A businesswoman in my church approached me with a question about a training program for upper level management in her company. She had been given a book called Search Inside Yourself, written by Chade-Meng Tan, an executive at Google whose official corporate title is “Jolly Good Fellow.” Meng was one of Google’s earliest engineers who matriculated into a role in corporate culture oversight with the search engine giant. Meng’s current job description is threefold: “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.” Along with all other senior level staff, my friend was being required to read the book as a continuing training project. She wanted to know what I thought of it.
This gave me the opportunity to look more closely at something that I’m seeing as a pastor with increasing frequency. Meng’s book is one of the more well-known popular treatments of what is known in the therapeutic world as “mindfulness.” If you aren’t familiar with mindfulness, you will be. It is the current shelf-filler in self-help literature. As I talk with folks in my church who work in the mental health field, it is also one of the rising stars in therapy for a broad range of mood and thought disorders. It is also growing as a recommended self-care tool for therapists.
Mindfulness: What Is It?
What is mindfulness? There is no standard definition, but the following from Psychology Today captures most of the features of mindfulness as it is understood at popular and therapeutic levels.
“Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass by you, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
Mindfulness comes out of Zen Buddhist meditation principles. The key components of mindfulness from the above definition are a conscious effort to focus on the present moment, withholding judgment on any thought feeling or sensation of that moment, and then learning to think and act out of the reality of that moment rather than allowing instinctive but unproductive emotional and thinking patterns to drive your responses to life situations. The basic tools of mindfulness are meditation exercises and relaxation techniques.
Mindfulness has cache in the psychological community as an evidence-based practice with studies showing measurable benefits of its use as both a therapy methodology and as training for therapists. Mindfulness has been most closely linked with Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy, but has also developed into specialized treatment regimens in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). According to the professionals I interacted with, it is “a hot thing” in the mental health community these days.
Mindfulness: Where Is It?
The purpose of this post is to help pastors and biblical counselors to biblically, wisely, and constructively engage this trend as it engages our churches and people. And it most certainly does and will engage us.
You will encounter it like I did through the question of a church member who has to deal with it as a workplace requirement. What Google does, other businesses tend to follow, and Google does mindfulness. You’ll engage it through the parents in your church where the concept of “mindful schools” is growing as an educational model. You’ll engage it because there are growing “Christian mindfulness” networks and resources that seek to screen out the eastern philosophy of mindfulness and replace it with Christian concepts. And you’ll engage it because there will be Christians who see the devil in the Zen underlying mindful practices and who will let you know about it.
But mostly you will engage it because at one level it “works.” Yes, at its functional level, mindfulness works. We live distracted, over-stimulated, multitasking, stress-fueled lives. And we experience the short-term (sleep disorders, anxiety, etc.) and long-term (health consequences, relational estrangement, etc.) effects of that kind of lifestyle. So, it would stand to reason that something radically different from that way of doing life; something that can be done anywhere, at any time, without any cost and requiring very little natural skill would be beneficial. It should work if for no other reason than to interrupt our bad habits with a conscious and focused alternative “time out.”
But just because it works, is it wise and worth pursuing? I want to offer four guidelines for addressing the issue of mindfulness in a pastoral setting. Knowing how to engage mindfulness with biblical wisdom and clarity is important if we are to help people tossed around by the latest waves in popular psychology.
Mindfulness: How Do We Wisely Address It?
First, let’s not try to baptize, rebrand, or reboot mindfulness as a biblically-derived practice. I’ve seen some well-meaning Christians attempt to locate mindfulness in the practices of the Christian mystics—an attempt that tends to overlook the less orthodox aspects of that tradition.
And while there are plenty of places where biblical thinking and responsiveness to life situations call us to govern our minds and emotions, the fact that the roots of mindfulness practice remain in the Zen worldview can’t be reconciled with biblical faith. At the heart of Zen mindfulness is the understanding that we are connected to the cosmos in a holistic way and that meditation actuates that connectedness. That is Zen reality. But in truth—biblical truth—we are distinct individuals created as image bearers, not of the cosmos, but of a Personal God who is the determiner of the reality we engage. Zen is an escape from true reality, not an engagement with it.
Second, let’s advocate and encourage what the Bible does warrant as better than mindfulness. Dwelling on negative past experiences: mindfulness says don’t do it; biblical faith says we have been born again to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3-5) Worrying about the future: mindfulness says don’t do it. Biblical faith says the future is in the hands of a wise and loving God who works all things out for ultimate good (Romans 8:28-39—there’s a cosmic reality worth pondering!) Mindfulness says focus your mind in the moment: biblical faith says think on things above, where Christ is (Colossians 3:2-3). Mindfulness says don’t judge your thinking and feeling; biblical faith says it has already been judged, and you have been given the mind of Christ and have been filled with the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Mindfulness says being in the moment is the way. Jesus says, “I am the way” (John 14:6).
I could go on and on, but you get the point. The problem with mindfulness in its fully-orbed expression is not just that it points in the wrong direction; it sells the depth of human experience far short when compared with the riches of knowing Christ. The message of the gospel is good news that mindfulness can never match.
Third, let’s help folks discern fad from substance. As always, once something that has some credibility on a therapeutic level emerges into the self-help world, it goes over the top. Claims of effectiveness get wildly overstated and substantiation for those claims rests primarily on testimonials and misapplied “scientific studies.” A few celebrity practitioners and authorities will flood the market with books, seminars, and high concept multi-media. We can serve our folks by gently helping them distinguish the fad and hype self-help economy that targets the felt needs of people while offering little more than jazzed up, effectively-packaged common sense. This acquired discernment will help them with mindfulness and whatever next big thing comes down the self-help pike.
Fourth, let’s guide people compassionately toward biblical wisdom. In the more conservative Christian cultures in which most of us serve, anything that smacks of mysticism or Eastern philosophy will and should hit our radar as a concern. But too often at the street level of our churches we become known for what we’re against, and that can limit our opportunities to guide people toward biblical wisdom. We can’t help people learn to drive if they won’t let us in the car. Besides, if someone has been helped by mindfulness practices, then we won’t serve them by telling them they haven’t been helped. We’re better off helping them to see what is actually helpful about what they are doing. Stripping the Zen components away, mindfulness might be most akin to exercise.
I like to come home from the office and jog. Is it because I love running? No, it’s because the act of running forces me to only think in the moment (in my case, surviving my run). I go into the run with the cares of the day; I come out with a clearer head and various clinically confirmed physiological benefits that come from physical exercise. Mindfulness activities like controlled breathing and focus on clearing the mind of distractions essentially do the same thing. Let’s be committed to careful listening and wise counseling as we talk about this issue with folks we serve.
Winston Smith and Cecelia Bernhardt offer some great practical insights for counselors who are engaging clients on mindfulness in a podcast here.
Join the Conversation
Have you encountered the mindfulness trend? Where do you see the folks you serve in ministry engaging it? How are you responding to it?