Dear Donagh,

I've been reading the books of John Kabat Zinn on mindfulness meditation with great interest. I've struggled with my own meditation practise over the years and I'm wondering have you read any of his books, e.g., Wherever You go, There You Are, and how you think they tie in with Christian meditation?  Zinn draws on the whole Buddistic tradition to present a practical western form of meditation that people can use to cope with the stress and strains of modern everyday living.

In a sense, these books are about meditation for every day practical living and advise concentration on the Breath alone. I've capitalised the word 'breath' because very often when I'm meditating, as a Christian, I find myself chuckling at my puny efforts to concentrate on the literal breath when it is, in fact, highly symbolic of the great cosmic Mystery. I'm reminded of Job and "here your proud waves shall break." In the last chapter of the book mentioned above, Zinn is at pains to make a semantic distinction between "consciousness discipline" and "spiritual practise" because of the negative connotations associated with religion historically and currently.

This is probably me being "too much in my head" over words, but I felt I had to write just to try and clarify my mind a little.  I find this site very helpful.  Long may it continue.

Yours sincerely,


Dear John,

Yes, I've read a couple of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books, and I happen to be reading one at present.  Because of time constraints I haven't yet read the one you mention; I will take that distinction between ‘consciousness discipline’ and ‘spiritual practice’ just as you quote it.

When someone of his academic standing (PhD in molecular biology from MIT, Professor of Medicine emeritus at the Uni. of Massachusetts Medical School) brings meditation into the mainstream of medicine, we know we are in an age of convergence, a time of exceptional interest, perhaps especially for religious people: since the very word ‘religion’, some say, comes from ‘religare’, ‘to bond, or bind into one’.  His work is to teach people mindfulness – for its own sake, of course, but also as a way to help patients cope with pain, sickness and stress. 

It’s true that his idiom has a Buddhist flavour, but most of what he writes is just plain common sense. He studied with the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, and is obviously widely read in Zen literature.  “Why does everything related to mindfulness have to be connected to Buddhism?” someone asked.  Someone else called it “the B-word”, as if it were something indecent.  I was once at a Christian-Zen retreat where there was a daily question-and-answer session.  The person who had distinguished himself for sleeping during the meditation periods (and even during the daily talk by the Zen master), woke up one day and asked in a rather accusing tone, “Do you people believe in the next life?”  There he was, thinking about the next life and sleeping his way through this one!  I'm afraid many of us do the same thing, even if to a lesser degree.  We should be grateful to anyone, whether Christian or Buddhist, who encourages us to wake up and come to our senses.  As it happens, Coming to Our Senses is the Kabat-Zinn book I am reading at present. 

Does meditation (or mindfulness) take us out of a Christian orbit and into a Buddhist one?  A Zen master responded to this question by saying that Zen is not a religion; it originated in Buddhism but it is not tied to it.  There are now several Zen masters who are Catholics, many of them priests and nuns.  What they find in Zen is what had been left lying largely neglected in the Christian tradition.  I can vouch for this in my own small way; it was through Zen that I discovered Meister Eckhart – even though I have lived most of my life in the same religious Order as he.  It is often through looking at other traditions that we see things neglected in our own.  It does not require a giant leap of insight to see this: we experience it all the time in daily life; through our relationships with other people we understand ourselves better.  Christianity is not a narrow self-regarding sect.  Christians can be at home in the Christian world because we can look out from it and see the entire spectrum.  Otherwise it would not be a world, would it? 

You mention your “puny efforts to concentrate on the literal breath.”  It’s easy in itself to “ride the waves of the breath,” as Kabat-Zinn puts it, but it’s not easy to keep it up.   When we give ourselves to this practice, however, we begin to be a little free of the collective Attention Deficit Disorder that our society suffers from.  It is then that we have some chance of sensing the “great cosmic Mystery,” as you called it.  The breath is not a trivial thing; it is the doorway to this awareness.  Certainly, Christians see great symbolism in the breath.  God “breathed the breath of life” into Adam (Genesis 2:7); Jesus breathed on the disciples, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit (the Breath)” (John 20:22).  But we enter deeply into this mystery by doing it, not by thinking about it.  Thinking is a good thing in itself, but it is no substitute for the reality – just as thinking about food will not nourish you but only make you hungrier.  Or it is like drinking seawater.  Thinking goes on forever; left to itself, it allows no room for any other kind of awareness.  This is why we concentrate on the breath, an activity that (from the point of view of thinking) seems like ‘degree zero’.  But we have to do this to make room for something other than thinking. 

You mentioned Kabat-Zinn’s distinction between "consciousness discipline" and "spiritual practice."  As I said, I haven't read that book, but my guess is that the reason for the change in terminology is similar to the reason why the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme does not mention ‘God’ but the ‘Higher Power’.  The word ‘God’ has been so abused by religious people that it is a real barrier to some.  It would be tragic if some people were prevented by a mere choice of words from entering the mystery.  I can't imagine that Jesus would be concerned about terminology; it was he who said, “It is not those who say ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but everyone who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). 

Take care, John; keep it going!


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