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.