Mindfulness is currently the most fashionable practice to help develop a more robust state of mind, but it’s not the ONLY one, as Christian author and former psychotherapist Ann Shakespeare explains…
By Ann Shakespeare
The practice of mindfulness has become a hugely popular way to deal with mental, emotional and physical stress. It is now a multi-million dollar industry, essentially teaching people the benefits of the ancient practice of meditation.
By “meditation”, we simply mean “continuous calm thought upon a subject”. The methods of mindfulness meditations can vary, but the basis of mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what is going on inside and outside ourselves in the present moment. The aim of this is to see the present moment more clearly, enabling us to make positive adjustments in our thoughts and in our lives.
But does mindfulness really help us to develop a more robust state of mind?
Responses to the practice vary greatly. Some people find it helpful, especially if combined with some form of talking therapy. Others report temporary relief, but there are also those who have found it harmful because it has led them to focus unhelpfully within very dark and hopeless mental patterns from which they had no ‘handle’ to pull themselves out.
My principle aim in this article, however, is neither to criticise nor affirm mindfulness meditation, but simply to broaden the discussion about this widespread quest to improve our inner lives, and to suggest two other alternative and, in my experience, more effective ways in which we can develop a stronger mental outlook which would lead to increased harmony and happiness.
In my own experience, I have felt at times that my mind was completely running away with me, and I actually felt like a prisoner of my own relentless thoughts of anxiety, depression and fear.
However, over the years, two very distinct experiences have made a significant and lasting impact on my life and wellbeing. One was when I started to learn about the untapped potential of my brain. The other—and by far the most effective and lasting—was when I discovered the power of the ancient practice of Christian meditation.
Our Mouldable Brain
It may seem an obvious thing to say that we can take charge of our brain, but there was a time in my life when I felt so overwhelmed by my tumult of thoughts that I did not even realise that I readily had the capacity within me to shift a gear and to “step outside” my thinking, so to speak, and to start watching and making active decisions to control and direct my thoughts in a positive way.
Mindfulness meditation does indeed make us aware of this, but generally it stops short of teaching us that in fact our brain cells are also designed to respond to the “repairs” that we introduce into our thought patterns, by literally reorganising and building new protein structures.
It encouraged me to realise, and to experience, that strengthening the mind is a process that is both mental and physical. That our brains are wonderfully equipped actually to build positive thoughts and memories into our brain cells, while at the same time literally “suffocating” unwanted negative thoughts. This is a scientifically-proven process called “neuroplasticity” (neuro = nerve; plasticity = malleability). It is the brain’s ability to change cell structures with positive or negative outcomes, depending on the choices we make.
It does require conscious purpose and practice to take authority over our thoughts and to change our thinking patterns into positive and harmonious ones, but it is more than worth it!
Ancient records show that humanity has known for thousands of years that our lives go in the direction of our dominant thoughts. That, in fact, we are what we think. All the major faith traditions speak of the importance of directing our thought patterns in a life-enhancing way. Christian meditation is the one that I have found to be most effective in bringing about lasting positive change.
The focus of Christian meditation is upon God and upon the words of God as revealed in the Old and New Testaments. However, it is not an ostrich-style escape from daily life. Rather, it is a powerful way of inviting the healing and transforming presence of God into our minds and lives.
For the practice of Christian meditation, it may be helpful to start by bringing to mind an image, for example of Jesus healing the crowds of people who flocked to Him for help and healing—and it’s important to be aware that He never turned anyone away. At other times, it helps to meditate upon specific verses such as “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases” (Lamentations 3:22) or “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Another verse that speaks specifically of the mind—and of reorganising and directing our thoughts—is: “Be transformed according to the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
There is an immense wealth of material for meditation in the Bible, but we can start with one image or one verse and ask God to guide us in our meditations as we seek Him in humility.
Exclusive Interview with Ann Shakespeare
We speak to Christian author Ann Shakespeare about the power of meditation and prayer, as well as what she has learned about her own faith from other religions and thinkers.
Q. You have enjoyed a long career as a Christian writer, but for a time you were a psychotherapist. What prompted the change of career, and how has your training helped your understanding of the power of faith?
A. I stopped working as a psychotherapist when I saw the growing need, and requests, for Christian prayer and biblically-based guidance and teaching. I felt I could not charge for those things. However, I was able to continue offering pastoral and prayer support in a less formal way in my spare time, while working at Tearfund, an international Christian relief and development agency.
Training in psychotherapy helped me to appreciate the role of our brains in meditating upon biblical scriptures and in renewing our thought patterns in a very positive, life-giving way. Learning how our brains work has caused me to value the power of faith anew.
Q. Christianity is associated with prayer, but not so much with meditation as compared with Eastern religions. Why do you think meditation is just as important to practice regularly?
Christian meditation has a very ancient tradition going back right to the start of the Christian faith and provides an opportunity to think calmly and deeply about a theme or a Bible verse. The practice of meditation enables us to replace unhelpful or negative thoughts with the thoughts and purposes of God, which are always good and life-enhancing.
Q. Your book has an introduction by Neville Jayaweera, whom you first met when you were the editor of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) monthly journal, Action, and he was a senior director. How did Neville influence your thoughts on Christianity?
A. Neville helped me to see the power that there is within the Word of God, if we study it and combine it with faith. He opened my eyes to the overarching presence of Christ in the universe, and—consequently—the power of the spiritual life which is available to us, now, as Christians.
With Neville, I learnt to walk by faith in God’s Word and not by sight. I discovered that there is so very much more to life than that which we perceive with our five senses. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ and living consciously in His Spirit is deeply inspiring and exciting!
Q. What, in your view, is the main aim of the prayer?
A. Prayer is the means by which the life of God within us in nourished. According to the Bible, the main aim of prayer is that we may come to know God and to know His will.
Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Luke 11:2). So praying, as described in scripture, is aligning ourselves with the will of God and seeking the manifestation of His will on earth.
Q. Do you think having a faith helps keep people mentally strong?
A. I most certainly do. However, we need to put our faith into practice in order to see it bear fruit. That is, to read the Bible and meditate upon its messages, because “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
One verse in particular refers to the mental strength (a “sound mind”) given to us by God: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Q. Your new book, God’s Gift of Tremendous Power, combines Christianity with the latest understandings of quantum physics. Can you explain the connection?
A. Discoveries in quantum (or modern) physics over the last century have significant implications for prayer and worship. The discoveries have actually “caught up” with the truth of oneness, or universal connectedness, that has always been very clearly expressed in the New Testament writings.
Up until the early 1900s, scientists based their work and beliefs upon the classical, Newtonian model which saw the universe and everything in it as being made up of distinct and separate bits of matter. It was Albert Einstein who discovered that matter is not made up of separated elements, and that matter and energy are in fact one and the same. His work led to later discoveries that revealed that the universe is made up of immense swirls, or fields, of vibrating energy which are all interconnected, constituting one vast universal field of energy. In my new book I use the term “quantum field” as helpful shorthand to describe this universal field of energy. It is the basic fabric of creation from which absolutely everything in the universe has been fashioned.
Quantum originally means “how much”, relating to size and amount, and has since come to mean the smallest amount you can have. So “quantum field” refers to the seamless fabric which fills the universe, forming and comprising its smallest, most fundamental components. A metaphor for this could be the soft clay which God created and from which He sculpted His three-dimensional creation into existence. This “clay”, or energy, is the basic substance of everything that exists in the universe, including human beings. It is the invisible essence that connects and interconnects us all.
This understanding of connectedness throughout the entire universe powerfully illuminates God’s Word. It sheds significant light on verses such as, “The one who fills the whole wide universe” (Eph. 1:23 Phillips) and “There is one body and one Spirit, … one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all” (Eph. 4:4 and 6).
The Word of God is Truth and does not need human discoveries about the universe to prove it. However, such discoveries can enrich and heighten our understanding of scripture. They have the potential to expand our worship and to help us to experience greater power and positive effect in our prayer lives.
Q. Aside from scripture, what’s the most inspirational and personally-enriching book you’ve read, and why?
A. It is very difficult to select a single book but one which always inspires me is a collection of Christian reflections called My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. He was a Scottish man who absolutely loved God and saw God work in his life in most remarkable ways. He died over 100 years ago and yet his insights, wisdom and courage speak volumes to me and they strengthen my faith in God, especially at times of particular need.
Q. What does being a good Christian mean to you?
I could not express it better than Oswald Chambers, whose book I cite above. He wrote:
“Shut out every other consideration and keep yourself before God for this one thing only—My Utmost for His Highest. I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone.”
I would add that, in doing what Oswald says above—committing ourselves entirely to God—we offer ourselves for God’s Spirit to flow through us as help and blessing to others.
Q. What do you think that Christians could learn from Eastern faiths?
A. I am keenly interested in learning the ways in which Eastern faiths shed light on the Christian faith. For example, Gautama Buddha undertook a vast study on the subject of karma (the law of cause and effect – or the law of as you sow, so shall you reap). The story of humankind since the Fall, or the point of separation and turning away from God, as portrayed in the third chapter of Genesis, is characterized by the law of cause and effect.
When Jesus died for humankind on the cross, He took upon Himself all the sin, and all the effects of sin, that accumulated under the law of cause and effect – a mountain of sin that is utterly beyond calculation or description. Gautama Buddha’s detailed explanation of how the law of cause and effect works has caused me to wonder at and esteem Jesus Christ’s unspeakable sacrifice, in greater and greater measure. Christ took the entire, crushing weight of this law upon Himself. In this way, He not only sets us free from sin and its effects, but He also offers us the wondrous invitation to live our lives in Him, under Grace.
Q. There has been a marked trend in society towards scientism. What do you think is lost when someone dismisses the spiritual dimension of their life?
A. I think this trend away from belief in God is showing itself all around us in society. It is evident especially in the lives of young people with levels of depression and anxiety, and related illnesses and behaviours, on the increase.
The enormous surge in the search for self-help activities that will help to calm the mind and control feelings—such as mindfulness—is an indicator in itself.
I would strongly urge anyone to seek God and His Truth in Christ Jesus. In that way, they have the opportunity to discover and experience for themselves the peace of God that always remains deep within us, no matter what may happen in our lives.
Jesus expresses it wonderfully: “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart! And the peace I give isn’t fragile like the peace the world gives. So don’t be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27 – Living Bible translation).