Madeleine Bunting has just rediscovered prayer

At this point I will come clean. I am one of a group of people working with three universities (Oxford, Exeter and Bangor) to support the all-party group. What interests us – academics, journalists, mindfulness teachers – is the potential for public policy. What role could mindfulness play in schools, in the NHS or in the criminal justice system?

But let’s start with definitions, which are notoriously difficult with this phenomenon. What exactly is mindfulness? Because it has precious little to do with the pretty women sitting on beaches with their eyes closed who are usually used to illustrate articles on the subject. The only way to explain is to suggest you try. Right now. Close your eyes and bring your attention into your body, to the sensation of your feet on the ground; the movements of your breath, the expansion of your rib cage. Stay with these tiny physical sensations. Patiently. Without getting cross with yourself for getting distracted. Try it for two minutes.

Unfamiliar? It is, because our minds spin with thought, and we are absent to much of our physical experience. But bringing the attention back to the most basic and essential part of living – the breath – we can slowly bring an awareness of the obsessive thought patterns and the instant reactions which on reflection we so often realise were unhelpful or even destructive.

That’s what this is: prayer. Exactly the purpose of, say, saying the rosary. To concentrate the mind on the self.

Why not just call it what it is and go off and talk to some of eh experts in it? You know, the contemplative orders?

27 comments on “Madeleine Bunting has just rediscovered prayer

  1. Questions from Timmy we can answer rhetorically: Because the experts in it in those contemplative orders also want to sell you religion?

    Agreed this is just yet another reinvention of the same old. The new age had TM, the post-new age has this.

    As long as they don’t make it mandatory.

  2. Mindfulness teachers, eh?

    How has our species managed to survive so long without?

  3. @Steve has a point – what she is flogging is just self-indulgent liberal crap.

    Prayer in most religions I am aware of involve a divinity that holds you to values and standards, and against which you judge yourself in some way or another. That’s tough.

    Not going to happen with a her – she’s got her social network to affirm her holiness.

    What she is flogging is a form of self-hypnosis – cheap and easy to do once taught, but from her mates…? Likely £600 per workshop and all very spiritual.

  4. Prayer is about communicating with a deity, or trying to, How you go about it depends on the religious tradition you are operating in and your own personal preference. But prayer as such has no more to do with mindfulness than doing the shopping has to do with taking a walk.

  5. “What role could mindfulness play in schools, in the NHS or in the criminal justice system?”

    Hmmmm.

    “It loosens that reactivity which can trap us in a limiting loop, and allows for very different responses which can manifest in all kinds of ways – greater creativity, more empathy, more patience, less judgment.”

    So it might help us lower our expectations of teachers, the NHS, and the police? Groovy.

    “Another risk is that it becomes the privilege of the stressed middle classes who can afford the courses.”

    Nah. I can see this becoming a big hit with white van men, taxi drivers and boiler engineers. As soon as they clear out their crystal healing kits, homeopathy tinctures and books on raiki.

  6. As Doug says, what she’s described is what’s known as self-hypnosis. Slightly different from prayer in that you focus on letting your body completely relax and your mind drift.

    They’ve just come up with a new word for it, presumably so that politicians and parasitical hangers-on like Bunting can look like they’re doing something new and important and make money from it.

  7. Doug – Yarp. What she’s selling isn’t exactly the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which were about helping you conquer your own solipsism and get to know Jesus better, and it’s still less like the aesceticism of dark age Irish monks who would sometimes stand waist-deep in freezing lochs while fasting and praying.

    Not that I’m terribly interested in doing those things myself, but they possess higher ideals and a seriousness of purpose which seem lacking in this trendy modern spin on navel gazing.

    In place of God, Ms Bunting has substituted her own wonderful self, and in place of rigorous mental and physical self-discipline, a sort of fun-sized cod-Buddhist breathing exercise in a cozy room full of scatter cushions, probably followed by a skinny soy latte. At £600 a session, run by somebody called Tristam or Arabella.

    I think this bit’s interesting though:

    “It loosens that reactivity which can trap us in a limiting loop, and allows for very different responses which can manifest in all kinds of ways – greater creativity, more empathy, more patience, less judgment.”

    Do we think for even a second that this enlightenment will take the form of, say, learning to be less judgemental about people who support UKIP, or being more open to listening to people who criticise the climate change scare, or realising that Jeremy Clarkson isn’t actually the face of evil incarnate?

    Or – mirabile dictu! – do our mindful betters use their new-found spiritual superpowers to discern that we should all do what hand-wringing Guardianistas tell us?

  8. “or realising that Jeremy Clarkson isn’t actually the face of evil incarnate?”

    He’s not?!?!?!?

    Bugger. Are you sure you’re not on the wrong planet?

    :-))

  9. Personally I recommend contemplating the sunny Tuscan countryside with a glass of chilled white. Or watching a wee lizard on a wall.

  10. Aha, on reflection I get it. Self-obsessed woman recommends brief holidays from self-obsession.

  11. Doug – Jezza became the Greatest Living Englishman after Sir Patrick Moore died.

    He’s Lord Nelson crossed with Dennis the Menace. He’s the Imperator of the internal combustion engine. He’s the anti-Stephen Fry.

  12. Presumably while listening to the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows.

    The middle class. Mad as a box of frogs, the lot of them.

  13. ” I am one of a group of people working with three universities (Oxford, Exeter and Bangor) ..waffle waffle waffle… the sensation of your feet on the ground; the movements of your breath, the expansion of your rib cage. Stay with these tiny physical sensations….”

    Drop acid, yer silly bint. Problem solved. What are they doing at universities, nowadays? Studying?

  14. Close your eyes and bring your attention into your body, to the sensation of your feet on the ground; the movements of your breath, the expansion of your rib cage. Stay with these tiny physical sensations. Patiently. Without getting cross with yourself for getting distracted. Try it for two minutes.

    I do this every night at about 11pm and, according to my wife, I’m snoring in less than 2 minutes.

  15. Tim is correct, it is a type of prayer. It copies a form of buddhist practice. Why learn it from a “mindfulness teacher” though. I guess because that divorces it from spirituality. I think the person that wrote this wouldn’t feel right joining a religion though because that would entail something larger than herself.

  16. Plenty of us don’t feel right joining a religion, not because it’s “bigger than ourselves”, but because it’s all bullshit.

  17. What are the odds that in every school which uses this, within the very first minute someone is going to occupy the sudden silence with a loud fart. I certainly hope so.

    This is vintage Guardianbollocks.

  18. Bloke in Germany – “Plenty of us don’t feel right joining a religion, not because it’s “bigger than ourselves”, but because it’s all bullshit.”

    Religion is old hat. What with its patriarchy, self restraint, and teaching that human life is precious.

    Worshipping the planet is new hat. A big pink hat splattered with fake birdshit and the slogan “Damn Seagulls”.

  19. It’s an article in the Guardian. Allow me to translate:
    “I’m middle-class, give me money.”

  20. If they were doing this kind of thing with Christian meditative practice (e.g. rosary) then we would all be able to see it clearly for the stinking recycled crap that it is. It would appear farcical divorced from the religion that originated it. This is why bullshit peddlers like to use techniques from religions that people don’t know much about.

  21. “Plenty of us don’t feel right joining a religion, not because it’s “bigger than ourselves”, but because it’s all bullshit.”

    The point is that you can’t just “do” mindfulness. It is part and parcel of a religious tradition. They separate this bit out and bin the rest because they like this bit but dislike religion in general. It is ok if you dislike religion, but be honest about it. It is ludicrous to cherry pick the bits you like and pretend they are some kind of stand alone new age thingy.

  22. If you go on one of these retreats /workshops / clinics then God is trying to tell you something:
    “You have too much money.”

  23. Mindfulness has nothing to do with any specific religious practice. But it also doesn’t require any special instruction beyond a few quick suggestions on how to get into a contemplative state. It’s really just a form of cognitive behavioural therapy which is why it finds favour in things like addiction treatment. I find it very useful if I’m stuck in the bank or on a long bus journey. It’s typical of idiots like Bunting to take something fairly straightforward and invest it with all sorts of exaggerated claims. This is basically the Grauniad equivalent of the latest diet fad in the Daily Mail.

  24. If I wanted to empty my mind of all useful thoughts then Maddie would be near the top of the list of instructors. Teaching by example and all that.

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