What is “Mindfulness”? The word crops up in my consciousness every now and then and I dismiss it as some kind of New Age fad. Perhaps it is, in the sense of being a modern, secular idea, advertised and practised by well-known media people like Ruby Wax, but it is more than a fad. At least, that is the theme of Tom Chivers’ article in the Telegraph yesterday, entitled “Mindfulness is certainly living in the moment”. He argues that the technique, said to be based on ancient Buddhist meditation, and used to counter depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, actually does work.
Mindfulness means concentrating on the “moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment”; as Chivers puts it, being attentive to “the here and now: the sound of the car horn that is honking behind you, the feeling of the tightness in your chest that it evokes; focusing on the sensations themselves, not what the sensations mean.” This, he suggests, helps to reduce stress.
Recent research supports him. Apparently a 2010 meta-analysis of 39 studies “found that mindfulness is an effective treatment for anxiety and mood disorders.” It seems that people with depression tend to fixate on the past, whereas people with anxiety disorders tend to worry about the future. “Helping people who have suffered from these things to focus on the moment can help stave off future attacks, and to become aware of, and in control of, negative emotions.”
Whenever I read article like this (I have also read Ruby Wax’s own account of how mindfulness has helped her conquer her own mental health issues) I immediately think that the saints have been practising meditation techniques like this for two thousand years and that this is merely the secular world’s current way of trying to cope with the stresses and difficulties of daily life that we all face. Christian meditation, which is a form of prayer from a rich and ancient source, takes you straight into the present moment but on a supernatural level, where all the natural sorrows of life are seen from a divine perspective – i.e. their true perspective.
Prayer, as the Penny Catechism defined it, is “the raising of the mind and heart to God”. This is “mindfulness” in its most complete sense when, along with the “heart”, traditionally the seat of love, we rest in the presence of God. Many holy people practise this quite naturally, without having to work at a mental technique at all. I think of the anecdote of the Cure of Ars and the old peasant who sat in church day after day and who told the Cure that it was very simple: “I look at Him and He looks at me.” All the daily cares concerning crops, harvest, the weather and everything else that would have dominated the lives of the inhabitants of Ars, fall away with this wonderfully simple definition of prayer.
Stress is very common in our society today and I wouldn’t rubbish anything that has a good claim to mitigate people’s struggles with anxiety and depression. But I would say it is only a tiny bit of the whole story of our lives, what its purpose is, who we are and where we are headed. I learnt recently that the supernatural virtue of faith is meant to heal the wounded intellect; that the supernatural virtue of hope is meant to heal the wounded memory; and the supernatural virtue of charity is there to heal the wounded will. So really, if we practise faith, hope and charity we shouldn’t need any mental “techniques” at all. Except that, being modern, restless, faithless and fearful, we do.
I’ll close with a quote from St John Paul II: “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” Let’s be mindful of that; it says it all.