A couple of days ago, I started uploading brief YouTube videos inviting people to learn a practice that I’m calling “Ignatian mindfulness.” It’s my small contribution to people who are feeling stressed out these days: I’ve taught Ignatian spirituality for many years and know that the practices associated with this tradition can help people to refocus their attention in ways that can help lessen the unavoidable anxiety we are all facing in different ways.
And this morning, I came across this article about Christian mindfulness, published yesterday at Religion News Service, about the wave of interest in apps that deliver content rooted in Christian tradition.
“Meditation and mindfulness apps have boomed in the last decade, part of the trend of the year that Apple’s App Store noted in 2018: self-care apps, particularly those focused on mental health,” Emily McFarlan Miller writes. But she also points to some of the pushback about the term “mindfulness,” especially its connection to Buddhist practice. (As an aside, I’ve had a number of students over the years ask about this, and have generally responded that certain Buddhist practices have parallels in Ignatian practices, namely those that focus on the nature of our desire.)
So, let me take a moment to be clear about what I mean by Ignatian mindfulness, and why I continue to use the term “mindfulness” rather than something more rooted in the Christian theological tradition.
- It’s practical. People are interested in mindfulness because they experience fragmentation. They are seeking out mindful practices.
- It’s not un-Biblical, nor is it in any way anti-theological or unchristian. I started using it because a publisher wanted to use it, and I basically said, OK, sure, you’re the marketing experts, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. The word “mindful” and “mindfulness” have been used in certain English translations of the Bible. It describes God’s attitude toward human beings in Psalms 8 and 115, for example, and could be a translation of the Greek word syneidēsin, often also translated “conscience.”
- It captures one experiential effect of Christian spiritual practice. While the overall goal of any authentically Christian spirituality is to conform myself more and more to the image of Christ, along the way it involves turning away from corrosive behavior (sin) so that I may grow in my ability to practice agapic love. I become more mindful (yes) of my tendencies to “do what I hate” (Romans 7:15), and more mindful too of my desires to do what is good, true, and beautiful.
- Ignatian spirituality is not unique among Christian spiritual traditions, to be sure — Ignatius himself counseled people to use any number of earlier forms of prayer. But it is distinctive: Ignatius was a lay person when he wrote the Spiritual Exercises, and he gave them to other lay people as ways to deepen their desire to follow Christ. His counsels are very practical and adaptable to various circumstances (a point he observes in Annotations 18 and 19 before the Exercises).
- It is a highly developed tradition, especially in recent decades, with many books, websites, apps, and other resources introducing the practices to people around the world. (My book The Ignatian Workout was an early attempt to adapt the Spiritual Exercises for a young, lay audience.) Many of these practices have been agile responses to people disenchanted with religious traditions, but desiring spiritual practice so as not to lose connection with their desire to do good. That desire, I would argue, is what Ignatius may have had in mind when he quoted his favorite Spanish proverb, namely that it is good when we “go in their door in order that they may come out ours.”
So: Ignatian mindfulness practices are physical and mental exercises which, over time, can help people become less distracted and more focused on what is life-giving. These same practices can also be ways of entering into prayer and deepening our relationship with God.