Why I practice Christian and Secular Mindfulness
Here is a familiar verse, Psalm 8:4 (ESV): ‘what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?’
Reverend Shaun Lambert, who is an occasional contributor here at Mind and Soul and is an author of two books on Mindfulness, was a keynote speaker at Chester Cathedral’s ‘Retreat in the City’ in September. I went to this event, which explored mind-filled Christianity prior to the relaunch of Chester’s refurbished Chapter House.
I’ve treated my own clinical depression and anxiety with medications for almost ten years. This year, I decided on a new approach. Chester is a beautiful Roman city. Just as with human remains that lie buried when subsequent civilizations build over them, our memories, griefs, and losses will not be hidden forever. Jesus is cognisant. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves.
Our pleasure and pain can be integrated into our schema of self and how we work within our society: we strive to avoid pain, and it returns, we deny pleasure and it will find an object to attach to. For these reasons, and because we can never rid ourselves entirely of pain, even within a redeemed theology, I decided that I wanted to explore holistic, whole person approaches to treating depression and anxiety.
Unblocking our minds and embodiment
Mindfulness sensitises us to small movements in the emotions. This can be useful to us as friends, lovers, disciples, and creatives. When low mood is present, whether that is because of sadness or fear, I can get trammelled within repetitive thoughts. I look at the world in one way. I lose my flexibility that helps me solve problems. This can be as simple as not being able to pair socks, or as significant as not knowing what to do next to help my career and productivity. A lack of fluidity sounds a small issue, but this has been a massive hindrance for me, and has caused my confidence to shrink back.
I aim to resume ‘normal’ functioning and in 2016 attended four therapy courses with my local health board that used components of secular mindfulness. I learned mindfulness in groups. This helped my ‘stuck’ feeling because, of course, you can listen and learn from people in your group and how they approach their tasks. I’m reasonably extroverted and enjoy company, particularly when the rules of engagement are clear and I know I can keep mentally healthy. It certainly helps to contribute to a group and feel I am adding value.
Mindful Christianity can deploy similar techniques to secular Mindfulness because when taught correctly mindful approaches focus on physicality and embodiment. Because Jesus was physical and embodied, I don’t see a problem. Jesus was, after all, God incarnate. In secular mindfulness there is no object of meditation, and no path, as Buddhist mindfulness incorporates, through its emphasis upon ridding the mind of heavy human mindsets like greed. Secular mindfulness is now well enough established that it has developed its own way.
Mindfulness, poetry, and scriptural approaches
We listened to literature in our secular mindfulness classes, including poems from Dorothy Hunt, Derek Walcott, and David Whyte. Therefore, it wasn’t a massive switch for me to swap secular literature out for scripture. On “Retreat In The City” imaginative readings of the Bible and Lectio Divina was recommended. I may write in a subsequent blog the struggles I have with these practices. Basically, imaginative reading asks us to bring sensory experience to enliven Christ’s incarnation. For example, perhaps Jesus suffered seasickness when the disciples took him onto their boat in Mark 4:34. Did Jesus sleep on a cushion to avoid vomiting, before the disciples awoke him? Lectio Divina uses a Jesuit framework to take participants through a review of scriptural passages, based on the plain text of what they read and how their mind works to apply that simply to their day.
I find it easier to concentrate in groups, where my focus is less wobbled by personal issues like loneliness and the confusion I have around my treatment by the Church. Mindfulness helps me focus if I can remain gentle and curious within the reading process, and bring to the moment some caring, Christlike self compassion. When we prayerfully read the Bible together on our retreat, I was enriched in my understanding of the text. I was thoughtfully guided, however, by two retreat leaders who were steeped in Catholic and Baptist theology.
Meditation, prayer, the breath, and mindful relationships
Holiness is not about our goodness, it’s about the goodness of God. Sit with yourself for a few minutes in silence while you are led to meditate on the simple act of imbibing air, and self-righteousness will melt away. When we are present to the shadows of our thoughts, that become apparent when we bring them to the light, it is hard to escape our own sinfulness. Likewise, we cannot hide from Christ’s grace, for we are sustained in these moments by his power, his gifts, and his tenderness.
Mindfulness of God is a prayer of orientation, of awareness and emotion. I reiterate the oft repeated Protestant caveat that God and our emotions are not synonyms. Reverend Shaun Lambert was quick to affirm integrating the Bible with therapeutic techniques I’d learned from mindfulness-based Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Because the Bible underpins my life as a would-be creative, I felt once again connected to my muse. The certainty of attachment to God was a platform that allowed me to see a better view of my potential future than I’d felt for the longest time. These moments of nurture can be terribly precious in our Christian walk, particularly when we are struggling with mental illness.
Christian mindfulness is about with-ness and not about wellness. The Saturday away day offered me a new coherence as a writer and disciple, because writing is contingent upon thinking, and discipleship is contingent upon action that requires a firmness of purpose anxiety can steal away. Depression buries my humble hopes under a soil of negative, critical thinking, which scuppers invention and the receptivity which is required by a generous and open, Christian brotherly love. If mindfulness can penetrate that field in which my treasure lies buried, and compel me to retrieve it, I would certainly commit to doing it frequently. As a result, I would hope the quality of my relationships could improve.
One’s experience of mindfulness can be unpleasant, as reading and engaging with the Bible can be. Mindful approaches encourage a gentle self-love when these difficulties arise, through which I learn to love my neighbour as myself, and perhaps come to see Christ as a neighbour to my thoughts and illness too. Mindfulness probes relationships using choice. Our psychological flexibility is a pivot we can turn on. And Christian Mindfulness focusses the self-directed will that we do have on the Trinity, that inseparable trio who are God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, three persons in one.