Islam

Mindfulness

By Anthony MacIsaac

Lately, over the past few years, the practice of “Mindfulness” has gained credence in the domain of psychology and general wellbeing. It’s been one of the new crazes, with people keen to know more about it and incorporate it into their routine. To be sure, there are various benefits to this, and it is worth realising how closely tied it all is to religion and faith life.

Throughout the world religions, there is great agreement about the necessity of meditation within prayer life. Taking the time to centre oneself, to let go of worries and concerns, and to feel union with God. For Christianity, this meditation has long been associated with finding His presence amidst the Sacraments. The ancient phenomenon of Eucharistic Adoration in the Catholic Church is making a comeback, and the faithful might sit before the Consecrated host for hours. Sometimes they might even fall asleep! Not out of disrespect, but out of the sheer comfort and peace they feel in the Lord’s company. Some of them might focus on intercessory prayer, asking for Blessings, and others might simply want to reflect on God’s goodness – either in the grand narrative of Biblical history, or in how it has played out in their own lives. In the Monasteries the slow reading of the Scriptures – “Lectio Divina” – has long been a staple of the Monks’ routine. Allowing the Word to enter in to the soul, allowing it to digest within, and to give inspiration for the present. Here we might think of the symbolism in the Bible, with Prophets from Ezekiel to Jeremiah to St. John the Divine, commanded to “Eat the scroll” given them by God’s Angel. If Scripture is to have any effect in religious life, it must be approached reverantly, with reflective spirit and gentle mind. Here there can be no room for violent or coarse interpretation, which so damages the religious life.

In Islam too, we have a rich tradition of meditation in prayer life and in approaching the Qu’ran. The Sufis exemplify this best, maybe, but there are also many examples in the mainstream. Whether on pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca, or whether taking time out of the day to pray slowly in the Mosque, there are various opportunities for meditation. In the Islamic tradition, the central tenant within this reflection is surrender to the Will of God. Practically, this might mean accepting and assimilating difficult experiences in life, and building resilence for the future. In other words, we find much of the same net result here as we do with traditional Christianity. There might be small differences in how we understand the Divine Will, altering how we approach difficult situations, but these have little effect on the experience itself of meditation. With the Scripture, often the Qu’ran is sung in beautiful Arabic verse, and while many Muslims across the world don’t understand Arabic – just as many Catholics don’t know Latin – the experience of listening to such rendition is cherished. The mystery of the Book, and its profundity, is encapsulated in such “Lectio Divina”. Occasionally, we hear the Bible sung at Mass in Orthodox and Catholic Churches also – though this is reserved for the most solemn of occasions.

Within Buddhism there is arguably one of the strongest traditions of meditative life in the world. Certainly with Zen Buddhism, the whole emphasis is on reflective living. People might take some time out in the Monastery to meditate and find inner peace, over a few weeks or a few months. Very rarely would they stay for a lifetime. Come what may, however, the idea is to come away from these retreats refreshed and better able to live in Enlightenment. This may simply mean to live with gentle consideration, thoughtfulness in all that one does, and reverence for everything life has to offer. One subtle difference in the meditative practices of Zen, as compared to the Abrahamic monotheisms, is that is often seeks the void. It focusses, quite deliberately, on nothing. Or, in some traditions, on absurdities such as the “sound of one hand clapping”. The idea is that there is peace and understanding to be found in this void, devoid of any ideas, words or dogma. There is the debate to be had as to whether “Nothing” actually exists. Some would argue, from the mathematical point of view, that “Nothing” is just an empty set and therefore “Something”. Is God to be found in the void? Indeed, for the Abrahamic faiths, He created out of nothing. However, leaving these questions aside, the net effect of such Buddhist meditation seems also to be positive in its own way. As much as the self is negated within this tradition, it finds more and more actuality in being at one with Nature. This self-negation is perhaps just what our Muslim brothers and sisters are aiming for when surrending to the Divine Will, and what Christians are doing when they unite in Communion with the source of all reality – God. In the end, God seems to become all, and we subsumed within Him.

So for the secular practice of Mindfulness, what can we say? It seems that the central similarities are already there – though perhaps with more points of contact to the Buddhist tradition, in that there aren’t any doctrines attached to the practice. That being said, with Mindfulness, there is a crucial point of departure from this. In Mindfulness, we are encouraged to pay attention to our thoughts and our mind, as we relax and begin to meditate peacefully. We are not necessarily exhorted to abandon all thought entirely, or think about irrational phrases like the “One hand clapping”. The focus is on mental and physical well-being, so the whole therapy seems designed to reap the corresponding benefits attached to the apparently exclusive religious practice of meditation. It stops short with spirituality, and in many ways it might provide a good gateway into religious life for some people. Or at least help them understand what it might be like to pray. Some scientists have argued that we might find common neurological states, within the brain, for prayer across all religious traditions. This may well be the same for Mindfulness.

Thoughts and Perspectives

A blog by Anthony MacIsaac

Events of the past few months have only highlighted how very important inter-religious dialogue is for our society, and for ourselves in the end. Not all of these events have been pleasant, some indeed have been shocking and tragic.

From my own Catholic perspective events in the institution of the Church, regarding sexual abuse and it’s cover-up, have rocked and made vulnerable trust, hope and even faith in the whole project. I have heard this from many of my friends committed to the faith, and have felt something of it myself recently. Such problems that can present themselves from within the heart of a community of faith, raise perhaps the deepest spiritual questions to us.

They also reveal how we can never truly be certain in our journey – organised religion tends to provide frameworks, and frameworks on occasion make it hard to find our way. It is my view that we can only hold fast to that which we find to be life-giving. If we believe in a living God, as I do, then this is essential. With time, certainly if we are people of hope, the community may transform and might remedy the mistakes of its members – however high ranking or low ranking they may be. We may be needed in this very task!

It is helpful to consider that similar divisions within other communities also exist. To take an example, in contemporary Islam, there is this tension between the life of faith in a secularising world and the rigid interpretations applied to the code of Shari’ah Law. The recent legalisation of stoning to death in the Sultanate of Brunei conveys precisely this contradiction, and indeed points out the problem. Reading this development, we can and should only feel outrage.

For many Muslims, this is also the prevailing feeling. Yet among my own friends who happen to be Muslim, despite these feelings, there is also a reluctance to condemn the Sultanate and certainly a reluctance to question the Law in its ideal. Is this similar to what we see among those Christians who wish to avoid the subject of child abuse? Maybe. Criticising the frameworks of one’s religion presents natural difficulties, and is a delicate matter indeed.

It might well be rare also to find Jewish people ready to condemn some of Israel’s actions. Even although it remains a state apart from the religion, the cultural connections are so strong that to many it too is part of the broader Jewish identity. They may well feel that in critiquing it, they would thus be critiquing their own faith. Yet this is still a controversy generating headlines each year, and causing untold misery on all sides. So how is cooperation between the different faiths in Israel and Palestine, without some honest discussion on the hard issues, going to be possible?

This hard dialogue – interior and exterior – is absolutely vital in my eyes. The desires in the Abrahamic faiths are noble – we each seek to lead good and Holy lives, shining with hope, love and peace. We are even after the same God. This gives all of us, who are of good will, a great starting point. For when we are of good will, we are also committed to a common Humanism. This sharing of our simple Humanity; augmented by our beliefs, and anchored in God, helps us work together.

Prhaps taking our institutions a little less seriously, and focusing instead on the spiritual bounties that they offer, would help in resolving any discomfort or even shame we feel when confronted by scandal and abuse. Of whatever stripe, in whatever community.

Should we truly desire change, and the promotion of all that is just and humane, we need to be strong and brave. Moreover, we ought not to “go it alone”. The role of the Prophet “crying out in the wilderness” is that of a hero, often beyond that of which we may be capable. It is very often also unnecessary. Indeed, finding like-minded people within our tradition is significant for helping us resolve the interior conflicts we may feel. Finding also like-minded people outwith our tradition helps in dealing with the exterior world – and once more, in not taking it all too seriously! This is where inter-religious dialogue as such comes in.

The solidarity shown by various people of faith around the world, including in Scotland, with our mosques was inspiring – after the horrifying terror attacks in New Zealand a few weeks ago. Charity breeds charity, and I know of many who were touched deeply by these gestures – however small.

We can only hope that as crises erupt throughout the religious landscape, the quiet and good willed spirit of compassion and Holiness continues to prevail in the end. Much of this starts with how we interact as individuals, with all the people we meet. To avoid the poison of “cultural war”, it is vital we have our say and make our mark in the lives of others, in a positive way. The alternative is beneath the aspirations shared among the great world religions, and one of only yet more pain. 

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