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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Mindfulness: the First Step of Humility

Three times every year we re-read RB 7, St Benedict’s sustained treatment of humility, and it never fails to strike me that the first quality he singles out is mindfulness — keeping the fear of God before one’s eyes at all times and never forgetting it; constantly keeping in mind all that God has commanded . . . recollecting that one is always seen by God in heaven . . . always saying in one’s heart, and so on and so forth (RB 7. 10–18). In Benedict’s monastery, there is neither opportunity nor excuse for forgetfulness. God is always and everywhere present, and that is the ground of our humility.

It certainly makes sense to me that constant awareness of God would preclude any pride or vanity, but isn’t it rather a strain to be always thinking of God and godly things, a little forced? I think that may be one reason why the Rule provides a whole way of life in which God is always at the centre. Everything in the monastery, from its layout to its contents, is intended to reinforce this awareness of God, but naturally and without effort. Already in this first degree or step of humility Benedict is looking towards the twelfth, when the monk or nun will ‘begin to observe without struggle, as though naturally and from habit, all those things which earlier he did not observe without dread.’ (RB 7. 68) Tellingly, the motivation he gives for this new way of acting is ‘no longer for fear of hell but for love of Christ and from good habit and delight in virtue.’ (RB7. 69) That is the goal of mindfulness, of humility in all its forms, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit. (RB7. 70)

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