Mindfulness is in.

And in conversations about mindfulness, people are very quick to point to the scientific information. And if they talk about the history of practices at all, they normally refer to Hinduism and Buddhism. Many, many Westerners are very comfortable talking about their chakras, mantras, chi, the dantien, and so forth. Talk about Western, Christian meditation and contemplation disciplines, however, and many/most will have no idea what is being referred to – the practices of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Jesus Prayer, the Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Cross, apophatic,…

I’ve already argued that it is the fault of us Christians that we have not made our own community, let alone those beyond our community, aware of our meditation tradition

I suspect that for many, this fascination with things Eastern, and the eschewing of Western/Christian heritage, comes with an infatuation with Hinduism and/or Buddhism that ignores their shadow side: caste systems, the karma of poverty being your own fault from a previous life, etc – these are all obliterated in the Westerner’s captivation by the photograph of a peaceful monk or sadhu in the lotus posture in the setting sun.

Or let me press this a little more: the same disciplines found in Hinduism and Buddhism, which I stressed were there also in Christianity, are to be found in Islam. Let’s see some American companies, quite happy to mention Buddhism and Hinduism, let’s see them saying that they are drawing the disciplines, that they encourage their employees to practice, from Islam…

In this era of the popularity of the refrain “spiritual but not religious”, we are here asking questions like: Can mindfulness ever free itself from its religious roots? Is mindfulness better practiced within the religious framework in which it evolved?

As part of that we may need to debate what is meant by “religion”. One of the suspicions that I have is that the term “religion” is actually a colonial concept. (Western) Christians went to other cultures and asked, “what functions in this society in a similar way that Christianity functions in Europe?” Buddhism met that criteria in Thailand, Hinduism did that in Bali. But maybe Buddhism is not at all answering the same question that Christianity is answering. Christianity answers a question about god – Buddhism, at least the Theravada version, seems very unconcerned about the god question. Hence I am cautious about piling Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity into the same “religion” bucket as is too quickly done.

The questions continue: How do Buddhists, as just one example, actually react to Westerners ripping their practices out of their total Buddhist context? Buddhists – do reply. My suspicion is that there is not one, single, unified answer to this question by all Buddhists.

Mindfulness – consisting of right thought, right awareness, and right concentration – these are three of Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path. And that path is a response to the Four Noble Truths, which are founded on the Three Signs of Being – dukkha, anicca, anatta. Are Westerners who use and teach Buddhist-originating mindfulness practices buying into this undergirding Buddhist philosophical foundation? Can the practices be removed from those foundations? If so, what are the philosophical foundations onto which they are being transplanted?

It seems to me that many contemporary Western post-Christians want to denigrate the West’s Christian philosophical foundations, and yet they are uncritical of the philosophical underpinning of what they espouse instead.

There is also a trend, amongst Western post-Christians, of plundering the Christian cupboard of its symbols, rituals, concepts, and practices. If you are going to be an authentic, secular, Western post-Christian, go and find your own symbols, rituals, concepts, and practices! Don’t vitiate Christian ones. The bones and ligaments of Christian symbolism and practices rest on a consistent spine of understanding of the nature of reality. That we humans have a hunger for these is an argument for the truth of that understanding. It does nothing to buoy commitment to secularism if it parodies Christian symbolism, rituals, practices, concepts, and ethical frameworks. Go and find your own approach. And many Buddhists, Hindus, [and Muslims] may think the same.

Just as I do not think Christian life is complete without growing into contemplative life, and I encourage Christians to renew our contemplative focus, so I think much is lost in attempting to rip Christian contemplative life out of the context of growth in the rest of one’s life.

Whilst affirming all that is scientifically demonstrated about mindfulness, and encouraging people who find this helpful, practicing mindfulness will not, of necessity, make you a more moral person. In Buddhist terms, mindfulness belongs with the other eight which include right speech, right action, right livelihood. CEOs who practice mindfulness, for example, may still mistreat their employees, and run grossly unethical, exploitative companies, they may just do so more efficiently than those who don’t practice mindfulness. And they may do it with scientifically-verifiable peace of mind.

What do you think?

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