The practice of mindfulness has become mainstream. It’s being promoted in classrooms, prisons, workplaces and ad hoc groups. Many benefits are claimed for mindfulness — practising it is supposed to promote peace, lessen aggression and anxiety, and help people to focus better without a barrage of distracting thoughts battering their minds.
Surely then practising mindfulness has to be a good thing.
Some Christians say no. They’re not sure what spiritual influences people might open themselves up to. Some psychologists also say no. They say practising mindfulness can open people up to all kinds of things; trauma experienced in the past may return to the mind unbidden and leave them re-traumatised, without skilled help being available.
What then do we make of mindfulness?
The focus on mindfulness is part of a growing trend in an increasingly secular society to seek some kind of practice that brings peace. Meditation gurus and retreats are available anywhere you look. What they have in common is a desire for a non-religious ‘spirituality’, one that does not have any kind of belief system attached.
A set of beliefs is seen as a negative; and perjorative words such as dogma, doctrine (and indoctrination) and particularly religion are all linked with having beliefs. (It’s OK to share feelings but not beliefs.) Promoters of mindfulness and/or meditation are therefore often careful to ensure that their particular technique or approach is dogma-free – the individual is paramount, and what they choose to think or believe is their business.
Maybe Western teachers of these practices do genuinely think that their approaches are ‘belief-free.’ They are usually mistaken in their ‘belief!’ Often undergirding their practices is a philosophy of life that largely derives from Eastern thought, usually Buddhism, which at its core is not a theistic religion, but which includes commonly-held beliefs about life and death; eg a cyclic view of history (that includes reincarnation), karma, a belief that everything is ‘one’ (monism), and so on.
Buddhism usually promotes a way of life that largely consists of following a path towards enlightenment or peace. There are many varieties and branches of Buddhism – and some of them are packaged for Western consumption.
I see a parallel with yoga. When yoga is taught as a series of exercises that encourage flexibility, fitness and well-being, that is one thing. When yoga is taught within the context of a philosophy of life derived from Eastern thought then that is another. Yoga or mindfulness are not the issue in themselves — it is how they are packaged, and whether or not there is an underlying philosophy accompanying them.
Some time ago a friend was discovering Transcendental Meditation, which had a cult following at that time. Her mother warned her — “It’s not the practice of meditation that is the issue; the question is, who or what are you meditating on?”
That question is as pertinent today as it was then. Meditation has been part of Christian practice for centuries – prayer and meditation are spoken of in the same breath. Meditation has aided prayer, and the other way around. For Christians, dwelling on the Scriptures so often encourages prayer, but equally as important is spending time, being open to the Spirit and allowing the soul and spirit to tune into what God might be saying.
With mindfulness or meditation, as with so many things, the onus is on a Christian to be aware, to exercise discernment as to what to accept and what not, and to find the points of contact with others where engagement is possible.
Remember Paul in the Areopagus in Acts 17? Understanding where the Athenians came from gave him a platform to engage with them. It is up to us to do the same.
Liz Hay is enjoying some space in her mountain eyrie to enjoy the greening of spring while there’s still snow on the mountains. Just being in these surroundings is a form of mindfulness! She’s recovering after supporting the arrival of a grand-daughter, followed by a grandson a month later — with both of these new personalities providing opportunity for wonderment.