Mindfulness and following Jesus…?

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Today we’re exploring the topic of Mindfulness, and in particular, considering how it fits with following Jesus. What is it? Why’s it so big? Is it something that can and should be part of following Jesus? Is it something we should avoid as Christians? Or is it something in between?

 

What is it?

I would be surprised if any of us hadn’t heard the term mindfulness, but I’d be equally surprised if we all had a good grasp of what it really involves or refers to.

So, some basic definitions…

The man who’s credited with introducing mindfulness to the west, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines it as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”.

The website www.mindful.org defines it as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

And one of the simplest definitions, given by a Catholic Psychologist, mindfulness is “non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.[1]

 

It’s important to appreciate that there are two main dimensions to, or forms of, mindfulness. On the one hand, there’s the formal practices, which are essentially forms of meditation that train your mind to focus on one thing. The most common form of exercises get you to sit in a relaxed, upright position and focus your attention on your breath as it goes in and out. Other exercises focus on being aware of your body, and your environment more generally – what you can feel, hear and sense. Most of the mindfulness apps and blogs etc are filled with meditation practices like this. The core idea is to train your mind to just keep coming back to focusing on one thing – on something that’s concrete rather than wandering away with your thoughts.

 

And then, on the other hand, there’s the broader idea of living life ‘mindfully’ – in a way that is ‘present’ and ‘aware’. The organisation Smiling Mind explains that with this informal mindfulness “you bring the same kind of improved attention that you might get from formal practice to everyday situations. This involves directing your full and non-judgemental attention to the activity you’re undertaking at a particular moment – it might be washing the dishes, brushing your teeth, chatting with a friend or studying.”

 

Why is it so popular?

In case you hadn’t noticed, mindfulness is taking the world by storm.

Headspace, probably the most popular App, has been downloaded over 65 million times, and there are currently over 2 million paying users – people paying $69/year to use this app to practice meditation and mindfulness.

Countless individuals champion mindfulness as something that has changed their life. Lotta Dan, a mum and blogger from New Zealand, explains why mindfulness is her ‘magic ticket’ to a better life.

“It’s about recognising the actions of my thinking mind and not being sucked in by them. It’s about awareness, and most importantly it’s about kindness. Practising mindfulness is the ultimate act of self-care… It’s like being able to push a CALM button in my brain so that everything turns lovely. And there are no downsides.”[2]

Mindfulness is now a commonly used tool by many psychologists for mental health therapy, and there is growing enthusiasm to introduce mindfulness practices in schools.

Smiling Mind, who are keen to see mindfulness programs in all Australian schools, claim mindfulness helps ‘reduce worries, anxiety and distress; create a sense of calm; teach you to relax and regulate your emotions; improve concentration and productivity; develop a sense of empathy and connectedness; and gives you better health and sleep.’

And whilst there is almost certainly some exaggeration of the benefits by advocates, apparently there is good scientific backing to the idea that mindfulness can create positive physiological changes and improve mental health, especially alongside other forms of therapy.[3]

 

Positive Connections with Christian Faith

It’s not hard to see why this approach to life and these kinds of practices are embraced by so many as a positive antidote to our frantic and distracted lives in the modern world. It’s probably not a coincidence that mindfulness has exploded in popular culture alongside the rise of smart phones and social media. And whilst life has always been busy and stressful for many, no one would argue that it’s generally getting worse. People feel disconnected from community and the environment – they feel overworked and stressed. Mental health issues and depression are on the rise. Against this backdrop, learning to slow down, quiet the mind and be present and aware, seems obviously helpful.

 

Enjoying the present moment

As Christians, this impulse resonates with some important ideas in the Bible.

We read earlier in the service from the book of Ecclesiastes, which seems to affirm a kind of ‘mindful’ living about 3000 years before Jon Kabat-Zinn ever started his meditation classes in the 1970s!

The preacher in Ecclesiastes is on a quest to find meaning and significance in our ‘toil under the sun’, and his resounding conclusion is that most of our striving and effort to achieve meaning and significance amounts to nothing! It’s just ruining our lives.

What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labour under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-24)

The answer, the alternative to mindless striving, is mindful living. It’s to slow down and enjoy what’s before you – a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. Don’t toil to create meaning and fulfilment, to chase it, because it will always seem like mist, disappearing as you reach for it. Instead, find satisfaction in the toil itself. Enjoy the sun on your shoulders as you dig. Be satisfied in crunching the numbers. Notice the simple realities of the life as it unfolds before you.

 

Meditation

And alongside this, there is a strong and clear encouragement in the Bible to meditate on God’s Word. Meditation is seen as an important part of knowing God by taking his Word deep into our hearts and minds. We read in Psalm 1 earlier, that a truly blessed person is someone who meditates on the Law of God day and night. This person is like a tree planted by streams, growing, bearing fruit, prospering in all they do. We’ll come back to the question of whether the biblical idea of meditating on God’s word has much in common with mindfulness meditation, but clearly God wants us to pause from our striving and focus on him – he wants us to meditate on him and his word to us.

 

Focused attention on Jesus

And then there’s the famous scene from the gospels, which we also read out earlier. Jesus is visiting the two sisters, Mary and Martha. And whilst Mary is sitting and Jesus’ feet, captivated by his word, just soaking it up, seemingly oblivious to what else is happening, Martha is bustling about doing what needs to be done, and getting more stressed and frustrated with Mary the whole time. And when Martha cracks and complains to Jesus, asking him to tell Mary to help, what does Jesus say?

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

It almost seems like a passage written to promote mindfulness! Martha represents the typical ‘unmindful’ distracted, stressed 21st Century worker. And Mary is the poster girl for mindfulness. She’s chosen the ‘one thing’ that matters – she’s taking time to focus on Jesus and be present with him. That’s the better option according to Jesus.

 

Why wouldn’t we get on board?

So why would anyone not get on board with mindfulness? And why might Christians be concerned about embracing or promoting it?

 

Wary of the Claims

Well, before we even get to questions of whether it’s appropriate for Christians, it’s important to know that not everyone has been sold on the supposed benefits of Mindfulness. In recent years, many of the studies that reported amazing results from mindfulness have been shown to have quite poor controls and methods, and it’s not clear that Mindfulness itself was the key factor in improving mental health. It’s now clear that it doesn’t work for everyone, and some people can even have quite negative reactions to it. Most interesting is that finding that mindfulness and meditation in and of themselves don’t actually lead to any real, lasting character change – they don’t actually make us more compassionate people.[4]

 

Buddhist Origins and Intentions

For many of us though, particularly those of us who are Christian, the bigger issue is not just whether it really works, but whether it’s right and good for us to practice mindfulness, given its origins in Buddhism. The founder of western mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn very intentionally repackaged mindfulness in a more palatable, less spiritual way for the west, having learned it first through Buddhist writings. But even if the underlying beliefs and ideology are ignored, we still need to consider how the practices themselves relate to their original purpose and how that might shape their function in our lives.

The truth is that mindfulness practices, as derived from Eastern religion, are designed to assist people on the spiritual journey of letting go of their sense of self and achieving the state of enlightenment. Dr. Catherine Wikholm (one of the authors of the book ‘The Buddha Pill’), explains “the fact that meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier, but to destroy our sense of individual self – who we feel and think we are most of the time – is often overlooked in the science and media stories about it.”

The sense of detachment that mindfulness encourages is not accidental – it’s designed to help deconstruct over time the idea that ‘you’ exist. We learn to focus on physical processes and realities as simply parts of the universe as a whole. Leisa Aitkin, in her article about mindfulness on the Centre for Public Christianity explains, “In Buddhism, mindfulness has a spiritual purpose. Suffering is seen as arising out of attachment to this world, and so learning to detach is an important part of the path out of suffering and into a state of nirvana. The practice of non judgementally allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, in the moment, without “attaching” to any one, is part of this spiritual journey and is central to a Buddhist philosophy of life.[5]

It’s not that mindfulness exercises will always and automatically lead to such a view of the world or a rejection of Christian beliefs. It’s not that the practices in and of themselves are spiritual and non-Christian. It’s that they were developed for a purpose as part of a worldview that is profoundly unchristian – one that denies the value of the created world and the dignity of human beings as distinct persons created in the image of God. If we were going to adopt these practices, we would want to be clear and confident that they really can be re-purposed to serve a very different goal and fit into a very different worldview.

 

Re-Purposing for Christ

This is really key. I don’t think we need to reject exercises or practices simply because they were invented and practiced by Buddhists, or people with any non-Christian beliefs for that matter. Christians don’t need to fall into thinking that we have a monopoly on wisdom. We can and do learn things and adopt practices and observations about life from people of all cultures and faiths, including from our own secular, ‘science and personal happiness obsessed’ western culture. But equally we will reject many assumptions, practices and behaviours, because we see they are either ungodly in and of themselves, or they’re too intrinsically connected with false ideas.

Another way of saying this is that everything we do should flow from and feed into our faith in Christ. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 14 that when Christians are considering whether certain cultural practices are appropriate for them, it’s vital that we have a good, clear conscience. We need to be confident that whatever we do is consistent with our faith in Christ. In fact, he says, ‘everything that does not come from faith is sin.’ (Romans 14:23)

Which means when we critically evaluate practices like mindfulness that originate from non-Christian worldviews, we need to consider whether these practices can genuinely be repurposed to flow from our faith in Christ and serve God’s will in our lives. That might be repurposing them as is, having concluded there is no inherent contradiction with our faith. It may mean tweaking or even transforming practices so that they are fit for purpose. If we practice mindfulness, it needs to come from faith. Not just that we don’t feel guilty doing it, but that we can see how it fits with God’s truth about the world and his vision for our life – we can see how it fits into following Jesus.

 

Realise that ‘secular’ mindfulness is an alternative religion

And all of this is relevant and necessary even if we think western mindfulness practices have been sufficiently disconnected from their Buddhist origins and framework. What we need to appreciate is that pop culture mindfulness is for many people essentially a form of religion itself.

Again, I don’t mean that engaging in a mindfulness meditation or mindfully brushing your teeth means you are suddenly engaging in another religion or being unfaithful to God. What I mean is that mindfulness, particularly outside the clinical setting, is presented as the solution – it’s the answer to all your problems and the problems with our world. It’s actually the over the top, evangelistic zeal of those advocating it, which reveals what the real problem is. Mindfulness is an alternative ‘god’. It’s the magic ticket. It’s the thing you’ve been missing. It’s the secret to overcoming your failings and weaknesses.

And aside from whether these claims are worth believing or not, it’s the very nature of the claims themselves that’s the problem! Mindfulness is presented and pursued as an alternative Christ. Embracing the movement of mindfulness as it’s presented in popular culture won’t necessarily make you Buddhist, but it will probably lead you deep into humanism. Mindfulness in secular form is ultimately just another pathway of self-help salvation. It’s about finding what you really need within yourself. The answer lies within you.[6]

But the Bible teaches us something very different doesn’t it? The answer is not within you, and the problem is deeper than stress and unregulated emotions and thoughts. Our greatest problem is sin – alienation from God and an inability to love our neighbour as we ought, even when we want to. The answer lies in God and the death and resurrection of Jesus, his Son, on our behalf. The good news of Jesus is that everything we need is freely offered in him, not that you need to dig it out from within yourself. Dealing with our personal problems requires repentance from sin and faith in Christ, not just focused breathing and mindful living. And our ultimate goal is not happiness and emotional stability – it’s living lives of praise to our loving Creator and Saviour and loving our neighbour as ourselves.

You see the problem is not necessarily engaging in mindfulness practices, it’s what you might be missing if you uncritically embrace the mindfulness movement. Whether you’re starting with overtly spiritual Buddhist meditation or the most sterile, secular mindfulness app you can imagine, as Christians we need to critically evaluate and only do ‘what comes from faith’. If we’re going to practice mindfulness, we need to practice Christian mindfulness.

 

Christian Mindfulness

What do I mean by Christian mindfulness? Because there’s plenty of books and blogs out there promoting Christian mindfulness and telling you how to do it…

 

Same Form, Different Motivations & Assumptions

At very least what it means is simply understanding how it can be understood and practiced as part of a Christian worldview and for Christian purposes.

Take running, or just exercise more broadly, as an example. I want to say that as a Christian, you need to engage in ‘Christian running’ or ‘Christian exercise’. What does that mean!? Lifting Bibles above your head? Carrying a heavy wooden cross over your shoulders as you run around the oval?? Wearing sock and sandals on the treadmill??

No (of course not!). It means running and exercising in a way that fits into your understanding of what it means to be human and what your life and body are for according to your Christian faith. It means running and exercising to keep physically healthy, so that you can do the kinds of things you think God wants you to do, and because you find it improves your mental health. It’s part of how you care for yourself so you can be the person God calls you to be. It means being grateful to God for a functioning body and for air to breath.

And it means rejecting running and physical fitness as your personal salvation. It means resisting the idea that personal fulfilment will come when you finally have the body shape and tone that you wish you had. It means remembering that no amount of endorphins and personal discipline can overcome the problem of sin and alienation from God.

You see, running is a religion for some. It’s their salvation. Just like mindfulness.

Christian running doesn’t look very different to pagan running. You can’t tell by the goofy ‘Christian running style’. But it can have very different ideology, motivations, boundaries and habits. It flows from faith and feeds into faith.

So Christian Mindfulness may not look very different on the surface. It may be that you engage in very similar exercises. But there will be profoundly different assumptions, motivations and goals involved. And it will only be part of a bigger picture of how you’re living a life of faith, dealing with sin and learning to love and serve others.

 

Re-Purposing Mindfulness for Christ

So, just very briefly, I want to touch on a few aspects of mindfulness, as it’s commonly practiced, that I can imagine being repurposed as part of following Jesus.

 

You are not just your thoughts (you have an identity in Christ)

Firstly, I can see how it can be helpful to learn that you are more than your thoughts. Many of us, Christian or not, can fall victim to a constant mental narrative – an inner dialogue filled with messages from all over the place, and not necessarily true and helpful ones. Mindfulness trains you to step back from your thoughts – to observe them without judgement and let them pass by. It’s supposed to help you develop what some people call your ‘observing self’ in contrast to your ‘rational self’. Now, as I’ve said, this practice is intended originally to lead you to let go of a sense of personal identity, and as Christians we want to transform our thoughts rather than just distance ourselves from them. However, the same practice and skill can be repurposed, especially in connection with Biblical meditation, which we’ll talk about in a moment, to strengthen our sense of identity in Christ in contrast to the jumbled thoughts and half-truths that can swim around our heads and seek to define us. So it can be helpful to regularly step back from our own thoughts and focus on something more real and true – what God says about us.

 

Accepting things the way they are (and learn contentment in Christ!)

Another aspect of learning to be present in a non-judgemental way through mindfulness is accepting things the way they are. Again, this is originally designed to feed into detachment from this world and from all personal desire. But it can be a helpful part of biblical contentment. By learning to observe our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, without reacting to them, without evaluating them as good and bad, without being overwhelmed by them, we reinforce the fact that we don’t need to control and improve our circumstances to be happy and content. The gospel calls us to be content in Christ even in the midst of chronic illness and suffering. I can appreciate how mindfulness can help reinforce that we don’t need to constantly react to our circumstances.

 

Being attentive to what’s before you (including God himself!)

A final aspect of mindfulness that I can see being reappropriated as part of our faith is the emphasis on being attentive to what’s before you. A key practice is deciding to focus on something concrete before you rather than being distracted by thoughts, information and entertainment. Mindfulness is not about trying to shut off your thoughts or emptying your mind, it’s about diligently bringing your attention back to the thing you have determined to focus on. And it’s not hard to see how this could be helpful for Christians. We want to be people who give our attention to God and his Word, both in dedicated times of Bible reading and prayer, but also being aware and attentive to the presence of God with us all the time. I can’t speak from experience, but I can see how some level of practicing mindfulness might help you at other times to give your disciplined attention to God in prayer, to his word, and to being prayerful throughout your day. It could potentially even be a help ‘warm up’ of your mind to give your attention to God and his Word.

 

Different Forms & Practices – Decidedly Christian Mindfulness

But beyond this basic rethinking how secular or eastern mindfulness might be able to be adopted and utilised within a Christian worldview, there are different forms of mindfulness altogether that are decidedly Christian (kind of like lifting Bibles and that weird Christian running style). There are lots of ways that the ideas and practices of mindfulness can be challenged, transformed and developed further to fit much better with following Jesus. In fact, many would argue that Christian, or biblical, mindfulness has been practiced in various ways for hundreds, even thousands of years…[7]

There’s lots I could say at this point, but to keep it simple, I’ll just work with the two basic categories of mindfulness I mentioned at the start – the formal practices or meditation exercises, and then the more informal ‘mindful living’. There are Christian practices that I think overlap with eastern or secular mindfulness, in terms of achieving the same things, but have some significant and helpful differences.

 

Christian Meditation

So firstly, the formal exercises – the meditation.

As I said earlier, the Bible is big on meditation. God tells us to meditate on his Word. The Psalms encourage us to meditate on God, on his word, his commands, his mighty works.

The idea inherent in the word ‘meditate’ as found in the Bible is to ruminate, almost to mutter to yourself, repeating and going over certain words and ideas. It’s not about emptying your mind and entering into a trance where we might ‘hear from God’ in a mystical way, it’s about focusing our attention on particular truths for periods of time.

Now this is obviously quite different to standard mindfulness meditation, where the idea is to focus on your breath, or your body, or your natural surrounds. You might decide some of that kind of meditation is helpful for you physically and mentally. It might help you quiet your thoughts and strengthen your ability to focus your attention – or maybe not! But Biblical meditation is different. It turns our attention to God, to his Word and to the truths it communicates about God, ourselves and the world we live in. It’s not about losing ourselves in the present moment, but setting our minds on heavenly truth.

We read earlier from Chapter 3 of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where Paul encourages us, because we have died and risen with Christ, because that’s who we really are now, therefore, to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is, and to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. There’s quite a profound difference with mindful meditation isn’t there? Yes, we are to deliberately focus our minds, but it’s not merely on what we can feel and sense around us – it’s on the things that now define our reality more than anything else. We are to set our minds on Christ and who we are now by faith in him.

Christian meditation moves us from our thoughts to these truths – the thoughts of God himself. Christian meditation is moving from our rambling, self-focused thoughts, to give our attention to God’s thoughts – in focused, quiet contemplation, and in frequent remembering and reciting truths through the day. It helps us absorb them and be shaped by them. It helps us to have the mind of Christ.

 

Christian Mindful Living

Then secondly, there’s the more informal mindful living – being present and aware of what you’re doing and what’s happening around you, rather than being distracted by your internal dialogue or worrying about what you have to do next.

As we saw from Ecclesiastes, there is a lot of value in this kind of living. But Christian mindfulness goes further than simply ‘being aware and present’. It’s about being thankful.

There’s an important sentence in the passage we read from Ecclesiastes that we didn’t read before. After concluding that “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil,” the teacher then adds, “This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” True mindfulness is not just appreciating what’s around us, but appreciating that everything we see and experience and enjoy is a gift from the hand of God. Christian mindfulness is being gratefully attentive.

But just as Christian meditation moves beyond mere focused attention to focusing on God and his Word, so I think mindfully living as Christians moves beyond being merely present and attentive, even gratefully attentive, to being mindful of God and his presence and his grace and his will for us as we go about our days.

Turning our attention to God in the midst of daily responsibilities and events doesn’t mean we disengage from what’s happening around us. It transforms how we engage with the world around us. It’s summed up in the final sentence of the passage in Colossians we read out: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17)

This is truly mindful living. This kind of constant mindfulness of God in our lives, mindful of who we are in Christ and his call on our life, is what drives Christian living. It drives the impulse to get rid of sin in our lives and clothe ourselves with the character of Jesus, as Paul urges us to in Colossians 3. We’re not trying to achieve serenity in our minds by being attentive and non-judgmental – just observing in a detached kind of a way. We’re mindful of the peace we have in Christ and the peace we’re called to express as his people. Being mindful of God’s power and love at all times enables us to bring all our concerns to him, in any and every situation, rather than holding onto them and getting caught up in our worries. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul encourages us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

 

Real peace, real change.

Whether or not you get into the kind of mindfulness being promoted all around us, just don’t let it distract you from truly mindful living and what brings real peace and change in our lives.

 


 

[1] http://mindspirit.com/the-present-moment-a-christian-approach-to-mindfulness/

[2] https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/well-good/inspire-me/102828435/superfad-lotta-dann-explains-why-mindfulness-is-her-magic-ticket

[3] Leisa Aitken, a Christian Clinical Psychologist, discusses some of the benefits in her article: https://www.publicchristianity.org/all-in-the-mind-psychology-mindfulness-and-christianity/?_sf_s=mindfulness

[4] Dr. Catherine Wikholm, a published clinical psychologist from the UK, and one of the authors the book ‘The Buddha Pill’, has a short, research-based article on the Guardian debunking some myths about meditation and mindfulness: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/22/seven-myths-about-meditation

[5] https://www.publicchristianity.org/all-in-the-mind-psychology-mindfulness-and-christianity/?_sf_s=mindfulness

[6] For a thoroughly critical evaluation of Mindfulness from a Christian perspective, see: https://darrylburling.com/mindfulness-meditation-3-reasons-christians-need-to-abstain/

[7] Katherine Thompson’s book ‘Christ Centered Mindfulness’ provides a substantial critique of Eastern and Western mindfulness, and explores forms of mindfulness more compatible with Christian faith, comparing them with traditional strands of contemplative Christianity.