A Church of England vicar has written a fascinating article telling us how very important it is to meditate and contemplate. The Rev. Tim Stead of Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry, writes in the Anglican magazine The Door, that we should all learn to appreciate the virtues of "mindfulness". He has also issued a podcast sermon on the virtues of mindfulness in the Christian tradition. The group now active in Headington is the very first in the whole world!
It has an "enormous amount of scientific support". How does this fit with the Christian tradition of prayer? Is mindfulness Christian? Apparently this is a spiritual practice which is Christian, although its origins are in Buddhism, and it is scientific.
What is mindfulness? "It is not generally taught in a didactic way....it is generally caught. At the same time, it is taught and learned in an extremely structured way that can and does help people. How is it taught? Usually in a group on an 8-week course , with two hourly sessions per week - but not in a didactic way. ..You have to practice it." It is about an attitude to all of life and a way of living, which in essence is marked by a greater awareness of WHAT IS".
What is what?
Nothing in particular, just what is... that's all. Just gloriously and beautifully and poignantly just ..being. That is the heart of it.
And that's it really.
So much goes into achieving a place of mindfulness although achieving is not the right word.
It's about waking up to life and becoming present to what is around us and within us...acceptance and compassion....noticing things we had never noticed because we are too busy.
It's about learning a better balance in our life between being and doing. Most of us are too attuned to doing. We are too pre-occupied with what worries or concerns us. This creates tension! We are trying to close gaps -- we end up meddling, trying to fix things that are better left alone...this can be dangerous and destructive Much of the time we can't reduce the gap between the way things are and how they ought to be...we can't fix everything....this creates too much tension. There is a lot of brain theory here!
We need proper space for reflection, where just existing is an inherent good. We need to pause and contemplate. Simply being present to what is, is an inherent good and a great though simple joy.
Mindfulness can't be taught or explained but the teaching of it is part of its genius. It is a skill that needs to be practised just like a musical instrument...lots of practice. The skills we are learning tend to be counter-intuitive. Our logical brains resist! The practices are varied. You can work out what works for you!!! This can be engaged on on many levels... so many different levels. Of course commitment to it does matter. The more effort you put in, the more you get out of it.
There are many, many ways to engage with it!
At our mindfulness lessons, we learn new skills and new practices. We are sent home to practice them daily! then we come back and reflect together about what we have noticed while we are trying to do it. This is all about awareness. It is very non-judgemental. It is primarily about awareness of what happened for you! We discover extraordinary things. We notice things we never noticed before. Perhaps we will be in a better position to be aware of others. [Or perhaps not]
If only we can become AWARE so many issues will just resolve themselves! If we just become aware of what is happening, things will fix themselves!
This is the experience of mindfulness.
On the very first session, we taste a raisin, but we eat it in a MINDFUL way. We give it our whole entire, attention, starting by holding it, then looking at it, and the whole experience takes at least ten minutes... Instead of gobbling it down, we become fully aware of everything stage of it. Eventually when you bite into that raisin the flavour absolutely floods into your mouth.
Think of an activity such as brushing your teeth, pay attention to it and do it mindfully. Turn off the radio and just pay attention to how it feels, with the brush in your mouth the taste of the toothpaste, the various corners of your mouth...instead of just doing it mechanically. If you choose washing up let's concentrate on cleaning a plate as well as I possibly can, with creativity and love... it may take a bit longer, by the way. This is the key to a more joyful way of living.
Mindfulness includes movement. It is very connected with the body. Very few people have bodies without minds, and even fewer have minds without bodies. A few, yes, but very few. Mind and body are one unit, one organ, responding reciprocally to each other believe it or not, throughout the day. So mindfulness is also bodifulness, if you know what I mean. We might for instance practice a stretch and ask ourselves what happens when I do this stretch? how do I feel? There is nothing competitive about this, not like you might feel at a yoga class. No? You don't go to yoga classes? Never? Ah well, I'm a vicar so I have lots of time to do things like that, unlike you lot who are working. I get to live in this lovely big detached house with a huge garden, and I can spend my time going to yoga classes, then complaining about them.
We have a wonderful thing called a 3-minute breathing space - you can stop and do it any time in the day, even when you are driving along the motorway or in the middle of an important telephone call. Any time when life is getting stressful, just stop and do this breathing space and it helps you to counter the stress and the anxiety.
Mindfulness includes "habit release". This helps us to try to break some of our tried and tested habits. Why not go to the cinema and just watch whatever film happens to be on? It could be the worst film you've ever seen....and that could be fun, couldn't it? Never mind about the waste of time and money.
Meditations can last up to 30 or 40 minutes but if you're ready to have a go I'll lead you through a very short sitting meditation practice. There are often CDs of a warm voice leading you through the meditation...it has to be a warm voice because a cold one just wouldn't do. Afterwards you will be asked "What did you notice?" First of all get into as comfortable a position as you can in those pews - our intention is to stay awake, but comfortable...probably closing your eyes. Let your gaze relax. And so we'll begin. Commend this space to God. Draw the sign of the cross on myself. and say "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."....OK in their name ...what? Er - nothing. Just in their name, that's all.
Pay attention to your breath. Breath is part of our body. Choose one aspect of your breath, either how it goes in and out of your nose, your mouth or how your abdomen goes up and down. Just focus on it and notice it, how warm or cold the breath is, going in or going out. Notice how deep or shallow your breath is...is doesn't matter which, it's just noticing it. For about a minute, just follow your breath in and out. Most people will find that within about ten minutes their thoughts will wander. If you notice you have done this, rejoice that you have noticed! Bring your attention back to your breath and each time this happens, bring your thoughts back to your breath. Each time you notice, rejoice that you have noticed! It is a cause for celebration! Rejoice, you have woken up!
When you feel ready, open your eyes and take in the room once again.
People have done brain scan tests on this and found that people (not the same people other people) have different levels of mindfulness. Whether it happens after one minute or ten minutes, it doesn't really matter, but the studies have shown that 90% of our brain activity is unconscious. The more we become aware of what is going on in our brains, the less we will be carried way by its wayward instincts. We will become better people!
The aim is to come into a being mode instead of a doing mode.
We're not here to be good or bad, but to become aware of ourselves. What happened for you?
Never mind that Christians are being attacked, persecuted, incarcerated and murdered in a dozen countries all over the world. Never mind about bothersome events in Pakistan, or Syria, or Egypt, or Nigeria, or Kenya...the problems will fix themselves. Who cares that the Church of England is being sued by those who want to impose their own ideology and values on it instead of respecting what the church teaches? Who cares about austerity or anything really?
Just chew that raisin.