Mindfulness has been a favorite of psychologists and behavioral researchers. In a purely secular sense, mindfulness simply means becoming aware of your thoughts or thinking about thinking. However, mindfulness has also been a part of the prayer practices of the historic church.
The early church and the desert fathers and mothers in particular routinely practiced a form of mindfulness that they used in conjunction with prayer. This practice has continued throughout the history of the church, although it has been called different things over time, such as the Ignatian Examen that I use each evening. Here is one analysis of this prayer practice and its Christian background:
The early fathers of the Eastern Christian Church talked about the vigilance of the mind and heart [nepsis], which is similar to the cognitive-rational-emotive therapy technique employed by psychologists in helping patients to be ‘mindful’ and thus learn to control their thoughts and feelings. In response to this technique Beck (2011) writes that “. . . mindfulness techniques help patients nonjudgmentally observe and accept their internal experiences, without evaluating or trying to change them.”
A vigilance and watchfulness of the mind and heart somewhat similar to the cognitive-rational-emotive therapy technique employed by psychologists in helping patients to be ‘mindful’ and thus learn control of thoughts and feelings is a frequent theme in the writings of the early Fathers of the Eastern Christian Church.
These early Christian spiritual teachers taught their disciples to develop nepsis, that is, to be wakeful and attentive (from the Greek verb nepho: to be vigilant, mindful)iii to that which was inside and around them. Thus, we also need to practice being completely “present” to our thoughts and surroundings.
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