From mindful to contemplative: An invitation for Christians to take the next step

We took 10 minutes to eat a raisin because we were trying to eat mindfully. I held the raisin in my hand, as the mindfulness instructor told me to do, and observed it: the crevices, the glint of light off its dark purple surface, the way it began to look like something I’d never seen before, something strange and alien. “Don’t think about the raisin or judge it. Just notice,” the instructor said. And I did.

Next, she told us to smell the raisin and then place the raisin in our mouths without chewing it. “Move it around in there. Feel the texture with your tongue,” she said. Eventually, we were allowed to chew — but slowly, noticing every change in the raisin until it couldn’t be called a raisin anymore but had become a saliva-raisin paste.

Finally, we swallowed.

Eating a raisin this way was the first exercise in an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course (MBSR) that I attended a decade ago at a university medical center. The course was designed to help us pay attention to our lives more deeply and live in the present moment. I was there because I had heard mindfulness could help relieve stress. As a busy pastor and father of three young children, I was acquainted with stress. Over the next eight weeks, I practiced breathing meditation and walking meditation; I did yoga and performed body scans. I looked forward to each week’s two-and-a-half hour session.

And when the course was over, my stress headache, a constant companion for years, was gone.

Mindfulness is now mainstream. Once the provenance of Buddhist monks, it’s been stripped of its original religious and cultural context. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of MBSR, explained in his 1994 book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, “Mindfulness is an ancient Buddhist practice that has profound relevance for our present-day lives. This relevance has nothing to do with Buddhism per se or with becoming a Buddhist.” Abstracted from its home in Buddhism, mindfulness has been marketed as the secular spirituality par excellence, a panacea for almost every ill.

Which doesn’t bother me at all. As a pastor and seminary professor of Christian spirituality, I want people to wake up to the present moment. I hope congregants will learn to pay attention to the detail and beauty of life, rather than pass it by. I long for my students – pastors in training – to grow less anxious and more present to themselves and others. So I’m happy for this development, even though it’s easy to critique how capitalism’s marketing machine has commodified ancient spiritual practices. Who can object to people becoming more alert, aware and attentive? Who would stand in the way of people becoming happier? Journalist Dan Harris even titled his bestselling 2014 book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works.

And I’m glad that Christian authors are connecting mindfulness to Christian spiritual practices because paying attention is a thread that runs through almost every spiritual discipline. As church historian Amy G. Oden argued in her 2017 book Right Here, Right Now: The Practice of Christian Mindfulness, mindfulness is indeed a Christian spiritual discipline. Jesus himself instructed his followers to pay attention. He called those with eyes to see; he called those with ears to hear; he invited us to pause and consider the lily. Oden wrote, “The prayerful attentiveness of gospel mindfulness perceives what is real and seeks to grasp what really matters.”

But I pause, nonetheless. I wonder if mindfulness goes far enough.

I worry that the ease and accessibility of mindfulness – the way it’s packaged in classes and available via apps – keeps Christians from taking the next step in our praying and living, the step from being mindful to being contemplative.

Mindfulness no longer feels strange; calls to become more mindful abound. But becoming more contemplative?

Perhaps we question the value of being contemplative because the word “contemplative” carries baggage that “mindful” no longer does. We hold stereotypical pictures of contemplative types who seem nothing like us: robed monks with sandaled feet and strange haircuts who shuffle to prayer seven times a day, sometimes at hours when there’s some question whether even God is awake. We picture desert hermits who live in caves and have friends deliver to them a loaf of crusty bread once a week to sustain them through their ascetic practices. We envision famous gurus who trumpet through their books, their podcasts and their Twitter accounts that they are genuinely mystics, lost in profound oneness with the All.

No way am I a candidate for that kind of life, we think. I’ll just stick with my two minutes of mindful breathing, thank you very much.

Or sometimes we read about contemplation, and it sounds so difficult, like a particular type of prayer that involves a lot of sitting and holding your hands just right and letting your vision go soft — a kind of prayer you could only learn if you signed up for a weeklong retreat on a remote island.

Odd people engaging in esoteric prayer. Thanks, but no thanks. And so we tap the mindfulness app on our phones.

But what if the word “contemplative” names not just a narrowly defined kind of prayer – which it sometimes does – but also an approach to all prayer?

And what if the same word doesn’t denote a specific way of life – extreme, alone, with lots of somber sitting and eating of crusty bread – but describes any life that seeks to be more open, available and responsive to the God who is as present in an office cubicle as in a hermit’s cell?

If a mindful approach to life invites us to be open and awake to the present moment, a contemplative approach goes a step further. It invites us to be open and awake to the presence of God in each moment. It encourages us to be available to the transforming work of God’s Spirit in our lives. In all that we do. Wherever we are.

If mindfulness is something we practice, contemplation names something God does in us. Contemplation opens us to God’s transforming love, which speaks to us through all that is.

Many of us long to be more open, available and responsive to the work of God’s Spirit in our lives. And that longing itself is already an indication of God’s grace at work. As Simon Tugwell explained in his preface to the 1981 printing of The Cloud of Unknowing, “The most typical evidence of grace being at work in us is not that we find ourselves aware of a duty, but that we find ourselves aware of a desire.” Aware of this desire, we might reach for the most seemingly accessible spiritual practice: mindfulness. It feels like prayer, often produces a sense of relaxation and calm, and fits nicely in the rest of our lives.

But here’s what it can’t do on its own: satisfy the longing for God. It can help us become more aware of the longing, more awake to our desire; it can bring us to the door. But only God can open the door itself.

A contemplative approach to life and prayer simply says, God, I want the door of my life to be unlocked to your presence and grace. I want to be home when you open the door.

For those who want to take it, the first step from being mindful to being contemplative is adjusting our intention.

When I lead my spiritual formation students in a practice of prayer, I begin by guiding them into a period of silence. I’m certain my approach is influenced by my now decadelong experience with mindfulness, and any student familiar with mindfulness meditation might think I’m introducing them to just that. But what I think I’m doing is helping them intend to be open to God in prayer.

I invite them to close their eyes and bring their attention to their bodies in the chair. I say that paying attention to our bodies is a way to ground ourselves in the present moment — where God is. Then I ask them to turn their attention to their breathing. Like a mindfulness coach, I tell them to give the in-and-out of their breath their full attention as a way to let go of distracting thoughts. “Those distracting thoughts,” I say, “pull us out of the present, where God is.” While they are breathing silently, I might remind them that God is the One who breathes life into us, just as Scripture says God breathed life into the first human. Our own breathing can become a sacrament of God’s presence. I might tell them that God is nearer to us than our own breath, or I might remind them of St. Augustine’s famous claim that God is closer to us than we are
to ourselves.

Some students notice similarities, in language and technique, between what I’m doing and mindfulness meditation, but, again, my intention is completely different: to help them become aware of the present moment as the doorway to God’s own presence and action in their lives. My intention is to help them be not only mindful, but also contemplative.

The next step from mindfulness to contemplation is to shift the context.

When I practice mindfulness, I sit down, set a timer and pay attention to my breathing (or my body, sounds or feelings – whatever I’m being mindful of), letting go of distracting thoughts as they arise and returning my attention to the object of meditation. These days, however, I’m more likely to situate this mindfulness practice within the context of my morning prayer. I’ll begin by reciting a few lines from Psalm 51 and then a favorite morning prayer from the Upper Room Worshipbook: “New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.” I do this because I want my praying to open me to that work of divine love. I might write in my journal for a couple of minutes before meditating on Scripture.

Then for my third step: I set my timer for 20 minutes and practice mindful breathing along with the silent repetition of the Jesus prayer, saying “Lord Jesus Christ” on the in-breath and “have mercy on me” on the out-breath.

Someone peeking in my window might think they’re observing mindfulness meditation. And in a way they would be; so much of what I learned in that MBSR class shapes my approach to spirituality. But in the context of prayer, my silence is a way of expressing a longing to be with God, to be open to God’s transforming presence. Sometimes, before I set my timer, I say, “God, here I am and here you are. How lucky for us both!”

I don’t take 10 minutes to eat a raisin anymore, though I will savor a Honeycrisp apple with my lunch, enjoying the satisfying crunch, the hint of sweetness on my tongue, the dribble of juice down my chin and onto my hands. I rarely spend an hour performing a body scan, giving each square inch of my body scrupulous attention. I do sometimes enjoy mindful walking, though I wonder what onlookers might think when they see me doing it. By the standards of my MBSR class, which suggested 45 minutes to an hour of mindfulness practice daily, I’m falling short.

But that doesn’t bother me, because my intention has shifted from reducing stress to awakening to the Divine Presence and action in my life and in the world. Mindfulness supports that intention. But it’s not the final step.

The call to be open to God – the call to be contemplative – is not just the call of a select few; it’s a summons for all Christians. It is, as Thomas Merton’s A Book of Hours describes it, a call from God “Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words” of God. If Merton is right, then to shift from being solely mindful to being also contemplative might be the next right step for anyone longing for God.