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.