Mindfulness: A Guest Post from Rachel Ruddy
Mindfulness, at its most basic, is “a state of being aware of something.” There are many definitions of it, but the one that I think is the most helpful is “paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment on purpose, non-judgementally”. This definition can encompass many different traditions including the tradition of Christian mindfulness.
Randomised controlled trial evidence (the gold standard for medical research) supports this practice as beneficial for depression, anxiety, work related stress and sleep disorders. Practices like mindfulness have also been shown to prolong life and improve general health and wellbeing. It is easy in some ways to see why it works. Mindfulness is about being in the moment, while depression is fed by dwelling on the past and anxiety fuelled by worrying about the future. Like many scientific discoveries we can see how God is ahead of the game and has given very similar instruction about what is good for us. He created to give man nature to interact with and revealed himself through his created world. He helped ground his people in the present moment by giving seasons, festivals, weekly routine and structure. He encourages reflection on his creation to help people like Job understand his nature. Jesus models the need to spend time in God’s presence in his earthly ministry and we see his awareness of the people and situations around him that led to his attitude of compassion. We see him helping his disciples and the crowds to notice how things in the natural world can reflect the purposes of God.
One of the worrying trends is that much of the mindfulness in mental healthcare, workplaces and schools is being taught from a Buddhist or secular perspective. As such, there is space for Christians to reclaim the practice for our congregations and our schools. There are lots of resources for Christian mindfulness. But to show you how simple it is, how closely it relates to prayer (and how you are probably already doing it without knowing it) I thought I would take you on a mindful walk along the lane near my house.
I walk out of my drive and breathe. Children, work and household tasks are left behind. I breathe and allow the air to enter my lungs slowly. I exhale, breathing off the worries of the day. I breath in and invite the Holy Spirit to walk with me. To help me see, to notice and to be aware of the things around me. To help me come into my Father’s presence more deeply through my appreciation of his creation. I look at the towering hill ahead of me and Scripture floats through my mind. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.”
I notice the brownness of the fields and hilltops, observing the effect of the lack of rain on the countryside around me. I remember how a friend who used to live in Kenya told me that they would pray for rain on their wedding day as a sign of God’s blessing. A thought passes through my mind about how I recently heard that local farmers are having to use feed, normally reserved for winter, to feed animals. Rain would indeed be a blessing and I lift a prayer to God for my neighbours.
I walk past a mixed hedgerow and am aware of the abundance of life, the variety of plants, the mix of colours and textures. I think about the church, and how we are supposed to reflect every tribe, nation and tongue. I focus on some of the plants. I give myself time. I see the intricacy of the flowers on the nettles, the green fruit on the brambles, the willowy grasses blowing in the breeze. These plants so carefully crafted by God. Julian of Norwich’s vision of the hazelnut comes to mind: “And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” Mindfulness, apparently, is not just a twenty first century phenomenon!
As I walk on still paying attention to the hedgerows and verges at the side of the road. I think about how I largely stop weeding my garden at this time of year because growth is so prolific and I allow the wildness of nature to take over. Thoughts come into my head about the book I am reading, Dirty Glory by Pete Grieg. He talks about our quiet times becoming samey and how we don’t really cry out to God with passion. The life in the wild grasses and flowering weeds speaks of nature that can’t be held down, that overspills, like our hearts could to God.
I pass along a shady part of the path and marvel at the covering of leaves. The greenness. The height. I remember how short the growing season is in the Peak District and thank God for the beauty and majesty of the trees in leaf. I stop to put the dog on the lead (it is hard to be continually mindful with a dog to watch). But as I do it I am reminded of God’s law and how it is similar to a dog lead. It guides, protects and keeps us on the right path. But it also brings freedom, enjoyment and allows closeness with our Father.
As I come towards home a buzzard is circling over the nearby field. I wonder at its size and gracefulness. I feel it’s freedom as it drifts on the air currents. Scripture comes to mind that it is our Father’s heart for us to soar on wings like eagles. A song echoes in my head. I allow it to play.
I return home refreshed and full of the goodness of God: not distanced from the world, but fully engaged and grateful for the care and design God has invested in it, and thankful that God wants to meet with me and speak to me through his world.
At its heart, “mindfulness” is to “be still and know that I am God”. It is to calm your mind, to invite the Holy Spirit to help you notice the world around you, to see things as God sees them, to wash us in creation’s beauty, to recognise your smallness but to know that you are loved. To come as close to walking with God in the garden as we can.
Theology should engage us, fill us, amaze us and point us to God. Mindfulness of nature is natural theology at its best. We pay attention to creation, with the help of the Holy Spirit to enlarge our understanding of its creator and sustainer.