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.
This year I have had the joy of walking the labyrinth with our college kindy kids. Three of four times a term starting in term two I have led our two kindy age groups through a simple temporary spiral labyrinth. To do this I have shifted some furniture in the two kindy studios then used my labyrinth making tape dispenser on the floor to make a four, five or six spiral labyrinth. Then when the kids are ready and sitting on the floor together I pray with them or tell a bible story as an introduction. Then I position myself on a small stool at the entrance of the labyrinth with a chime. I ask the kids to wait until they hear the chime before they walk. Once they get into the centre they are invited if they wish to close their eyes and take three deep breaths before they walk the same way out again. It's been amazing to see how these young children each walk the labyrinth in their own way but also how engaged they can be in walking it, slowing down, practicing stillness, and being mindful of the silence and their breathing. With modelling and repetition even the youngest of the three year olds have been able to do it and find meaning and benefit. Check out this PowerPoint presentation which shows how I have been doing it at Pacific Early Learning Centre. Thank you Julie McCosker our ELS Director and the Kindy families for permission to use these photos and videos.
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. Psalm 62:5
Silence and us, silence and noise, silence and technology and now we finish with silence and God.
One writer on Christian spirituality, Richard Foster says; silence sometimes involves the absence of speech; it always involves the act of listening. (Foster: 123). If you focus on the word ‘silent’ for a moment, if you rearrange the letters in the word ‘silent’, it contains the same letters as the word ‘listen’. That’s the point of experiencing silence as a spiritual practice or discipline. That’s how silence is connected to God. We can refrain from talking for any number of reasons, but when we are silent, we can enter the space in which we can listen to God and God speaks to us. When the clamouring voices or thoughts in our minds are stilled, we listen to the word of God, whose presence can nurture and restore our souls.
Benedict, the 6th century mystic and father of western monasticism, came up with seventy-three rules for living in community, rules that Benedictines still practise today. The very first words of the Rule of St Benedict are, listen by inclining the ear of your heart. There is great wisdom here, moving beyond our tongues and ears, to deeper down to our hearts. When our hearts are open to listening to God, Christ can grow in us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “Life Together”; silence is nothing else but waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing. But everybody knows that this is something that needs to be practised and learned, in these days when talkativeness prevails. Real silence, real stillness, really holding one’s tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness. (Life Together: 60). Being still before God, practising silence, is a gift to use when we come to hear the Bible, but how often do we do this? How often are our times of reading the Bible or hearing the Bible being read to us accompanied by times of silence? Stillness, silence, is an appropriate way to come to God’s Word. For by inclining the ear of our heart to the word of the Lord, we will hear God speak to us.
Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.
A question that is asked by some Christians of a certain theological bent is can a follower of Christ use a pagan thing like a labyrinth? For me, this question betrays certain theological assumptions and a particular worldview, but it is nonetheless a valid, worthwhile and essential question to ask if you have a labyrinth in your campsite, school, aged care facility or church.
My response as someone who has led hundreds of people through the labyrinth and attended labyrinth conferences with Pagans, Wiccans and Christians alike would be; no, the labyrinth in and of itself is not a pagan thing. What makes an object pagan, Christian or Callithumpian is how it is used, what content is used with it, and for what purpose? For me as a college pastor in a Lutheran school I am enthusiastic about students and staff experiencing the labyrinth because it is an opportunity for them, especially people who have little connection with traditional forms of church, to experience a spiritual practice which can be focused on Christ, scripture, prayer and contemplation. These deeply Christian practices are part and parcel of labyrinth walks I lead.
Yes, the labyrinth is a unique thing used by people of differing and sometimes pagan spiritualities. Yes, the labyrinth has been used by many cultures for different purposes throughout the history of the world such as fertility rituals and to ward off evil. And yes, the labyrinth has been used by Christians from the time of the early church to the medieval cathedrals of western Europe and to the many and varied places they are now built.
It is not the place alone that determines the spirituality of the labyrinth but the purpose of walking it and the content used to enable that person to walk it meaningfully and receive something from it. A Christian organisation that uses a labyrinth to encourage faith in Christ, prayer, meditation in the scriptures is using the labyrinth in a God honouring way that is not pagan or idolatrous.
When faced with this question of the appropriateness of the labyrinth for Christians, it is crucial to be mindful of Paul’s advice to Timothy in the New Testament Church. In the first five verses of First Timothy chapter four Paul reminds us of this theological reality; nothing in all of God’s good creation is intrinsically evil in and of itself. In these verses Paul writes that some Christians will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons through the hypocrisy of liars who forbid certain practices which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. He then goes on to say that everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected…for it is sanctified, made holy, by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5).
The labyrinth does not have any power over people. It does not have any evil, malicious intent. Nearly all people who use the labyrinth whatever their spiritual background would say that the labyrinth is for healing people and bringing blessing to their lives. What is important for the faithful Christian though is that the labyrinth is used with scripture and prayer to encourage its walker to centre on Jesus Christ.
Blessings in Lutheran schools are often used at the end of chapel services. This comes from the historic liturgy where Lutherans have traditionally used two biblical blessings to conclude worship services. The Aaronic blessing from the brother of Moses in Numbers 6:24-26; "The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you. The Lord look upon you with favour and give you his peace." And the Apostolic blessing of Paul from 2 Corinthians 13:14; "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." These are beautiful blessings to use.
Another blessing used in my school is when a teacher is in front of a class and they greet students. The blessing that the teacher says is; "Good morning Year 3 and God bless you". The students respond; "Good morning Mrs Saegenschnitter and God bless you". This is indeed a blessed way to start a lesson.
Yet another blessing I have discovered recently which I use with staff and it would be appropriate with senior students is below. It is sometimes attributed online as a Benedictine or Franciscan blessing but it is neither. It was originally written by a Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Fox for a graduating class of the Catholic college where she was chaplain. She called it a "Non-traditional Blessing" and added a prayer at the end of it. For more information about it's origins; www.thesacredbraid.com/2016/07/22/a-non-traditional-blessing/
May God bless you with discontent with easy answers, half-truths, superficial relationships, so that you will live from deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, abuse, and exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, equality, and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them and to change their pain to joy.
May God bless you with the foolishness to think you can make a difference in this world, so that you will do the things which others tell you cannot be done.
On Reformation Day it is appropriate that I post this Padlet resource I have created on the paradoxes of Lutheran Theology. I made this padlet for a group of staff I was leading through a Pathways Theological session as part of their accreditation as teachers in a Lutheran School. Included in this resource is a Word document on Lutheran Paradoxes and accompanying Powerpoint file. As well as readings from Malcolm Bartsch's "A God who speaks and acts" on these theological distinctives coupled with scenarios in the school context.
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in their way, over the person who carries out evil devices! Psalm 37:7
Last time we looked at silence and noise and how addicted we can be towards not just the external noise we hear but also the noisiness that occurs inside us. Technology has an uncanny way of feeding that internal noise in not so helpful ways. Erling Kagge in “Silence; in the age of noise” says this about silence, noise and technology;
Noise in the form of anticipating a screen or keyboard is addictive, and that is why we need silence. The more we are inundated, the more we wish to be distracted…You get into a dopamine loop… Dopamine does what you desire, seek and crave. We don’t know if we have received an email, message or other form of communication so we check and recheck our phones like a one-armed bandit in the attempt to achieve satisfaction. Dopamine is not programmed to release a feeling of fulfilment even if you’ve achieved what you sought and craved; so you are never satisfied. This means I continue to google, twenty minutes after I’ve found what I was initially searching for. This is a banal predicament to find myself in. Still, I often find it easier to continue than to actually stop. I check websites that I just visited, even though I already know their content. And I relinquish a measure of control over my life in the process.
Biology has a natural explanation for my lack of common sense; we are not born to be satisfied. A different chemical in the brain, opioid, is supposed to create that feeling of happiness once you’ve achieved your goals. Unfortunately, dopamine is stronger than opioid, so even if you’ve attained all you ever dreamed of you will continue to do the same thing. Hence the dopamine loop. It is more fulfilling to anticipate and seek, to wander in circles, than simply to value and appreciate the fact that you have fulfilled your desires.
This is a form of noise that engenders anxiety and negative feelings. Most apps have one thing in common; no one uses them. Even successful apps like Twitter have eventually faced resistance. The founders are devastated that their own business idea is showing cracks and growth has slowed down. This is actually a good thing. The problem with achieving success with an app is that the service not only creates addiction – it fosters isolation as well. The basic business model of Twitter and other such social media networks is to create a need for you to use the app, which the same app should then fill, but only temporarily. The owners live off your addiction. ‘Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers,’ Nir Eyal wrote in his book “Hooked; How to build Habit-Forming Products.” I share therefore I am.
Some users get a good response when you post something on social media, while most sit waiting for anyone to care. And the more unpredictable this interaction is, the more the user is addicted. You don’t want to miss out on anything. You don’t gain happiness from such prolonged routines – rather, according to Eyal, you experience feelings of boredom, frustration, passivity and isolation…
The New York Review of Books has labelled the battle between producers of apps ‘the new opium wars’, and the paper claims ‘marketers have adopted addiction as an explicit commercial strategy’. The only difference is that pushers aren’t peddling a product that can be smoked in a pipe, but rather is ingested via sugar-coated apps.
In a way, silence is the opposite of all of this. It’s about getting inside what you are doing. Experiencing rather than over-thinking. Allowing each moment to be big enough. Not living through other people and other things. (Kagge: 46-51)
Have you experienced the dopamine loop of technology? Looking for one thing on Google which leads to twenty things, checking your emails too many times during the working day, pressing on that social media app more times than you know you need to or want to? How much time we and our students spend on technology is increasingly an important issue. Silence, being still, waiting patiently are all ways in which we can counterbalance the overuse of technology.
Two discussion questions for people in pairs:
Let’s pray; Spirit of love and connectivity, originator of emerging technologies, and ever evolving intelligences, you give me both a gift and challenge with technology. Help me choose wisely amid the endless tweets and plethora of knowledge that daily saturate my consciousness. Immerse me in the power of your grace, that in you I have all I need. May you always be the well of wisdom from which I can draw meaning to make sense of the madness of my life. That’s enough for me. Amen.
(adapted from Sister Cathy Campbell https://spsmw.org/prayer/technology-wisdom-prayer/)
The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still. Exodus 14:14
This verse comes to us through Moses at a watershed moment. The Hebrew people have escaped Egypt. They now stand between the Red Sea and the anxious noise of Pharaoh’s army that is ominously breathing down their necks. Moses says to them; the Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still. Let’s practise that now and have a period of silence for two minutes that begins and ends with this chime….
It’s amazing that when we still our minds and encounter silence, how much more attentive we are to noise. When we think about it, there are two types of noise we hear. The noise which we make ourselves because we can’t stand the silence and the external noise which surrounds us everywhere in the world. First let’s explore the latter, the external noise of headphones and earbuds, Bluetooth mobile phone pieces to the noise pollution of heavy machinery, aeroplanes, and traffic. A Harvard postgraduate student, Tim Gallati who has researched silence in terms of monastic spirituality and technology says this about noise;
We tend to background a lot of the sound and high volume activity that occurs around us. We might mistake that for coping or getting used to it. But you never really get used to it. Your body still has to process it. You don’t just hear with your ears. You hear with your whole body. We know this from walking by, say, a church organ and you feel that deep resonance in your bones, or a pounding jackhammer on a construction site. We really feel it. We’re almost like flesh and bone tuning forks.
The 2015 film “In Pursuit of Silence” explores the relationship between silence and noise and takes seriously evidence from the World Health Organisation that environmental noise has real negative health effects like cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance, tinnitus, and annoyance. Let’s watch this part of the promo for the film; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=64c_1MtQUlM (from 2min mark)
The other type of noise that we hear is the noise we make ourselves because we can’t stand silence. Listen to what Erling Kagge says about this in his book “Silence; in the age of noise”;
In a joint study from the universities of Virginia and Harvard, scientists left individuals alone in a room for six to fifteen minutes without music, reading material, the chance to write or their smartphones. They were left solely to their own thoughts. The participants ranged from 18-77 years old and were drawn from a variety of backgrounds, yet the results were the same regardless. Most felt discomfort.
A third of the participants who took the test at home admitted that they weren’t even able to complete the assignment without breaking its rules, cutting short the minutes of sitting quietly.
One group was permitted to read or listen to music but was denied contact with other people. These participants reported higher satisfaction. Many of them also thought it was helpful to look out a window.
The scientists then took the study one step further…Each participant had been subjected in advance to a similar electric shock so they would know exactly how painful the option was. And it was painful. Nevertheless, nearly half of the subjects eventually pushed on the button to administer an electrical shock in order to reduce their silent time.
What was so striking, according to the researchers, was that being alone with one’s thoughts for 15 minutes ‘was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid’. One of the participants pushed the electric shock button 190 times. (Kagge: )
There are lots of layers of noise, distractions, anxieties for God to get through for us to hear him speak to us. Apart from the noise pollution of our urbanised world, there is also the noise that we create for ourselves because we struggle to be quiet. But as you reflect on this topic of silence and noise; the good news God says to you today just as he said to the anxious Hebrews fleeing the Egyptians; The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.
There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Ecclesiastes 3:7
For many people, silence can be an unnerving thing. Something we crave but something we can equally be fearful of. From the senseless chatter of social gatherings to students who can’t help but talk in classes, many humans hide their nervousness and awkwardness by making noise. We’d rather talk about the weather, tell a joke, say anything than be comfortable sitting and being in silence.
Listen to this passage from a book by a Norwegian explorer and publisher called “Silence; in an age of noise”. The author Erling Kagge writes of the struggle in our culture of being comfortable with silence;
Contrary to what I believed when I was younger, the basic state of our brain is one of chaos. The reason that it took me so long to understand this is that my days often pass on autopilot. I sleep, wake up, check my phone, shower, eat and head off to work. Here I respond to messages, attend meetings, read and converse. My own and others’ expectations of how my day is supposed to unfold guide my hours until the hour when I lie down again to sleep.
Whenever I fall out of this rut and sit quietly in a room alone, without any goal, without anything to look at, the chaos surfaces. It is difficult only to sit there. Multiple temptations surface. My brain, which functions so well on autopilot, is no longer helpful. It’s not easy being idle when nothing else is going on, it is quiet, and you are alone. I often choose to do anything else rather than to fill the silence with myself. I have gradually come to realise that the source of many of my problems lies precisely in this struggle…
The philosopher and boredom theorist Blaise Pascal promoted this type of exploration as early as the 1600s; ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ So a discomfort with being alone, holding one’s tongue and simply being did not start with the advent of TV in the 1950s, with the coming of the internet in the 90s or with smartphones; it has always been a problem, and Pascal was probably the first to write about this feeling. The constant impulse to turn to something else – TV series, gadgets, games – grows out of a need with which we are born, rather than being a cause. This disquiet that we feel has been with us since the beginning; it is our natural state.
The present hurts wrote Pascal. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves. Of course, such opportunities for interruption have increased dramatically over the last century, a trend that seems set to continue. We live in the age of noise; silence is almost extinct. (Kagge: 36-37)
Why are we afraid of silence, and for some of us unable at times to be silent?
Silence, solitude, being alone by ourselves is where the deep stuff happens. Silence is where we are forced to be comfortable in our own skin. It is the space we enter in which we learn about ourselves. Silence is the space where God can be heard and where God hears us.
Jesus took time away from the crowds, the pressing needs of humanity, to be alone, to spend time in silence, to hear God and hear God speak to him. One of the many passages in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus being comfortable with silence is in chapter one verse thirty-five; In the morning, long before daylight, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
All through Mark’s gospel, Jesus made space for solitude and silence. So let’s spend some time as Jesus did in prayer, being comfortable in silence before we begin the busyness of our day…
Who wouldn't want to read a book written by an Scandi man who looks like this? 'Silence in an Age of Noise' is written by Erling Kagge; a Norwegian explorer, lawyer, politician, entrepreneur, publisher and author. Kagge is famous for being the first person to complete the "three poles challenge" of reaching the North and South poles and the summit of Mt Everest.
After hearing a radio interview with Kagge and reading his book I was inspired to write a series of short devotional reflections on the importance of silence for staff briefings at my college. Even though Kagge does not write from a Christian point of view, this work still has value in informing us of the necessity and challenge of finding silence in our busy, urbanised, technological world. Silence that is indeed a spiritual practice for Christians and the stillness the Holy Spirit uses to enable us to hear God. The devotions I will be posting in coming months are entitled:
Silence and Us
Silence and Noise
Silence and Technology
Silence and God
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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