Today is World Mental Health Day. As I was leaving St Mary’s, Ealing, London last weekend, having given a talk on finding hope and meaning in suffering, another group were coming in to use the church. This was a group for contemplation and prayer, and many of them had come early to hear my talk before their service. On chatting to them, they asked what I believe prayer and contemplation could offer to those of us who suffer depression, anxiety, and stress. I was able to answer them in detail, as my Masters dissertation at Oxford University was on that topic. The following article, which is adapted from an article I wrote a number of years back for the wonderful website Mind and Soul: Exploring Christianity and Mental Health, summarises my work at Oxford.
In 2006 a report on happiness in our society, written by Nick Spencer at the Theos think tank, noted that, while the British are richer than ever before, own more than ever before, and live longer and healthier lives than in the past, all the evidence suggests that people are no happier than they were thirty years ago. In fact, some studies indicate that most people are considerably less happy. Certainly, personal psychological ill-health has risen notably over the past few decades. Depression, anxiety, and stress are widespread in the UK, with the NHS spending many millions of pounds on treatments and therapy.
In recent years, a number of psychologists and psychiatrists have posited mindfulness as a tool for managing mood problems. Originating in Buddhism, mindfulness can be summarised as having a compassionate, non-judgemental awareness of the present moment. In being aware of the reality around us, we become fully alert to the sensations in our bodies, the flow of our thoughts, and the sights and sounds around us. When combined with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), research has shown that mindfulness can significantly transform a person suffering from a mood disorder. This research, led by scientist-practitioners such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, Marsha Lineham, Steven C. Hayes, and Williams/Teasdale/Segal, has become known as the third-wave of CBT.
It is, however, rarely appreciated that our own Christian tradition has much to offer in this sphere. The ancient practice of contemplative prayer is sometimes called ‘Christian meditation’, but is not to be confused with the more widespread Christian practice of discursive meditation. Contemplative prayer has had a long history in Christian tradition, and in the late twentieth-century it underwent a revival, largely led by the Roman Catholic religious orders but also promoted by a number of prominent Anglicans, Quakers, and Protestant evangelicals. Contemplation holds many similarities with mindfulness, and so a Christianised form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy could potentially be created and developed.
Those cognitive therapies that utilise mindfulness as part of treatment for mood disorders are built around three aspects of mindfulness – meditation, non-judgemental awareness, and acceptance. It is striking that Christianity has long-advocated similar principles to these three mindfulness principles, not least within the contemplative tradition of the church.
Christian meditation has been varied and diverse down the centuries. It is those techniques that bear resemblance to mindfulness meditation that could be adapted and utilised most successfully for combating mental ill-health. Many of these forms of prayer are centuries old, but have recently been developed by such contemplatives as Anthony De Mello (body-awareness prayer), Thomas Keating (centring prayer), James Finley (Christian meditation), or Thomas Ryan (prayer of heart and body). Protestant contemplatives, such as Richard Foster, Joyce Huggett, Liz Babbs, and James W. Goll, have championed similar forms of prayer. ‘Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears;’ wrote C.S. Lewis, ‘take in what there is and give no thought to what might have been there or what is somewhere else’. Just as meditation can lead to mindfulness, contemplative prayer can lead us to live contemplatively. In other words, it can help us to recognise, in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade in the eighteenth-century, the ‘sanctity of the present moment’, and can, therefore, help us to observe our thoughts and feelings in that moment.
Christian traditions are also well-versed in the concept of non-judgemental awareness. It is by resting in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ that we begin to see our prejudices and distorted thinking from an objective viewpoint – in a sense, from God’s perspective. Our false emotional programs for happiness can be dismantled, and, while we might still be encountering the same depressive thoughts and unhelpful feelings, we are able to recognise those thoughts and feelings as distorted and dangerous. Thomas Keating refers to such thoughts, memories, and feelings as the ‘false self’, while other writers have referred to them as our ‘self-will’ (Catherine of Genoa and Teresa of Avila), ‘desires’ (John of the Cross), ‘egomania’ (Richard Foster), ‘empire of self’ (James W. Goll), or ‘ego consciousness’ (James Finley). These are our attachments to security, control, affection, and esteem. In the context of a Christianised mindfulness cognitive therapy, these are our core-beliefs that have developed through reaction and habit. As a result of noticing and analysing our thoughts and feelings, these core beliefs can be purged, rejected, or adapted.
Within many Christian traditions, not least the contemplative movement, the acceptance of God’s providence is prevalent. The ‘sacrament of the present moment’ awakens us to recognise God in each and every moment of our lives, which includes times of pain and suffering, as well as more joyful and happy times. This leads to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade describes as ‘self-abandonment to divine providence’. Through recognising God’s loving purpose, even in the midst of trials and tribulation, we can joyfully surrender ourselves to God’s will in our lives. This is all part of the ‘letting go’, which many mystics have placed at the heart of happiness, contentment, and peace. If we have the courage to trust God and to submit ourselves to Him, we will not only learn to accept unfolding events, but also ‘to embrace and bless them’. This will then help us change our relationship with the negative aspects of our being and situation, and the unhelpful and distorted feelings within us will cease to control us. This ‘courage to be’ (Paul Tillich), to affirm being, in the face of our anxieties about life and about the future, is at the heart of Christian acceptance.
A number of factors would need to be in place if a contemplative programme of treatment for depression, stress, and anxiety was to be developed and sustained. Firstly, the education of laity and clergy needs to be a priority. This will counter prejudice against and misunderstanding of contemplative prayer, but also bring relationship of Christianity with mental health issues to the fore. Secondly, the training of clergy and other spiritual advisors needs to be a priority – both in traditions of contemplative prayer and in the relationship of contemplation to emotional well-being. Thirdly, the relationship between Church and mental health professionals needs to be further fostered. Both need to know about, understand, and be able to support a contemplative/meditative approach to healing. Finally, contemplative prayer groups need to be established, and ecumenical groups should be encouraged, making the groups more viable and diverse. If groups are already running, they need to be advertised more clearly and widely. Indeed, if these factors were developed and put in place, then contemplative theology could certainly hold the key to developing a Christian mindfulness, and this could significantly help those Christians suffering mental ill-health.