Mindfulness: A Christian’s Understanding

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Not as blissful as woman on the cover of Time, but definitely in the zone. (Credit: Ernst Mutchnick / Funk Zone Studios / Corbis)

I should be grateful. The cover of a recent edition of Time Magazine carries the photograph of a lovely woman with closed eyes and a Zen half smile along with this title starting below her throat: “The Mindful Revolution: the science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.” Author Kate Pickert offers an engaging account of Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction (MSBR) and its slow progression into the mental health field’s go-to arsenal of methods for getting or staying sane. MIT-educated scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn developed MBSR in 1979, and today, Pickert writes, “There are nearly 1,000 certified MBSR instructors teaching mindfulness techniques (including meditation), and they are in nearly every state and more than 30 countries.”

Mindfulness is even “gaining acceptance with those who might otherwise dismiss mental training techniques closely tied to meditation—Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more.” Fantastic! Some wealthy and powerful people are in favor of stopping, dwelling in the present moment, paying attention, and reflecting. This is a good thing. But my soul is uncomfortable—my skeptical soul. Why?

Pickert’s take on our society’s need for mindfulness is insightful and accurate. She admits her own struggle: “I am hyper-connected. I have a personal iPhone and a BlackBerry for work, along with a desktop computer at the office and a laptop and iPad at home. It’s rare that I let an hour go by without looking at a screen.” I’m writing from Starbucks on a Monday morning, and seven of the fifteen patrons are screen-fixed. A couple are simultaneously conversing and texting. The Time author is on the right track.

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Multitasking (Credit: Arman Zhenikeyev / Corbis)

Imagine Jeopardy, “Modern Words for $1000″: “Attempting to perform two or three or eight tasks at the same time.” Beep. “What is multitasking?” Attempting is the key word. As Pickert points out, “Researchers have found that multitasking leads to lower overall productivity.” Elders have known this for years and have been shaking their heads.

So mindful folks everywhere should Buddha-laugh and embrace MBSR, mindfulness, or any practice that helps us to slow down and be where we are. There’s evidence as well that “meditation and rigorous mindfulness training can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly even affect gene expression.” So much promise!

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Private First Class Russell R. Widdifield in Vietnam, 1969. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As I thought my way through this fair and balanced Time article, I bickered in my head. I had questions and suspicions. Finally, Pickert’s explanation of a particular use of mindfulness training forced me to confront my bias. Elizabeth Stanley, an associate professor at Georgetown, collaborated with Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami, to launch “a pilot study with private funding that investigated whether a mindfulness program could make Marines more resilient in stressful combat situations.” Stanley went on to develop an MBSR-based curriculum called “Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training.”

When those words punched my face, I put words to my discomfort. An hour ago I asked Zen-dude Alan the question: “Is it possible to kill another human being mindfully?” He didn’t think long before answering, “Yes.” I wasn’t talking about euthanasia or any other taking of life motivated by compassion, and I think he knew that. He brought up other good qualifications. Somebody’s going to shoot you; you shoot first. For Alan, mindfulness is simply being fully present to what you are and what you are doing and accepting the consequences. Shooting in self-defense, he admits, means killing part of himself. Alan is a good, thoughtful guy, but I want to push him on the nature of mindfulness. Next time he bows to me at Starbucks I might ask him if he thinks you could mindfully strangle a healthy black lab puppy for no reason. He’d probably draw the line there.

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Statue of Christ of the Abyss. Loving the world, longing for the Creator?  (Credit: Image Source / Corbis)

I draw the line somewhere else. For good or ill, my understanding of mindfulness is informed by Christianity. Any of my friends will tell you I’m about the weirdest, most open-minded Jesus follower on the block, but some actions strike me as so troubling and hurtful that I regard them as morally insane; that is to say, the opposite of mindful.

Mindless? Mindful? Any distinctions are riddled with semantics, but I’m fond of mindfulness and object to the word being deployed to certain theaters. Here’s where I imagine I’ll get myself into trouble:

  • Pickert mentions “Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans, Pentagon chiefs and more” embracing mindfulness. A mindful titan? Sounds like an oxymoron. I don’t believe you can mindfully enjoy extravagant wealth, be content with earning 400 times the wage of anybody who works for you, or profit from the exploitation of fellow human beings.
  • Now my skepticism appears. Given the way the financial world operates, I don’t believe corporations provide mindfulness training and/or MBSR to ease anybody’s stress. The motivation is profit, with healthier, saner employees being a glad byproduct. If businesses didn’t see a return on nurturing a peaceful, happy workforce, they wouldn’t spend the money. Are there numerous exceptions? Sure.
  • One Sunday afternoon before a nap, I lay in bed head-wrestling with the idea of a mindful military. Son Micah came up to kibitz as he sometimes does. I explained Pickert’s article and asked what mindfulness would tell him if he had another man in his crosshairs. “Don’t shoot that guy,” he answered. Even though Micah is an atheist, he’s been contaminated by his Jesus-loving father. He perfectly summarizes my conclusion about mindfulness and war. Mindfulness as I try to practice it can’t be applied to any action not grounded in compassion.

Some distinctions are important here. I’m not arguing that military force is immoral; that’s a separate discussion. I’m not saying that Silicon Valley shouldn’t be a land of focused, driven world-beaters who lick the multitasking addiction. And I’m not against using mindful strategies to help soldiers endure combat and heal when they come back home. I vote for all these.

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What would mindfulness have me do? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

What I confess to is a highly subjective understanding of mindfulness. It’s not a method, but a way that leads to kindness, mercy, and justice. In the end my point is embarrassingly minor: if you’re using mindfulness to increase profits or take life without reckoning the personal soul-strangling consequences, then you’re not grasping mindfulness. You don’t use mindfulness; mindfulness helps you to discover how to use yourself.

As far as I’m concerned objectivity doesn’t exist, so I feel free to paint mindfulness with Jesus colors. Nobody owns exclusive rights to a word. Still, I can speak my truth: mindfulness leads nowhere other than love.

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19 thoughts on “Mindfulness: A Christian’s Understanding

  1. I agree 100%. Those that twist and turn things the way they wish them to be and then claim to be something they’re not are missing the point. Does that sentence jumble up into any sense? ha! One can be mindful and do their daily actions, sometimes even difficult actions but murder? No. A mindful person, connected to that person in front of them understanding that they are the same soul would not shoot. Rather, in a truly mindful state, would remain peaceful. Obviously I am no soldier. I have zero ill will toward those who protect our country, I am thankful, and am not saying they don’t have mindful moments. Like you said, that is an entirely different subject. But I am not convinced that a mindful person can engage in violent acts against another. To be always mindful would mean they have reached enlightenment, right? I am unconvinced anyone in the military is enlightened. I hope I don’t get hate mail from this comment. xo

    • Hi, Kerry. Yeah, the question of violence and mindfulness is sticky. I guess the sad next step in my reasoning is that sometimes in this present world “mindlessness” is necessary. I believe in Gandhi’s and King’s pacifism, but am pretty sure I couldn’t live it out if faced with circumstances like Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw in Germany–Hitler! (As for hate mail, I wouldn’t worry. That presumes somebody’s actually reading this inconspicuous little blog.) Ha! And peace. John

  2. John, I grow to love you and your writing more with each post. My jaw dropped at the paragraph where you describe Micah as an Atheist. You, John, are one totally cool dude. That you pursue mindfulness as a means to love and better understand (and accept) others is so praise-worthy.

    • Hey, Nancy. Thanks. Yeah, my son the Atheist! When he was going through rehab he observed that you can’t get somebody to believe anything through fear. The only solution: love and trust. John

  3. “if you’re using mindfulness to increase profits or take life without reckoning the personal soul-strangling consequences, then you’re not grasping mindfulness”

    Exactly.

  4. Thank you, John, for holding this up to the light. Mindfulness, by its very nature, can’t simply reduce stress and allow us to charge ahead with our lives as planned. Mindfulness connects us with the Divine Love of the universe, which transforms us, body, mind, and soul. Grateful to be a fellow pilgrim with you on the journey as we open ourselves to the transforming power of Divine Love.

    • Hey, Kara. Thanks a million for ping-backing–I think that’s what it’s called. I still feel like a blogging rookie. Nice to “see” you again! Peace, John

  5. Pingback: Mindfulness: A Christian’s Understanding | Coming Up for Air

  6. Enjoyed reading your post today. I suddenly realized that I am not as mindful as I should be, or able to converse about intelligent, relevant topics. Basically, if it’s not important to a three year old, or not on Nick Jr., I don’t know about it. *sigh*. Thanks for bringing me back into the real world. You’re pretty smart!

    • Whoa! Parents of young kiddos are among the most mindful people I know. When my kids were little, the things we talked about weren’t sophisticated, but geez did it take a lot of energy and thought to speak to them in ways that would help them grow without messing them up. Here’s to you, sister. John

  7. I have a Buddhist perspective on Mindfulness, and a lot of what you say resonates with me. Friends and family are drawn to mindfulness because it might help them live with less stress and find calm. For me this is a thin part of the story- mindfulness can link us in with the beauty of the world, the inter-connectedness of things, and others (love)! My hope is those that apply mindfulness as a fix-it for stress will find themselves amidst beauty and love without realising that’s where they were headed in the first place. Thanks got sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks a million for this response. You’ve taught me something. Of course, people can encounter mindfulness in its thin presentation and find themselves in the depths of beauty. Why didn’t I think of this? I’m grateful for your lesson, offered so gently. Peace, John

  8. Here is an article by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh discussing this topic. He addresses the question “Is mindfulness being corrupted by business and finance?” http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/thich-nhat-hanh-mindfulness-google-tech

    I am training as an MBSR teacher. We are taught that in the Eastern languages, Mindfulness is really also heartfulness. The deeper I experience mindfulness, I believe I come to the same teachings of Jesus on love and compassion. I believe that I understand Jesus more deeply. Verses like Luke 17:20-21 note that the kingdom of God is in our midst but we do not see it. The gnostic gospel of Thomas says ” Jesus said, “If those who lead you (plur.) say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. But the kingdom is inside of you. And it is outside of you. “When you become acquainted with yourselves, then you will be recognized. And you will understand that it is you who are children of the living father. But if you do not become acquainted with yourselves, then you are in poverty, and it is you who are the poverty.” ”

    I find that with mindfulness, I see the deep beauty in things and I feel more love for others. I also feel that I know myself more deeply and true love grows from this. I agree with your blog in that more is needed than the shallow idea of mindfulness. I also believe that deeper mindfulness will carry us past this as it touches something very deep and true. This being acquainted with, the knowing. Mindfulness is a way and I believe it is very compatible with the deeper spiritual life. I believe it is very complimentary with the Christian life.

    • Hi, John. Thanks for such a thorough, thoughtful reply. You and another blogger have given me some ideas to help me grow in my understanding and practice of mindfulness. I love Thich Nhat Hanh and will check out that article. Peace and best, John

      • Hi John, Thanks for the kind reply. I attended a 6 day retreat this past Fall in which Thich Nhat Hanh spoke each day for almost two hours. He is now 87 years old having been a monk for almost 70 years. He was an activist for peace working to help others during the war in Vietnam and has dedicated his life to helping others to transform suffering into compassion and peace.

        I felt so much gratitude to receive what I believe is deep wisdom from all his years of living this extraordinary life. His entire teachings from this retreat are on youtube if you have an interest in viewing them. One thing I like about Thich Nhat Hanh is that he makes no effort at all to get people to abandon their own spiritual roots but rather asks them take the lessons that speak to them into their own traditions. This retreat is called “The art of suffering” and teaches that we will suffer much less if we know how to meet our suffering with mindfulness. Mindfulness is really awareness and helps us see more deeply into what is.

        Should you decide to view any of these videos, the speaking starts after some singing at the beginning and can be skipped if you like. There are four more lessons on other youtube videos from the same retreat.

        John

        • Thanks for sharing this You Tube video, John. You’re very generous. I’ve watched Nhat Hanh’s retreat for Israelis and Palestinians many times over, hoping the lessons would sink in. I especially appreciate his suggestion that the retreatants simply absorb his lectures rather than trying to remember everything he says in great detail. And two hours per day! Gracious, the man has stamina! Thanks again and peace, John

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