How do we enter the doorway of the present moment? One of the ways is by answering a riddle, says contemplative writer Martin Laird.
One of the riddles he sets is this, ‘What do thoughts and feelings appear in?’ (‘Into The Silent Land’, p.80). When I ask people that question, many people can’t answer it. The answer Martin Laird gives, based on his study of Christian contemplative writers is that our thoughts and feelings appear in awareness (p.88).
Now this is affirmed by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. J. Mark G. Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn summarize this beautifully in their introduction in the book ‘Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications,’ jointly edited by them.
They define mindfulness as awareness, ‘an entirely different and one might say, larger capacity than thought, since any and all thought and emotion can be held in awareness.’ (p.15) This is something we need to become aware of. But as they go on to say, ‘While we get a great deal of training in our education systems in thinking of all kinds, we have almost no exposure to the cultivation of intimacy with that other innate capacity of ours that we call awareness.’ (p.15)
This is why people struggle to answer the riddle, ‘what do thoughts and feelings appear in?’ Williams and Kabat-Zinn go on to say, ‘Awareness is virtually transparent to us. We tend to be unaware of our awareness. We so easily take it for granted.’ (p.15) And yet it is one of our most important innate capacities.
As they conclude, ‘It rarely occurs to us that it is possible to systematically explore and refine our relationship to awareness itself, or that it can be ‘inhabited’.’ (p.15) Mindfulness is awareness but mindful practices can help us systematically ‘explore and refine our relationship to awareness’ so that it can be ‘inhabited.’
In Alister McGrath’s luminous book C S Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet McGrath talks about Lewis’s role as a literary midwife (pp.197-200).
He was especially a midwife to Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. Tolkien himself said that without Lewis’s ‘sheer encouragement’ he would never have finished his masterpiece. Tolkien said of Lewis ‘He was for long my only audience.’
I remember my history teacher at school coming to every practice of mine to teach me how to bowl left-arm spin in cricket, not just for my private joy but to try and break into the school team. Because he believed in me I believed in myself.
I remember when I worked in a bank and was wondering what to do with unneeded creativity, someone encouraged me to write every day. Really encouraged me. Cried at things I wrote (not in pain but joy).
Who is it that you can be a creative midwife to? Each person only needs an audience of one to begin with. It begins with helping a child to enjoy the process of creativity before the outcome. To simply revel in pens, ink, paper, colours, nature, our nine senses, the orchard of awareness that lies within.
I have just come back from leading a retreat at Worth Abbey about shifting our mental gear from doing to being, from thinking to awareness. The beautiful Abbey Church has a visual parable built within it, that helps illustrate an important aspect of our awareness.
It is a circular church, and has windows running all around the rim of the circle (see photo). Attention is about what we do with our awareness. We can focus our attention, for example, on sounds – allowing whatever sounds are out there to come into our hearing. That is like looking through one window of the many we could look through in the Abbey Church.
Daniel Siegel in his book The Mindful Brain talks about us having a rim of awareness through which things can be attended to. We have our five senses on the rim, five windows if you like on to the world. But Daniel Siegel suggests we have eight senses: in the sixth sense we can become aware of what is going on in our body, in the seventh sense we can become aware of what is going on in our minds – thoughts, feelings, sensations, and in the eighth relational sense we can become aware of what is going on with other people around us.
I would also like to suggest that there is a ninth sense, that works with the other eight senses, which is about becoming aware of the presence of God.
We can focus our attention, just attending to one window, whether it is hearing or sight. But we can also cultivate an open awareness where we are able to allow all our senses to come into awareness. Using the Abbey Church as an example this is where light is coming in through all the windows, and we are aware of all the windows in the circular rim of the church simultaneously.
Often we live through only a few windows, the others blacked out to our awareness and attention. Mindfulness and contemplation open up all the windows of awareness to our awareness and attention. As this happens we begin to experience life in the moment as it truly is, which is whole and full of healthy possibilities, including the possibility of hearing the footsteps of the Invisible One in our life.
(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.’