Mindfulness with a Christian Scaffolding
Mindfulness within the Christian perspective is about not forgetting the things of God but remembering them. We can say this for a number of reasons. The Buddhist Pali word ‘sati’, often translated 'mindfulness', has at its root 'remembering'. So does the New Testament Greek word mneme, which can be translated as 'being mindful'.
In Psalm 8:4 the psalmist says, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ In the Greek Septuagint version the word used is mimneske – to be mindful of, to actively remember. There is a high level of personal involvement in the remembering – that is mindfulness, the involvement of our awareness and attention.
James points out the danger of forgetfulness and the importance of remembering:Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it – he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25). James is talking about actively remembering here.
Jesus also puts remembering at the heart of being a mindful disciple: ‘Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?’ (Mark 8:17-18)
The Greek word here is mnemoneute – to be mindful of, to enduringly remember. Why is this important? It is important because mindfulness is a universal human capacity and can be given a different scaffolding to support it, depending on your point of view.
For example, mindfulness can be secular, Buddhist or Christian. Richard Burnett has written an excellent, well-researched, erudite and thought-provoking thesis called 'Mindfulness in schools: learning lessons from the adults – secular and Buddhist', which (see link below) explores, for example, what scaffolding might be appropriate for mindfulness in schools.
Mindfulness can be used in different settings because it is a universal human capacity for awareness and attention in the present-moment and must be distinguished from the meditative or mindful awareness practices that lead to this mode of awareness. In an important note on page 6 of his thesis, Burnett says, 'There is nothing "Buddhist" about being mindful and paying attention to the present moment. Kabat-Zinn compares this to calling gravity "British" because it was discovered by Newton.'
Mindfulness has a historical presence in Buddhism and Christianity, and in secular psychology there has also been a long focus on awareness, attention and the regulation of emotions. In other words, people came across the capacity for mindfulness within different contexts, and originally these contexts were religious.
Burnett argues, quite rightly, that mindfulness in schools does not have the same objective as clinical psychology, because 'in a classroom context we are not treating specific pathologies' (p.24). Nor can it be introduced as a spiritual practice, 'as a classroom is not the place for religious instruction' (p.24). It can be used more generally to promote the key attitudes found in the National Framework for religious education of 'self-awareness, respect for all, open-mindedness and appreciation and wonder' (p.27).
It then requires what has been called an 'informational context' (Feldman), or a 'framework of understanding' (Teasdale) or what Kabat-Zinn calls 'scaffolding' (p.28). Buddhist mindfulness is set within an ancient and complex scaffolding (p.28). Helpfully, Burnett argues that 'The scaffolding in clinical mindfulness may be much smaller, but is very well constructed and arguably more effective in the treatment of specific conditions' (p.29). The scaffolding for each specific condition will be slightly different.
So the question is, what might mindfulness look like with a Christian scaffolding? As I have argued above, the central part of that scaffolding is about remembering and avoiding forgetfulness.
The importance of remembering and fleeing forgetfulness is also a central idea in Christian Benedictine spirituality. That is the scaffolding in which I would like to place mindfulness for this article. Patrick Barry’s Ampleforth translation of The Rule of St Benedict (1997) says this: ‘The first step of humility is to cherish at all times the sense of awe with which we should turn to God. It should drive forgetfulness away; it should keep our minds alive to all God’s commandments.’ (RB 7:10-11, italics added) In another translation by Christopher Fry the disciple should ‘constantly remember’ God’s commandments (RB 1980, 7:10-11, p.33).
When I first read this central step of humility – which is mature self-awareness – I immediately thought of its connection to mindfulness. As I researched it further on a retreat just this week I came across this comment by Columba Stewart OSB in Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition:
Humility, the central monastic virtue, begins in ‘fear of the Lord’, which simply means acknowledging the divine omnipresence and acting accordingly. The corresponding vice is forgetting that one stands before God. One must ‘flee forgetfulness and always be mindful of what God has commanded’. (RB 7:10-11, p.28).
He calls this ‘mindfulness of the presence of God’ (p.28). This is something I have been exploring for about seven years, from a different perspective, and have written about in A Book of Sparks: a Study in Christian MindFullness. So at the heart of the Christian scaffolding for mindfulness within a Benedictine understanding is an awareness of the presence of God and remembering to translate into action what God wants us to do.
Why have I chosen Benedictine spirituality as an example? I have been called a ‘Benedictine Baptist’ by one of the monks at Worth Abbey, Father Patrick. I would agree with that. The central vows of a Benedictine way of life seem to me to be at the heart of what it means to live out the Gospel in the kingdom of God, through prayer and community.
The particular take on these vows I want to outline below is a summary of how I try to live in the world, as a minister, a married man, a father and a friend, with the help of this wisdom.
At the heart would be the realisation that to be an aware, attentive and mindful person is central to that calling.The first vow is one of stability, and at the heart of this is the Gospel idea of persevering. Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel, ‘but he who stands firm to the end will be saved’ (Mark 13:13). This is about staying with one community and one place, and that is what I am trying to do in my ministry.
What it means as a piece of scaffolding on which to build your life is that you stop looking to other places or other people, or to a future time where you imagine the grass might be greener. You have to focus on the present moment, where you are now, which is a central idea of mindfulness – living in present-moment awareness.
Jesus tells us to have stability in our watchfulness, our attentiveness to the kingdom of God: ‘What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch!’ (Mark 13:37).
The second key piece of scaffolding is the vow of conversation morum, often translated as ‘conversion of life.’ Its meaning is much debated, but I am applying it in a particular way. Another way it can be translated is as fidelity to the monastic way of life. Thomas Merton, a Benedictine monk, says that Mark 8:34-38, which is about taking up your cross and following Christ, is at the heart of this vow. It is about a life ‘which renounces care according to the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount in order to fix all the love and attention of the heart on Christ alone.’
For me, this vow is about fixing all my love, attention and awareness on Christ and mindfully following in his footsteps. I see it as fidelity to a mindfully Christian way of life. As one of the mindfulness experts apparently said, mindfulness itself is not difficult – it is remembering to be mindful that is difficult.
Then you might say, ‘Yes, but what does that look like?’ Here we come to the last vow – that of listening obedience. This is the final piece of scaffolding. Jesus tells us that the good soil in the parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-9 is the attentive listener. A key part of Christian mindfulness is to attentively listen to the Word of God and to the living Word, Christ himself. What emerges in this is a new mind, the Greek word metanoiete, sometimes translated ‘repentance’ (Mark 1:15). We are to leave behind our old habitual ways of thinking, shaped in the patterns of this world, and allow the strange newness of the kingdom to emerge.
What emerges is not habitual, rule-bound patterns of thought and behaviour but an inner freedom that swims in the dynamic love of God for the world and its peoples. Each small fresh experience of stability, of attentiveness, of awareness, of listening obedience lays down the way of life that is life in all its fullness.
Shaun Lambert is the Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church and the author of 'A Book of Sparks – A Study in Christian MindFullness'.
A Book of Sparks is a 40 day devotional book that invites us to track the story of Jesus from beginning to end in a new way, learning to pay attention wherever we are.