Mindfulness: reclaiming a spiritual practice
Mindfulness is the new buzz-word in mental health. There is growing evidence of clinical efficacy but some Christians are concerned about new-age roots. This article reviews the research, presents a model of mindfulness as a universal human skill and looks further back to Christian roots and practices.
Mindfulness is a simple concept: “the everyday capacity each of us has to notice new things.”[a] Yet, this capacity is easily lost because of illness, trauma and stress. Talking treatments based on mindfulness emphasise practices that help us stay in the here-and-now, and so to regain perspective.
A more psychological definition is “the process of keeping one’s mind in the present moment, while staying non-judgmentally detached from potentially destructive thoughts and feelings.”[b] Mindfulness is found, in various forms, in all religious traditions. A growing secular framework suggests that it is a universal human capacity, accessible to all. It is “intentional regulated attention done in a particular way”[c], enabling us to focus on the big picture without getting drawn into impossible detail.
Mindfulness was introduced into medicine in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn[d]. He described it as having ‘seven core attitudes’ drawn from Buddhist teachings[e]: non-judging, patience, a beginners mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting-go. However, Kabat-Zinn himself is expressly not a Buddhist[f], and states, "one of its major strengths is that it is not dependent on any belief system or ideology, so its benefits are therefore accessible for anyone to test for him or herself".[g]
The Buddhist roots come from the tradition of ‘metta’ or loving-kindness meditations, which includes compassion for oneself, a stranger and even someone we find difficult. Yet, these values are Christian too – consider the prayer of Ananias[h] who, is asked to pray for Saul, a persecutor of Christians. Ananias questions whether this is wise, but God encourages him to show this kind of love.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence now recommend mindfulness for Low Mood, Depression, Anxiety, Stress, Pain Management, Resilience Training and more. However, it is not a panacea for all ills. Careful research has shown how mindfulness fits alongside other therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In two classic studies[i], John Teasdale showed that Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy was effective for people with three or more episodes of depression, but that treatment as usual (CBT) was better for those in their first or second episode.
Incorporating mindful practices have resulted in therapies shown to be effective for personality disorders like ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy) and the related MBT (Mentalisation Based Therapy).
Figure 1 shows how publications about mindfulness have grown over the last 20 years. However, the Christian community has been slower to adopt. But things are changing – from Christians being afraid to use the term, last year the main conference of the British Association of Christians in Psychology was devoted to mindfulness.
Mindfulness for Christians
You won’t find the world ‘mindfulness’ in the Bible, but you will find the word ‘mindful’ and many similar terms. The Psalmist asks, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’[j] In the Greek Septuagint version the word used is mimnéskó: ‘to be mindful of, to actively remember’. The parable of the ten virgins[k] describes watchfulness, within which we are encouraged to be aware and prepared of ‘the masters’ return.
Early in church history, the Desert Fathers tell us that a prolonged period of silence means we will have to ‘wrestle with our inner demons’. Abbot Moses said, ‘Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’[l] Today’s disciples inherit a rich tradition of contemplation – a common Christian word for mindfulness, including specific practices, such as Lectio Divina and the Jesus Prayer. All have in common the practice of engaging with the self and God in ways that sound very similar to the seven core ‘Buddhist’ attitudes of mindfulness above.
This is where some Christians have concerns. Take ‘acceptance’ as an example. The word is clearly not the preserve of Buddhists, but surely Christians are meant to ‘take every thought captive’[m] rather than just accept that they exist. However, this is taking the verse out of context, for the passage is not primarily a pastoral one, but (more importantly) this position shows that mindful acceptance has been misunderstood. It is not about blithely accepting everything at face value and never challenging anything – rather it is a recognition that acting like ‘thought police’ has not helped and that observing the thought (for a while) is the best way to defuse it of its power. The goal is the goal of the passage, to be obedient to Christ, but accepting we are not there yet is part of that journey.
This ‘de-fusion’ is the opposite of what happens in many mental illness – where thoughts/feelings and reality are ‘fused’. If these thoughts/feelings are anxious and depressed, that is what you become. Mindfulness talks about ‘cognitive de-fusion’ to ‘get out of your mind and into your life.’[n] We move from automatically reacting to freedom of response.
If mindfulness is a core human skill, it should be possible to introduce these skills into work with Christians, either as neutral practices or ones that have explicitly Christian content. We have a model of this in Jesus, who was tempted ‘in every way’ yet was without sin, his tempting thoughts did not define him.
Symington & Symington[o] present a simple model for integration that works to both reduce distractions from worries and assumptions, but also to build Christian values and purpose. Christian contemplatives ask, ‘Are you your thoughts and feelings?’[p] and suggest that you are not. We move from ‘God, I am so anxious’ to ‘I am having the feeling that I am anxious’ and ‘In my anxiousness, I worship God.’
It’s not about ‘letting go’
Some Christians are concerned that mindfulness can go hand in hand with words like meditation, and they worry that meditation means emptying your mind where instead we should be filling it with the Holy Spirit and worship. However, if you talk to anyone with anxiety or depression, you quickly become aware that emptying the mind is a pipe-dream as it is full of fused thoughts. Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind – it is about standing back and de-fusing things in order to be free.
Other Christians worry that the goal of mindfulness is a sort of vague peace and that Christianity is not about relaxing but about dying to self! Again, this is a misunderstanding. Buddhist mindfulness may indeed have the goal of seeing the impermanence of all things – for that is Buddhist teaching. But in Christian mindfulness you can segue seamlessly from mindful defusing of anxious thoughts into mindful knowing (at a deep level) of God and being known by Him. It is a form of worship.
Clinical uses of mindfulness may quote Buddhist roots, but the skills are universally applicable and world-view neutral. A growing body of research shows the effectiveness of mindful approaches to mental illness and we are beginning to understand the mechanisms behind this. Christian mindfulness, rather than being something to run away from, offers both help in mental distress and a way to know God in a deep way. This has been a Biblical practice for several millennia.
With thanks to Shaun Lambert, Roger Bretherton and Richard Johnson for their expertise and help with this article.
[a] Langer E (2011) Mindfulness: 25th anniversary edition. Da Capo Lifelong Books
[b] Symington SH, Symington F (2012) A Christian model of mindfulness: using mindfulness principles to support psychological well-being, value-based behavior, and the Christian spiritual journey. Journal of Psychology and Christianity 31(1):71.
[c] Shapiro et al (2006) Mechanisms of Mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology 62(3):373–386
[d] Kabat-Zinn J (1990)
[e] Kabat-Zinn (1990)
[f] Williams JMG, Kabat-Zinn J (2011) Mindfulness: diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins and multiple applications and the interface of science and dharma. Contemporary Buddhism 12(1):1-18
[g] Kabat-Zinn (1990)
[h] Acts 9v10-19
[i] Teasdale J et al (2000) Prevention of Relapse/Recurrence in Major Depression by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 68(4):615-623. Ma SH, Teasdale J (2004) Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: Replication and Exploration of Differential Relapse Prevention Effects Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 71(1):31-40
[j] Psalm 8v4
[k] Luke 12:35-48
[l] Keller DGR (2005) Oasis of wisdom: the worlds of the desert fathers and mothers. Liturgical Press, New York p143
[m] 2 Corinthians 10v5
[n] Hayes SC, Smith S (2005) Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications Inc p69-71.
[o] Symington SH, Symington F (2012)
[p] Laird M (2006) Into The Silent Land – The Practice of Contemplation. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. p77.