One of the things I love most about Greenbelt is its weirdness. Or more politely, its eclectic-ness. It’s that ‘everyone is totally at home here’ thing. And while I think that’s a fundamentally good thing, I know that for some people, that’s a little bit scary. Of course it is. As soon as you bring together people from all parts of such a broad Christian spectrum, and start conversations about what it means to follow Jesus in today’s world, of course we’re going to clash a bit.
But it’s also a great opportunity – as all-time outside of the comfort zone is – to learn from people who do Christianity differently. It’s a great time to stretch our understanding of what worship can look like, what discipleship can mean, what church can be.
And it’s by listening to people who do stuff differently ¬- hearing a familiar faith expressed in unfamiliar words – that we start to draw the connections and realise that God is bigger than our own personal experience of Him.
So it was with that in mind that I went to meet Tim Stead, a mindfulness teacher (as well as parish priest) who led a packed-out mindfulness meditation session this morning. For me, mindfulness was firmly in that category – things I don’t really understand, feel a little suspicious of, and probably wouldn’t have considered as something that could be spiritually beneficial for me.
But Tim was gracious in patiently explaining to me the basics of this now-popular practice, rooted in Buddhist meditation (“But that side of Buddhism is not really religious, it’s got nothing to do with any other God or spirit, it’s just a mind practice that works,” he explains) and widely accepted by the scientific and medical community. By becoming more aware of what’s going on in mind and body, this technique helps many people deal with stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as physical stressed and aiding general well-being.
All very well, I thought, but what has this to do with Christianity?
It’s not a replacement for traditional forms of faith practice, but Tim does see it sitting comfortably as part of the Christian’s spiritual tool box. He says: “It’s not the same as prayer, but it might help to make space for God in our lives. All the things we’re supposed to do as Christians, and all the things we find hard to do, like know God’s will, trust God, know God’s presence, find peace, find inner healing, love our enemies – mindfulness doesn’t do all that but it creates a space where that might happen.”
And for Tim, that space came just at the right time: “For most of my adult life, it’s been contemplative or silent prayer that I’ve done as a Christian. That had always sustained me, that had always been the heart for me. But a few years ago, I got a bit stuck, hit a brick wall, and I stopped because it wasn’t helping me.” Having been given a book on mindfulness, Tim made the connections himself. “I thought ‘wow, this is very similar to the sorts of things I’ve been practising, and it seems to answer some of the blocks that I’ve hit’. And it was quite interesting that a purely secular thing, a scientifically understood thing, was going to help me in my Christian spirituality. One needs a bit of humility to accept that.”
Now a teacher of the practice himself, Tim leaves his students in no doubt of his Christian perspective: “I set my mindfulness sessions in a Christian context, I invite people to dedicate the next half hour to God, and therefore to trust that God will look after them in this period. If it brings benefits, one might argue that all goodness comes from God originally, and certainly God is here if you invite God to be here.”
It seems to work, even for those who are more comfortable with daily quiet times and Bible study than meditative prayer. Tim tells me of a man who now precedes his Bible study times with 15 minutes of mindfulness and reports much more fruitful devotional time, because he feels more present, open, focused and responsive to God.
So what is it that a sceptical evangelical like me could stand to learn from Tim’s work in mindfulness and Christianity? He thinks there are three keys:
“First, we have a tendency in the West to be over-intellectual, rooted in our thoughts, having correct ideas, correct beliefs. All that’s good, but mindfulness emphasises experience. Often we’re a bit afraid of experience I think. If your faith is a very ‘thinky’ faith, this is a way of engaging with experience in a safe and an ordered way, we can value our experience alongside the intellectual thing.
“Second, is to do with the body and the material world. Western spirituality has been quite negative about the material, as if purity happens in the mind, so we’ve repressed the body and been a bit suspicious of it; from St Augustine onwards we’ve felt as if the body is what’s been leading us astray. Mindfulness helps us to engage with the body in a positive way, to accept and value the physical, uniting mind and body in our spiritual experience – uniting what should never have been divided.
“The third thing is that we tend to have a misunderstanding of what sin and judgement is about. Mindfulness is very strong on non-judging. Whatever you find in your experience, that’s just what’s there. We allow it to come to the light in a non-judging atmosphere so that we can become more aware of it. Then we can decide what is good to do. You don’t have to act on every impulse, you don’t have to do everything that pops into your mind. But let’s just be a bit gentler with what’s actually our experience. That seems to be a much healthy way of engaging, it’s an antidote to repression which has only ever caused harm.”
By the time Tim finishes speaking, I’m nodding along as if I never had any doubts. When his new book on mindfulness and Christian spirituality is published in the spring, I’ll be first in the queue for a copy.