Mindfulness and Contemplation

What's the Difference?

Like a gentle stream, mindfulness and contemplative prayer both seek clarity. Yet only prayer seeks the face of God.

Like a gentle stream, mindfulness and contemplative prayer both seek clarity. Silent prayer also seeks the face of God.

Recently a reader left the following comment on this blog:

I have been reading and tried to practice the way of a contemplative life although poorly I believe. But my hunger for anything on the topic of contemplation continues. Recently I have also been enticed into “mindfulness” practices. Now what or how do you relation contemplation and Mindfulness? They’re beginning to sound that there is a correlation? Thank you!

Thanks for your comment. First of all, we are all “poor” when it comes to contemplation; it is the human condition to have distracted minds, unruly emotions, and fidgety bodies; our fast-paced, hi-tech, entertainment-besotted culture generally makes it worse. So please be gentle with yourself. When you enter your time for silence in the presence of God, seek to be gentle, to relax, to rest in the unseen presence.

Allow every distracting thought and emotion which arises within you to be simply another reminder that you seek the silence and the rest which lies deeper within. There’s an old joke that the princess has to kiss a lot of frogs before she finds her prince — likewise, contemplatives have to gently turn away from many distractions before we find rest in the silence.

Mindfulness comes from a Pali word, sati, which means “mindfulness” or “awareness” and points to an important concept within Buddhist meditation practice — indeed, “right mindfulness” is the seventh of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. So in a general sense, mindfulness (awareness) is simply a foundational element of a meditation practice: awareness, clarity, attentiveness, these are the core elements of mindfulness.

It implies waking up from the web of distractions that normally cloud human consciousness, so that we may engage with life from a place of intentional, “being present” to what simply and truly is, rather than remaining lost in the funhouse of our never-ending internal commentary and criticism of what we experience.

So, while it has a Buddhist provenance, mindfulness in this sati sense is simply a positive quality that emerges from any kind of disciplined meditation practice (and Christian contemplation or silent prayer does qualify as a meditation practice). But I suspect when you speak of mindfulness, you may be referring to the secularized meditation/wellness practice called “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” or MBSR, which was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s.

Kabat-Zinn is a student of Buddhism, but it’s my understanding that MBSR explicitly intends to be a non-religious practice, aimed at mental and physical well-being. I’ve only taken one MBSR class, and was taught several practices, including a generic type of meditation, some gentle yoga postures, meditative walking, and “body scanning” (a relaxation technique involving paying attention in a gentle way to each part of the body while sitting or lying down). It’s my understanding that this has become a hot topic in research circles, looking for measurable benefits that MBSR practice can provide to people who suffer from chronic pain, anxiety, depression, or other concerns.

There’s a kind of trendiness to mindfulness practices. And naturally, that has led to a bit of backlash, too. The Spectator in the United Kingdom recently ran an article by Melanie McDonagh called Mindfulness is Something Worse Than Just a Smug Middle Class Trend. It’s well worth reading. Here’s a snippet for you:

An important element of the practice is to eschew judgmentalism; to observe and accept ourselves and our surroundings with compassion. Which sounds dandy, except that there are some things about ourselves and our situation which we jolly well shouldn’t be non-judgmental about, which we should be trying to change… This brings me to what really annoys me about being mindful, which is that as far as I can gather, it’s Mostly About Me. Sitting concentrating on your breathing is a good way to chill out and de-stress, but it’s not a particularly good end in itself. Radiating compassion is fine, but it doesn’t obviously translate into action. Where’s the bit about feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, all the virtues that Christianity extols? Where in fact is your neighbour in this practice of self-obsession? … Mindfulness may be the new religion — but it’s no substitute for the old one.

Is she being a bit unfair? You can decide for yourself. But I can tell you, she’s not the only one who worries about this. In fact, I first ran into criticism of the mindfulness movement from Buddhists, who were concerned that it was a “dumbing down” of Buddhism that gave consumeristic Americans a handy little practice for feeling good, but without the ethical and transformational demands of the Buddha’s teachings.

Christians, likewise, recognize that silent prayer needs to be embedded in an entire life oriented to being more Christ-like: in other words, the proof of our spiritual maturity lies not in how good our silent prayer is, but in how good our actions are.

But let me hasten to say that I am hesitant to simply say I agree with McDonagh and that the mindfulness fad is bad news. I don’t go that far, because I do believe MBSR really does have health & wellness benefits. Here’s how I see it: secular mindfulness practices are good, Buddhist and other eastern meditation practices are better, and theo-centric (God-centered) contemplative practices (like Christian silent prayer) are the best of all.

Why do I make this claim? In silent prayer, we seek not only wellness (the purpose of MBSR) and enlightenment (the aim of eastern meditation), but also intimacy with God.

Granted, I am writing as a Christian, with a Christian world-view, and others are free to disagree with me. But what I love about Christian spirituality is that I’m never alone: I’m always invited into the presence of Unconditional Love, who is not just a “force” but a Person. I enter silence because God loves me and because intentional, prayerful silence is a way to respond to that love (Psalm 46:10) and even a way to praise that love (Psalm 65:1).

It’s also about becoming a more Christ-like person, which means a holy person, or at least someone who seeks to be holy. It means self-emptying, or kenosis. It means entering silence not merely as a means of self-help or personal growth, but in the interest of an ever-deepening relationship — with God, with Love.

But wellness is good, and MBSR is a wonderful way to use meditation and other relaxation/awareness practices in the service of wellness. Likewise, the quest for enlightenment or illumination is good, and eastern spiritual practices like shamatha or zazen are great tools in the service of that kind of spiritual growth or even liberation. What I love about Christian silent prayer — contemplation — is that it includes all of the above, but goes even further, in that it is grounded not just in wellness or in personal enlightenment, but in union with God — union with Divine Love. That’s what keeps me returning to the silence every day.

Thanks for your question. And enjoy your journey!

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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22 thoughts on “Mindfulness and Contemplation

  1. Most critics of mindfulness miss what it is really about which is developing freedom from thoughts which usually inhibit our experience of others, ourselves and the world around us. It isn’t a self-centred practice and it isn’t about feeling good. It is about observing thoughts (about ourselves, about the feelings we are experiencing) and then returning to the breath. The point is precisely to detach ourselves from self-centredness. And it does not encourage us to avoid making judgements in iur daily lives. It helps us free ourselves from those judgements that stifle our ability to love and to live. I think Christians could learn a lot from the practice, and do themselves and their faith a great disservice by reacting defensively to, and misrepresenting, the practice of mindfulness.
    Tim Gay, Hampshire, UK

    • Thanks for your comment, and I appreciate your defense of mindfulness. To repeat what I said in my post, I first encountered criticism of mindfulness not from Christians, but from Buddhists. Meanwhile, I don’t think you’re addressing the main point of my post, which is to consider how mindfulness and contemplative prayer differ.

  2. Thanks for your comment Carl.
    I was responding to your question about whether Melanie McDonagh’s criticism was fair. I think they were inaccurate.

    Tim

    • Maybe as an American I have a different perspective, but I do worry that, at least in America with its overarching consumer culture, secular mindfulness practices sometimes seem to be embedded in a narrative that says “do this and you will feel better and have more control over your life and health.” Look, for example, at this post from Harvard: Benefits of Mindfulness. It’s the limitations of that narrative, more than the practice itself, that troubles me. As for the practice of mindfulness meditation itself — I think you did a nice job at describing how it invites us out of the cocoon of our cognitive judgment, which is very similar indeed to the practice of contemplation.

  3. Very nice explanation Carl! I teach Christian contemplative studies and practices AND Mindfulness meditation, both. I am a scientist by trade, so I read a lot about and fully agree with the multitude of data supporting the benefits of meditation. I have personally experienced the benefits of meditation/contempative prayer as well. I applaud you for taking a positive perspective on both Christian contemplative practice and mindfulness meditation. We need that positivity and good explanations for the practices, such as you have shared. Thank you!!

    • Thanks, Peggy. I hope people will sense that my position is basically “it’s all good” although I do find particular value in the spiritual wisdom that embraces the Christian practice of silent prayer. But I also understand that for many people, the Christian narrative is difficult to believe, or else painful (usually because of a past wounding in a Christian context). For such persons, the Christian narrative might be a stumbling block to contemplation, and yet the secular mindfulness practice could be very healing. I certainly would commend it particularly in those circumstances.

  4. I agree, Carl, that some people’s motives for wanting or selling mindfulness are questionable.
    For me the key difference between Mindfulness and Contemplative Prayer is that, while both enable us to live fully in the present moment, for those of us who are Christian, that present moment is saturated with the presence of God.

  5. Thanks Carl for this helpful blog. Would it be correct to say that the difference between Christian contemplation and say zazen is the Intention? ; to quote Thomas Keating. One could be practicing zazen ,hence focusing on the breath , but with the intention of being with God even though he is not thinking about Him. Or in the case of Centering Prayer , one is simply being in the present moment ,or at least attempting to , and not focussing on anything at all ( not even God) yet is aware of all thoughts( including thoughts of the mind , bodily sensations , noise ect) and allowing them to come and go but with the intention of being with God. Could I have your thoughts on this please.

    • Peter, thanks for your comment. Silence is silence is silence. So I agree, the distinctions (between Christian contemplation, Buddhist zazen, secular MBSR, and whatever other non-discursive meditation practices you could come up with) really happen not in the silence itself, but in the way we understand it, approach it, think about it, talk about it, and relate it to the rest of our lives. So yes, intention is a major variant. Silence really exists beyond human experience, since “experience” implies an ego that is experiencing an object of experience — whereas deep meditation takes us to a silent place where the distinctions between subject and object simply fall away. So it’s not so much about what we experience in silence/meditation/contemplation, as it is about how we talk about, think about, and relate to silence/meditation the rest of the time. Hope that’s not too confusing! But again, the short answer is “yes” — our intention really does illuminate the distinction between different meditation practices and their cultural contexts.

  6. Mr. McColman, do you “think” while in contemplation that God is in your presence? Or is the mind quiet as much as possible, and what is done after you stand back up is that which makes Christian contemplation different from zazen and secular meditation? Meaning — does your religious and philosophical outlook make one practice different from another, yet the mind remains still while doing all of the above mentioned meditation practices? The truth is I’m still trying to put a label upon what I do. I was taught zazen by a Zen priest 4 1/2 years ago, but I don’t do many Buddhist practices (metta is nice, though) and I think of myself as a Roman Catholic Christian even if I may be too liberal socially for that label to be 100 percent accurate. Regardless, thank you for your time and your blogs. You are a great teacher.

    • John, I could probably write a book in reply to your question! It’s a good one. But I’ll try to keep it brief. Having been taught several eastern practices, and having been a longstanding practitioner of centering prayer, I would say that the practice of silence in itself is the same across traditions. The whole point is to surrender thoughts, even “pious” thoughts about God, Christ, holiness, etc. But the way we think about, talk about, understand silence outside of the practice itself makes a difference in who we are, and how we are formed spiritually. As a theist and a practitioner of Christian contemplation, I understand that paying attention to silence is a way to get out of my own way and make myself available for God, even if I feel “nothing”. As Keating says, centering prayer is a way of consenting to God’s presence, but carries no assumptions or expectations about experience, or feelings, or visions, etc. Now, why is this narrative important? Why not just practice mindfulness, appreciate its health and wellness benefits, and leave it at that? Well, again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with secular mindfulness, but even if you are standing by a waterfall, if you are not intentionally listening for the roar of the water as it tumbles down, you will probably miss it. In other words, Christianity is all about remembering: remembering who God is, remembering who we are (created in God’s image and likeness), and remembering that God loves us and calls us to be holy. In this context, the practice of contemplation, in which we learn to be detached from the drama of our own thoughts and feelings, makes us more supple and capable of being formed by the quiet work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That doesn’t mean we can just be passive about our faith: that’s the heresy of quietism. We are still called to actively repent, seek virtue, perform works of mercy, advocate for justice, live love. But I am persuaded that a daily practice of silent prayer makes us more humble, better listeners, more willing to acknowledge that we don’t know all the answers or have everything figured out, and in general places us in a better position to receive the grace God showers upon us.

      Once again, I’m not trying to suggest that secular or eastern meditators have no access to God’s grace — of course they do, because we know that God loves everyone without condition. But I do believe that the Christian contemplative narrative primes the pump, as it were, and helps to make us more intentional about God’s transforming grace and less likely to miss it when it comes pouring down.

      Well, this turned into a longwinded discourse after all! But I hope it’s helpful. And please call me Carl — “Mr. McColman” is my dad. 🙂

  7. Hello,
    Thank you for your post. It is my first time reading your work. My comment is, I think that God works in mysterious ways and if we slow down enough to meditate for our health, it offers Him an opportunity to enter and perhaps begin to transform us without our knowing.
    Blessings,
    Christie

    • Christie, I agree totally. Which is why I think mindfulness is still a very good practice, it obviously has good natural benefits (reduced blood pressure, greater sense of calm/well-being, etc.) and it certainly can be used by God to God’s glory. And I think for all of us, God’s transforming grace in our lives usually works on us “without our knowing.” Thanks be to God.

    • Could not agree more. Keep it simple. God indeed is beyond all our thinking and he moves in whatever way he chooses. To be conscious of one’s health by practising mindfulness can only do a person good and have a good affect on all those they encounter through life. So it is not self seeking. At the end of the day God takes us a step at a time to where He wants us to be and transforms us in many ways beyond our own understanding.

  8. I really want to comment here but my response is coming purely from my own experiences and is not a criticism of mindfulness practice. These are merely my observations…over 30 years ago, after 3 years of quite intense anxiety, I went through a beautiful period and one that I can only describe as a period of consolation. As a complete novice I believed that it was dissolving all my inner anxieties and that I had achieved a state of closeness to God. Previously to this I had thought mediation and even praying were just mumbo jumbo. But all of a sudden it seemed I could sit quietly and my thoughts would just dissolve, leaving whatever was left of me in a form of beautiful and mystical union. I was “Home!”

    That was 30 years ago. This period lasted for several years and then began to fade. Since that time my life seems to have consisted of an underlying sense of distance from God and, well, some pretty dark times of anxiety and depression. Yet ( on a good day!) I can see this as a time of clearing out the unresolved emotional issues and unconscious material.

    I suppose the point I’m trying to make, from my own experiences and from what I’ve read and heard, is that this isn’t unusual…a “honeymoon” period followed by the painful process of shedding quite painful material. And I think that’s what worries me about mindfulness as it is being currently promoted. Little is said about the possibility of the painful side. Although, of course, it could be equally valid that others have nothing to shed and there may be no uncomfortable side to experience.

    • Thanks, Jackie. One of the most renowned of 20th-century authorities on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, wrote at length about what she called “the purification of the self.” It is not an optional part of the spiritual life! To say the contemplative life only entails consolation and bliss is not only inaccurate, but usually a sign that someone has not gone too far into the daily practice. I think Mother Teresa is here very instructive: someone whose sense of desolation and the absence of God was so excruciating, and yet who in the dark night of faith truly lived a holy life. May she be an inspiration to us all.

  9. Thank you, Carl. I found your reply very encouraging and Im going to look at more on the purification of the soul. I’ve tried St John’s Dark Night of the Soul but have found it quite difficult to absorb.

    My previous post, though honestly written, was, in part, trying to convey how naive I was 30 years ago and I’m not sure that I achieved my aim? I truly believed that I was at the end of a journey, not right at the beginning of a very long path! And that is my main reservation about the simple mindfulness approach. I know so many people who are experiencing painful emotional problems and who think that mindfulness practice will resolve these issues quickly and permanently.

    I’m currently reading Come Be My Light although I read that Mother Teresa didn’t wish her correspondence to be published.

  10. Wonderful thoughts on mindfulness and contemplation.

    A few reflections on mindfulness (if you want to read a deeply informed critique of secular mindfulness, look at B. Alan Wallace’s “Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic”). I’m sure each person brings to mindfulness practice a unique perspective and may benefit from even the most down to earth, stress-management oriented, secular mindfulness practice (I conducted research on how mindfulness can reduce physical pain – and believe me, if you’re in pain, and able to use mindfulness, no logical arguments should dissuade you from trying it!).

    however, at least in the US, I do think it’s true that many of us seek “techniques” (one can make going to church or even centering prayer a rote, mechanical technique) to assuage our personal pain, rather than to manifest love and compassion in our actions. To deal with this concern, as Jan (my wife) and I were building a website on mindfulness and the brain, we decided to have a special page called, “The Most Important Page’ to emphasize the importance of practice in the context of compassionate action in the community (http://www.remember-to-breathe.org/The-Most-Important-Page.html)

    And just a final reflection on “eastern” mindfulness vs Christian prayer. I’m aware that many if not most Westerners with some familiarity with Asian religion tend to conceptualize it as being of a piece – about “waking up” to some kind of impersonal Infinite in which one loses one’s identity altogether. But in practice – at least in India (and in many other parts of Asia as well) the devotional religions, which accept a Personal God and don’t see losing one’s individuality as the end goal of spirituality, were overwhelmingly popular compared to the relatively few well educated elite who found the more “wisdom” oriented non dualist practices more appealing.

    Although i’ve perhaps found the greatest wisdom on the integration of these two – the devotional and “wisdom” or knowledge paths – from Sri Aurobindo, my heart has been deeply moved for many decades since discovering Sri Krishna Prem’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita back in 1975. Born Ronald Nixon, becoming disenchanted with the modern west after flying as a fighter pilot in World War I, he moved to Lucknow India after graduating from Cambridge and ultimately became the first westerner ever accepted by the devotionally oriented “Vaishnava” order (worshippers of Krishna).

    His teaching became more and more universalized over the years and he was recognized by the great Ramana Maharshi as exhibiting a “rare combination of devotion and wisdom” (bhakti and jnana)

    As he writes at the end of his Gita Commentary, integrating the two: “Sublimely sweep the heavenly spheres in their impersonally ordered rhythm: profoundly surge the great impersonal tides of ocean; calm with an utter peace is all-enfolding Space. Torn by our personal passions, weary of our personal complexities, bewildered at our inability to manage our personal relationships, we escape with relief into the liberating experience of impersonality and a marvelous calm descends upon our lacerated hearts. Yet who can hold with mountain, sea or sky that spiritual converse that man holds with man. it is only against our personal background, only because we stand all the time on a firm basis of personal feeling, that we are able to enjoy the adventure into impersonality. Hidden in the very heart of our personal rottenness is the mystic Jewel, unknown to the impersonal being of Gods, who therefore covet human birth, the innermost treasure of man, Sri Krishna’s richest and intensest being, approachable alone through personal surrender and personal love.”

  11. Found this very helpful and agree with you on many points. When we “put on Christ” thru Christian contemplation we will move into action. Action and contemplation, a never ending circle.