Q&A Blog on Mindfulness and Christianity

Barry Pearman from Turning the Page, NZ asks Richard Johnston to explain some aspects of mindfulness and Christian Mindfulness.

1. What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is our universal human capacity for attention and awareness.  All people have the capacity to pay attention and to develop greater awareness regardless of faith.  Mindfulness practice is about developing awareness and being present for each moment of our lives instead of being caught up in the narrative or story about our lives that often fills our minds.

2. What is Christian Mindfulness and how does it differ to other forms of Mindfulness?

Christian Mindfulness embraces mindfulness practice in the whole of life, but explores this gift from a biblical perspective.  Sometimes we can compartmentalize our lives and squeeze the spiritual bit into a small part, perhaps even just church on a Sunday morning.  That’s the spiritual bit we say.  But actually Christ is with us all the time whatever we are doing – in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).  He is interested in the whole person all the time.  We can develop awareness of Presence in every area of our lives, even in the mundane.  This was what Brother Lawrence recognized in his writings “Practicing the Presence of God”.  The Lord is with us always and dwells within us by His Spirit.  Christian Mindfulness seeks to recognize this reality and develop awareness of this truth so that we can enter into a greater experience of God with us at all times.

Awareness of God can be an access point to experience the healing mercy, love and grace of Christ in a deeper way.  We begin to increasingly connect our awareness with the vast ocean of love that is in us and all around us all the time. This aspect of mindfulness relates to mindfulness of God. But Christians can also exercise mindful awareness of breath and body from a biblical perspective i.e. each breath we take is a gift from God and reminds us of the gift of life he has given us.  Our physical bodies are also a gift from God and through faith in Christ are a temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells.

The science behind mindfulness has begun to explain the health benefits of developing mindful awareness in the whole of life.  This can be done in both formal and informal ways.  More formal practice can involved a focused time of meditation where we use an anchor for our meditation to which we return our attention if/when our minds wander.  Informal practice of mindfulness spills over into the whole of our lives and being present for each moment – for example…washing the dishes, walking the dog, enjoying the beauty of God’s creation as we look at a mountain range scene, or a single leaf that has fallen from a tree. We can open our awareness to the Presence and beauty of God who is in us and all around us.  Through regular practice of mindfulness we begin to lay down new neural pathways in the brain.  Those areas of the brain associated with low mood, anxiety, depression and stress are dampened down.  And those areas associated with a greater sense of happiness and wellbeing actually see an increase in activity releasing happy hormones into the bloodstream.

3. There are many different types of Christian Spiritual Exercises or disciplines based around prayer. For example Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina, Is Christian Mindfulness different, similar, complementary?

Great question!  I would define Christian Mindfulness as including awareness of the whole of life – self awareness of the whole self (body, soul and spirit), mindfulness of other people (like the Good Samaritan who had compassion on his fellow man) and mindfulness of God (this is the area most often associated with Contemplative and Meditative Prayer).

I find it helpful sometimes to distinguish between Kataphatic and Apophatic approaches to prayer.  Kataphatic prayer (found in the Psalms eg Ps. 23:1), expresses spiritual truths in terms of language and imagery with words.  Apophatic forms of prayer (also found in the Psalms eg Ps. 27:4) uses less language and involves more pure awareness practice.  The reality is that we tend to ebb and flow from one to the other.  And this is quite normal.  It’s a bit like a husband and wife who are out on a date – table for two, candlelit meal.  Perhaps they chat and talk for an hour or two.  They use language to share their hearts together.  But then there are moments when words are not necessary.  They just enjoy being together.  They enjoy sharing presence.  Nothing needs to be said.  These moments can be very intimate.

Lectio Divina is a gentle pathway moving from Scripture Meditation into more contemplative forms of prayer and because there is so much Scripture available to us this can be like a beautiful diamond in our experience as we pray, meditate and contemplate on the beauty of who God is and how we relate to him in life.  The prayer is not just thoughts in the mind.  We engage with our imaginations and allow truth to touch our inner being – sometimes called the Prayer of the Heart.  The Christian Mindfulness website now has a whole new section devoted to Lectio Divina.  See here.

Centring Prayer is one of the more wordless approaches to Contemplative Prayer but involves more than just awareness of God and openness to God.  The posture taken is one of surrender to the Holy Spirit and whatever he wants to do in us in that moment.  If our minds wander we use a Prayer Word – like Jesus, Father, Peace or some other word or phrase of our choice – to bring our awareness and focus gently back to God and a posture of openness and surrender to the Holy Spirit.  See here for free meditation.

4. Many Christians have a fear around meditative practices. Why is that and does the Bible encourage Christians to be have 'Mindful' type practices?

I think there has been a lot of wrong thinking in this whole area and many Christians in recent years have been robbed of the contemplative and meditative practices that were practiced by the church down through the centuries.  The Spiritual Formation movement has sought to redress the balance and encourage Christians to explore contemplative and meditative prayer in a fresh way.  The Bible is full of encouragement in this whole area.  One of my favourite verses is Psalm 48:9 – “Within your temple O God, we meditate on your loving-kindness”.  Just filling our heads with more thoughts about loving-kindness is not meditation.  

Meditation does include sweet thoughts but it also includes engaging with the Holy Spirit and dwelling and resting in truth.  The Prayer of the Heart involves intimacy and connection and relationship and BEING WITH the Lord – he dwells in us and we dwell in him.  This BEING WITH God and opening our awareness towards him, is fundamental to being mindful of God.  In Psalm 27:4 the Psalmist says “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may DWELL in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.  To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple”

In the USA there is now a growing movement of Contemplative Evangelicals who would seek to uphold common sense biblical interpretation and practice Contemplative and Meditative forms of prayer [see the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, 2014, Vol. 7, No. 1 – The practice of contemplative prayer in an evangelical context].  Also, see Embracing Contemplation ed. Coe and Strobel

5. How would Mindfulness help someone with serious Mental Health issues such as Depression, Anxiety, Psychosis etc Is there Evidence Based Research to backup the use of Mindfulness?

The first thing I would say is that anyone with a Mental Health issue should first of all consult their Doctor regarding the suitability of mindfulness for their particular difficulty.  Mindfulness is only one tool among many.  And it may not be the right tool for you at this point of your journey.  Having said that here are a few reflections.

Ruminative negative thinking can be an important factor that can cause and perpetuate depression and/or anxiety.  We may dwell on past events and go over and over what happened, how we were treated, what we have lost, etc.  Or we may spend hours filling our minds with anxious thoughts about the future and events that may never actually happen at all.  When we live in our heads like this our focus is taken away from this present moment and quickly we can find our mood spiraling downwards.  You could call this negative meditation.  Our awareness is focused on the past or the future in a way that leads to discouragement and low mood.  Mindfulness practice that brings your awareness into this present moment can draw you out of and away from the ruminative thinking that pulls you down.

We also have an inner critic – that voice in our heads that criticizes ourselves, pulls ourselves down, thinks the worst and is usually very harsh and judgmental.  Through exercising mindful awareness of these patterns we can gradually begin to observe the first negative thought and watch it come and go out of awareness.  This means that we don’t have to engage with and be submerged under the stream of further negative thoughts that could have flowed from an initial thought.  The result is that we learn to be kinder to ourselves and dial down the inner critic.  We learn the wisdom of self compassion.

The Evidence base for the effectiveness of mindfulness is now very strong.  So much so that a recent Cross Parliamentary report published by a group of UK MPs recommends that the use of mindfulness be broadened and deepened to include health applications, educational applications, the workplace in general and the criminal justice system.  See link here.

6. How does one begin to learn Mindfulness?

Try out some of the meditations available at www.christianmindfulness.co.uk The Breathing Space Meditation only lasts 4 minutes and can be a fantastic tool to help ground your awareness in this present moment.  I also currently have 2 e books available.  See the website for more information.

7. What resources would you recommend to beginners?

At www.christianmindfulness.co.uk there is a Six Session Online Course available in Bronze, Silver or Gold packages; a menu of Advanced Meditations and a menu of Lectio Divina Meditations.  Browse the website and explore this fascinating and life changing resource.  My prayer is that you will be blessed and encouraged.

If you would like to read a more secular approach I would thoroughly recommend the book Mindfulness by Williams and Penman.

Richard H H Johnston, Director of Christian Mindfulness

Barry Pearman, Turning the Page, NZ

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