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Vicar's Musings for Ordinary Sunday 11

16 June, 2013

The noun "mindfulness" is defined in dictionaries as the trait of being aware of, or paying close attention to something. I might show mindfulness in the way I relate to other people, or in taking up my responsibilities in the workplace. It is also a Buddhist concept that has been popularized more recently in the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others, and is often taught as a non-religious therapeutic or stress-relief technique. Dr Craig Hassed, for example, has established a paper in mindfulness that all medical students at Monash University are required to sit. He developed it as a response to the high levels of burnout and stress-related illnesses in the medical profession. A number of schools, such as Geelong Grammar, are also teaching mindfulness to their students as part of their health and wellbeing curriculum. There is a growing body of empirical evidence that affirms the efficacy of such programmes. Dr Hassed describes mindfulness in this way (Know Thyself: the Stress Release Programme, 2002, p. 42): "This includes concentration on the breath ... or focusing on one or all of the five senses, for example listening. The mental clarity and focus often produced is echoed in phrases such as 'coming to our senses' or 'getting in touch.' Such exercises bring the mind into a state of greater perceptiveness in the present moment."

To those familiar with Christian meditation techniques, this will all sound very familiar. Two Benedictine monks, John Main and Laurence Feeman, have forged a similar movement within the churches drawing from the great contemplative prayer traditions of the Christian faith. Our Wednesday meditation group at St Peter's is currently reading and meditating on the medieval classic on contemplative prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing, which is the main text used by John Main to develop his idea of "Centering Prayer." Chapter 9 articulates succinctly this "dark contemplation" that is experienced when we intentionally put our thoughts to one side and move in prayer from our heads to our hearts (The Cloud of Unknowing: Contemporary English Edition, 2006, p. 18):

Resist intense mental activity when seeking this dark contemplation. Intellectual activity will hinder you. When you want to be alone with God, the conceptualizations of your mind will sneak into play. Rather than this darkness, our intellectual ability prefers a clear picture of something less than God. Such mental pictures, as pleasant as they may be, stand between you and God. Resist them. For the health of your soul, pleasing God, and helping others, engage in a blind impulse of love toward God alone, a secret love beating on this cloud of unknowing. Seeking God this way is superior to seeing all the angels and saints in heaven, or hearing the laughter and music of those in bliss. If you experience divine contemplation once on this level, you will agree I am not exaggerating. There is no way you will ever have a clear vision of God in this life, but you can have the gracious feeling I describe, if God grants it. Therefore, lift up your love to that cloud. More accurately, let God draw your love up to that cloud. Let God's grace help you to forget everything other than God. If all you are seeking is God, you will not be content with anything else.

The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster



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