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It’s Not Christian Mindfulness


In discussions about mindfulness where I bring in the Christian traditions of deep prayer, contemplation, and meditation, I regularly receive responses akin to: “Yes, they are all aiming for the same thing.” And soon, the other person will proceed with what they see as the aim of both the Christian and their practice of mindfulness – usually it is something like “peace”.

Well I strongly disagree.

Read my lips: The aim of Christian practices and disciplines of deep prayer (including terms such as “contemplation” and “meditation”) is growth into union with God.

Some of the effects of Christian practices and disciplines of deep prayer may (or may not) be peace, joy, etc. But these are not the goal.

The goal of schools requiring mindfulness practices of its students may be to improve concentration and hence learning and grades. The goal of businesses practicing mindfulness may be to increase productivity. A golfer may practice mindfulness to improve his/her game. Etc. Scientific studies focus on the effects of mindfulness.

Christian traditions of deep prayer, contemplation, and meditation (call them “Christian mindfulness” if you will) may use the same practices as other disciplines of mindfulness, but the intention in using them is different.

The effects of mindfulness practices (that do not have the same intention as the Christian disciplines) may result in growth into union with God.

The various distinctions are important.

What do you think?

This post follows a previous post on “Christian mindfulness“, pointing to different disciplines of deep prayer:
Silent Prayer
Lectio Divina
The Examen of St Ignatius
Daily Prayer

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20 thoughts on “It’s Not Christian Mindfulness”

  1. Hi Bosco

    I think the word Mindfulness is just in vogue at the present time. I do think it’s generic practice is aimed at stress reduction and brain benefits; and its origins are Buddhist.

    And yes, I would say Christian contemplation and meditation are different simply because they have a goal other than peace of mind, which indeed is to draw closer to God.


  2. Kia ora Bosco,
    Can I say how much I’m enjoying this series of posts, and linking back to your ones on contemplative leadership as well. Thanks. Just on this issue of ‘Christian mindfulness.’ I agree that intention is significant. It also makes a difference to ask whether the person meditating is positing an ‘Other’ which is beyond as well as within them in their practice. Mindfulness doesn’t, as far as I’m aware, invite this sense of being accompanied or ‘met’ within the practice, and not all Christian practitioners would go there either.

    The problem that I see with grouping all forms of silent prayer under the ‘mindfulness’ banner is that it elides the nuances between the different forms of prayer themselves. Christian meditation, being mantra based, has an element of focused attention that is different than, say, Centering Prayer which is a ‘surrender’ practice – based in the heart (by which I do not mean the seat of emotions) and is therefore less focused and some would say more diffused or open as a practice. Mindfulness is an attention practice that notices and observes, as well as letting go. It’s a different sort of training entirely. It’s the same muddle that we get into when we assume that all Buddhist meditation practices are essentially the same. Not something I’m qualified to comment on but I am aware that there are many strands with varying effects and intents.

    I read a fascinating article a while back cautioning about our culture’s current attachment to mindfulness as something divorced from its ethical source in Buddhist religion. It gave me pause for thought. But that’s a whole other story.

    Sorry for making my first comment on your site such a lengthy one!!

    1. Thanks, Brenda. I would have liked your comment to be longer – not shorter! I would love you to unpack your thoughts further. I think you are making some really important points – I’m personally interested especially in your distinction between “Christian Meditation” and “Centering Prayer”. I’m not so sure about your “entirely” 🙂 Your point about differences within Buddhism is significant – I’ve had experience in a variety of Buddhist traditions, personally, as I’ve indicated, learning most from the Theravada Forest tradition. I may reflect further about your point about ripping the practice from the philosophical context, and may write about that in a future post. Blessings.

  3. This little series on mindfulness is extremely helpful, Bosco, for the clarity it brings to the discussion. Would you be willing, as a help to folk like me who have never thought these things through rigorously, to attempt a further clarification?

    You mention in this post that the goal, the intention, of Christian meditative/contemplative practices is “growth into union with God”, rather than some temporal or material objective. Amen.

    But I assume that many other religions have contemplative practices with an identical aim. As a graduate student, I was employed as a secretary taking dictation from an aged authority on medieval Persian Sufi literature, and I remember him quoting a story (from Rumi? Shabistari?) vaguely along the following lines, about a pilgrim who comes knocking at the gate of the Beloved (God), and a voice comes from within:

    [God]: “Who is there?”
    [Pilgrim]: “It is I. I have come from far to be one with you.”
    [God]: “I do not know you. Go away.”

    Years pass, and the pilgrim returns to the gate.

    [God]: “Who is there?”
    [Pilgrim]: “There is no one here. There is only Thyself.”
    [God]: “Come in, my beloved!”

    Rowan Williams once preached a sermon entitled “Is there a Christian sexual ethics?” The point of the sermon was to go beyond arguments from natural law or phenomenology and ask what Christianity had to say distinctively about the morality of sex. And of course, Williams found it in the imagery of the union of Christ with his Church, and the complete self-giving implied in that image.

    So I might ask, following on from your title, Bosco, “Is there a *Christian* union with God to which practices of mindfulness are directed?”

    The response might be as simple as “Yes, in the sense that the God with whom we grow into union is the Christian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But surely the path to that union is also distinctly “Christian,” in the sense that for Christians union with God is made possible by the Incarnation, and made operative by the gift of the Holy Spirit, which draws us into the life of Christ?

    What I’m driving at is this: is the authenticity of a “Christian” mindfulness best judged by its correspondence, mutatis mutandis, to the stigmata of St Francis?

    1. Yes… to all that… I think, Jesse…

      Yes, other religions might also see their practice as leading to divine union, and there’s already, in the comments, helpfully, pointers to the western (unhelpful?) tendency to rip practice out of the religious context.

      Yes, I would understand Christian contemplative practice and discipline within (particularly) theosis – the divinisation effected by God through creation-incarnation-resurrection… but I would stress (as I’ve begun to suggest in the post) that this theosis is not limited to those who profess Christian faith.

      Are we on the same page… in the same chapter… same book?


  4. If ‘mindfulness’ is a vogue usage, that’s OK. The proviso for a Christian is surely that it brings him or her closer to God. If it is simply for the betterment of the human condition in gaining some ‘thing’ else – then perhaps it’s not so good. Words in vogue by nature come and go – not so long ago the term Christian Contemplation was frowned upon. When I was a young man, to go to ‘meditation sessions’ was thought of as mad – even some priests, (Catholic and Anglican), decided it was the work of the devil – superstitious! And those of us who went the way of Christian Zen – phew, off the planet, in more ways than one.

  5. Interesting article. Mindfulness relates to development of awareness. And this awareness can encompass the whole of life, including relationship with God. All life is gift from God. Body, soul and spirit; relationship with others, relationship with God. According to John Calvin self awareness is vitally important for a growing relationship with God. It’s possible to practice mindfulness as a Christian in a way that honours God, seeks union with Christ AND promotes mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

    See http://www.christianmindfulness.co.uk for an online course which has been endorsed by Christian professors, psychologists, psychiatrists, theologians, church leaders, etc.

  6. Here are a variety of possible intentions for why you may practice Christian Mindfulness of body, soul and spirit – seeking to grow in awareness of self, others and God –

    Union with Christ
    Mental & Emotional wellbeing
    Overcome depression/anxiety
    Manage physical pain
    Grow in the fruit of the Spirit
    Intimacy with God
    Avoid unnecessary suffering
    Enjoyment of the gift of this present moment
    Increase self-compassion and compassion towards others
    Experience the presence and peace of God
    Reduce judgementalism towards self and others.

  7. I assume your pronouncement is coming excathedra and is an article of faith that mindfulness is limited to your conclusion. Being, thus a schismatic, I hold a much broader view.

    1. Those who depart from articles of faith, Mike, are not schismatics but heretics 🙂 As I said, “What do you think?” – would you like to tell us about your “much broader view”? Blessings.

  8. Through awareness, mindfulness, I begin to see myself as I actually am, the sum of myself. Being watchful from moment to moment of my thoughts, feelings, reactions, unconscious as well as conscious, my mind is, hopefully, constantly discovering the significance of my activities, which is self-knowledge. Whereas if my understanding is merely accumulative, then that accumulation becomes a conditioning which prevents further understanding.

  9. I find it helpful to make a distinction between mindfulness as awareness as Graham-Michoel describes it, which ultimately leads to self-knowledge as he suggests, and meditation as beholding, or inhabiting the ‘deep mind’ which ultimately leads to self-forgetting (as in the Sufi dialogue that Jesse offered.) Both of these are important and worth pursuing within the full spectrum of Christian prayer, but they are not the same.

    There is a paradox of self and no-self that lies at the heart of this, and we’re often likely to slide more to one side or the other. Again, no bad thing, but it’s helpful to know where we sit at any one time…or in any one sitting!

    In exploring this stuff I’ve found a talk by English contemplative Maggie Ross to be very helpful. She gave it in Manchester in May 2012 and it’s called ‘Behold not the cloud of experience.’ She’s put it on her blog ‘Voice in the Wildnerness’ in instalments. In it she defines contemplation as profoundly non self-referential, which would exclude mindfulness from the definition. Again, I don’t mean to diminish mindfulness in any way, I just like clarity of terms.

    Bosco – here is the article I was referring to about mindfulness and ethics: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ron-purser/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289.html

    My comments about the distinction between Christian Meditation (the John Main/Lawrence Freeman tradition) and Centering Prayer come out of my reading of Cynthia Bourgeault’s work on the subject, and also from talking with friends who have changed from one of these practices to the other and found quite different effects. To some extent I think the differences have to do with personality/inner wiring, as much as effects inherent to the practices themselves. But my own experience is limited so I wouldn’t want to pronounce too firmly!

    1. Thanks, Brenda. There’s a lot in your comment for me and for others here to go and explore further. I wouldn’t make to strong a divide between Christian Meditation and Centering Prayer – the former relies more on attention, the latter on intention, but the goal of each, I suggest, is moving beyond images, ideas, concepts… You may be right, one or other may fit better with different persons. Though I caution people from constantly changing methods – that merely results in deifying the discipline. Blessings.

  10. I do Centering Prayer, ala Fr. Thomas Keating.
    Every itch, twitch, vision, desire and thought are to be let go.
    In order to be prepared for God’s action within.

    No goal other than worshipful preparedness.
    The fruit may come or not.

    My framework…

    “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

  11. If you sit on the bank of a river after a storm, you see the stream going by, carrying a great deal of debris. Similarly, you have to watch the movement of yourself, following every thought, every feeling, every intention, every motive, just watch it. That watching is also listening; it is being aware with your eyes, with your ears, with your insight, of all the values that human beings have created, and by which you are conditioned, and it is only this state of total awareness that will end all seeking.

  12. Most Christians do not believe they have time to climb to the mountain top to commune with God. What we need to learn is the constant prayer, the I-just-deleted-the-report-the-boss-is-demanding prayer. That woman is hot, what are here needs as a fellow human? I am tired, hot, dirty, hungry and you want what?
    If I am not in touch with God at all times, if I do not take Him everywhere I go (I know He is there, it is my mind that has to think that way) then I will get into even more trouble.
    When God speaks, I may be in the middle of a disaster, but I must be able to hear the whisper.

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