Thursday, October 12, 2017

Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality (Tim Stead) - Review

MINDFULNESS AND CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY: Making Space for God. By Tim Stead. Foreword by Eden Koz. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xvi + 144 pages.

                How do we make space for God? Most of us living in the Western world always seem to be on the run. Americans are known for their “doing” not their “being.” As for Christians, it has been said that most of us are “practical atheists.” We say we believe in God, but we operate without giving much thought to God. I must confess, I am guilty of this myself, and I am a religious professional. So, how do we make space for God? What disciplines might help us focus our lives better?

                Although the practice of "mindfulness" is often seen as a Buddhist practice, many Christians have found that the principles of “mindfulness” can be of help to the spiritual life. It can help us make space for God. Tim Stead, an Anglican priest, serving a congregation in Oxford that once welcomed C.S. Lewis a member, has written a helpful guide to the use of “mindfulness” within the Christian community. He acknowledges the Buddhist connections, but suggests that many of the principles of “mindfulness” are deeply rooted in Christianity. Even as he is an Anglican priest, he is a teacher of mindfulness for the Christian community.


                Although Stead does introduce practices of mindfulness so that the reader might experience them, this is not a full course. It is more focused on introducing the reader to the practice of mindfulness so one might be more open to God and gain better understanding of one’s faith. As for what the practice of mindfulness is, Stead writes that “mindfulness can be described as being more fully aware of your own experience in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way” (p. 6).  In his own teaching of “mindfulness,” Stead makes use of an eight-week course developed by Mark Williams and Danny Penman titled Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. With this course in mind, Stead offers two basic principles. First, “mindfulness” must be taught in a “mindful way.” It is something that one must experience to truly learn. The second principle is compassion— “at every stage the atmosphere we seek to create is one of openness and nonjudging compassion.” (p. 12).

The book is composed of fifteen chapters organized into three parts. Part 1 explores the concept of mindfulness, offering definitions and core principles as we’ve already seen. Stead also provides a look at clinical and mainstream contexts, out of which the practice has emerged. Then he offers an introduction to the Christian contexts, as well as his own journey into the practice of mindfulness. He confesses that getting started was difficult, but it was also exciting. He reminds us that we must start with where we are not where we might want to be. In the course of his journey he discovered this practice and it has, he believes, created space for God in his life, as well as transforming the way he deals with stress. He also admits not to being perfectly adept at this practice.

Part two explores the practice theologically, connecting the practice with one's understanding of God, the God who is one, who is love, and who is now. He invites to move from believing to knowing, and knowing experientially. When it comes to being mindful of one’s theology, he starts with his understanding of God, and discovers that God is one, God is love, and God is Now. It is the third point that requires some attention. Here the point is experiencing God in the present moment. He writes: “What a wonderful way to live, then—so unconcerned with what may have happened in the past and unafraid of what may happen in the future that we are entirely caught up only in the now and able to experience the present moment for its own sake” (p. 52). He moves from this experience of God in the now to Jesus, the “embodied one, the liberated one, the awakened one.” Finally, we move to the Holy Spirit, focusing on free will and decentering. In this chapter he invites us to let go of having everything center around ourselves, a reality that keeps us from experiencing the work of the Spirit.  

With the introduction to the practice, along with a theological foundation laid, we turn to the practices themselves. Part three is designed to move us "from doing to being." In many ways, this is the heart of the book. Here we're introduced to basic practices that allow us to move from always needing to be doing things, to simply being. In other words, here is a practice that allows us to slow down, explore our own being, starting by focusing on our breath. In this context, we're invited to explore prayer and experience healing. The key is growing in awareness of ourselves, of God, and of creation. We are reminded that we are not above nature, but part of nature. So, in these chapters we explore “knowing God’s presence,” “trusting God,” “knowing God’s will,” “finding peace,” experiencing “inner healing,” “pray and worship,” “practicing love,” “reconnecting with nature,” and finally “simply daily living.” The point of the concluding chapter is to remind us that there is a connection between our inner life and our outer life. In other words, the point here is not to learn mindfulness for the sake of mindfulness, but so one can be “a more mindful person in daily life” (p. 132). Not surprisingly, he closes the closing chapter on daily life with a reference to Brother Lawrence’s “practicing the presence of God.”

I must admit that I find it difficult to slow down and just be still. I find it difficult to keep my mind focused unless I have something to do, like read or write or use my hands. I am not sure I'm ready to engage fully, but Stead provides an engaging introduction to the practice of mindfulness for Christians. He removes the "strangeness," so that Christians can make use of another spiritual practice that can open one's self to God. For any and all interested in becoming more mindful of God in daily life, this should prove to be a good introduction. 

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