Mindfulness has a bad press in Christian circles, with many people thinking it to be somehow Buddhist or occult. However, it is a powerful way to deal with stress and in particular recurrent depression - about which there is a growing evidence base. Phil Monroe, an American psychologist, has given us permission to use this article from his blog
I've written about mindfulness in the past and based on numbers of folks coming to my blog looking for information about Christianity and mindfulness, I thought I might write just a bit more here. My intention is to write in two parts. Part 1 will cover some basics about stress and the idea of mindfulness. Part 2 will explore how Christian counselors might think critically about the topic and consider its use in their practice.
If this is not a term you are familiar with, you may wish to explore the goodly number of books in your local store discussing the topic. Why the interest? There is clear evidence that mindfulness has positive health benefits by reducing our stress responses to the chaos in our lives. Mindful individuals appear to have greater amounts of patience, able to avoid impulsive responses to stress, process rather than react to emotions, have greater capacities to be curious, open, accepting, and loving.
Stress and your body
It is well-known that small amounts of stress activate the body but larger amounts make us sick. But, did you know that the same biological response system that fights viral intruders activates with high levels of stress? Your immune system works in this manner (okay, my simplistic rendition): Your body senses an intruder. The microphages that come in contact with a virus act like little ants sending messages to their buddies to come and defend the colony. One of the messenger chemicals is interleukin-1. Your resulting fever is evidence that the body is working. But to work this hard, other bodily systems get such down. Your stomach and intestines stop or slow down their contractions, you lose your appetite, sexual drive, you have difficulty thinking clearly. These sick symptoms are more likely the result of your body's defense mode than the virus that has intruded.
The SAME thing happens with high stress. Your pleasures centers shut down to conserve energy. Such activity decreases clarity of thought and pleasure and thus increases experiences of depression and anxiety. See how a vicious cycle of stress/distress leads to greater symptoms of depression/anxiety?a vicious cycle!
What is mindfulness?
Well, it depends upon who you ask. Definitions range from Buddhist forms of meditation, to being present in the moment, to being aware, to centering prayer, to having a nonjudgmental stance. So, for some it is a religious activity. For others it is a form of consciousness. And still others describe it as a relational 'attunement' (e.g., a mother?s awareness of the meaning of her infant's needs even before the cry; a service dog who picks up subtle clues that it's owner is about to have a seizure). The truth is that each one of these fragments of definitions captures a little bit of what one observes in someone who is able to, in the moment, stand back from the chaos in their life and not react to it. Such people seem to be alert (not dissociated) to the moment, are being in the moment rather than reacting and doing something, are more likely to be describing events, feelings, perceptions, etc. rather than judging them.
In Dan Siegel's The Mindful Brain (W.W. Norton, 2007), he lists a number of component parts to mindfulness:
* Intention (rather than reactive), attention (aware), attitude (open, curious, non-judgmental)
* Nonreactive to inner experiences (I notice my inner experience, but I am not merely my inner experience)
* Observation, noticing, describing, labeling
* Attending to sensations; acting with awareness
* Either focused attention on the present or merely noticing all that passes through the mind
What about the Buddhist part?
There are two terms you'll find when reading up on Buddhist meditation: vipassana (insight, clear thinking), samatha (concentration or tranquility). I'm not a Buddhist scholar but I do believe I'm in the ballpark about these next bullet points:
The goal is to get beyond (above) the experience of good and evil; of pleasure and pain to a higher level of experience
The goal is personal transformation and character development; awareness leading to the drying up of demands (desires?)
It is important to point out that Buddhism is not the only religion that espouses meditational practices. Christianity, from the beginning of the Church, has promoted the concept of meditation, albeit in significantly different form and purpose.
How ought we Christians to think about it?
Some might suggest that engaging in practices that encourage openness, neutrality (which is a misrepresentation of Buddhist practices) open oneself up to the occult. Others might be suspicious of hidden, subtle belief systems (personal transformation vs. Spirit-led transformation). These are legitimate questions. And yet I contend that we do not need to reject these concerns to acknowledge that God has given all humans the capacity to observe and grasp concepts that are true and right?even if we might staunchly disagree with their personal philosophies. This does not mean we take a concept into our life and practices without considerable critical thinking, but it does mean we are open to learning something that our own tradition has lost, ignored, or deemed unnecessary to healthy living. I'll attempt to do just that in the next post.
A thought about mindfulness and the brain
Let me detour to one more thought about biology and mindfulness. What happens in the brain when a person is practicing mindfulness? Thought and feeling patterns result in neural activity in the brain (or is it the other way around?). Repeated neural activity creates stronger connections between neurons (increased synaptic activity and denser connections with neurons in the same neighborhood. Repeated activity leads to greater blood flow and activation in particular regions of the brain. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity.
Thus affective and cognitive patterns can indeed change your brain. Think about this. What patterns of thought do you engage in on a repetitive basis? Do you have a habit of fantasizing? Mulling over bitter or jealous thoughts? While some of these may come naturally to you, what you do with them may actually change or strengthen neural connections in the brain - for better or for worse.
Is mindfulness healthy or relativistic?
Mindfulness, no matter whether you take a religious, consciousness, or relational approach to it, includes the stepping back from shoulds, oughts, and other judgments. One might think that this would be dangerous for Christians. Within Christianity, there are rights and wrongs, truth and lie, righteousness and unrighteousness. The Bible is, among other things, the single guide for Christians to determine how to live for God. SO, it begs the question whether Christians should be wary of anything that seems to let go of shoulds and oughts?
Another view of shoulds and oughts
In my experience, those suffering from anxiety and depression suffer from a disorder of judgments. They are flooded by shoulds and oughts. Their self-talk does not seem to come from the Lord but are already laced with prejudice. 'You should have been more vigilant against danger AND you weren't. You're a failure.' 'You shouldn't be rebellious BUT you are always a screw-up.' 'I shouldn't have to suffer this way AND God must not care for me.' Notice that most of these forms of judgment are careful consideration of the facts and experiences but well-formed opinions that may be based on only a smidgen of the actual events in their present circumstances. Notice that these forms of ruminative thinking come in disguise as careful, logical thinking. They are not. What they are narratives: 'well-practiced narratives' that have an already formed conclusion that we repeat regardless of the actual facts of our lives.
Mindfulness, then, is stepping back from these narratives. Mindfulness is a practiced discipline of just noticing and describing events so as to process them more carefully instead of automatically repeated a script or mantra. Mindfulness provides the opportunity to discover 'what is' rather than compound suffering by focusing on what we just assume. Consider Dan Siegel (The Mindful Brain, p. 77)
When the mind grasps onto preconceived ideas it creates a tension within the mind between what is and what 'should be'. This tension creates stress and leads to suffering.
While I'm sure I would vigorously disagree with Siegel on what a preconceived idea is, on what can be healthy 'should be's', and much more, he has a point worth considering. Have you ever engaged in a fantasy conflictual conversation with someone you are about to meet. You play out yourself winning, being mistreated, standing up for what is right, and so on. Notice how such conversations aren't useful. They only increase your level of stress because your brain responds to the inner drama as if it were really happening, when it has yet to happen. In this way, Siegel is right. We create tension that leads to suffering.
Using mindfulness in Christian Counseling
I'm running out of room here and won't be able to do justice, in this post, to the most practical part of mindfulness. [Isn't that just like us academics. We spend all our time pointing out problems but we never solve anything!]. Mindful practice may include time practicing being present in one's surroundings. The counselor may encourage clients to take in their surroundings. While many thoughts may race through the brain, the mindful person may choose to not follow them but 'drink in' the creation beauty around them' things growing, art, or anything that is a delight to the senses'. This form of discipline must be practiced in de-stressed times so that it will be available during a crisis?just like a basketball player practices free-throws over and over so as to make the shot when there is only 1 second left on the clock.
Such work is the work of taking every thought captive. and resting (a la Psalms 131) without grasping after things 'too wonderful' for us.
Phil Monroe, 06/05/2010
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