ISSUE: 2017, Volume 14, Issue 1
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A recent article from Christian Concern stated that ‘mindfulness is gradually becoming a popular relaxation method for individuals, employers, health services, and now possibly schools’. They reported that Edward Timpson, Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, told MPs that mandatory lessons in mindfulness should become a ‘normal part of the school day’. However, Christian Concern believes that ‘mindfulness, as a practice, is rooted in the thoughts and practices of Buddhism, and is defined as the “mental state achieved
by focusing one's awareness on the present moment”’.1 Others, however, disagree and believe that it is possible to practise mindfulness today, and not be involved in
Buddhism. Whatever the origins of mindfulness the UK’s National Health Service advocates that ‘becoming more aware of the present moment can help us enjoy the world around us more, and understand ourselves better. Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to prevent depression in people who have had three or more bouts of depression in the past’.2
This article considers whether aspects of mindfulness can be practised within a Christian context.
Mindfulness emphasizes the use of meditation to break free from unhelpful thought patterns such as rumination. The believer who practises meditation on Christ will already be aware of the therapeutic benefits that are derived from this. King David knew how to meditate and wrote such words as ‘I meditate on all thy works; I muse on the work of thy hands’, Ps. 143. 5. The words translated ‘meditate’ and ‘muse’ here are similar words and both carry the idea of ‘pondering’. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, meditation is defined as ‘the act of giving your attention to only one thing, either as a religious activity or as a way of becoming calm and relaxed’. With mindfulness, the focus of the meditation is oneself; however, in the Bible the focus is never on oneself but rather on God, His works, and His word. The Psalmist made meditation a habit and this absorbed him constantly throughout the day. When we meditate in this way, our minds are being ‘stayed’ or kept by God, and the result is ‘perfect peace’, Isa. 26. 3.
As a side note, the society of today gives a lot of time to ‘amusement’, but amusement is the opposite of musing or meditation. Here the mind is distracted, and kept from deep thoughts which arise during periods of quiet meditation.
Those who advocate mindfulness believe that it should become an integral part of life, suggesting that everything we do should be done in a ‘mindful’ way.3 The parallels with Christian meditation are obvious, as meditation on God needs to be an integral part of our daily lives. When we are taking a walk in the park we can meditate on the wisdom of God in creating such a beautiful world. Whilst singing hymns, we could focus our attention on the words that we are singing, allowing our minds to fully absorb the truth of the hymn.
With mindfulness, the individual is encouraged to take time to be still, and, if distracted, to keep returning the thoughts back to the subject of the meditation. The Psalmist could write ‘be still and know that I am God’, Ps. 46. 10, and we should endeavour to find time in our busy lives to be still and really ‘know God’. Times of prayer and meditation are best conducted in a quiet, secret place, away from distraction, Matt. 6. 6.
Mindfulness teaches that thoughts should not be judged, but simply accepted as they are as mere thought events. Some Christians argue that the danger of Buddhist meditation is that by practising it you give up all control of your mind. We should therefore be on our guard, as the believer is taught to have an alert mind which is on guard against wrong thoughts, 1 Pet. 1. 13; 5. 8. Other believers have a real struggle with negative or even sinful thoughts entering their minds and some are even caused to doubt their salvation because of this. The scriptures would teach that it is not a sin when a wrong thought pops into your head, but it is when that thought becomes a longing desire, and that sin is committed, Jas. 1. 14-15. Martin Luther is reputed to have said concerning temptation, ‘You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair’. We should remember that bad or negative thoughts are a product of our fallen nature, Mark 7. 20-23, but having them is not in itself a sin.
In conclusion, there are aspects of mindfulness that may be beneficial when practised within a Christian framework. As the Christian meditates, the benefits come from the mind being renewed, and more in tune with Christ than self, Phil. 2. 5, Eph. 4. 23.