A Christian Perspective On Attention, Awareness And Mindfulness

Back in July I explored the issue: Is Mindfulness based on Buddhist meditation compatible with Christianity? This produced some good discussion and interestingly is a post that continues to be fairly well read and so is obviously a question some Christians explore online.

In view of this, I requested permission from the ever excellent Mind and Soul website (Twitter) to cross-post the following written by Shaun Lambert:

A Christian Perspective On Attention, Awareness And Mindfulness

Today, as a parent, you might be praying for your child’s ability to concentrate as they take another exam. On Boxing Day 2004 Tilly Smith, a 10-year-old British girl, saved 100 tourists on a Thai beach because she noticed that the waves were receding. She remembered her geography lessons and told her mum that the beach was about to be struck by a tsunami. I wonder why she paid attention in that particular lesson with her geography teacher, Andrew Kearney?

Two thousand years ago a centurion paid attention to the present moment, and as he saw how Jesus died he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!’ (Mark 15:39). At the birth of Jesus, there were a host of unimportant people who watched, waited and paid attention, as well as some important ones: the shepherds, the magi, Simeon and Anna, and Mary who pondered and treasured all these things (‘pondered’ and ‘treasured’ are words about attention and awareness).

How about you?

Being able to sustain one’s attention is generally considered to be a good thing. I guess we might think of it as an element in concentration. Whatever we are involved in we need to be able to sustain our attention. In the Christian world, when we listen to a sermon it is an exercise in sustaining our attention. As our minds wander during the sermon it is an opportunity to practise switching our attention back to what the preacher is saying. We may catch ourselves telling an elaborate story in our head about something completely unconnected to the sermon, ruminating in a way that takes our attention away for many minutes.Within the Bible there is an implicit theology of attention and awareness. Jesus goes off very early in the morning to a solitary place to pray, which is an act of sustained attention (Mark 1:35). Peter and the disciples hunt him down and interrupt him, trying to distract him with what the crowd wants. Jesus switches his (and their) attention back to what really matters and says, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come’ (Mark 1:38).Peter and the others were swept away by the stream of thoughts and feelings prompted by the crowds, perhaps thoughts of greatness and success. Jesus wasn’t swept away by these elaborative and ruminative secondary processes that we all have and identify with. Paul teaches us that we need to catch our afflictive thoughts and feelings early: ‘In your anger do not sin’ (Ephesians 4:26). Paul also talks about how we are stuck in automatic behaviours of sin, ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do’ (Romans 7:15).

Jesus doesn’t avoid the painful reality that awaits him in Jerusalem. Three times in Mark’s Gospel he tells the disciples about how he must suffer many things, including rejection and death (Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:33-34). The disciples are guilty of experiential avoidance, and cannot face that reality, with Peter even rebuking Jesus for talking about his death (Mark 8:32). Jesus accepts what they cannot accept – reality. Jesus asks us to enter into a process of investigative awareness of what is going on in our hearts and minds: ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ (Matthew 7:3). There is an ever-changing flow of thoughts and feelings within us; ‘For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts’ (Mark 7:21).

Watchfulness

Diadochus of Photike, a fifth-century bishop who helped develop the idea of watchfulness within Christian tradition, talks about the same investigative awareness with God, where we are called to ‘track’ the ‘footprints of the Invisible One.’ Jesus asks us to discriminate between the things of God and the things of men (Mark 8:33). These moments, or states of awareness, are not automatic or automatically sustainable. Peter’s acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ is followed by his lack of understanding about why Jesus had to die upon a cross (Mark 8:29-33).

Part of the self-regulation of attention is the ability to switch our attention. Even when we are trying to sustain our attention, our minds will wander, and so we will have to switch our attention back to whatever it is we are concentrating on or attending to. So whether it is school, college, home, work, relationships or the process of Christlike transformation, we all need to be able to regulate our attention, sustain it and switch it back and forth. What it also means is not getting caught up in ruminative and elaborative patterns of thought that take our attention away from our object of focus. We all know how a train of thought can suddenly take us miles away from where we want to be. My wife very quickly spots when I am with her in body but not in spirit, as the saying goes. Children also notice this, and might hold your face in their hands and turn it towards them in order to be sure of your full attention.

At a theoretical level, these skills could be categorised as ‘metacognitive’ – that is, knowledge about and regulation of one’s learning processes. These terms – sustained attention, switching attention, self-regulation of attention, being in the present moment, elaborative and secondary processes, rumination, experiential avoidance, acceptance, intentional investigative awareness – are all terms and insights from the world of cognitive psychology. As Christians I think we can agree that they are good and God-given capacities within our minds that we should want to encourage and cultivate.

Mindfulness

They are also the first part of a proposed operational definition of mindfulness from a team of researchers.  Mindfulness as a mode of awareness that is a universal human capacity needs to be distinguished from the meditative, or mindful awareness practices, that evoke it.

Bishop et al. (2004) propose a two-component model of mindfulness: ‘The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.’[iii] Those of you familiar with mindfulness definitions will recognise the echoes of present-moment awareness, and paying attention to the streams of thoughts, feelings, ruminations, etc. within our minds.

The second component of their proposed operational definition involves adopting ‘a particular orientation towards one’s experiences in the present moment,’ which we will come back to.[iv] To continue our look at the self-regulation of attention, Bishop et al. (2004) point out the link to mindfulness. Mindfulness brings awareness ‘to current experience.’[v] What is required to maintain such an awareness are ‘skills in sustained attention.’[vi]

One of the main meditative, or mindful awareness, practices is attending to your breath. This is a reality-focused, neutral practice that anyone can do. It is not religious or spiritual. Attending to your breath develops your skills of sustained attention so that ‘thoughts, feelings, and sensations can be detected as they arise in the stream of consciousness.’[vii] In mindful awareness practice the practitioner needs to ‘bring attention back to the breath once a thought, feeling or sensation has been acknowledged.’[viii] This develops skills in switching attention which in turn makes our ability to be attentive more flexible.

There is another benefit to this self-regulation of attention. The mindful person avoids elaborative and ruminative secondary processes in their mind. Rather than ‘getting caught up in ruminative, elaborative thought streams about one’s experience and its origins, implications, and associations, mindfulness involves a direct experience of events in the mind and body.’[ix] Bishop et al. (2004) conclude that the notion of mindfulness as a metacognitive process is implied in their operational definition because it involves monitoring and control.[x]

The monitoring element is important and involves a certain orientation to experience , including curiosity and acceptance. Acceptance is defined as ‘being experientially open to the reality of the present moment.’[xi] Acceptance is often misunderstood as passivity, but it is about ‘allowing’ current thoughts, feelings and sensations (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson)’.[xii] Acceptance can helpfully be seen as the opposite of thought-suppression or experiential avoidance; it is facing the reality of the thoughts, feelings and sensations we have.

As the authors argue ‘most forms of psychopathology involve, in some way or another, the intolerance of aspects of private experience, as well as patterns of experiential avoidance in an attempt to escape private experience’ (see Hayes et al., 1996, for evidence supporting this view.)[xiii] A more skilful response to situations that provoke these more difficult feelings and thoughts can be cultivated through mindfulness.[xiv] With this orientation of curiosity and acceptance towards one’s experience, a further clarification of the definition of mindfulness can be put forth, as a ‘process of investigative awareness that involves observing the ever-changing flow of private experience.’[xv]

This is an intentional effort because the client is:

instructed to make an effort to notice each object in the stream of consciousness (e.g., a feeling), to discriminate between different elements of experience (e.g., an emotional ‘feeling’ sensation from a physical ‘touch’ sensation) and observe how one experience gives rise to another (e.g., a feeling evoking a judgmental thought and then the judgemental thought heightening the unpleasantness of the feeling).[xvi]

This is worth quoting in full because it points out how much of this is acute observation of what actually goes on in our minds, usually out of our awareness and automatically. Jesus commands us to practise this intentional investigative awareness – for example, when he says, ‘You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye’ (Matthew 7:5).

This monitoring of the stream of consciousness is likely to correlate to increased emotional awareness and psychological mindedness.[xvii] Within this monitoring is the insight that we are not our thoughts and feelings, that these are passing events and not a direct readout of reality or necessarily inherent aspects of the self.[xviii] From a Christian perspective, we would not want to lose sight of personal responsibility, but even Paul says, ‘In your anger do not sin’ (Ephesians 4:26), suggesting that anger as it first appears is a passing event and not a sin; it is what we do with it (how we elaborate on it) that can become sinful.

In summary, there are a number of things that can be said in this look at the first part of this proposed operational definition (Bishop et al., 2004)’s article. This is what they say:

we see mindfulness as a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of non-elaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance. We further see mindfulness as a process of gaining insight into the nature of one’s mind and the adoption of a de-centred perspective (Safran & Segal, 1990) on thoughts and feelings so that they can be experienced in terms of their subjectivity (versus their necessary validity) and transient nature (versus their permanence).[xix]

They also summarise mindfulness as ‘a mode of awareness that is evoked when attention is regulated in the manner described.’[xx] They argue that this mode, or psychological process, is only evoked and maintained whilst attention is being regulated in the manner they describe, with the open orientation to experience.[xxi]

An important hypothesis they put forward is that this ‘mode of awareness is not limited to meditation.’[xxii] Once the skills are learned, attention can be regulated to invoke mindfulness in many different situations.[xxiii] They speculate that psychotherapy itself may enable the capacity to evoke and utilise mindfulness.[xxiv]

A universal human capacity

If you approach mindfulness from this angle of regulated attention then there is a very strong case for mindfulness as a universal human capacity, a mode of awareness accessible to all. Its presence in many different religious traditions would suggest that it is a universal human capacity, and that there are different mindful awareness practices that can evoke it. If you look at the regulated attention practised by artists, poets,  carpenters, you can build an even stronger case for this hypothesis.

This is something I will come back to in a future article as well as the point they make further on in the article that there are a number of other constructs ‘that may be within the same general domain as mindfulness.’[xxv] Another aspect to come back to are the qualities associated with mindfulness such as compassion, nonreactivity etc., which Bishop et al. (2004) argue are ‘outcomes of having learned mindfulness skills … and are not implicit in the construct.’[xxvi]

As Christians, we need to ask difficult questions of mindfulness, but what we also have to approach it with a 360-degree focus. It is a universal human capacity. There is a Christian theology of mindfulness, and there are Christian mindful awareness practices (Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, meditation, stillness, contemplation). We need to develop new forms of mindful awareness practices that include our body, our breath, the ordinary weave of life around us. I haven’t even touched significantly on the relational aspects of mindfulness as developed by practitioners such as Daniel J Siegel (The Mindful Brain, The Mindful Therapist) which should greatly interest us.

Jesus commands watchfulness and mindfulness: ‘What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ (Jesus of Nazareth, Mark 13:37)
Some time around A.D. 700 a Latin Gospel book now known as The Lindisfarne Gospels was made by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, probably over a ten-year period. Taking Jesus’ command seriously, it was a work of sustained attention, a meditation of slow making. It is one of the wonders of the world. Such is the power of the Word and the Spirit working together with our awareness and attention. Christian mindFULLness is awareness of the presence of God at work within our own God-given capacities for attention and awareness.

Shaun Lambert,

[i] Diadochus of Photike, Following the Footsteps of the Invisible: The Complete Works of Diadochus of Photike, Introduction, Translation and Notes by Cliff Ermatinger. Liturgical Press: Collegeville, Minnesota (2010), p.69.
[ii] Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (230-241).
[iii] Ibid, p. 232.
[iv] Ibid, p.232.
[v] Ibid, p.232.
[vi] Ibid, p.232.
[vii] Ibid, p.232.
[viii] Ibid, p.232.
[ix] Teasdale, J.D., Segal, Z.V., Williams J.M.G., & Mark, G. (1995). How does cognitive therapy prevent depressive relapse and why should attentional control (mindfulness) training help? Behavior Research and Therapy, 33, 25-39, quoted in Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (232).
[x] Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 p.233.
[xi] Roemer, L., & Orsillo, S.M. (2002), quoted in Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (233).
[xii] Quoted in Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (233).
[xiii] Hayes, S.C., Wilson, K.G., Gifford, E.V., Follette, V.M. & Strosahl, K. (1996).’ Experiential avoidance and behavioural disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment’. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(6), 1152-1168. Quoted in Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (237).
[xiv] Bishop, S.R. et al. ‘Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition’ (2004). Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11 (235).
[xv] Ibid, p.234.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 234.
[xvii] Ibid, p.234.
[xviii] Ibid, p.234.
[xix] Ibid, p.234.
[xx] Ibid, p.234.
[xxi] Ibid, p.234.
[xxii] Ibid, p.234.
[xxiii] Ibid, p.235.
[xxiv] Ibid, p.235.
[xxv] Ibid, p.235.
[xxvi] Ibid, p.235.

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