Dear Donagh,

…. Would you recommend mindfulness?  I have a couple of friends who swear by it.  But I notice that you write alot about meditation but not about mindfulness.  Is a mindfulness course a worthwhile thing to do?  I'd like to hear your views on it….  Jennifer

Dear Jennifer,

A great many of the practices that have become common today are like Venn diagrams – circles that partially overlap.  There is a lot of common ground, especially between meditation and mindfulness.  Mindfulness is meditation on the hoof, you might say.  In fact most forms of meditation incorporate what could be called ‘mindful walking’ between periods of sitting.  In Zen this is called kinhin.  Anything (not just kinhin) that we do with full awareness could be called ‘mindfulness’.  Meditation has to leak into the rest of our day – otherwise it doesn’t have a lot of significance.   

A friend of mine worked for many years with the deaf.  When she moved from regular teaching to that work, she was very struck by the intensity of attention that deaf children pay to everything and everyone.  Yes, that would come as a big shock to any teacher! Rapt attention to their teachers is not something we associate with children.  In this noisy age inattention is the new normal for adults too.  Ears, it seems, are for not hearing.  Everyone has ears, but not everyone has ears to hear.  “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Mk 4:9 (also 4:23; Lk 8:8; 14:35).  Likewise eyes are for not seeing: we see so much that we don’t really look at anything.  And we’ve almost lost the sense of smell.  We still use the phrase, “I smell danger,” but we don’t really.  The animals do, because unlike us they depend on the sense of smell for survival; with us it has begun to atrophy.  People go looking for new restaurants to tease their jaded taste-buds, because they never allow themselves to feel hunger.  (The way to relish your food is to skip a couple of meals – a cheaper and more effective remedy than even the best restaurant.)  We are becoming more and more like dead people.  We are losing our senses.  We don’t usually consider it a great fault in a person to be absent-minded – it can even appear as evidence of great intelligence!  The absent-minded professor is a figure of fun, yes, but crucially not a subject for political correctness.  His absent-mindedness is not seen as a disability but as a somewhat endearing trait.  Besides, it is badly named: he is absent-bodied rather than absent-minded.  Chesterton said that a madman is not someone who has lost his mind, but someone who has lost everything except his mind.  If it comes to that, mindfulness is badly named too.  What it means is full presence.

The human race has not always been as dead as this.  Look at the following couple of paragraphs from St Augustine (5th century), and notice that he uses all five senses.  “You [God] called me; you cried aloud to me; you broke through my barrier of deafness.  You shone upon me; your radiance enveloped me; you put my blindness to flight.  You shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for you.  I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you.  You touched me and I burned for your peace.” 

On another page of the Confessions he is figuring out what it is we love when we love God.   “A kind of light, melody, fragrance, food, embrace – for God is a light, a melody, a fragrance, a food, an embracement in my inner self: where that light shines into my soul which no place can contain, and where that voice sounds which time does not sweep away, and where that fragrance breathes which no wind scatters, and where that flavour is relished which eating does not diminish, and where that embrace is felt which is not severed by fulfilment of desire.  This is what I love when I love my God.”

St Augustine can write boringly too; but when he wants to, he can write passages like the above; his language then is more like music; it is like a magnificent organ played to its full capacity – while the rest of us play with one finger. 

But living comes before language.  If we could live in a full-bodied way, using all the sensitive capacities that are ours by nature, how rich our lives would be!  We would never know boredom – because the remedy for boredom is to open our eyes and our ears, all our senses.  Mindfulness is nothing special; it’s just common sense.  It’s like when a doctor tells someone who has a sedentary lifestyle to go for walks.  Nothing special, just common sense. 

If you think that joining a group for a mindfulness course would motivate you to live in a more sensitive and appreciative way, then why not join one?  Be another refugee from a crazy world. 

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