Thursday, 17 March 2016

Answering 7 Christian Objections to Mindfulness

My claim: there is no good reason why a Christian can't practice mindfulness.

That said, a caveat. The kind of mindfulness I am defending here is the scientific, secular variant. This is the kind advocated by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and popularised by sources like the book “Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World” and the app, “Headspace.” Let’s look at 7 Christian objections to mindfulness and clarify what mindfulness is along the way.

(1) Mindfulness is meditation, and since it isn’t Christian meditation, it isn’t allowed.

It’s true: mindfulness practices are referred to as meditations. Unfortunately, the word “meditation” has a spiritual ring to it that disguises how totally mundane and non-spiritual these practices are. In the context of mindfulness, “to meditate,” just means, “to concentrate,” or “to be aware”.

The clue is in the name “mindfulness” itself. When we say, “mind the step,” we mean, “be aware of the step,” so that’s the meaning of “mind” to keep in mind (to be aware of… see, there it is again.) Mindfulness practices are simply exercises in awareness or attentiveness. To dispel the mystery, here are the short 10-20 minute practices described in the book I mentioned above:

You eat a raisin and pay attention to its texture and feel.
You pay attention to sensations up and down your body.
You pay attention to your breathing.
You pay attention to how your body feels as you move your limbs.
You pay attention to sounds around you and then your thoughts.
You pay attention to difficult or negative thoughts feelings inside you.
You pay attention to how you react to positive thoughts about yourself.

That’s it. No sitting around chanting mystical incantations. Indeed, one student on the mindfulness course I recently participated in complained that the practices were not spiritual enough! I can’t see any biblical warrant for thinking that one cannot pay attention to raisins or breath. Indeed, many of us are naturally very good at being present and attentive to sensations and our body. So it would be strange to hold that it is impermissible to intentionally develop such attentiveness. The worry behind this objection seems to fall aside once the nature of “meditation” has been clarified.

(2) Mindfulness is about emptying your mind

This is simply mistaken. Mindfulness does often quieten one’s mind, but it doesn’t empty it. Look again at the practices listed above. They are all about concentrating on something, which precisely involves keeping something in your mind. You hold, say, the sensations of your body in awareness and sustain it there. The reason why this quietens your mind is that rather than having your attention dart from worry to worry, you firmly place it and keep it fixed on one thing, like your breath. But if your mind is fixed on your breath, it’s fixed on something, so it’s not empty as this objection supposes.

(3) Mindfulness is about abandoning moral judgments

It’s true that mindfulness encourages you to take up a non-judgmental attitude. It encourages you to, for instance, be attentive to your own negative feelings without saying, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” or, “this is sinful”. But the aim is not to have this non-judgmental attitude all the time. The aim is merely to open up pockets in your life where you are able to simply observe how things are going without evaluation.

Imagine if someone came to you – looking to you as a friend – to confess a worry that they had done something bad. What would happen if, from the very first sentence of your friend’s story, you started judging his character? For one, your friend would recoil, wounded that you were being so harsh, that you failed to listen. And second, your judgment would be premature – you wouldn’t have heard the whole story. Maybe it’s not as bad as you first thought. And even if you hear him out and come to think that he has done something wrong, your first reaction might be to hug him, even if you later proceed to evaluate the serious moral consequences of his actions.

By analogy, mindfulness exercises allow you space to listen before judgment, they don’t eradicate judgment. They allow you to befriend your own negative feelings by actually listening to them before trying to bat them away as unpleasant or wrong. This way you actually face up to your emotional life and start treating yourself with greater kindness too – the kindness God feels toward you.

(4) Mindfulness is about distracting yourself

I came across this objection in a Christian anti- “self-help” article recently. The accusation is that mindfulness encourages you to run from the problems in your life. As the above should have made clear, nothing could be further from the truth. Mindfulness encourages you to turn towards difficulties in your life. By allowing yourself a compassionate space to listen to your negative feelings, you permit yourself to truly attend to them. You allow yourself to feel pain without your first reaction being to numb it through avoidance or quick (and ineffective) fixes.

(5) Mindfulness teaches that there is no self

In mindfulness literature you come across the maxim that “you are not your thoughts”. But this does not mean that you don’t exist at all! All this means is that your thoughts do not necessary represent who you are or what’s true about you. Suppose it seems like a friend ignores you from across the street and you think “nobody likes me”. Mindfulness encourages you to notice those thoughts rather than mindlessly follow them and the negative mood-spiral they produce. After all, just because you have had that thought does not entail that it is true.

In fact, there is a long Christian tradition of saying that your thoughts are not necessarily your own or representative of you. For many Christians have held that spiritual beings drop good or bad, true or false thoughts in our minds that are not our own doing. But whether or not you want to hold such a view today, you can still hold that our own minds sometimes conjure up thoughts that need not be true and representative of how we ourselves are.

(6) Mindfulness has Buddhist roots

True, even secular mindfulness has, by its own admission, historical roots in Buddhist practices. But the historical roots of something do not necessarily entail anything about whether it or its contemporary form is okay to make use of. Consider one of the most popular arguments for God’s existence used today, the kalam cosmological argument. This argument was originally developed by Muslims but is now used by Christians. Indeed, “kalam” is an Arabic word. But since nothing in the argument commits one to distinctively Muslim beliefs or goals, it’s fine for Christians to make use of it.

Likewise, so long as mindfulness does not commit one to distinctively Buddhist beliefs or goals, it’s fine for Christians to use it. And I have already argued that mindfulness does not commit one to any beliefs like the non-existence of the self, the inappropriateness of moral judgment, or the goal of emptying one’s mind. So I can’t see anything wrong with Christians practicing mindfulness, even given its roots.

(7) If mindfulness is so important, then why didn’t God talk about it in Scripture?

First of all, I don’t think that practicing mindfulness is important for everyone. Lots of people who are already good at being present in the moment, in being tuned in to sensations and bodily feelings probably won’t get much from it. Mindfulness tends to be beneficial for those who are overly analytical and spend much of their time living in their heads rather than dropping into their body. For these people, mindfulness helps them to develop some balance by training them to be attentive rather than solely judgmental and conceptual. Mindfulness is especially beneficial for those whose lack of balance in this respect contributes to problems of anxiety and low mood etc. So mindfulness is not some secret trick to solving all life’s problems; it helps one develop a particular skill, that of attentiveness.

Furthermore, the Bible was written at a particular time to a particular audience. Why think that people had exactly the same difficulties in ancient cultures that people do in modern cultures? Perhaps cultural conditions were such that people simply didn’t struggle with the kinds of mental well-being issues that many modern people do.

Finally, at any rate, the Bible does put forward principles that are very much in line with mindfulness. One of the things mindfulness encourages is to allow pockets in our lives where we simply let things be. We allow ourselves to notice life, its highs and its lows, without always trying to control and manipulate it. By allowing yourself to, say, simply feel (“listen to”) the pain of heartbreak without trying to fix it there and then, you acknowledge that you can’t always solve every problem right away. You acknowledge that you can’t run your own show. For the Christian, such moments provide opportunity to acknowledge one’s dependence on God and trust in him. They provide the space to “be still and know that [he] is God” (Psalm 46:10).


Anonymous said...

So good to see an intelligent analysis of this incredibly helpful practice. Too many people assume mindfulness is incompatible with Christian faith when it has so many biblical elements to it. Of course mindfulness is sometimes added to or even hijacked by those with an additional agenda, but that's no different to anything else (including the bible). With a very small amount of discernment Christians can benefit greatly from the techniques and develop some very biblical habits. I have seen this in many many cases.

jimie_2005 said...

Thank you so much for the article. I've been working on and googling all these Headspace-verses-Christianity debates; however, it totally makes sense to meditate via Headspace for Christians like me after realizing what this article is all about and is explaining for.