Author's Note: I wrote this original article (Christian Mindfulness: is it even possible?) in 2014, and since then it has received a large amount of traffic from Google searches. I am grateful for all the interest and am excited that Christian Mindfulness has proven to be such a popular topic.
You know you’ve arrived when you hit the cover of TIME
No joke, it was on the cover of TIME Magazine. Yes, in case there was any doubt remaining in anyone’s mind, the Mindfulness movement has truly gone mainstream.
Listen, I am quite happy to join the chorus that people need time to be still and reflect, and our noisy, always-connected culture demands a counterpoint if we’re all going to maintain our collective sanity.
And there’s no denying that scientific studies have shown quite conclusively for many years now that meditation has positive effects on both brain function and bodily health.
But here’s what worries me, both as a Christian in general and as a church planter in particular:
The Christian response to the “Mindfulness” movement appears to be…nothing.
So what is all this Mindfulness stuff about anyway?
If you scratch the veneer of Mindfulness just slightly, you’ll see that by and large it’s a Western repackaging of what practitioners of Eastern religious traditions have been doing for a millennia. Many of the proponents of Mindfulness in both academic and commercial settings are grounded in Buddhism and related practices such as yoga (also something the West has borrowed from Eastern religion, namely Hinduism).
Businesses across the U.S., health centers of many stripes, and even schools have eagerly embraced Mindfulness as a powerful antidote to our action-packed, stressed-out weeks. But the question is, what exactly is being embraced?
The Holistic Life Foundation, a non-profit organization that has introduced Mindfulness into a struggling high school in Baltimore, defines the term in this manner:
Mindfulness is the combination of awareness, centering, and being present. It is the awareness of your thoughts, emotions, actions, and energy. It is the ability to get centered and stay centered in all situations. And it is the ability to be present, not letting internal and external distractions take you from the current moment. This leads to the development of empathy, compassion, love, balance, and harmony.
Now that sounds pretty good, right? Why would anyone have a problem with that?
The Holistic Life Foundation was founded by brothers Ali and Atman Smith. As the HLF text continues, we read:
As young children, Ali and Atman actually grew up with yoga in their home, with their father having them meditate every morning before school.
It doesn’t explicitly state this, but if you guessed the spiritual practices at work here are very much rooted in Buddhism and Hinduism, you’d likely not be far off.
Let’s look at another organization bringing Mindfulness to hospice care to address end-of-life scenarios, the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. Wait, what? Zen? As they state themselves:
Twenty-five hundred years ago the historical Buddha established a practice to address suffering, old age, sickness and death. In this tradition, Koshin Paley Ellison and Robert Chodo Campbell, Zen Buddhist priests & chaplains established the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care.
Just since 2007, NYZCCC has ministered to over 43,000 individuals, and thousands are receiving direct education of Buddhist approaches to death and spirituality. And they’re doing this in partnership with leading hospitals and medical facilities in their area. How does the media cover this? An unwelcome intrusion of a particular religion into secular care? No. It’s all about Mindfulness.
Even athletes are getting into the Mindfulness game. One article cites the success of Phil Jackson, coach to the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, in bringing the practice to the NBA – he has even written a book titled Sacred Hoops which describes his journey from being raised by “fundamentalist Pentecostals” to discovering Zen and Native American spirituality. His incorporation of Mindfulness in his coaching of the team of the Chicago Bulls (along with the star performances of Michael Jordan and others) is said to have led the Bulls to win three consecutive championships.
In summary, Mindfulness has been extraordinarily adept at repurposing a variety of spiritual practices to apply to the modern context of the West. Quoting the TIME Magazine article mentioned above:
Mindfulness is rooted in Eastern philosophy, specifically Buddhism. but two factors set it apart and give it a practical veneer that is helping propel it into the mainstream.
What are the two factors? Smart marketing (aka keeping the spiritual lingo to a minimum) and scientific research.
How should Christians respond to the Mindfulness movement?
Like all cultural movements, Mindfulness will inevitably be addressed by Christians in one of three ways:
Rejected - the Fundamentalist response. In this view, Mindfulness is evil and of the devil and must be repudiated. All who practice Mindfulness will need to repent and turn back to God. Anything that originates with non-Christian religions is inherently bad and must be avoided at all costs.
- Accepted - the Universalist response. In this view, Mindfulness is basically non-threatening to a belief in Jesus and has many benefits, so it should be embraced and incorporated into daily life like any other cultural innovation. Being a Christian who practices yoga and meditation is perfectly acceptable.
- Redeemed - the Apostolic response. In this view, Mindfulness has a noble and worthy aim, but the movement must be carefully examined from a Christian perspective in order to understand its underlying religious principles. Parallel to this, an authentic awareness and resurfacing of practices of meditation and healthy disciplines from both Biblical and historical ecclesiastical sources can help bring about a genuine “Christian Mindfulness” movement that simultaneously honors God and brings positive change to society.
What concerns me the most, as someone who stays relatively informed in the worlds of both secular and Evangelical news, is the relative lack of any of these responses coming from the Church at large. Books? Sermons? Conferences? Study guides? Retreats? Polemics? All I hear is crickets.
In case you hadn’t guessed already, I am firmly in the “redeem” camp. I truly believe Mindfulness addresses an immediate crisis of spiritual hunger, emotional need, and physical imbalance that plagues many in our society – only the cure brings with it its own set of serious ailments, namely the idea that eternal enlightenment can be found through greater self-awareness and self-acceptance via meditative practices. For a Christian, enlightenment comes when our spirits become intimate with the Holy Spirit through the process of spiritual resurrection, and that process can only come to its full fruition through faith in Jesus Christ. When we become aware of how much we need God’s love and guidance, and when we accept that our sinful nature can only be restored and made whole by the powerful working of Christ within us, that brings ultimate fulfillment.
The big question is, can Christians meditate? Of course!
- “Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.” Psalm 48:9
- “Your commandments make me wiser…I have more insight than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation.” Psalm 119:99
- “I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night.” Psalm 63:6
- “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
- “Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening…” Genesis 24:63
- “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3:2
- “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things…practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9
- “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:6
- “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Mark 1:35
I would argue that not only can Christians meditate, Christians should mediate. In fact, the lack of emphasis on meditative, quiet, solitary prayer I’ve observed in modern Christian spirituality (at least here in the U.S.) deeply troubles me. We have lost something truly profound in the call to “read your Bible and pray more” – aka, do more, talk more – and have missed one of the key aspects of Jesus’ earthly ministry which was the many times he would go to be alone with his heavenly Father for extended periods of time.
Where is Bibically-sound Christian mysticism today? When Protestants did away with the monastery, I’m afraid they may have done away with the contemplative practice, and we are now seeing the repercussions of that. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that’s true in the world of the spiritual as well as the physical. Mindfulness is simply filling a vacuum – one that, I fear, we Christians have allowed to persist for too long.
It’s time for a new Christian Mindfulness.
I am dedicating myself to this endeavor. I’m not sure yet exactly what form it may take and or what impact it will have on me. But I am ready to let my spiritual practices as a Christian be moulded, by Scripture, by study, and – yes – by meditation in order to proclaim Christian Mindfulness to a world that decidedly needs it. I hope all of you who are followers of Jesus will join me on this worthy quest.