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September 11th, 2014

Woman Alive Magazine Interviews Cathy Wield – Mindfulness & Christianity

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I’m hearing a lot about mindfulness at the moment. What exactly is it and is it something Christians can get involved in?

Sharon Barnard seeks some answers from Dr Cathy Wield and her husband Phil, who is a counsellor and teaches mindfulness

It is currently used by big businesses to help their staff become more effective and by therapists with people suffering from mental illness. Many UK schools now teach mindfulness techniques in the classroom to boost concentration and reduce exam stress. Earlier this year, David Laws, the Minister of State for Schools talked about its effectiveness and said the government was considering doing more to promote courses for pupils.

So what exactly is mindfulness – and why is everyone getting excited about it? “It’s about being in a place of quiet, so that a person can develop an awareness of the present moment,” explains A&E doctor Cathy Wield, who has suffered with severe depression and finds it helpful in day-to-day life. “Ideally, the practice is meditating on a daily basis for at least 20 minutes. This involves concentrating awareness on one’s own breath (breathing) or the body or sounds, concomitant with the discipline of bringing one’s attention back from distracting thoughts to the present awareness. When you are distracted – and you will be as it’s a normal pattern for the ‘undisciplined’ mind – you take a non-judgemental attitude, which means you do not berate yourself for it.”

Cathy and Phil stress that mindfulness is not in any way about ‘emptying’ the mind, nor is it laying yourself open to external influence. “Unlike TM (Transcendental Meditation) it doesn’t seek to change your state of consciousness, ie go into a trance, but rather seeks to increase awareness of present experience. Mindfulness meditation experience may in fact seem boring and difficult because it is a discipline to train the mind to concentrate on the present, rather than being distracted by countless busy thoughts.”

They point out that mindfulness is really the new name given to a practice that has existed for centuries in both Eastern and Christian traditions. “It is a practice of meditation but it is not religious in itself. In the same way that compassion and forgiveness are central to Buddhism – we know that we do not worry that they are also central to Christianity, so why should we be so concerned about meditation which is mentioned countless times in the Old Testament!

“It is one aspect of Christian meditation, which also involves other forms such as the Ignatian tradition of biblical imaginative meditation. When mindfulness is practised from a Christian perspective, it helps one to be aware of God’s presence and as a consequence, it leads to an increasing awareness of his presence in general life. It also enhances the experience of God speaking to you and guiding you, and brings you closer to him. The Bible illustrates God meeting people at special moments in their lives and this practice allows one to be more aware of those moments.”

Cathy, who tells her story of living with a severe, crippling depression for many years in her book A Thorn in My Mind found mindfulness to be helpful in both her gradual recovery and in preventing her from having a relapse.

“Although I first came across it when I had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) many years ago, I did not understand the importance of this practice and so did not do it regularly. It is protective against the stresses involved in modern living and the potential downward spirals, so I am very eager in my pursuit of this. I really started to practise mindfulness after Phil reintroduced me, having become interested himself.”

The Wields say that for mindfulness to be really effective, daily practice needs to become a way of life. “It involves two key features: The first is we are always able to take control of our thinking and become aware of present moments and, secondly, we as individuals are not defined and therefore not controlled by our thoughts and feelings. It is also useful for those who suffer with chronic pain and can help alleviate symptoms.

“It isn’t appropriate for someone who is suffering from severe mental illness in the acute phase, but it enhances general emotional wellbeing in depression and anxiety, and has been shown to decrease symptoms. Because it helps protect the mind from ruminating on negative thoughts, which often underlie these conditions, it has a therapeutic and preventative benefit.”

Cathy and Phil explain that while there are good self-help books available, they would recommend the encouragement and advice of a teacher. “As mindfulness is not a ‘Christian’ discipline in itself, any mindfulness therapist would be able to help you develop this practice. Just as a counsellor, a psychotherapist or GP need not be a Christian, that does not matter in itself, “ says Cathy. “I have had excellent help with a therapist who does not happen to be a Christian – and group involvement is helpful too. However, you may want to use a Christian therapist if you feel that is very important to you.”

Practising mindfulness has been hugely beneficial for Cathy and it’s helped her to focus on God when negative thoughts threaten to press in. “I have not had symptoms for quite some time as I am in remission as far as depression is concerned, but as we all have ‘down’ days, it is so very helpful to know that God is there and I am not controlled by my feeling a bit less good than usual.”

Cathy Wield’s books Life After Darkness (Radcliffe) and A Thorn In My Mind (Instant Apostle) are available online and from bookshops.

The Wields recommend the following resources:

• Mind and Soul – a useful website exploring Christianity and mental health www.mindandsoul.info

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