short video interview with me via Association for Promoting Retreats on mindfulness
Below is a link to the mindfulness retreat I am leading for the Association for Promoting Retreats 29-31 October at Old Alresford Place
Retreat Association, 22-25 June 2015
Guest speakers and contributors include Dr Rowan Williams, Fr Christopher Jamison OSB, Revd Graham Sparkes and Margaret Rizza. I will be leading two workshops on mindfulness.
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.
I am often asked ‘what is mindfulness?’ Some people like scientific explanations (our universal capacity for awareness and attention), other people prefer more poetic ones.
Some ideas stay with you. One such idea for me is the greening power of God (viriditas), that Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) put forward in her works. Now when such an idea takes root you can see it in different ways, take it in directions that perhaps that the original author didn’t intend. It’s a phrase that describes mindfulness for me, in terms of what it can do.
What is greening for me? I believe it is something I have experienced in mindfulness. I see that mindfulness practices enable mindfulness as a trait to take root in us. In this way mindfulness is a slow miracle, where we begin to green inside, we experience a new freshness, a new release of creativity, a new wholeness, a new relationship with our senses, a new relationship with our own self, with others, with creation, with God.
I have experienced this through both mindfulness for health that you find in secular psychology, as well as the Christian distinctive of mindfulness of God. After all the Gospel is an embodied Gospel.
In this sense, mindfulness is the slow miracle of greening within us, where we begin to become what Irenaeus called ‘The Glory of God – a human being fully alive.’ When we practice both mindfulness for health and mindfulness of God I think we can become fully alive.
a link to Premier Radio’s Inspirational breakfast show interview with me on Christian mindfulness.
Mindful Relating – mindfulness day at St Mary’s Ealing
Saturday May 2nd 2015 from 10 to 4
Mindfulness is being used to transform our intimate relationships. In this day together we explore a Christian perspective on relating mindfully. Stress damages our relationships as do our own internal negative patterns of thinking and behaviour. Through mindful awareness we learn how to handle stress better, reduce our emotional reactivity and develop more skilled ways of communicating with our loved ones. We will also look at how developing a mindful/contemplative spirituality enhances our close relationships by living out of our deepest values.
If you want to sign up email me via this website and I will pass on your details to the organisers. The cost is £10.