What Religion Can Teach Us About Mindfulness

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Having been brought up by atheists and having come to spirituality very late in life, I’ve always had a certain scepticism around organised religions. But having recently read Essential Spirituality by Roger Walsh - a Professor of Psychiatry and Philosophy at the University of California - I'm currently rethinking my usually negative stance on religion.

I came across the book while studying for my Mindfulness Instructor's course and what makes Walsh's book so appealing is that it strips back all the antagonistic differences between the religions and shows how, at heart, all the religions have seven central practices at their core that help to promote kindness, love, joy, peace, vision, wisdom and generosity. Even for someone like me who gets the shakes around words like ‘worship’ or ‘God’ or ‘ritual’, this book is a reminder that it doesn’t matter what faith you have, as long as you have the faith to be the best person you can be.

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If you’re open to it, reading Essential Spirituality can be life-changing. There are countless books on mindfulness and awareness on the shelves of bookshops, each offering very similar takes on techniques to help you become more present in your daily life. But even for someone who is well versed in mindful methods, Essential Spirituality offers something more than just a practical guide. It presents an insight into how these modern practices have been used throughout time by the world’s religions.

The book is split into the seven practices - reducing craving, emotional wisdom, ethical living, peaceful mind, spiritual vision, spiritual wisdom and service. Each chapter goes into detail about what each one entails and how different religions have taught these practices in their own special way. Wonderful quotes by holy people and religious men and women bring texture to every page. Beautiful stories abound in each chapter, and unlike many other books that regurgitate the same old stories and phrases, many of the ones Mr Walsh chooses to use are fresh and bring true meaning to the sections. (I have two particular favourite stories: one about a young Aikido student who learns that the way to calm a violent man on a train is not by combat, but – as an old fellow passenger showed him - by talking kindly to him and showing him loving kindness; and the other about a college football star who had his leg amputated and who saw himself as a cracked vase. But after working with other young amputees he realised that the crack in the vase was “where the light comes through.”)

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Each chapter also offers various methods to help you achieve these practices and I, for one, have already noticed the difference since introducing some of them into my daily life. The most useful one I’ve found is to do one thing at a time in silence. I used to always have my headphones on or a radio or TV blasting which was wonderful for distracting the mind away from painful memories or brain chatter. Unfortunately, it also increased my stress levels and created a white noise that blocked out any chance of me listening to my subconscious or take on board any lessons or gifts that the universe might be trying to bring me.

Now, I do all my chores in silence – even driving the car – and I find that not only can I hear myself think, but I have better focus and complete each task in a slower fuller manner which also has the benefit of making me feel calmer. Also, the practice of dedicating each chore to someone (instead of rushing through it whilst thinking of the next thing on the ‘to-do list’) also allows more time to experience loving kindness and brings a new motivation to each chore.

Most of the practices are possible to carry out in daily life straight away, even if they are challenging - the ones about lessening time spent gossiping, judging others or talking too much about yourself are certainly going to be hard ones to crack for most of us, but Mr Walsh also gives us a glimpse of what it would be like to live in true enlightenment during every waking moment. And in the case of dream yogis, he shows us what it would be like to have such acute awareness that you could control your dreams.

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Despite such awareness seeming impossible for the novice, Mr Walsh allows you to feel that anything is possible and that the life of a dream yogi is within reach as long as you approach your life with supreme hard work and dedication to the seven central practices.

Since reading the book I feel that even though I may not achieve the life of a dream yogi or a truly enlightened soul, I do have the chance to bring true happiness into my life and the life of others. Now everything in my life is an opportunity for practice. Each conversation, each thought (or non-thought) each chore, each interaction, every single moment of my day is now, and hopefully forever, a chance to awaken my heart.

For practical advice, free audios and tip sheets and expert help on mindfulness for anxiety and depression from a senior psychiatric nurse and a mindfulness instructor, click here to go to the LightHearts UK FREE online 10-week mental wellbeing course.

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