Mindfulness: Learning all our Lives

Yesterday in the Guardian Suzanne Moore published an article critical of contemporary attitudes to mindfulness (see here). I agree with much of what she said, although as a Benedictine, I might argue that mindfulness is as much a Christian as Buddhist concept (cf RB7. 10–18). As always, the problem is managing the imbalance between expectation and the effort to be expended. In the West we want instant everything. The idea of growth — often slow, sometimes painful and uncertain — is more and more alien to us. Indeed, we often talk about growth when what we really mean is success, measured in predominantly economic terms. This spills over into the moral and spiritual sphere and often leads to discouragement. We want to be people of peace, for example, but as our desire for peace grows, so does our awareness of just how angry and unpeaceful we are. We consider ourselves failures because we are not what we set out to be, not realising that to become people of peace we must first plumb the depths of our own lack of peace.

The practice of mindfulness, which for a Christian must always be the practice of mindfulness of the presence of God, is not something we learn in a few hours or even a few years. It is a lifetime’s work, and it is not to be rushed or short-circuited in any way. People are sometimes amazed when I say that I had lived as a nun for eighteen years before I was allowed to give my first talk. There had been literally years of preparation: living the daily life of the cloister, with its regular round of prayer, work and study, before I said a word about it. That preparation was (and remains) essential. Beware the expert on monasticism who pontificates after only a brief submersion in its waters!

You may think it all very well for monastics to be proponents of slow growth and so on and so forth, but for those of us who live busy and time-poor lives it is a different matter. We need results! We need to calm mind and heart quickly and get to the centre of things. My answer would be that you are already at the centre of things, you don’t need to ‘get’ anywhere. What you may need to do is take your eyes off yourself, stop trying to measure your spiritual ‘success’ and simply enjoy, yes enjoy! the time you spend with the Lord, be it little or long. Preparing for prayer, being ready to give time to it, is important, but don’t worry about techniques or methods. No technique can substitute for a heart willing to learn and open to the love God is eager to pour into it.

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