‘a Christ-centred life with others.’
What makes up a rhythm of life and enables us to pay attention to the priorities of Christian faith and develop the awareness that can test what God’s will is for our lives? I have been looking at different communities to see how they live together; including Taize in France, the Bose community in Italy, The Moot in London, and the mayBe community. This is to try and answer the question, can a congregation be a real community?
Over the last few months we have explored The Moot’s structure to their rhythm of life beginning with spiritual postures – that develop the awareness of God’s presence in our lives. This begins with the idea of spiritual postures. This has been influenced by a brilliant book Faith Postures: Cultivating Christian Mindfulness by Holly Sprink. To The Moot this asks how we are in the present moment, in other words our way of being, not just doing.
An obvious posture is the one that sees the glass half-empty or half-full. The foundational posture is that of faith rather than fear. 2012 has been a year of fear in many ways and we need to daily re-align ourselves with a position of faith not fear.
A posture of faith and not fear needs to make vows, have values that guide the rhythm of life. We believe in a relational God who is presence, and so we are called to be present to each other. So presence to God, to each other, and to the world is a key value that we can vow to maintain.
One of the ways we can be present together is through hospitality. It needs an intentional rhythm. Another way we can be present together is through service.
As we work on a rhythm of alternate we are seeking something elusive, perhaps something we don’t believe in. This is what Abbot Christopher Jamison calls inner freedom, ‘Sometimes the way people speak about the human heart implies that in this interior world there is no freedom, that it is a fixed world that cannot be changed.’
There is freedom and we can find it.
The Moot’s address
Holly Sprink’s book