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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Hovering on the Brink

Tomorrow everything changes. We begin the last few days of Advent with a new Preface and the magnificent series of ‘O’ antiphons at Vespers which chart the final steps of our journey. (If you would like to read more about Advent and listen to the ‘O’ antiphons sung in Latin according to a traditional plainsong melody, with a brief explanation of the texts and references, see our main site, here.)

I think there can be no better meditation for today, no better preparation for the remaining days before Christmas,  than praying the Second Preface of Advent. It is ‘theology in a nutshell’; so, if you can, take the time to let the phrases sink in and do their work in you:

It is truly right and just,
our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father,
almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.

For all the oracles of the prophets foretold him,
the Virgin Mother longed for him with love beyond all telling,
John the Baptist sang of his coming
and proclaimed his presence when he came.

It is by his gift that already we rejoice at the mystery of his Nativity,
so that he may find us watchful in prayer
and exultant in his praise.

And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:

Holy, Holy, Holy . . .

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The Problem of Yoga

News that Fr John Chandler has banned yoga classes in his church hall has made the national headlines. On the one hand, we have Fr Chandler saying he banned the classes and refunded the booking fee when he learned that they were being billed as ‘spiritual yoga’ :

Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise. Being a Catholic church we have to promote the gospel, and that’s what we use our premises for.

We did say that yoga could not take place. It’s the fact that it’s a different religious practice going on in a Catholic church. It’s not compatible. We are not saying that yoga is bad or wrong.

On the other, we have Corrie Withell, who was intending to give the classes, saying

As a nation we have an obesity epidemic. I was trying to bring some exercise to the community and coming across blocks like this is frustrating.

In other words, we have the classic situation of two people addressing the same question from two completely different perspectives. Fr Chandler is arguing that yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice, and because Catholic premises are not supposed to be used for the practice of non-Christian religions, he has banned the classes from taking place. (Each priest is at liberty to decide for himself what he thinks appropriate, there is no national/international policy.) Ms Withell, by contrast, sees yoga as as a helpful exercise programme, not a religious activity at all. In this she has been supported by Ravindra Parmar, President of the Vedic Society Hindu Temple of Southampton. However, meditation is said by many to be an integral part of yoga, and that is where I suspect the heart of the problem lies.

Anyone who has been involved with the Dialogue InterMonastique (D.I.M.) knows that there is a lot of common ground between Christian, Buddhist and Hindu practices of meditation, but there are also some  important differences. Christianity is monotheistic, with belief in a God who is Person. Most Christians are rather hazy about the beliefs and teachings of other religions (and, quite often, about their own). One would hope that Fr Chandler is better informed than most, if only because the area where he serves is ethnically and culturally diverse. Whatever Ms Withell’s personal beliefs may or may not be, she may have misjudged the uneasiness felt by the priest with her use of the term ‘spiritual yoga’. Many people want to be spiritual without being religious and do not realise the dilemma they pose the religious!

Perhaps the most useful lesson we can learn from this particular dispute is the need to inform ourselves about the beliefs and practices of others, rather than simply assuming that we know. I am certainly not taking sides. Fr Chandler has highlighted for me the problem of how to be Catholic in a plural society, and Ms Withell has made me think again about how much religious knowledge we can take for granted.

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