22 December 2015
Mindfulness and me - should the Church bear the practice in mind?
Shaun Lambert is a Baptist minister based in Stanmore, London. A Book of Sparks, which has recently been published by Instant Apostle, is a devotional guide to exploring Christian mindfulness. He describes the practice as our God-given capacity for awareness and attention.
How did you get interested in the subject of mindfulness?
In 2006 I was working for the Church as well as studying secular counselling and psychotherapy and got to a point where I was very stressed, anxious, and close to burnout. In my studies I came across secular mindfulness, but I also came across a little book called The Jesus Prayer by an Anglican bishop, the Rt Revd Simon Barrington-Ward. It's an ancient Christian mindful or contemplative prayer that says: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner". As I researched it I found there was a lot of overlap between what pioneers of the Jesus Prayer and Christian contemplations like Lecto Divina were saying, and what secular psychologists were saying.
What I found, and this is the real challenge to the Church, is that there's been a big bang in the market place in terms of interest in mindfulness, but the Church and Christianity doesn't feature at all. Nobody knows that there are Christian distinctives on offer. It's like there's a revival out there on spiritual things in which the Church doesn't feature, even though we have a rich history of mindfulness.
What are the Christian distinctive in mindfulness?
Christian mindfulness is mindfulness of God, which is not seen in secular psychology or Buddhist thought. For Christians there are different intentions – secular mindfulness intends to go from, for example, depression to well-being, Christians intend to go from not being aware of God to coming into His presence
In Psalm 8 the Bible talks about God being "mindful" of us – the group of words in the Bible that can be translated as "mindful" is rooted in the word "remembering", God remembering us and caring and acting for us. And because made in his image, we are called to be mindful.
Why is mindfulness important today?
We have developed hyper-attention, where we are easily bored, easily distracted, and find it difficult to focus, which has a lot to do with our over-use of screens and online worlds. Mindfulness can be used to cultivate 'deep attention' - helping to repair deep attention and restoring the ability to pay deep attention to things.
It's really important to look at the world with deep attention. We live in a fear-based media-driven world, everything drives us back to fear, shuts down smart, rational, and clever thinking. Mindfulness enables us to shift out of a place of fear into a place of love, compassion and truth.
How does mindfulness help us move away from fear?
Neuroscience and brain imaging tell us that the brain responds to stress with flight, fight or freeze – we have a negativity bias in our brains, which means we're three to four times more sensitive to negative information. For example, we'll remember one insult over nine complements. Most of our thinking is negative and living in a fear culture means we easily bounce into place of fear or worry; the smart brain then switches off and people don't know how to switch it back on.
Mindfulness enables us to make the switch – Christian mindfulness fixes our minds on Bible passages like Philippians 4:8, helping us to think on things that are true, noble, lovely etc. Mindfulness encourages us to read the passage slowly, notice when the mind wanders and bring it back.
Tell us a bit more about your book, A Book of Sparks.
The book is designed as 40-day devotional, originally for Lent but it can be used at any time. It uses the book of Mark as a framework because the Jesus Prayer came out of passages in Mark, like Bartimaeus who called to Jesus from the road and said: "Son of David, have mercy on me". The Jesus Prayer was also designed to cultivate watchfulness, which is common in Mark.
The idea of the book is to help develop the 'muscle of attention', developing these capacities to increase our attention, becoming aware of God, other people, ourselves, where we need changing, and what God is doing. The aim is to move into a place where we can more regularly access the presence of God, listen to Him, hear what He wants to say to us, begin the transformation that is spoken of in Romans 12:2: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." The book helps us to see how we're conformed to the pattern of this world, and to begin the transformation of our mind through the work of the Word and the Spirit.
Some Christians might be wary of mindfulness as a practise, what's your response to their concerns?
I'm looking to make people well-informed about what mindfulness is, which is why I'm doing a PhD at the London School of Theology on secular mindfulness, mindfulness in Mark's gospel, and mindfulness of God in the monastic tradition. Although Buddhists and other faiths use mindfulness, and secular psychology has developed a secular version deliberately to bring in people who aren't religious, it's important to be clear about what mindfulness is: your capacity for attention and awareness.
It's used in secular psychology to move from worse to better psychological health, but the Christian distinctives of mindfulness of God, relational concern – thinking about others too – ethical concerns where mindfulness helps with good decisions are important.
How are you using mindfulness in your church?
Mindfulness is good for discipleship because it brings back transformation to a discipleship culture which has become heavy on information rather than transformation.
We run Mindful Church Café in Costa where we look at mindfulness and health, and mindfulness and God. For example, we've been looking at peace in relationships at Christmas and peace in parenting. We always get people from outside church because of their interest in spiritual issues and practises. Mark Vernon, a philosopher and journalist who isn't a Christian, says there's a spiritual revival in mindfulness and the Church should be involved, but isn't.
It also provides an opportunity for inter-faith dialogue. Harrow is most ethnically and religiously diverse borough in London but since all faiths have some form of mindfulness it is great point of contact between the faiths.
You can find out more about Shaun's work on his website here.