Mindfulness for Mission: Towards a Theology

Christian Mindfulness: Theology and Practice

Peter Tyler

SCM Press 2018

Previous posts from me on Mindfulness:

Mindfulness For Mission

Mindfulness: the answer to our Missional Problem?

Mindfulness: a brief guide to some books from a Christian perspective

Mindfulness for Christians: Putting on the Wakeful One

 

Mindfulness brings people to faith in Jesus. Not everyone, perhaps not even many, but among those I have taught Mindfulness to are people who would not have dreamed of darkening a church door until they began the practice of Mindfulness. It does so because when people practice Mindfulness they experience:

Compassion

Connectedness

Abandonment

They are happier, calmer and more loving.

Christian Mindfulness: Theology and Practice by Peter Tyler, Professor of Pastoral Theology and Spirituality at St Mary’s University in Twickenham is an important book. It is not the book I had hoped it would be. That’s OK, it’s not my book. In many ways I wanted something much simpler. A book I could show people, lend people, and say, “See this proves that Mindfulness is Christian!” However, this book is so much more than that. It is also not a book on its own. Although each of them can be read separately it is part of a trilogy with:

Confession: The Healing of the Soul

Peter Tyler

A & C Black, 2017

and,

The Pursuit of the Soul: Psychoanalysis, Soul-making and the Christian tradition

Peter Tyler

Bloomsbury, 2016

*

In Mindfulness Tyler interestingly notes that he has spent most of his life teaching young adults. He comments on the existential crisis that often occurs at this stage. The thread running through the trilogy is the integration of the self. In Pursuit the question is what is the self? and Tyler surveys Plato, Augustine and early Christianity to answer that. But it is in the twentieth century return to the soul, especially in the work of James Hillman that he finds the greatest traction. In this book Thomas Merton and Rabindranth Tagore get their first mention alongside Wittgenstein.

This thread of self-hood is next examined in Confession which is very far from being a study of sacramental confession although it is that too and should be read by everyone who hears confessions and probably by many people that make use of this sacrament. It is a book about confession in its widest sense. Sacramental confession and all of us who are ‘confessors’, witnesses to our faith in the telling of our own lives. It is a book in that sense about ‘testimony’.

This is Tyler’s second Trilogy, the first included John of the Cross (2010), The Return to the Mystical: Ludwig Wittgenstein: Teresa of Avila and the Christian Mystical Tradition (2011), and Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul (2014). It was in the latter that Tyler introduced the idea that oración mental, the Spanish phrase used by Teresa, and many others, could be translated as ‘mindfulness’. This is a central premise of Christian Mindfulness (CM) and is further elaborated in the article in Buddhist Christian Studies (see below). In many ways CM is not, in fact, ‘a theology of mindfulness’, rather Tyler seeks to prove that mindfulness and oración mental are the same things, and since oración mental is very much part of the Christian tradition therefore mindfulness is fully Christian. Tyler spends some time making this point. For him, the traditional translation of oración mental as ‘mental prayer’ is insufficient because of the close connotations of ‘mental’ to rational thought. He shows that for Teresa, following in the Dionysian tradition, rational thought, cannot enable the soul to reach God (CM p.45) this point is well made and, to me, proved. However, there is still a problem with mindfulness as a term in that it, quite clearly, references, the ‘mind’. For this reason Tyler would prefer his own term ‘heartfulness‘. However, he admits defeat because of the popular acceptance of mindfulness in our culture. Referencing the heart is in many ways much closer to Christian tradition and in particular the Eastern Christian concept of the mind descending into the heart and so, for this reason, I would very much welcome Tyler’s vocabulary. It too has issues, given the emphasis on feelings in our culture ‘heartfulness’ could easily be interpreted as being simply about feelings and not the union or grounding of the mind in the heart that the tradition proposes.

I have two remaining reservations about ‘mindfulness’ as a term for oración mental. The first is that it feels anachronistic. Partly because it is impossible to hear the word without all the cultural associations (new age bookshops, incense sticks, gongs) jumping into our heads and partly because it is a modern invention, Tyler himself traces the word to 1881 in a translation of Buddhist writings where it is used for the Pali word sati. (The Wiki article on sati is very detailed and helpful here). I was surprised that mindfulness as sati goes back even that far. When I first began to practise what I now call mindfulness, in the early 1980s, it was through contact with Benedictine monks (mainly Fr Peter Bowe of Douai Abbey) and reading Thomas Merton. At that time ‘meditation’ was used for the practice rather than mindfulness and mindfulness has only become as pervasive as it now is in the last 10 to 20 years.

In the end debating the use of ‘mindfulness’ for oración mental is probably the debate between dynamic and formal equivalence in translation. ‘Mental Prayer’ is a deeply unfashionable term and unlikely to be able to be recovered easily.

When I introduced Mindfulness to my school as a Headteacher we thought long and hard about what we should call it, some schools have introduced it as a verb, ‘stilling’, we thought about ‘recollection’ which I like, and which Tyler refers to, I also thought about trying something completely unfamiliar like nepsis, the stream of ‘watchfulness’ in the Philokalic/neptic tradition, but was firmly shouted down by colleagues. In the end everyone knows the sort of thing that mindfulness is and it was impossible to avoid the cultural pressure to use it.

My second reservation about using the word mindfulness as a synonym for oración mental is probably the more substantial one. Is Mindfulness Christian? Is it prayer? Is it a gift from God, of grace? More on that later.

Having explained his use of the word Mindfulness Tyler makes an almost passing, but significant, comment  on oración mental  that “the prayer anticipates the wider democratic changes  of the Reformation that will overtake the Western church later in the sixteenth century – and even the resurgence in general interest in mindfulness practices in our own time.” There is much sneering at mindfulness from clergy and others in the church as just another ‘fad’. It seems to me that it is a complete failure of missionary spirit not to engage with and use the language of mindfulness in our work to bring people to Jesus.

A particular challenge to me in my own teaching of mindfulness is Tyler’s quite correct rejection of an explanation of mindfulness simply as ‘bare attention’. This is an explanation that is quite widely offered and one that I have come very close to myself in working with others. It is a simple explanation and therefore easy to use when introducing mindfulness. Tyler’s practices and his theology show how Mindfulness is and needs to be so much more than that.

In both trilogies Tyler engages a number of conversation partners. It is quite an array:

Pursuit

Plato, Origen, Plotinus, Augustine

Freud, Jung, Otto Rank, James Hillman

Wittgenstein, Tagore, Merton, Edith Stein

Confession

Desert fathers, Augustine, Tristan and Isolde,

Wittgenstein, Henri Le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananda), John of the Cross

Christian Mindfulness

The Desert Fathers – Evagrius, Gregory Nazianzen, Cassian, Origen,

Abbot Cisneros, Dionysius, Balma, Bernabé de Palma, Teresa of Avila

John of the Cross,

Thomas Merton

Rabindranath Tagore

 

The sheer number of these protagonists emphasises the importance of ‘self’ and what we understand by that in the work that Tyler is describing. This is not the same as ‘identity’ in the modern political sense but it is linked to it in the search for self-hood. In many ways the central book of the trilogy, Confession, is the pivot. I would like to write more about it and may do separately but for the purposes of this review the dual function of confession as horizontal-pyschological and vertical-transformative is significant. I could not help think about how much sin is an inability to find a stable self, a search to be someone else which can lead to infidelities of many kinds.

Tyler’s book on confession ought to be required reading for all who hear confessions and might encourage some who don’t use the sacrament currently to do so.

“True confession, becomes the encounter with the person we really are in the abyss of silence and fire that lies so close to the sources of human life … Confession is the means by which we are restored to our birthright – the abyss of love from which we were created.”

(pp 178-179)

Christian Mindfulness, is subtitled ‘theology and practice’. It is undoubtedly a practical book and each chapter ends with a spiritual practice for the reader to try:

  • Chapter 1 – sitting still for ten minutes
  • Chapter 2 – Body Scan
  • Chapter 3 – simple awareness of breathing
  • Chapter 4 – Prayer of the Name (repetition of a word or phrase)
  • Chapter 5 – One-pointed Heart Devotion: paying attention to the heart
  • Chapter 6 – The Bliss of the Lord: an exercise in passing through the seven Indian ‘chakras’

This is an interesting set of practices. In my own Mindfulness courses over 6 sessions I teach 4 which are non-religious/non-Christian and give people the option of staying on/coming to the final two which are on the Jesus Prayer and lectio divina using Scripture. The chakras material seems to me a little complex for people to use and needs a good deal of explanation. I introduce the concept of the mind moving into the heart early on the course and encourage those who can to sit on meditation cushions or prayer stools which in itself has a grounding/descending effect.

Perhaps this is where I would look for something different to the theological framework Tyler is suggesting? It seems to me that mindfulness is a natural phenomena, a human thing, a gift of God in creation, which can be practiced by any human being, Christian or otherwise. We know that is the case. It has a positive effect on people, they are calmer, suffer less stress, are happier and kinder when they practice Mindfulness regularly. What I also hear from people again and again is that they also experience a deeper sense of compassion and kindness and a sense of gratitude to something other than, something bigger than themselves. It is precisely these liminal points that can be a threshold to faith. That is why the Jesus Prayer and lectio are such powerful following sessions. Jesus, the compassionate one is there as a person for them to meet and lectio on Scripture, in particular on the gospels, gives them the raw material to know him and experience him and to respond with faith.

I am content if people come to Mindfulness classes just for relaxation and to improve their lives. Jesus healed people who didn’t become his disciples. But I think that is something different to a deep faith relationship with Jesus. Many Christians I meet tell me that they find prayer difficult, that they do not experience anything when they pray, have no sense of the presence of God. Mindfulness practice can help them relax in prayer, let go of over-expectation and experience the compassion which is at the heart of the universe God has made and that sense of gratitude which we feel when we meet God. The confusion between this dryness in prayer and notions of the ‘dark night of the soul’ are really very unfortunate. In an important passage Tyler makes the point that the division between apophatic/cataphatic via negativa/via positiva is not necessarily helpful:

“the via negativa .. is the one that is normally associated with St John of the Cross, because of his association with the phrase ‘dark night of the soul’. yet it would be a mistake, I would argue, to see his theology and approach to contemplation entirely dictated by this latter. In fact, he is often at pains to stress the need for both approaches if we are to have a healthy relationship with the Divine.”

(p.80)

It is important to remember that ‘dark night of the soul‘ is not a phrase John himself ever uses. I have long wondered how anyone who has read John of the Cross’s poetry could claim that it reflects what is usually called an apophatic approach.

This tradition of teaching methods of prayer, just as teaching Mindfulness is about teaching methods or technique’s,  is not alien to Christianity either, that is the Spanish oración mental  but it is also the ancient practice of prayer. It is the Jesuit model and for Anglicans the meditations of Fr Benson of Cowley or even Law’s Serious Call epitomise it. It is after all, why the Anglican Wesley’s and their friends were called Methodists. Tyler quotes Origen’s On Prayer (p31) as proof that Christians have not embraced particular postures but I think he over-reads Origen (p.29). These practices are not essential to prayer but they do facilitate it just as Mindfulness does. An opposite view to Tyler (who is quoting Olivier Clément) is that of Gabriel Bunge in his book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of personal Prayer According to the Tradition of the Holy Fathers, where he shows how posture and even orientation (towards the East) was significant for early Christians, as well as gesture, prostrations etc.

I would also add that, as Tyler knows well, the Spanish mystics assume a profound and deep Christian life, people immersed in Scripture which they have learnt through the church’s liturgy and which they are rehearsing several times a day. In our times there is a distinct lack of immersion in this way, even relatively devout church-goers may have little raw material for their prayer between going to church. Again, why lectio is so important.

Tyler also refers (although he doesn’t give any references) to Augustine’s teaching that contemplation is always a gift from God. We can experience deep contentment and happiness in mindfulness, but this is not, in itself contemplative prayer. There is always a danger of a Pelagian approach in prayer and that can be especially true in practising Mindfulness: a feeling that we can do this for ourselves. However, the distinction between grace and nature is not nearly as neat as we might like it to be. God’s prevenient grace leads us through the natural world he has created for us to his very being which is ‘super-‘ nature.

There is also I think a need to balance silence with the fact that Christianity is a religion of the Word. We worship a God who speaks. “In the beginning was the Word”, “God spoke and it came to be” (Ps 33:9). Silence is a hugely significant thing in my life, I need it to survive, I used it as a major tool of school improvement, but I am not convinced that silence is the end to which we aim. At the beginning of Christian Mindfulness Tyler quotes Thomas Keating the great teacher of prayer, “Silence is the language of God, all the rest is bad translation.” This is a powerful quote but in the end it has to be metaphorical. No! I want to call out, Jesus is the language of God and all the rest is bad translation! Tyler goes on in that prologue to write “the abyss of silence that Christians call ‘the Father'” but once again I find myself wanting to respond. For Catholic Christians abyss has always been an important word in discussing prayer, “abysuss abyssum invocat” the psalmist says in the Vulgate version (Ps 42:9 CW). A deeply important phrase and one that rises to the surface in my prayer often, but the important word is invocat, deep calls to deep, there is no silence here but a great communication, even union.

I think I would want to say that Mindfulness is excellent preparation for prayer, that it overlaps with prayer – perhaps quite a long way – but that prayer takes us somewhere else. Into that relationship with God in which he gives the gift of himself in union with the believer.

In these three volumes Tyler has written a stunning ‘manual of the spiritual life’. I would have liked to see more use of Scripture, more emphasis on Jesus and more clarity on the role of grace, prayer as gift. But the books are a tremendous achievement.

Tyler is a delight to read. The canvass he paints is vast. My thoughts, are not disagreement so much as conversation. I would like to hear more of this conversation. I would love to hear a conversation between Tyler and Shaun Lambert, a Baptist minister in north London, who has made a great study and practice of Mindfulness, and particularly the link to watchfulness in the Orthodox tradition. (See here and here)

Mindfulness in popular culture is relatively new. As Christians we must engage in that conversation, as Tyler does, not disparage it. All of his books are worth reading but I would highly recommend Christian Mindfulness. I have no doubt that Mindfulness is an important tool for mission. Tyler set himself this question at the beginning of Christian Mindfulness: “How far, if at all, can mindfulness be accommodated into an established religious practice such as Christianity?” At the end of the book he makes it clear where his study has led:

“Prayer, mindfulness and contemplation are thus not ‘add-ons’ to the life of a Christian but are, in fact, what gives those lives their very identity and meaning. Prayer (‘Christian mindfulness’) is often about doing the opposite of what we think. It is a contra-spiral, a sign of contradiction, a sign of Jonah.”

 

*

See Peter’s blog insoulpursuit here

Aaron Klink’s review of Pursuit here

And this review of Pursuit:

The Pursuit of the Soul: Psychoanalysis, Soul-making and the Christian Tradition by Peter Tyler (review)

Janet Ruffing

Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality, Volume 17, Number 2, Fall 2017, pp. 265-266 Available with academic login here.

Christopher Howse review’s Tyler’s Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul, here. Tyler responds to that review on his blog here.

See also:

Oración Mental , Mindfulness, and Mental Prayer: The Training of the Heart in the Iberian School of Abbot García de Cisneros of Montserrat and St. Teresa of Avila

Peter Tyler

Buddhist-Christian Studies, Volume 38, 2018, pp. 253-266, available with academic institution login here.

 

 

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