by Jonathan Draper
from Signs of the Times No. 72 - Jan 2019

When I typed ‘mindfulness’ into Google I was presented with 11,400,000 entries.

Even Radio 3 is getting in on the act with ‘slow radio’ offerings: 30 minutes of ‘relaxation sounds’ which they hope will attract younger listeners, giving them ‘a chance for quiet mindfulness’. Of the production of aids to mindfulness there seems to be no end.

Tim Stead, until last July the Vice-Chair of Modern Church, has made a new offering to this crowded field. Tim is an accredited teacher and associate of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. His is a ‘practical eight-week guide’ to mindfulness complete with audio meditations on a CD enclosed with the book.

A word first about the audio meditations: Tim Stead reads the meditations with a smooth, calm and measured tone leaving plenty of time and space for the practices in each session. It’s easy to imagine these being done in a small group or even on your own. The meditations, as they are written in the book, are careful not to tell you what to experience, but to notice what you experience. If you decide to try to follow the course, the audio guide will be a good companion.

In my view, however, one should not start with the audio guide. The book itself is worth careful attention first. I write this as a person for whom this and other forms of meditation are a foreign country (though I have learned how to close my eyes, zone out and let my mind go, especially in tedious sermons in a cathedral…). As a stranger in a strange land, I found the book both interesting, insightful and an easy read (even if the practice is more difficult). It’s written in an engaging style with seriousness and good humour, and with a refreshing sense of realism.

The book is divided into three main headings after a helpful introduction: See, Love, Be. The first and longest section explores what you might call getting into the right place physically and mentally (and therefore, spiritually) and covers four areas: connecting, allowing, gazing, and wondering. Each begins with some reflections (or ‘starting points’) containing brief spiritual reflections at the end. There then follows a section on ‘Formal Practice’, looks at some ‘Common Experiences’, makes some suggestions about putting the practices into daily use, and ends with a poem. The poems, written by Julia Cousins especially for the book, are a lovely feature. Cousins has a knack of summarising each section in a way that gives the prose more life and depth. It’s a pity the poems weren’t included on the CD.

The following two areas - Love and Be - build on the first and follow the same pattern of starting points, practices, and spiritual reflections. There is a brief ‘Epilogue’ drawing some of the ideas together.

In Stead’s view, mindfulness, being ‘aware’, is a contribution in ‘the service of a truer, more whole and fuller humanity’ for each of us individually and all of us together. This, he sees, is what ‘all the best of the spiritual traditions are about’, and he draws on many of those traditions during the course of the book, so don’t be surprised to find that Buddhism features quite a lot, and there is at least one Buddhist joke included. The point is spiritual and not religious or denominational, and while Stead is obviously writing out of a Christian context and background, people of all religious traditions and none will find this a comfortable and helpful read. The purpose, though, is to enable each of us to engage more fully with ourselves, with our own humanity and so be set free: set free to be and become all we can be. This, in itself, is a worthy aim and goal.

It’s probably not fair to review a book like this without actually undertaking the whole course as a matter of personal experience. While I have read the book through and listened to much of the CD, I have not attempted to put in place all the practices. However, you do not need to be a gardener to appreciate a really good gardening book, and on the same principle, it is possible to appreciate what Stead has done here. He has provided a good way in, refreshingly realistic practices and advice, and brought it all to life with some lovely poetry throughout. If you are minded to try mindfulness, then you will find this a good way in.

Jonathan Draper is the General Secretary of Modern Church.