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Meditation at work

Meditation has a long history in the Christian church: from Jesus seeking time alone in a solitary place (eg Mark 1:35), to the desert fathers; from monks quietly illustrating and copying gospels, to people visiting religious communities for retreat; from praying imprisoned Christians, to people following the Lectio Divina at home.  Today meditation is seeing a small resurgence in organisations with chaplaincy: schools, hospitals and workplaces – eg ‘Being Mindful’ – A mindfulness based retreat for chaplains and other healthcare professionals organised by College of Healthcare Chaplains this summer in Staffordshire.

Churches and Industry Group Birmingham and Solihull has seen new developments of Mindfulness Meditations in one or two of its workplace chaplaincies. In Birmingham City Council, staff are coming together on a weekly basis to take 30 minutes to practise being quiet and to develop awareness and listening. This has been growing over a couple of years, and has been expanded to a number of satellite offices: some of the initiative has come from council staff themselves who recognised that they need times of quiet in their busy working environment. A training course run with staff members has given a number of people the skills and confidence to lead the meditation sessions themselves – and to practice the mindfulness techniques in their daily living. These meditation sessions in the council have been called ‘Breathing Space’.

‘Mindfulness theory’ does not fit entirely comfortably within the usual Christian tradition. Some question its apparent encouragement of ‘acceptance’ rather than eg challenge in the face of ‘sin’; some worry about its lack of credal affirmation of the place of Jesus as revealing something beyond the mysterious depths of human wisdom.  But there is now a large movement (including within the church) offering mindfulness as part of a solution to some difficulties, drawing on a variety human and religious understandings.

As part of its providing a number of health benefits, it can form part of the Christian intent for ‘Life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10). Mindfulness has been shown to help with the self-regulation of our attentive energies and the Gospel enjoins us to be self-aware (‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ Matt 7:3) and to be alert (Mark 13:35-37). Mindfulness meditation can teach people the ‘meta-cognitive’ skills that allow us to understand our own mental processes – and thus perhaps have some grip on them (‘In your anger, do not sin’ (Eph 4:26).

There is also a connection between meditation and prayer: meditation can be more like silent prayer than relaxation, if people want it to be. If prayer is the intentional opening of oneself to the divine, then mindfulness meditation can be an opportunity for relationship with what is divine: “In meditation I seek to make conscious my deeper, fuller self in relation to the universe, which I can then in turn, convert to prayer.  This is ‘offering your body as a living sacrifice’ at the same time as ‘renewing your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2)”. “Towards the end of the mindfulness retreat I found myself convinced that every fiber of my being was Love, by no means an unfamiliar concept to me as a student of theology.”

Many workplaces and organisations are expanding their provision and space for the expression of faith, not least in response to the need not to be discriminatory in terms of religion. This is an issue that workplace chaplains can be drawn into: in a number of chaplaincies, supervising work prayer rooms is a significant piece of work. In some places there has been a tendency for these spaces to be used particularly by muslim colleagues, because of the discipline of prayer within their religious life, such that there has been a resistance by other groups to use the facilities. At the council, the chaplains have found that using the prayer room for mindfulness meditation has helped open up that space for all staff – and to introduce even ‘secular’ staff to religion.

It is an exciting movement of the Holy Spirit?

Peter Sellick