Opinion & Features

What I found helpful about ‘mindfulness’

A giant statue of Buddha in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu (Getty)

My only experience of Buddhism was during a visit to Bhutan years ago, to visit a friend who was doing voluntary work there. We travelled through as much of the country as we could manage in a fortnight. Inevitably we visited Buddhist monasteries. Some things have remained with me: the spectral vision of giant hands hanging out of the blank windows of one monastery (they were, it would seem, hands for a statue hung out to dry by being suspended from their inner wires, rather than evidence of diabolic activity) and a monastery with lots of little boy oblates, who ranged from the tinies right up to teenagers, all in orange robes. 

When we visited pilgrim sites, it was all familiar territory, though one element of the statuary, viz, elaborate statues made from yak butter was novel. The religious art was comprehensible too. (It included images of the damned being punished to fit the crime – smokers, I recall, were pierced by sharp leaves.) So were the monasteries, whose scheme of social organisation was somewhat similar to Christian life before the institution of parishes. In fact, pretty well everything about Buddhism in a living Buddhist culture was intelligible to me as a Catholic – apart from the thing at the heart of it, the doctrine. Buddhism is at least silent on the question of the existence of God and at most is hostile to the idea. 

I thought again about Bhutan when I went to the exhibition on the faith at the British Library, showing some of the extraordinary collection of Buddhist manuscripts in its collection. There was one image from Bhutan in the astonishing diversity of countries which produced the artefacts and images – from India to Japan and Indonesia.  

At the end, inevitably, the exhibition addressed the question of mindfulness, that bit of Buddhist practice which contemporary society has taken up and commodified. Indeed, if you go early in the day you may stumble on a mindfulness group sitting and focusing on the present moment next to the exhibits. 

Mindfulness may be fashionable to the point of tediousness right now but it hasn’t gone down terribly well with Catholic bishops. The Spanish episcopate recently took issue with the practice. They warned that “we are witnessing the resurgence of a spirituality that is presented in response to the growing ‘demand’ for emotional well-being, personal balance, enjoyment of life or serenity to face challenges.” 

That spirituality, they said, is too often “understood as the cultivation of one’s own interiority so that man finds himself, and which often does not lead to God. 

“To this effect, many people – even those who grew up in a Christian environment – resort to meditation, prayer techniques and methods that have their origin in religious traditions outside Christianity and the rich spiritual heritage of the Church.” 

Obviously, they’ve got a point, but I can’t myself see that mindfulness is necessarily problematic. I once wrote about mindfulness, and in the interests of research attended about half a dozen mindfulness sessions. My chief reaction was irritation that they charged £25 an hour to get you to focus on the present moment – or, as my mother would put it, to mind what you’re at. One of the sessions I went to was with an English Buddhist monk who, I may say, did not take the whole mindfulness thing terribly seriously. Most classes emphasised their non-religious aspect. 

But insofar as I retained anything from those sessions, they were rather useful. 

What I found too was that it was almost impossible as a Catholic to focus on the present moment without that turning into prayer. The practice of the present moment means you turn outwards, not inwards, to God. But insofar as mindfulness makes you focus on one thing – as opposed to the “monkey mind” that springs from one thing to another – I can’t honestly see any inherent harm in it. As for its emphasis on compassion, how is that a problem for Christians? 

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It was with modified rapture that I found that critics really liked the BBC version of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy. Given that one of the highlights is the death of God (or, at least, the Ancient of Days) and that the villain of the piece is the Catholic Church in the guise of the “Magisterium” (which has confusingly relocated to Geneva under Pope John Calvin) and the hitmen are Hispanic clerics, I think we can see it for what it is:  a contemporary take on anti-popery.  

But in his latest trilogy, The Book of Dust, our author has mellowed a little. In the new book, there’s a priest who is actually quite nice. Mr Pullman may yet make his peace with Christianity; meanwhile, the damage is done. 

Melanie McDonagh works for  the London Evening Standard