Over the past few years, mindfulness has been the subject of intense scrutiny among life hackers, spiritual seekers, business leaders, athletes, entrepreneurs, health professionals, and even military personnel. As with any regular practice that has spiritual or religious connotations, mindfulness has garnered some genuine controversy.
Thus, I’ve decided to start a series of posts (of which this is the first) addressing questions I get asked regularly by my readers and that often come up in Christian circles regarding mindfulness. Got a question yourself? Send me an email or a tweet and I’ll likely include it in a future edition!
Q: What, pray tell, IS mindfulness anyway?
Mindfulness as a modern movement/philosophy is generally defined by a set of mental practices or exercises around the following concept: “a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” (source: Wikipedia)
Mindfulness is often approached with the desire to find beneficial ways to cope with the stresses of modern living, such as overstimulation, depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Other times, it’s simply a way for people to get in touch with a greater sense of mental clarity, mind-body holism, and spiritual awareness.
Q: Is mindfulness just another word for meditation, or is it something else?
Meditation in the typical sense of the word (spending a length of time in quiet/solitude focusing on a particular mental/spiritual practice) is certainly a core component of mindfulness, but mindfulness encompasses more than just the concept of meditation. Meditation is a tool, if you will, to allow you to achieve a greater ability to be “mindful” on a regular basis, even when you’re not meditating.
Q: What makes mindfulness meditation different from other forms of meditation?
There are a wide variety of meditative practices throughout a variety of religious traditions. What makes mindfulness meditation particularly noteworthy is its relative simplicity and applicability to a wide variety of cultures and spiritual viewpoints (or lack thereof – even materialist atheists can appreciate mindfulness meditation). It’s also undergone a large volume of clinical research and study in recent decades, which has led to mindfulness meditation being incorporated into many forms of psychiatry and counseling. You don’t need to chant, repeat mantras, or believe in any particular type of metaphysical entity or force to engage in mindfulness meditation. While traditional Buddhism integrates mindfulness meditation into a larger body of belief incorporating concepts like karma, reincarnation, nibbana (nirvana), enlightened beings such as the Buddha, and so forth, secular mindfulness is concerned strictly with the promotion of greater mental health and brain function.
Q: Isn’t it dangerous / heretical for Christians to practice mindfulness?
If you’re of the opinion that any idea that might ever be espoused by any religious or spiritual tradition other than historical orthodox Christianity is inherently wrong or evil, then yes, it is heretical for a Christian to practice Buddhism-derived mindfulness. I have two arguments against that narrow viewpoint:
(a) Many of the practices and ideas in so-called Biblical Christianity have their roots in “pagan” traditions. For example, the very fact that you go to hear a sermon preached from a pulpit by a preacher in your local church service is due to the tradition of public oratory of philosophers in ancient Greek culture. Does that mean sermons are bad? Certainly not! My point is that just become something wasn’t invented by a Christian culture doesn’t make it wrong by default.
(b) Christianity actually has its own genuine, historical (as well as present-day) engagement with mindfulness. I will go into more detail on this particular subject in the next Volume of this blog series.
But what of statements such as those made by Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary?
“For Christians, this kind of meditation [mindfulness] is a danger, not a means to spiritual growth. Should we meditate? Without question, we should meditate upon the Word of God. This should be a part of our regular and constant spiritual discipline. But, this kind of meditation does not lead to an empty mind, nor to the sense of an empty mind, but to a mind constantly more directed by Scripture. Any other form of meditation is a dangerous distraction and an empty promise.”
Mohler unfortunately shows his ignorance as to the nature of mindfulness meditation when he uses the terminology “empty mind” here. More on that in the next question. Suffice it to say, Mohler is setting up a false dichotomy between meditation on Scripture and meditation on an experiential awareness of God, spirit, mind, etc. The two (expository truth and experiential truth) can actually be combined and practiced in tandem to powerful effect, thereby enhancing our appreciation of and application of Scripture in our lives.
Q: Isn’t mindfulness (and meditation, etc.) ultimately just self-help, and therefore selfish? Shouldn’t we as Christians be focused on God and not on self?
Addressing another quote from the aforementioned article by Dr. Mohler:
“The biblical concept of meditation on the Word of God does involve an emptying, of course. We must empty our minds of ungodly and unbiblical thoughts, of desires for sin and resistance to the reign of God in our lives. But that emptying never involves an empty mind. Instead, it involves a mind in which unbiblical thoughts are replaced by the truth of Scripture — not a blank slate of meditation that revolves around the self.”
The fact is (and assuming Mohler is directly describing Buddhist meditation here), the goals of such meditation is actually quite the opposite of “revolving around the self”. Buddhists believe that enlightenment brings the full realization that the self (what we in the West might call the ego) is actually an illusion, and that our individual consciousness is part of a greater universal consciousness—whereas suffering is caused when we mindlessly give into the constant cravings and desires of the self and fail to understand the true nature (impermanence) of what we perceive to be reality through our own thought-life.
Now I’m not advocating a Buddhist religious view here (for example, Christians would say that suffering is caused by sin having entered the world, not a lack of “enlightenment” per se). However, what I am saying is that is an error to claim that secular mindfulness meditation (derived in part from Buddhist practices) is inherently selfish or ego-boosting. If anything, one of the goals of mindfulness generally is to encourage compassion for others as well as better decision-making and self-control.
Q: Aren’t organizations (schools, businesses, hospitals, etc.) that teach or encourage mindfulness simply introducing Eastern religious doctrine (Buddhism, etc.)?
Well, there’s no question that some mindfulness trainers and training programs are thinly-veiled forms of Buddhist teaching. Emphasis on “some”—we need to be careful here not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There definitely are truly secular mindfulness programs which leave Buddhist metaphysics at the door (in some cases to the consternation of traditional Buddhists who believe meditation without training in Buddhist dharma—aka religious worldview—isn’t good). In such cases, we shouldn’t be quick to judge that any kind of religious infiltration is taking place, and, on the flip side, mindfulness practices have proven to be significantly beneficial to improving people’s health, increasing their ability to focus, reducing stress, facilitating better team dynamics, and so forth. (ref: New York Times)
Q: Enough with the mystical-babble. Give me a practical example of Christian mindfulness.
Ask and you shall receive. 😄