OPINION | Michael Jensen
Thursday 17 September 2015
About six weeks ago, I broke my foot. It hurts. A lot. Still. How did I break it? I thought you’d never ask.
I was having that quintessentially twenty-first century experience: trying to manoeuvre my unnecessarily oversized car around a shopping centre car park with shopping, kids and spouse on board. And I scraped it on a bollard – or rather, I scraped it, and then in an attempt to correct the angle of my reverse, scraped it again.
The sound was horrendous. And all I could think of was the waste of money that this meant. Before I knew it, I had got out of the car, and aimed an almighty kick at the bollard.
What was I thinking? A steel and concrete bollard is designed to withstand a two-ton SUV. My feeble whack with bone, skin and Converse trainer was only ever going to damage one of us, and it wasn’t the bollard. I can hardly believe that I was so stupid. Why was I unable to act more … mindfully?
I am sharing this none-too-flattering incident because it seems like a very typical tale of contemporary life in a modern city. We are wound-up, over-stretched, anxious. All our activity is frenetic. As a pastor, I would say that chronic anxiety is almost a basic condition for contemporary living. Depression is endemic. Even people who would not say they have a mental illness as such would be able to tell stories like my own.
No doubt because of these conditions, I am meeting a lot of people who are talking about a psychological technique called “Mindfulness”, and the way it has helped them gain control and thrive in the midst of an anxious world. A friend with depression has found it immensely valuable. Another friend who lost her mother at the beginning of this year talks of how it has helped her recognise and manage her grief. A third person said “it was a useful tool I was taught … when I had a break down when my son was 8. It taught me to recognise what my body did when I was anxious and at times depressed.” Another uses a three-minute session of mindfulness each morning to prepare himself for the day.
Each of these people is an active Christian.
So what is this practice? Mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, but has been adopted and adapted by Western therapists for use in clinical treatment. It has then also been used by individuals, and now by companies and schools, as a way of managing everyday stress. That is to say: Mindfulness has been used to treat people we might regard as having a mental illness, but then is also used as life management technique by those who aren’t.
Its tenets are quite simple. Mindfulness is described by one of its leading proponents, Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, as “paying attention in a particular way on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” That means pausing, noticing how what your body is feeling and simply taking it in. It is taking in the big picture, rather than getting swamped in the immediate. It encourages you to become an observer of yourself and to quieten that all-pervasive voice of self-condemnation or of impulsive desire. The “non-judgmental” part of Mindfulness is designed to help us to stand back from our immediate emotional reactions, rather than have them overwhelm us.
A person might practice Mindfulness by setting aside a few minutes a day at a set time and/or by trying to be mindful in the thickets of everyday life.
At that level, it is quite clear from most of the literature I have read and from Mindfulness practitioners I have spoken with that Mindfulness is not “religious” as such, despite its origins. It is best viewed as a technique rather than a philosophy with any particular claims about the world. Anglican minister from Perth, Rev. Kanishka Raffel, who grew up in Sri Lankan Buddhism, told me this:
“The discipline of awareness is a common grace that I learnt as a Buddhist. It is related but not identical to the spiritual fruit of self-control. But in Buddhism it serves the purpose of detachment, especially from emotional states, while in Christ mindfulness/meditation leads us outward to thanks, joy, prayer and deeper communion with the Lord.”
That is to say, the practice of mindfulness no more involves you in Buddhism than being an Olympic athlete involves you in Greek paganism. It is a discovery about the way we as human creatures work that can be of great benefit to us – and even of great benefit to Christians in their Christian walk if they allow it to be. It is just a piece of wisdom, just like the wisdom that going to the gym is good for you or smoking is bad for you.
Having said that, Mindfulness has in my experience proved for some people to be an “entry drug” for Buddhism.
Now, my aim in this article is not to provide an extensive Christian evaluation of Mindfulness. My expertise is far too limited for that, and others have done this elsewhere, as a quick session with Google will show. I am simply an interested bystander and a pastor who is thus perhaps more aware of people’s ongoing anxieties than most.
Rather: the rising popularity of Mindfulness has prompted two lines of thought in me. One is this: that the New Testament has some strong statements about worry and anxiety. Jesus tells us “do not worry about your life”, in the Sermon on the Mount. And Paul in Philippians 4:6 writes: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Of course, there’s nothing more likely to make an anxious person more anxious than telling them not to worry! But both Paul and Jesus are not telling us that we should just try not to be anxious. They are telling us that the gospel gives to us a perspective that, if we understand it at depth, gives us good reason to be assured and confident. It is a view of the world that begins with a loving and just God, in whom and with whom we can find rest and security, and who wants us to flourish.
But we know from experience that it is not enough to tell ourselves “don’t worry, God is in control.” Some of our anxiety stems from not believing this enough; but we have to remember that we are not simply minds, but bodies as well. The sources of our anxiety and depression and confusion can be external and physical, not simply because we have forgotten that God is in control. Sometimes my stress comes from a sinful and unbelieving mindset. But sometimes it just comes because I have failed to look after my body – I have eaten badly and forgotten to go the gym.
Kanishka’s words above are wise: as Christians we pursue self-control and not to be mastered by our bodies or by our emotions or by our bad patterns of thought. Many techniques which help us to do that are worth pursuing.
But the second line of thought is this: when we are dealing with our inner selves – our feelings and thoughts – there is, necessarily an intersection with our faith. And at one level, I am somewhat disappointed that Christians seeking to manage stress and anxiety haven’t always been aware of the riches that are there for them in the Christian traditional practices of meditating on Scripture and personal prayer. That is a failure not of individual Christians, by the way, but of our church culture. The practice of Lectio Divina (“divine reading”) was given particular emphasis by Benedict in the sixth century, but Protestant greats like John Calvin, the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter and the Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also advocated and practised reflective and prayerful meditation on Scripture. In the common evangelical parlance of my youth it was called the “quiet time”.
Christian meditation involves prayerfully engaging with the text of Scripture not as something to be studied for information but as the living word of God in Jesus Christ. Like Mindfulness, it involves becoming aware – but not just of the self, but of the presence of the almighty and most merciful God. Typically, the great instructors of Christian meditation have recommended the practice of reading and re-reading short passages of Scripture as ideal rather than immersing oneself in whole books or long sections. For me personally, I can say that knowing I am in the presence – and hearing the voice of – the God who loves me, and in whom is my past and my future, gives me great ease of mind and reassurance. God is with me, by his Spirit, because of Jesus Christ! Practising mindful awareness of the reality is of enormous practical help, day by day.
So let me take you, with regret and embarrassment, back to the carpark where I foolishly assaulted the bollard. A mindful awareness of what had been going on for me in the weeks leading up to that mind-snap could have made me aware that there had been several stressful circumstances placing pressure on me in combination. A simple ability to acknowledge that these stressors were going to affect me mentally and physically, and a clearer mind, might have given me pause. In the moment itself, an ability to catch my emotions and stand apart from them before I let fly would have been invaluable.
But a deeper, more consistent habit of standing in the grace of God, too, might also have prepared me for the crisis. In an instant, I forgot that cars and their scrapes really don’t matter a great deal; and that the feet I have been given by him to use are precious, and not for breaking against solid poles. Did he promise me that frustrations would not be part of this life? No. But he does promise me, that in Jesus Christ, everything will be OK, because they are in his hands. A life of more rich encounters with God may have prepared me better to handle the moment.
OPINION | Kaley Payne
In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot of people colouring in right now. Three adult colouring books are on the Amazon best-seller list. You can colour your way through a secret garden, through the world’s greatest cities and to the depths of the ocean.
And now you can colour Scripture too. Australian illustrator Lorien Atwood has published a book of Bible verses made just for colouring, called Meditations. She’s also started a Facebook group, “Colouring In Truth,” with over 4000 members.
The rise of the colouring craze has been tagged to a “Peter Pan market”, playing to an adult desire for childhood experiences, or part of an “analogue” trend to untangle our anxieties about the impact of a digital life.
One of the bestselling colouring books is The Mindfulness Colouring Book, anti-stress art therapy for busy people. The rise of colouring and an aspiration for “mindfulness” have found a timely co-existence.
Lorien Atwood’s book isn’t a mindfulness colouring book. She says it’s about meditation on God’s Word. But the principles behind colouring for mindfulness or for meditation seem very similar. Both are about capturing our attention.
Trying out the colouring craze, one New York Times writer said “Colouring required just enough attention to disrupt the obsessive loop playing in my mind. It wasn’t so much relaxation as immersion in something else.”
For Lorien, colouring in Bible verses is not just a way to de-stress, nor is it really for entertainment. “It’s Scripture. What’s around the edges is just extra. We dwell on the verse that we’re colouring, instead of fleetingly moving past Bible verses like we often do when faced with big chunks of text. There’s an opportunity to sit and concentrate.”
We’re all busy, says Lorien. But putting pencil to paper, is “a simple pleasure and joy that brings a slowness that people really seek.”
And, sometimes, new things – like colouring – can help us see truth more clearly.
“It’s not the drawings, but what God has written down that gives the power,” says Lorien. “People can just slow down while they colour in and let God’s Word do the healing and the restoring.”