This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 3 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
We live in a distressingly chaotic cultural climate dominated by information overload, rendering us perpetually conflicted and distracted. This steady psychological challenge leads us to seek ways of escaping the maelstrom of exigencies. On its long journey from its Eastern religious origins in the other side of the world, mindfulness emerged in America in the late twentieth century as an easy, healthy, if not momentary, deliverance from such a life.
A major reason mindfulness has been successfully “mainstreamed” is that we are so overstimulated and chronically busy that our minds are desperate for some sort of rest that takes as little time as possible. And like many popular activities, the mindfulness of mainstream America is not necessarily the same as the original activity from which it originated. Indeed, mindfulness can be purely psychological, and it can be religious, but it most often seems to be a blend of the two. Thus, Christians must learn to recognize and appropriately respond to the worldview at the foundation of the exercise.
If by mindfulness we mean merely focusing on something simple such as breathing, intending to produce the physiological response of a slowed heart rate and calmed mind, this is the purely pragmatically psychological form of mindfulness and can be compatible with the Christian worldview. But the original Buddhist forms of mindfulness, such as Vipassana meditation, involve a religious worldview and motivational framework for living that is not compatible with a Christian confession.
Imagine a classroom of elementary school students getting fidgety toward the end of a lesson on multiplication. They have been at their seats for thirty minutes, and cannot take it any longer. The teacher recognizes this, and asks the students to pick a spot on the carpet on which to sit or lie down. He then guides them through this five-minute exercise:
Close your eyes.
Pretend your thoughts and feelings are clouds. Look at those clouds as they slowly drift by. Some might look like animals, some might look like shapes. Just watch them as they come and go. Now let’s think about our breathing. Lie down on your back, and place your hands on your belly. Notice what your hands do as you breathe. Do you feel your hands rising? What about falling? Are your breaths deep and long, or shallow and quick? Imagine your hands are a sailboat on a gently rolling ocean. Your boat floats up with every breath in, and down with every breath out. Take a moment to breathe this way and notice the waves of the ocean. Now focus on how your body presses into the carpet. Think about whether it makes you feel cool, warm, itchy, or comfortable. Is your body centered? Or is it leaning to one side or the other? Take the next few moments just to become aware of those sensations.
Now take one big deep breath in, and one deep breath out. And open your eyes.
The students look around, smile at each other, then go back to their seats more relaxed and positive, while the teacher then resumes the math lesson.
This sort of scene is becoming far more common in our world. What many elementary school teachers (like this one), business executives, artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs have in common is the increasing popularity mindfulness meditation infused into these careers. And the trend is spreading even wider. Time magazine devoted an entire 2018 special issue to this exercise, including promises of significant benefits: decreased anxiety, better sleep, and improved social skills. With such exciting and promising results, it is no wonder so many people are fascinated with the concept of mindfulness. So what, exactly, is it?
If you ask a handful of people what they think mindfulness is, they are likely to give you a handful of different answers. “It is a chance to slow down.” “It gives you the ability to transcend your thoughts and troubles.” “It gives you focus.” These are just a few examples of commonly heard definitions. A 2015 op-ed in the New York Times was even called “The Muddied Meaning of Mindfulness.” Defining mindfulness is not an easy task. Often, when human beings decide we like something, we tend to pick and choose those elements most interesting to us and ignore the rest. However, any time we evaluate a practice or idea, we need to take into account the complete, objective picture. While mindfulness does carry various, sometimes competing definitions, we can strive to get to the bottom of it.
Mindfulness comes from a Buddhist practice called Vipassana, meaning “to see things as they really are.” This meditation teaches the meditator simply to observe, as a detached outsider, one’s own ideas, sensations, and emotions, as they come and go. But for most Americans, mindfulness is a secular, psychological exercise. Like most popularized meditation activities, it is meant to give the meditator a structured pathway to that increasingly elusive feeling of peace. This sort of meditation is intended to be a psychological exercise rather than a religious practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical professor and key popularizer of mindfulness in America, defines it this way: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”1 In other words, Kabat-Zinn promotes a meditation that is all about being highly conscious of what is going on in us and around us right now. For Kabat-Zinn, it is essential that we include a “non-judgmental” spirit about the exercise because interacting with and responding to our ideas is a cause of heightened stress. If we can refrain from evaluating our thoughts, sensations, and emotions, then in theory we can release ourselves from worry. Mindfulness teaches meditators to redirect their attention to the small things in life. We cannot be overwhelmed by multitudes of thoughts when we are attending to just the one thing right in front of us. Worry about the past or present is the symptom; calm attention to the present is the proposed solution.
The goal here is a sort of detached observation rather than critical engagement with each idea as it surfaces. A common way of guiding someone through a mindfulness meditation involves instructing the meditator to simply “be.” When thoughts come up during the exercise, meditators are encouraged to acknowledge their existence and let them pass. Mindfulness accepts what is, rather than judging what ought to be, for judging attaches our minds to our thoughts and riles us up. Detachment from those thoughts is the goal. Proponents of the practice claim that once we learn to incorporate mindfulness into our daily lives, our stress will decrease, our focus will increase, and our lives will become much more enjoyable.
With the promise of such grand benefits, it is no wonder so many are intrigued. But as thinking Christians who have been instructed to take every thought captive to become obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), it is imperative that we sufficiently understand whatever we endorse or reject. It is possible that mindfulness is acceptable in its entirety, but we need to rule out other options first. It is also possible that it is a sort of Trojan Horse for an incompatible worldview. The final option is that mindfulness has some good in it as well as some problematic elements. There are consequences to any idea, especially when we accept an idea that carries along with it any degree of error. Thus, we need to take a closer look at this movement.
WHY IS MINDFULNESS SO POPULAR?
The cultural climate in which we live is distressingly chaotic. We live in a world dominated by information technology. We wake up in the morning and check the news to see what has happened while we slept. We check social media to see what our friends have been up to in the past few minutes. We check our emails to see if anyone or anything at work needs our attention. We are all so used to instantaneous responses that there is immense social pressure to be ready to receive and reply to any communication immediately. If we waste any time, then whatever we should be responding to could be updated or outdated! Or worse yet, if we waste any time, we might become distracted by something else that makes us forget about that email, text, or Facebook message. Better attend to it all now, we tell ourselves. But that is a never-ending trap, as the influx of information never ceases.
There is no denying that our minds are overloaded. We are, simply put, part of an overwhelmed society. We have mortgages to pay, meetings to schedule, friends to contact, home repairs to make, and kids to raise. And through it all, we have our smartphones at the ready, waiting to take on even more each day. All this busyness is pulling us in all directions and making us unhappy. We never have enough time for it all, which leads us to try and multitask. But in the end, multitasking becomes nothing more than a compilation of coexistent “partial-tasks.” We are not slowing down and living; we are busily and fruitlessly cramming as much into our lives as possible. This all takes a toll on our consciousness and our nerves, leaving us often wishing we could just press “pause” on it all for just a moment and grab hold of something stable.
Yoga emerged in the late twentieth century as a proposed antidote to all this chaos and stress and has been gaining popularity ever since, but yoga does have a time and exercise element to it that seems unpalatable to many. One has to buy a mat, buy the clothes, put on the clothes, and drive to the yoga studio in order to reap that particular set of benefits. Moreover, yoga threatens to make an already tired mind and body even more tired, given the physicality and sometimes strenuous nature of the poses. By contrast, mindfulness does not require any of this. Instructors can be found through mindfulness smartphone apps or on YouTube. One can be equally prepared for the exercise whether at home in pajamas or at the office in a suit. It is all mental and takes no physical preparation or exertion. Therefore, it is far lower-impact and less time-consuming than yoga. One smartphone app in particular, called Headspace, offers guided and customized mindfulness meditations in only ten minutes per day.
But the fact that mindfulness takes such little time is not the only reason for its popularity. Mindfulness (and meditation more generally) has been given an extra push from the most respected field in the Western world: science. The spread of mindfulness has been aided by well-funded (sometimes federally funded) and widely distributed psychological research. For example, in 2015, researchers at UCLA found that long-term meditation was able to slow brain decay.2 Another study at Yale University discovered a fascinating connection between meditation and happiness. They found that mind-wandering is significantly lessened by meditation, and mind-wandering is associated with unhappiness. Therefore, the research concludes, meditation makes us happier.3 There also have been studies that have found mindfulness specifically helps relationship satisfaction by aiding a person’s ability to control emotions and express themselves around other people.4 With results like these, it would seem foolish not to meditate, and imprudent not to choose the highest quality form with the lowest demand on one’s already busy schedule.
THE JOURNEY FROM EAST TO WEST
But what was mindfulness originally? As mentioned, mindfulness is an English translation of Vipassana, meaning “to see things as they really are.” This goes back to the earliest form of Buddhism, Theravada, as it was popularized by the Siddhartha Guatama, the very first Buddha. Many Buddhist teachers say that Vipassana meditation is one of two basic categories of meditation. The other, Samatha, is translated more accurately as “concentration.” Examples of this latter type are Zen meditation and Transcendental Meditation. By contrast, Vipassana is sometimes translated into English as “insight,” because it aims simply to improve the self by dispassionately observing the self. Vipassana is interested in cultivating awareness of reality in order to develop the right perspective on life. This, of course, raises the question of just what the “right perspective” is.
In the 1970s, the Western world was in the midst of a fascination with all things Eastern. The Beatles had brought over Hatha yoga from India in the late ‘60s, and many celebrities had begun singing the praises of Transcendental Meditation. The stresses of the increasingly chaotic modern world fueled the love affair with the East. Many cognitive and religious leaders reasoned that the best places to turn for coping with Western pressures were outside cultures, where such stress seemed absent.
Mindfulness was one such proposed way of stopping to smell the roses, so to speak. In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts medical school, and there developed his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. In this program, Kabat-Zinn sought to take the Vipassana meditation he had learned from Buddhist teachers and repackage it as a nonreligious, purely psychological, calming technique. But while Kabat-Zinn introduced the West to what is perhaps the most well-known form of mindfulness, he was not the only one importing the Eastern technique. Four years earlier, Buddhist practitioners Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein had cofounded the Insight Meditation Society (IMS). This form of mindfulness was focused much more on the religious worldview behind the meditation rather than on the psychological benefits.
It was more Buddhist and less scientific than Kabat-Zinn’s version. IMS to this day considers itself a “spiritual refuge” from the world, and puts on seminars and lectures about Buddhism. Another difference between the two is that Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR program is very pragmatic, while the IMS mission is more cosmic. MBSR is concerned primarily with improving a person’s coping skills, whereas IMS encourages a far more complete worldview. On the IMS website, part of their mission reads, “We dedicate ourselves to the Buddha’s teachings that hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone, and remain steadfast in upholding non-harming and nonviolence as the pillars of compassionate action.”5
These ideas extend beyond the individual, giving an entire ethical and motivational framework for living. It is, indeed, a form of Buddhism, and explicitly identifies itself with Vipassana meditation.
EVALUATING MINDFULNESS THROUGH THE LENS OF A CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW
As is the custom in America, the psychological and the religious schools of mindfulness often are combined. For example, a Buddhist retreat center in northern Colorado, well known for its deeply spiritual bent, recently hosted a seminar on the psychological strain of mindfulness. Similarly, when the MBSR is introduced in schools, businesses, and retreats, often it is taught using terminology and images from the original Vipassana form. So, while mindfulness can be purely psychological and it can be religious, it most often seems to be a blend of the two. Given this fact, it is even more imperative that Christians learn to recognize and appropriately respond to the worldview at the foundation of the exercise.
Christians do not have to deny the research benefits of mindfulness to be constructively critical of the worldview behind it. It is certainly the case that we are often overstimulated, distracted, and poorly multitasking our way through life. Mindfulness could be a fruitful endeavor, but which mindfulness we are talking about is key here. If by mindfulness we simply mean quieting our minds and focusing on small things like breathing, this is the purely pragmatically psychological form of mindfulness. A Christian who is having a panic attack, for instance, loses nothing but stress when she is guided through certain focused breathing exercises that are intended to produce the physiological response of a slowed heart rate and calmed mind. But if we are talking about the Buddhist form of mindfulness, Vipassana meditation, then reconciliation is a bigger challenge.
In Tricycle: The Buddhist Review quarterly magazine, Vipassana meditation is “a gradual process of ever-increasing awareness into the inner workings of reality itself. It takes years, but one day the meditator chisels through that wall and tumbles into the presence of light. The transformation is complete. It’s called Liberation, and it’s permanent.”6 The transformation here is to lose one’s personal identity. In Buddhism, the self is actually an illusion, and our job while on Earth is to detach from whatever perpetuates the lie that we are “real.” Thoughts, sensations, ideas, and passions merely keep us tied down to this world full of lies and suffering, which prevents us from achieving liberation. Liberation may at first sound wonderful, but in Buddhism, it means total extinguishment. It is more akin to euthanasia (where a suffering subject is put out of his or her misery) than it is to anything like the Christian heaven. If this is the worldview driving mindfulness exercises, which it often is, then Christians need to be aware that our goal (sanctification of the self) and their goal (extinguishment of the self) are incompatible. The former requires cultivating a passion for God, His Word, and His world, while the latter requires a dispassionate separation from all of those things. Sometimes, Christians do need to calm down, quiet down, and “do nothing.” But this “nothing” should always be in the figurative sense, in that we are taking a healthy break from stressful things. For the Christian, we never should embrace true emptiness or nothingness.7 Things that are healthy should supplement our natures rather than distort or tear them down. The Buddhist requirement that we work toward the realization that we are nothing is unhealthy because it is not who we are. There is a difference between doing nothing and being nothing. Christianity rejects the latter because we are valuable, unique image bearers of God Himself.
The most common verse put forth to suggest that Christians should, in fact, embrace absolute nothingness, is Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” However, stillness cannot, in this context, mean any sort of absolute, empty stillness. That’s because of the key word know. One cannot embrace cognitive emptiness while simultaneously knowing anything, for to obey the command to know requires active reflection. The better exegesis here is that we should cease worrying, cease trying to be in control, and accept that God (not a mere human being) is sovereign. That requires an active meditation that embraces the reality of who we are, who God is, and what our relationship to Him is. Buddhist mindfulness cannot support such active, relational reflection.
In summary, we need to be aware that most people who engage in mindfulness exercises are probably not Buddhist. They merely are trying to achieve a moment of peace in an otherwise chaotic world. The popularity of mindfulness is less indicative of a revival of Eastern spirituality and more indicative of a culture desperate for a break, seeking shelter from the storms of life. The more we understand this, the more we can help those souls God has placed in our lives. When the time is right, we lovingly can help them recognize that the peace and perspective they seek is more permanently and satisfyingly found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is the living water for desperate, parched souls, and such a respite will be unquenchable when in our glorified states we finally meet Him face-to-face (John 7:37–39).
Sarah C. Geis teaches apologetics and ethics at Denver Seminary, where she is also the director of the Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. She is currently a PhD student in philosophy of religion at the University of Birmingham, UK.
- “Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness,” Mindful, January 11, 2017, https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/.
- Eileen Lunders, Nicolas Cherbuin, and Florian Kurth, “Forever Young(er): Potential Age-Defying Effects of Long-Term Meditation on Gray Matter Atrophy,” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (2014): 1551.
- Judson A. Brewer et al., “Meditation Experience Is Associated with Differences in Default Mode Network Activity and Connectivity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108, no. 50 (2011): 20254–9.
- Mathias Dekeyser et al., “Mindfulness Skills and Interpersonal Behaviour,” Science Direct 44 (2008): 1235–45.
- Insight Meditation Society, https://www.dharma.org/. Accessed March 29, 2018.
- Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, “What Exactly Is Vipassana Meditation?,” Tricycle, https://tricycle.org/magazine/vipassana-meditation/. Accessed March 30, 2018.
- For more on this, see Douglas R. Groothuis and Sarah C. Geis’s article, “Examining Contemplative Prayer,” Bibliotheca Sacra 172 (2015): 12–23.