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A Mindful Response to Remembrance

It is not enough to remember the past: to honour the past we have to make a difference in the present. The Embodied Gospel and contemplative practices enable us to bring peace in our freedom, writes Shaun Lambert

Of all people, Christians should value embodied sacrificial giving. As we come together for Remembrance Day services and events to commemorate the sacrifice of Service men and women, Jesus’ own sacrificial death on the cross lies at the heart of the embodied Gospel. The root meaning of the word often translated as mindful in New Testament Greek is ‘remember,’ so is there a mindful response to honouring the past by responding in an embodied way in the present?

Picture: Stuart Miles/freedigitalphotos.net

The marble statue was crumbling in front of me. A web of cracks began to appear on the beautiful smooth surface of the body. I suddenly realised this statue had feelings and thoughts as well as physical sensations. I then understood that the marble statue was me, my body, which I hadn’t been paying attention to. It had been sending me messages, and I hadn’t been listening. It seemed too late to stop myself falling apart, and I realised in the moment that falling apart is an embodied experience.

What helped me reinhabit my body were secular mindful awareness practices, because mindfulness is embodied awareness. Christian meditative prayers like the Jesus Prayer – an ancient Orthodox breath prayer which repeats the refrain, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ – also helped me dwell in my body again in an aware way. That’s because meditative prayer as a contemplative practice is an embodied experience.

I hear from many Christians who have been taught to separate body, mind and soul – more than that, to be suspicious of the body, emotions and meditation. This is perhaps why Christian meditative prayer has been sidelined as a mainstream Evangelical focus. We can also see this suspicion at work in the church when it comes to mental health, where there is still stigma, misunderstanding, myth and an over-spiritualised approach which says, ‘spirit good; body bad!’ This is very sad, as mindful awareness or meditative practices have been shown to bring healing and wholeness to a wide range of mental health vulnerabilities like anxiety and depression, and to more overtly embodied conditions such as chronic pain.

Interestingly, when you practise mindfulness, you realise that you are not a divided creature with a separate mind, body and soul; rather you are  an integrated whole embodied person. This is because mindfulness is our inbuilt embodied awareness of physical sensations, thoughts and feelings, as well as external stimuli and their inter-connectedness. The family of meditative practices help develop that awareness.

The over-spiritualised approach in the church doesn’t dismiss just Christian contemplative and meditative practices, but also secular embodied mindful or meditative practices, as if Christians do not need to mind their bodies.

As well as the empirical research in support of secular meditative or mindful awareness practices, there is growing research into the positive benefits of Christian meditative prayers like lectio divina (a slow, meditative reading of Scripture) and breath prayers like the Jesus Prayer and Thomas Keating’s Centering prayer.

It is also being recognised that, conceptually, these Christian meditative prayers overlap with secular mindfulness theory and practice. There is a shared focus on the present moment and the use of attentional abilities in both focused attention and open awareness, whether to the breath or to the divine presence.

There are also physical, emotional and transformational effects in terms of our relational abilities. Peter Jankowski and Steven J. Sandage have done some research in this area and have shown that Christian meditative prayers help develop dispositional gratitude, forgiveness and intercultural competence.[1]

In dispositional gratitude, gratitude is seen as noticing the positive and becomes a character trait, a cognitive and emotional pattern and way of thinking within. This is enhanced through meditative prayer. In a world driven by fear-focused media with an emphasis on the negative, meditative prayer is very important in terms of us noticing the positive and not being shaped by the fearful patterns of this world.

Intercultural competence is a similar construct to cultural intelligence and involves ‘accurately perceiving cultural differences and commonalities’ as well as ‘acting in culturally appropriate and sensitive ways.’[2]

This, too, is enhanced through meditative prayer. Living in Harrow, the most religiously and ethnically diverse borough in Western Europe, I recognise the need to be cultivating practices that develop intercultural and interreligious sensitivity. Interestingly, people from different faith backgrounds are reaching out to us to enter into dialogue in new ways, perhaps because of tensions in the wider world.

Jankowski and Sandage believe this relational transformation occurs because meditative prayer helps develop what they call ‘Differentiation of self’ (DoS).[3] DoS involves ‘self-monitoring affective states and the relational impulses of closeness and distance, and engaging in nonreactive , prosocial interpersonal relating.’[4]

This emotional self-regulation enables the differentiated self to respond rather than react to intense inner emotional states, as well as respond and not react to those who are different, because the central posture of this self is based not on fear but on positive emotions like love, compassion and gratitude. They believe from their research that meditative prayer may foster ‘positive emotion and self-regulation capacity’, which in turn enables the navigation of cultural differences.[5]

They also argue that there is a correspondence between meditative prayer and the construct of mindfulness, and that meditative prayer can be conceptualised as a ‘mindful contemplative practice’.[6]

I think there are a number of challenges in this research for us. The first is the need to reintroduce Christian meditative prayers, recognising them as mindful contemplative practices. These meditative prayers enable us to embody the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour to our neighbours. The second is the need for more research to be done in this area, and furthering the integration of theology and psychology, and spirituality and psychology. The third challenge is to ask, how else we can  rediscover what many scholars are now calling ‘the embodied Gospel.’

Shaun Lambert is a trained counsellor and psychotherapist as well as being Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church.

The second edition of ‘A Book of Sparks – a Study in Christian MindFullness’ is published by Instant Apostle and is available on-line and from bookshops. 

[1] Peter J. Jankowski & Steven J. Sandage, ‘Meditative Prayer and Intercultural Competence: Empirical Test of a Differentiation-Based Model,’ Mindfulness 5,(2014): 360-372.
[2] Jankowski & Sandage, ‘Meditative Prayer and Intercultural Competence’, 360.
[3] Jankowski & Sandage, ‘Meditative Prayer and Intercultural Competence’, 361.
[4] Jankowski & Sandage, ‘Meditative Prayer and Intercultural Competence’, 361.
[5] Jankowski & Sandage, ‘Meditative Prayer and Intercultural Competence’, 370.
[6] Jankowski & Sandage, ‘Meditative Prayer and Intercultural Competence’, 367.
Shaun Lambert, 07/11/2014
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