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How Buddhist mindfulness can awaken the church

(RNS) Many Christians are finding mindfulness practice to be not just compatible but complimentary to their faith. They discover within these Buddhist-derived practices not only a key to renewal and holy living, but also a doorway to a neglected Christian tradition.

Students work on yoga postures during “mindful studies” class at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 1, 2014.(AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

(RNS) — In 1954 the eminent historian Arnold Toynbee predicted that “When a historian one thousand years from now writes about the 20th century, he will surely be more interested in the interpenetration which occurred for the first time between Christianity and Buddhism than in the conflict between the ideologies of democracy and communism.”

That interpenetration between Christianity and Buddhism in the West is becoming more and more evident. And it holds the potential to invigorate a diminishing church.

The decline of Christendom in Western nations has reached the point of being undeniable. One marker of this ebb tide is the dramatic increase of “nones” and “dones.” (Nones are young adults who describe their religious affiliation as “none,” while dones are mature and formerly committed Christians who have said in frustration “I’m done” and walked away from the church — but not from their faith.)

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On the other hand, Buddhism is proliferating in North America, Europe and Australia/New Zealand. The various forms of Buddhism — including Zen, Tibetan, Theravada and Pure Land — are intermingling with one another to a degree never before seen in history, and it is happening in Western nations. An entirely new form of Buddhism is emerging as a result, which intentionally exchanges Asian cultural values and trappings for Western ones, yet retains core Buddhist teachings and practices. The clearest example of this trend is the mindfulness movement.

Mindfulness (also known as Insight or Vipassana meditation) is a stripped-down, Buddhist-derived practice in which one develops the skill of focused concentration by observing one’s breath or other physical action (such as walking or eating). By developing this skill we become able to decenter from the flow of thoughts that are continuously running through our heads and are able to dispassionately observe them. The realization comes that you are not your thoughts and that you can choose whether or not to engage with a thought when it arises, or simply let it pass by and evaporate. This results in a sense of internal spaciousness — a gap, if you will — between one’s intrinsic self and one’s thought-stream.

The fruit of the practice of mindfulness is an ability to see thoughts for what they are: momentary and ephemeral things that do not define us and that very often do not accurately reflect reality. We also realize how much time we spend ruminating about the past or worrying about the future or spinning imaginary scenarios rather than engaging with the present moment. Developing the practical skill of mindfulness leads to an abiding sense of calm, of moral clarity, of simplicity, of awareness, of freedom.

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The ancient Christian desert monastics practiced something very similar to mindfulness. They called it nepsis, meaning watchfulness of thoughts. They looked at Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 15:11-20 that “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles. … What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. … ”

What these Christian mystics called “afflicting thoughts,” Buddhists called kleshas —thoughts that mislead us into unwholesome attitudes and actions. From the desert monastics grew a profound Christian contemplative tradition of teachings and practices that bear remarkable similarities and affinities with mindfulness. Modern-day approaches such as Thomas Keating’s centering prayer and John Main’s Christian meditation are distillations of these ancient practices.

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Historically, practitioners and teachers of Christian contemplation have, by and large, been monks and nuns and clergy in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican realms of the church. The Protestant Reformation eschewed contemplation (in part because of anti-monastic sentiment). The result is a lack of awareness (or, worse, a deep suspicion) about this rich tradition. But more and more Protestants are beginning to discover contemplative practice. Ironically, this often happens by being exposed to mindfulness.

So it is not just nones and dones and converts to Buddhism who are embracing mindfulness. Many Christians are finding mindfulness practice to be not just compatible but complimentary to their faith. They discover within these Buddhist-derived practices not only a key to transformation and renewal and holy living but also a doorway to a neglected Christian tradition. All truth is God’s truth, and so it should not be surprising that various cultures discovered the benefits of meditative and contemplative practices and then couched them within their own religious systems.

In my newly released book, “Presence and Process: A Path Toward Transformative Faith and Inclusive Community,” I explore these trends in detail; delving into the histories of mindfulness and Christian contemplation, exploring the similarities in their practices and considering the potential ramifications for the future of the church in the 21st century.

(Daniel P. Coleman holds a Master of Arts in religion from the Earlham School of Religion. His work touches on contemplative spirituality, process theology, interfaith dialogue, Quakerism and biblical studies. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)