Mindfulness: Avoiding some of the pitfalls
The explosion of interest in mindfulness practices in recent years has been bolstered by a growing evidence bases for the effectiveness of the practice in treating a whole range of different physical and mental health related conditions – including pain management, depression, anxiety and stress reduction. See here for a summary of the extensive research and the various areas of application for mindfulness for health. But are there any pitfalls that we need to be aware of?
Of course it’s sensible to ask questions and it’s very important that we consider any areas of concern without mindlessly extolling the virtues of mindfulness. In this short article I want to look briefly at some areas of concern from both a health related and Christian perspective. Through awareness and through critical reflection we can seek to avoid the potential pitfalls and enjoy the benefits of mindfulness practice within a specifically Christian and biblical framework.
Firstly, are there any health related warnings regarding mindfulness practice? One of the reasons that mindfulness can be so helpful is that it provides a way in which we can face and process more difficult thoughts, feelings and memories. Denial and suppression can often perpetuate difficulties and prevent us from moving forward. This may involve grief, sadness, depression, loss, anger, fear, anxiety or some other thought or feeling that may appear to be very strong and overwhelming at first. If you think any of these categories relate to your own experience then it is advisable that before embarking on a course of mindfulness, you take advice from your doctor or mental health professional. This is especially true if you have been struggling with a mental health issue such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), suicidal thoughts, depression or anxiety. Usually this is a precautionary matter but because mindfulness practice can involve facing up to more difficult thoughts and feelings taking medical advice first is always considered to be best practice.
Secondly, not all motivations for engaging with mindfulness are purely interested in the wellbeing of those who practice. For example - for those involved in promoting the use of mindfulness in business for stress reduction there is a danger that responsibility is shifted from the company and management who have developed highly stressful environments with excessive and unsustainable workloads. The responsibility for management of stress is shifted onto individuals who need to practice mindfulness. While mindfulness may well promote improved stress management and greater resilience, businesses need to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their staff. If the ultimate goal of mindfulness is profitability and productivity, then this is unlikely to be a sustainable or ethical solution to the problem of stress. A genuine concern for wellbeing is required that involves both personal and corporate responsibility.
Thirdly, an amoral or secular approach to mindfulness can encourage people to avoid exercising discernment of that which is right or wrong in favour of the virtue of tolerance i.e. it’s more important to be non-judgemental and tolerant without any need to be discerning and questioning. This approach to mindfulness can become unthinking and is in danger of creating a moral and ethical vacuum. Christianity offers an ethical, spiritual and moral understanding of life that can bolster and underpin mindfulness practice in a way that encourages discernment and faces up to the moral and ethical questions of our time instead of sweeping these under the carpet of amoral non-judgmentalism.
Christian Mindfulness: Some theological reflections on discernment
A full orbed and balanced approach to Christian theology has always included both Word and Spirit. The Greek root for “word” is “logos” from which we get the English word logical. The Word has clarity of meaning and involves content with specific revelation of the nature and moral character of who God is and how we can live in such a way that is holy and morally pleasing to Him. The Christian Scriptures provide us with the written logos and in Jesus Christ we see the logos made flesh – Jesus is the living embodiment of the written logos.
The person of the Holy Spirit is not easily reduced or confined to purely logical parameters. He did inspire the written logos (the Christian Scriptures). But he is not always predictable. He is wind, he is fire, he is breath. There is a mystery involved in the work of the Holy Spirit that cannot be easily pinned down, observed or logically explained. Jesus said of the Spirit. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” (John 3:8). When we try to reduce God to just a systematic and logical theory we are in danger of killing off the mystery, awe and wonder that can fill our hearts on our earthly pilgrimage with God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones spoke of those who seem to have all their theology worked out but were dry, boring and spiritually dead – “perfectly orthodox, perfectly useless”. Somehow we need to hold these two aspects together without embracing the nondualism that elevates the subjective experience of God above the objective revelation of who he has shown himself to be in Scripture. This means that Christian Mindfulness meditation is not just based on suggestive and subjective psychological techniques. Instead, the focus of Christian Mindfulness meditation is based on biblical truth and biblical reality in life.
How is this understanding further reflected in the way Christians should practice mindfulness? This is a vitally important question. In another article (see here) I explain what it means for Christians to practice non-judgmental mindfulness that is in keeping with the teaching of Jesus. I differentiate between 2 forms of judging that involve –
1. Discerning right from wrong, which is a necessary part of being a Christian believer; and
2. A form of judging that involves condemning self or others. This often involves pride and self-righteousness where we put ourselves in the place of God who alone knows all the facts and is in best place to Judge.
This particular distinction is in keeping with the Christian definition of mindfulness described by Symington & Symington which involves “detaching from potentially destructive thoughts or feelings”. With this definition there must first of all be a discerning of that which may be helpful or unhelpful – destructive or constructive. It is not the aim of Christian Mindfulness to detach from all thoughts and feelings. We are seeking to develop a Christian mind that submits to God’s truth revealed in Scripture and develop and deepen our awareness practices through contemplative forms of prayer and meditation. This is Christian Mindfulness.
Concern has been expressed by both Christians and Buddhists that there are now secular forms of mindfulness that are being presented without ethical or moral content. This can involve non-judgmentalism that embraces nonduality where there is no ultimate right or wrong, no ultimate good or evil, no ultimate truth or falsehood. Your truth is as good as mine, is as good as anyone else’s. All gods are the same and point towards the one Ultimate Reality. This understanding is not in keeping with biblical Christianity and not necessary to accept as part of a specifically Christian Mindfulness practice.
Even those who speak of nonduality require a specific point of reference for teaching content and often refer to “the perennial wisdom tradition”. This tradition is not all bad and tends to draw on both Christian teachings and other world religions without reference to the Bible as a final authority. For me, this can involve the creation of a new and false written logos and false Christ that departs from the authority of the Bible which was specifically accepted and described by Jesus himself. For the discerning reader it is not necessary to reject all teachings that are described as being from “the perennial wisdom tradition”. Instead, a careful reading and submission to Scripture is required.
Christian Mindfulness has particular spiritual goals in mind that are compatible both with the Lordship of Christ and the final authority of the Christian Scriptures. The aim is to cultivate relationship with Christ, personal wholeness in Christ and healthy self-awareness of body, soul and spirit. Christ-likeness is reflected by the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This fruit flows from a place of abiding in the vine who is Christ and living out of our union with Him. The entry point for union with Christ is the new birth. In the words of Jesus – “You must be born again” (John 3:7). The assumption made by some forms of Contemplative theology is that all have Christ dwelling within them and all have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. All that is required is an awakening to this reality. But this understanding does not fit well with the words of the Apostles Paul and John –
“11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” 1 John 5:11-12
“14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 2:14
Not all have the Son of God, not all are born again, not all are indwelt with the Spirit. In our desire to preach an inclusive gospel let us be careful not to misrepresent Scripture. Yes, Jesus died for all and his arms are open wide to receive anyone who would believe in him and come to him. But we must believe in him and receive him.
“To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:12-13)
© Richard H H Johnston