Head and Heart Mindful Meditation
Below are two mindful meditative exercises I used during staff week of the new school year with our executive leadership and whole staff teams. So much of our work in schools involves the head, it is important to pause and take time to connect with the heart and centre ourselves before we connect with students. The aim of these exercises is that movement from the head to the heart.
This morning I have two mindful meditative exercises we will experience which are based on words from Psalm 139. One of these exercises is for the head and the other one is for the heart. But first, let’s FOFBOC. Feet On Floor, Back On Chair.
Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when
I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. (Psalm 139:1-2)
When you are still and comfortable, imagine you are sitting or lying on a grassy hill looking up at a clear blue sky. You might like to imagine Christ is there with you, silent beside you, accompanying you as your friend. As you sit there you look at the sky and every now and then clouds pass by.
In this exercise, focus on the sky and let the clouds pass. You will notice that, from time to time, thoughts will come into your head. It might be about the things you have to do today, the people you need to talk to, the emails to respond to. It might be about what you are going to eat for morning tea or lunch, or a worry or a memory you have.
When this happens, place these thoughts onto one of the passing clouds. Do not try to control these thoughts. Rather each time they occur, simply place them on a cloud and let it pass by you, through the sky.
Always redirect your attention to observing the sky. In this way you are not controlling or interacting with your thoughts, you are simply noticing them and letting them pass by.
Continue this task for a couple of minutes.
(Katherine Thompson, Christ Centred Mindfulness, p.138)
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. (Psalm 139:23)
Debrief; How did you find that? Are you someone who can visualize imagery and think in pictures? If you’re not that’s OK. How did you go with what the Buddhists call the monkey mind? Did you tame the wild elephant? We can’t block our thoughts or stop them from entering our minds but what we can choose to do is to not listen to them or be controlled by them. With a mindful activity like this and the help of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word we can instead befriend our thoughts.
In this second activity, the silent meditation, we are moving from our heads to our hearts. It might only be about 40cm from our head to our hearts but it can be longest and most difficult journey we ever take. One of the ways people have done this journey of connecting the head to the heart is through breathing.
In this exercise I invite you to choose a mantra, a short phrase, that you will repeat silently as you take a breath in and then breathe out. The mantra I might suggest to you from yesterday’s service is; “I am a loved…child of God”. So, to connect it to your breath, you would say to yourself as you take one breath in “I am a loved”. And then as you take that breath out and exhale “child of God”. We will try doing this during five minutes of silence. I have a chime for the start and the end of the five minutes. (You can also use a meditation app on your phone that has a timer). By saying over and over the words we choose, with our breaths in and out, we will hopefully be moving from those restless thoughts in the head down to the heart, where the Holy Spirit can centre us in Jesus.
You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… Search me, God, and know my heart; (Psalm 139:13,23)
Sound a chime or use a chime on a meditation app to signal the start of the five minutes of silence. Then at the end of the time sound the chime again. And as people open their eyes repeat verses twenty-three of Psalm 139 again.
Search me, God, and know my heart; (Psalm 139:23)
Debrief; How did people find that meditation experience? Were people able to get out of their heads and focus on their breathing and chosen words?
Prayer: Thank you God for moments of stillness and silence and we commit this day into your hands. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
During the week I had the opportunity to spend some time on a Zoom call discussing the place of Mindfulness in Lutheran schools. Organised through Lutheran Education Australia it was a Learning Circle on Katherine Thompson's book "Christ Centred Mindfulness." Participants included a principal, christian studies teachers, ministry and church workers, pastors and chaplains. It was the start of a conversation on how Lutheran schools are using mindfulness practices and how we can use the contemplative elements that have always been there in our Christian tradition with integrity. Inserted here is the Powerpoint presentation I used for discussion.
Have you ever thought about your breathing? Probably not that often, but did you know that in an average day an active adult can take up to 50 000 breaths? And would you believe a one year old can take up to 86 000 breaths? We do it automatically but every breath we take is an absolute miracle, a gift from God. With the popularity of mindfulness, the importance of concentrating on our breathing to help us be in the moment has resurfaced. But religious people, including Jews and Christians have known this a long time.
In the beginning in the book of Genesis we read God; formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a human being (Genesis 2:7). We believe that humanity was created to breathe, to take in the breath that comes from God to truly live. And what’s more in John’s gospel we read that on Easter day when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, he spoke to them, reassured their fears then breathed on them and said receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). God has made us as human beings with his living breath as the resurrected Jesus lives with and in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. In using our breathe in conjunction with prayer we are centring ourselves on the Triune God.
Focusing on our breathing in times of anxiety is a great skill to learn. Below is a 3 minute video from Mindful Schools called "Just Breathe". It is not from a specifically Christian worldview but it does have wisdom for faith based schools as we make the connection to the spiritual for our students.
In these anxious times of the corona-virus pandemic, pausing, taking a breath and centering ourselves on God is so important. The rate of change in the day to day life of schools for the end of this first term has been mind-blowing. Teachers and staff have been amazingly open to the huge demands put on them, especially in the area of upskilling their digital technology capabilities. In what looks like a totally new technology driven learning environment for students and staff next term, taking regular breaks from screens and connecting with our bodies will be necessary for everyone's well-being.
With this in mind I have created a devotional resource for staff and possibly secondary students based around the ancient concept of breath prayers (thanks to Steph Maher from LEQ for the idea!). There are lots of mindfulness and well-being resources floating around at the moment but there is not much mindfulness material that uses biblical passages and the promises of God. These breath prayers link a focus on our breath with succinct phrases from the scriptures. I have put them into a PowerPoint Presentation with guided audio on each slide. Below is a taste of what I have created with introductions and the whole script of ten prayers. If you are interested in the whole collection of breath prayers for a ten week term click here Staff Devotions.
Katherine Thompson, Christ Centred Mindfulness; Connection to Self and God, Acorn Press, Sydney: 2018. (196 pages)
Below is a review of Thompson's book that I wrote for the Lutheran Theological Journal, December 2019, Volume 53, No 3.
At last, an Australian Christian perspective of the loaded dog that is the ‘M’ word; Mindfulness! As the title of this work suggests, the central question Katherine Thompson asks of the ‘M’ word is, can it be Christ centred? Can a person of the Christian faith accept and use mindfulness practices wholeheartedly? Thompson, a Mental Health Social Worker, Research Fellow, and theologically literate Christian, is well qualified and clinically experienced to address this topic. She sympathetically yet at times critically helps readers navigate a way through the ‘mindfulness maze’ as she calls it.
Thompson understands mindfulness “as a way of using all our senses, and the quiet part of our mind, to connect well to both our internal and external world.” Such mindfulness, she claims, “does not need to be rooted in Buddhist meditation but can be based in Christian practices such as silence, rest and prayer. These things help us to slow down, connect to what is happening inside ourselves and make space to listen to God’s guiding in everyday life.” (p.4) However, Thompson argues that mindfulness can quickly lose any accepted meaning and become divorced from its original context especially in its secular adaptations. Two examples she gives of this dislocation are secondary students in Australia who are encouraged to learn mindfulness through apps like “Smiling Minds” so that they perform better in the stress of exams. And the American military who have training in mindfulness so that personnel optimise combat performance.
Thompson states that her purpose is to:
In the first part on navigating popular mindfulness, Thompson delves into the science behind four psychotherapies:
In the second part on exploring our Christian roots, Thompson explores what could be called mindfulness elements in the Bible with headings such as; meditation on the scriptures in the Old Testament, prayer in the New Testament, the surrender of the will, abiding in love, the Holy Spirit and breath, and the resurrection life of Christ. Through exploring these elements of the biblical witness she posits “there is a deep connection between the concept of meditating and the habit of reflecting on Scripture in all that we do each day so that we live the life God intends us to experience in relationship with him.” (p.80). Through his teaching on prayer, Jesus challenges us to listen to what God is saying to surrender our will, follow him and love God and the people around us. “The gift of the Holy Spirit challenges our thoughts, feelings and behaviour as well as bringing power for transformation” (p.81). Thompson then explores the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages; the Cloud of Unknowing, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola, Brother Lawrence. For Thompson, these four mystic traditions teach us that to pray and connect with God, we need to have “an equally strong awareness of self” (p.99). She then extends this thinking by discussing the thought of modern Christian contemplatives like Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and Dallas Willard. Drawing on their works Thompson believes there is a form of mindfulness that can be Christ-centred which is founded on the surrender of our will and love for God and others as Christ renews our mind.
In the third part of the book practising Christ-centred mindfulness, Thompson outlines in concrete ways what a Christ-centred mindfulness might look, sound, feel, smell and taste like. Interwoven throughout this section are practical exercises that highlight her Christ-centred mindfulness approach. These exercises involve scripture, the senses, the body, acceptance commitment skills in regards to our feelings, contemplative prayer, lectio divina and Ignatian spiritual exercises.
While positive of the Christian contemplative connections, Thompson is critical of the way western culture has unthinkingly adapted Buddhist meditation for therapeutic use. She argues that assimilating Buddhist mindfulness practices into our daily lives can be problematic and possibly lead to syncretism if we don’t recognise the worldview behind it. She acknowledges that mindfulness “has become another commodity that our Western culture uses to improve itself to get ahead. It has become self-centred, a personal possession that can be used for our own end to get relief from physical and psychological symptoms, divorced from its true context, devoid of any significant meaning” turned into a consumeristic McMindfulness in effect (p.20-21). Thompson is balanced in her appreciation of the contemporary contribution of Christian contemplatives. She acknowledges the work of Merton, Rohr and Willard in broadening meditation and contemplative prayer beyond the individual to participate in God’s action in the world but names some Catholic understandings of God and Rohr’s approach as a little too liberal for her at times (p.118).
For my Lutheran way of thinking, I would have appreciated an exploration into how the cross connects with the author’s view of Christ-centred mindfulness. How would a theologian of the cross interpret the mindfulness of being present with suffering? How does a cross-centred mindfulness help a person grow and learn through one’s own wounds and pain? This would have been extremely beneficial for the reader as Thompson herself admits at one point that she writes from personal experience of being a sufferer of severe chronic pain.
As a college pastor in a Lutheran School, I have found this to be a welcome and much-needed resource. In the school setting where positive psychology, mindfulness and wellbeing programs and interventions can take over the pastoral care of staff and students, psychological evidence-based work like this that reconnects us to what is already present in the Christian tradition yet does not dismiss that good that can be found in mindfulness, is refreshing. As anyone who regularly works with and cares for children and teenagers knows anything that is going to help the anxiety and depression epidemic of young people is needed for the sake of improving their mental health and wellbeing.
I would certainly recommend this work for school pastors, teachers, aged care chaplains, people who work in agencies of the church where mindfulness programs are practised and are a part of their culture of care. Also for people who are interested in the contemplative practices of the church and those who have questions about mindfulness, in general, this is a great place to start.
About this site
"Meditations & Musings" is my humble attempt to share what I have found useful in ministry in an Australian Lutheran School setting. It contains chapels, devotions and other resources I have written, used and adapted in my K-12 school context. If you would like to also share your ideas, resources or start a conversation about mission and ministry in your church- school location, feel free to contact me.
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