In recent decades, especially with the rise of those who wish to identify themselves as spiritual persons apart from participation in any particular religious tradition, mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword, a spiritual trend that many have latched onto in the hopes of furthering their connection with the divine reality, or themselves. While mindfulness, as it is spoken of today, is largely borrowed from the Buddhist tradition, its introduction to the West was predominantly due to the writings and teachings of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who became aware of the practice after studying with a variety of Buddhist teachers, but now rejects the label of Buddhist for himself. Unsurprisingly, considering its primary Western advocate and the fact that mindfulness has slowly become detached from its original religious context, it has become a more free-floating spiritual practice, one unmoored from any religious tradition at all. This can be potentially seen as a positive thing as it opens it up to persons from a variety of traditions and backgrounds who may not be receptive to it otherwise. However, for a spiritual practice to be transformative, a vocabulary, a context, is needed to make sense of whatever insights are gleaned from one’s participation in it. One particular context that may allow mindfulness to realize its potential meaningfulness for its practitioners is Christianity, and that possibility is explored by Tim Stead in his recent book, Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality. Stead is an Anglican priest and accredited mindfulness teacher who recognizes mindfulness’ ability to help practitioners live fuller lives, and this recognition, alongside his commitment to the Christian faith, places him in a unique position to offer the gifts of mindfulness to those Christians who would otherwise be wary of a “foreign,” non-Christian practice.
Stead writes for a general audience so that any Christian, regardless of their prior knowledge of the topics at hand, could pick up this book and understand it. However, this means that the book is perhaps less suited for those who have already considered these questions themselves and are already familiar with mindfulness or the Christian mystical tradition. For these readers, the first section which is devoted to outlining what mindfulness is within the mainstream and clinical worlds, as well as within the Christian tradition, may seem redundant even as it lays necessary groundwork for the rest of the book. This first section also includes Stead’s recounting of how he discovered and fell in love with the practice himself, which is a helpful and confessional account that concretely shows the positive effects practicing mindfulness has had for him.
Less successful is the book’s second section where Stead attempts to sketch out how mindfulness can inform Christian theology and our interpretation of scripture. This is not a problematic endeavor on its own. For example, it seems fair for one to claim that Jesus himself, as depicted in the scriptures, had some affinity towards a contemplative life and that there are similarities between his view of the world and that which mindfulness helps a practitioner to harness for themselves. However, it strikes me as going too far to claim Jesus as “mindful” in the sense that those who practice mindfulness in 2017 are, for it seeks to impose a label upon Jesus that would have been foreign to him or anyone else living in first century Palestine. Stead does not go quite that far, but nevertheless, seeks to use Jesus in order to legitimize mindfulness for his Christian readers, which cheapens both Jesus and mindfulness in the process – entering them into a partnership that is both forced and unnecessary. This, however, is representative of the second section’s failings for it attempts to unite precepts of mindfulness with traditional Christian doctrine in a way that makes a certain amount of sense, but nevertheless seems awkward and unfulfilling.
Stead does his best work when he shows how mindfulness helps Christians to perform their faith in new, life-giving ways. Stead believes that mindfulness can help overcome traditional shortcomings in the Christian tradition through its emphases on embodiment, experiential knowing, and an attitude of foregoing judgment and criticism of oneself. Historically, the Christian tradition has opposed all of these by emphasizing the intellect over one’s own experience, the value of the spirit over against the body, and by focusing so much on one’s shortcomings or sins. While these restrictions are so ingrained to have become unquestioned, they are nevertheless harmful as they lead persons of faith to deny the fullness of their existence and chastise themselves far more than a loving God would ever desire. To name just one example of how mindfulness may aid in this regard, the emphasis mindfulness places on non-judging awareness of one’s feelings and experiences may help one to feel compassion for themselves in a way they had not been able to before, learning to see themselves, at least in part, as God sees them. Mindfulness is certainly not be the only practice that can lead to such a breakthrough, yet it must not be scorned as a spiritual dead end for Christians either.
Alongside his more descriptive work regarding the relationship between mindfulness and Christian spirituality is a smattering of practices Stead invites the reader to partake in throughout the book. These give practical insight into just what he is writing about and how the reader can actualize some of these gifts for themselves. They prompt the reader to take a break from analyzing the book’s arguments so they may make use of it personally – no longer engaging with the book in a solely intellectual manner, but in a spiritual one as well. This is very fitting for a book such as this as it allows readers to test Stead’s claims for themselves and see whether or not mindfulness is a practice that may be of use to them in their own spiritual journeys.
Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality is a worthwhile contribution, offering insights on the interplay between the two that will likely prove most useful to Christians who are looking for a new way to enliven a spiritual life that has become staid and stagnant. However, for those who have already considered the relationship between mindfulness and Christian faith, or who have read other books on these topics before, this may prove to be a redundant text for them. Yet even for those persons, there are some insights sprinkled throughout this volume that may nevertheless catch their attention and cause them to see a Gospel story, God, or themselves in a slightly different light and perhaps that is enough.
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