More on Christian Meditation and Mindfulness
Having written previously about the similarities between Christian meditation and mindfulness – what they hold in common – I feel moved to complete the picture by saying something about what distinguishes them.
Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhism, exists in many forms and is practised in different ways. It has for example been taken up by the NHS to help support people who are emerging from episodes of depression and help prevent relapse. Others may seek to practise Mindfulness to achieve better mental clarity, to ease pressure in a stressful world, or to find a better balance in their lives.
The essence of the practice is awareness: awareness of the body, and awareness of the mind, which includes thoughts and emotional states. The practice may begin with a body scan: careful observation of each area of the physical body, not trying to fix anything but accepting the body (state) as it is. This leads to awareness of the endless succession of thoughts and feelings that are arising. Instead of reacting automatically to this ceaseless stream, mindfulness encourages an attitude of detached attention. There is a deliberate intention to remain observant and unengaged during the allotted time of the meditation. Sometimes this is described as ‘calm abiding’ or ‘choiceless awareness’. Mindfulness meditation, as popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn, can be practised independently of any faith or belief system or philosophy of life.
An attitude of mindfulness and the practice of attention in daily living are universal values, and have been held and practised in the contemplative traditions of both East and West. There are many forms of Christian meditation. They all presuppose a faith in a higher being, commonly called belief in God. This also allows for or implies a transcendent dimension of human consciousness. So without having to be able to define it, there is a sense of a spiritual realm beyond the dimensions of everyday reality.
In Christian meditation, as passed on in WCCM, the aim is to go beyond, to leave thoughts behind, ‘Do not think or imagine anything – spiritual or otherwise’, says John Main. The means to attain this end, through the repetition of a sacred word or phrase, is widely practised in many traditions. John Main quoting Cassian echoes the teaching of the desert father Abba Isaac that the mind ‘thus casts out and represses the rich and ample matter of all thoughts and restricts itself to the poverty of a single verse’.
The aim of mantra meditation is unitive, to leave self behind, as Jesus taught, and to become ‘One with the One who is One’ in the words of John Main. Thoughts, feelings, and images, are no longer the object of attention and are considered as distractions. The radical simplicity of Christian meditation as passed on by John Main reflects the radical simplicity of the Gospel. This radical self-emptying or kenosis is described by Paul in Philippians 2, ‘Let the same mind be in you as was in Christ Jesus. Though his state was divine He emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man...’
John Main develops this further. ‘The first step in this process of transcendence and union with God is made when we turn to prayer... It is a moment when we are confronted with the fact of our own existence and are challenged to accept the gift of it with utter generosity and simplicity... We have, in this moment of decision, to turn with a faith that allows us to turn away from everything. This is the abandonment, the letting go of prayer. It is casting out into the depth of God, as the ground of our being, and allowing ourselves to fall back into our source’.*
There is in our world today a great spiritual hunger, which derives from the loss of connection to the great spiritual traditions of humanity. There is a loss of connection to one’s own soul and inner life and loss of a sense of the sacred. Mental anguish and meaninglessness increase exponentially alongside the amazing advances in science and technology. However, spirituality and the archetypal are a classic resource for those who have suffered trauma or who have been failed or wounded at the personal level.
The contemplative practice of all the traditions is a place where all can come and wordlessly share and be present to the wonder of human life and of creation. Christian meditation, which derives from one of the great wisdom traditions of humanity, offers a place where a connection to soul can be made: it is open to all people who wish to come and share the silence and stillness of mind and body. There is the support and fellowship of a group dynamic which arises where two or three, or more, join regularly to share this gift and to support a daily practice in their lives.
Being centred, being present, and opening your heart to the deepest place within, where your spirit is one with the Spirit of God, the Cosmic spirit that fills the whole of creation: that is the practice of Christian meditation. Cassian emphasised the repetition of a simple ‘formula’ for prayer; but he also recognised the value of the contemplation of the created world: ‘He [God] is also to be known from the grandeur and beauty of His creatures’**.
Thomas Merton, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year, exemplified how integrated a life of spiritual contemplation could be with a wide awake sense of wonder and receptivity to the natural world. He communed with nature and in that he embraced both the created world and its creator – all the while being acutely aware of his own struggles and imperfection. He wrote: ‘At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us.’***
I am trying to indicate, in a very few words, how vast can be the scope of a practice of simplicity of attention. It includes and embraces mindfulness. And it can lead on to become a path of self-understanding – and thence to a vision of transcendence.
(I could say much more!)
*Silence and Stillness in Every Season ed. Paul Harris p. 263.
** The Blue Sapphire of the Mind – Douglas E. Christie p. 158
*** Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander – Thomas Merton p. 158 (Also)!
Shelagh Layet - January 2015