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.
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