Mindfulness essentially describes a state of pure awareness, fully immersed in the present moment. Mindfulness has been developed as a discipline by Buddhists over centuries, and has also become a school in secular psychology, being widely taught as a means of stress reduction. 'Secular mindfulness' owes its roots to Buddhism, but has had the spiritual terminology and philosophical framework pruned out.
Christianity too has its own parallel tradition of mindfulness, but it is called ‘recollection’. In his book The Virgin Eye, Robin defines recollection as follows: ‘Recollection is far more than recalling the mind to God the ever-present. Recollection is also a mobilising of all faculties and resources, readying the body and centring the heart in Him; or – seen differently – sensing Him in the heart’s centre'.
What or Who are we mindful of?
There are certain aspects that are shared across traditions due to our common human heritage. There isn’t, for instance, a Buddhist and a Christian way of eating your breakfast, you’re just eating your breakfast – more or less attentively. However there are some differences. The question hinges around what or Who are we mindful of? To return to the example of eating one’s breakfast the Christian for instance would aim to be mindful of, and grateful to the Creator who has provided it. Those committed to this path hope to develop a state of perpetual remembrance of God, continuous awareness of His presence, and constant gratitude for all His gifts. When we are out walking and become particularly aware of the beauty of the created world, we are reminded of the One who created it.
A Christian doing some manual labour – sewing or mowing the lawn, or washing up – can learn to do the work carefully and attentively as an offering to God. Robin recommends a little arrow prayer to consecrate all your activity to Him: ‘While filing and writing, digging and sawing, sewing and cooking and baking, say ‘This is for you, O God.’ In this way sweeping, clearing your in-tray or doing the children’s washing can all become acts of prayer.
This sort of awareness and transformation is a lifelong journey, rather than a state or plateau which can be attained. The saints remain more than ever aware of their inadequacies and the great distance between our great frailty and God's tremendous holiness.
Focus of attention
The contemplative traditions from all the world’s religions share the insight that when we try to still the mind in prayer it babbles and chatters away over trivial and often negative subjects. Cyprian Smith OSB likens it to a photocopier stuck in one mode churning out random pages of irrelevance. It is a shared insight that to give the mind a single point of focus trains us in disciplining our thoughts and turning our attention to one thing.
A difference between the different religions would be the object, or we would say Person, of focus. Whereas a Buddhist is taught to tune into the breath, or the various sensations of the body, for the Christian prayer is a profoundly relational experience. And it is no more to be summed up in a technique than a happily married couple would promote a technique for loving or communicating with one another. It is a coming into the presence of a God who loves us and trying to keep our thoughts returning to Him. This difference is rather a key one and anyone reading this would be well advised to steer well clear of any technique or activity that aims to blank or completely clear the mind without any focus on God. As one priest said to me: ‘When God is out Nick is in’. If we are only attending to our breath or our body (over and above this being a helpful prequel to prayer, or a way of briefly recentering during the day), where is the focus? Is it on self? Much better to turn to Him. If this were to become our main practice (taking for instance two half hour periods a day) - it is easy to see how prayer could be squeezed out.
Self or no self?
A further difference is the subject engaging in mindfulness. The state of dispassionate observing commended by the Buddhist tradition is intended to lead the practitioner to an awareness that the self is an illusion. The Christian has a different belief about the ‘self’, and would tend to find themselves becoming increasingly aware of their dignity as a child of God, beloved by Him.
A further difference is the role of grace. Whereas most Eastern religions would advise that when you notice your attention has wandered you gently bring it back to task, the Christian would agree that this is the need, and that an act of will is required to achieve it – but we also call upon the extra element of grace. We know that there are times when we are simply done for, we can’t do it. In such moments – like St Therese of Lisieux - we can lift up our arms with the trusting attitude of a child and ask God to pick us up and lift us to a place of safety through His strength and grace in a way we can never by ourselves achieve.
There is much to be gained by becoming more aware of the inner movements of our mental life – observing our thoughts, and reactions, our unconscious desires, and our distorted motivations. A non-judgmental disposition towards others is always helpful. Exercised towards ourselves this non-judging will help us not to get too tense, and will prevent us giving distractions too much energy. Nevertheless it is clear certain habits and tendencies do need to be firmly renounced (without guilt-tripping), not accepted with equanimity, and that this is only possible by trusting in and calling upon His grace.
Fostering a quality of attentiveness to the daily tasks around us will also help us do things well and infuse them with a spirit of prayer. Let each task be done in a spirit of consecration to God (‘for You, Lord’), and of constant praise and thanksgiving to Him. This attitude is simply explained by Brother Lawrence in a short book, The Practice of the Presence of God. Times of focussed dedicated prayer facilitate this journey towards ‘life as prayer’. During such periods, take a prayer hallowed by long tradition, such as the Jesus Prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner’ or simply the name ‘Jesus’, or a line from the Psalms, and repeat it with awe and affection. Or as St Teresa of Avila recommended remind yourself that Jesus is present and remain in the company of this great friend. Through these quiet moments of basking in Him, it is to be hoped that this awareness will be generalised into daily life. May we one day come to realise like the great St Teresa herself that ‘God is there amidst the pots and the pans’.
Robin’s chapter has more particular illustrations of fostering a more mindful approach when eating, walking, breathing, speaking on the phone and doing daily tasks. To learn more click here to get your free chapter from his book The Virgin Eye: Towards a Contemplative View of Life or click here to buy a copy of the book. People who try to pick and mix or combine the different religions tend to get into difficulties. We would advise anyone who desires to dwell more in the present moment with ever purer attention to return to the spiritual classics of the Christian heritage: the works of St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence, St Francis de Sales, and The Cloud of Unknowing, de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer and School of Prayer or for the brave Francisco de Osuna's Third Spiritual Alphabet, or the letters of Abbot Chapman.
You don't need to go on special courses or learn particular techniques, just make time daily - or twice daily - for quiet prayer time, and then try to expand this spirit of dialogue with God and self offering through all your activities. Slowing down, making sure your life is pure, walking simply for the sake of walking, paying attention to the task in hand, reducing stimuli, trying to remember to thank Him as much as possible, and being in the company of those who pray and/or do manual labour are more likely to help you than attempting to pick and mix from different religions, and be rather discerning about the raw ideas behind psychology courses on Mindfulness.
Share this Page