I’ve written about mindfulness in the past and based on numbers of folks coming to my blog looking for information about Christianity and mindfulness, I thought I might write just a bit more here. My intention is to write in two parts. Part 1 will cover some basics about stress and the idea of mindfulness. Part 2 will explore how Christian counselors might think critically about the topic and consider its use in their practice.
If this is not a term you are familiar with, you may wish to explore the goodly number of books in your local store discussing the topic. Why the interest? There is clear evidence that mindfulness has positive health benefits by reducing our stress responses to the chaos in our lives. Mindful individuals appear to have greater amounts of patience, able to avoid impulsive responses to stress, process rather than react to emotions, have greater capacities to be curious, open, accepting, and loving.
Stress and your body
It is well-known that small amounts of stress activate the body but larger amounts make us sick. But, did you know that the same biological response system that fights viral intruders activates with high levels of stress? Your immune system works in this manner (okay, my simplistic rendition): Your body senses an intruder. The microphages that come in contact with a virus act like little ants sending messages to their buddies to come and defend the colony. One of the messenger chemicals is interleukin-1. Your resulting fever is evidence that the body is working. But to work this hard, other bodily systems get such down. Your stomach and intestines stop or slow down their contractions, you lose your appetite, sexual drive, you have difficulty thinking clearly. These sick symptoms are more likely the result of your body’s defense mode than the virus that has intruded.
The SAME thing happens with high stress. Your pleasures centers shut down to conserve energy. Such activity decreases clarity of thought and pleasure and thus increases experiences of depression and anxiety. See how a vicious cycle of stress/distress leads to greater symptoms of depression/anxiety–a vicious cycle!
What is mindfulness?
Well, it depends upon who you ask. Definitions range from Buddhist forms of meditation, to being present in the moment, to being aware, to centering prayer, to having a nonjudgmental stance. So, for some it is a religious activity. For others it is a form of consciousness. And still others describe it as a relational “attunement” (e.g., a mother’s awareness of the meaning of her infant’s needs even before the cry; a service dog who picks up subtle clues that it’s owner is about to have a seizure). The truth is that each one of these fragments of definitions captures a little bit of what one observes in someone who is able to, in the moment, stand back from the chaos in their life and not react to it. Such people seem to be alert (not dissociated) to the moment, are being in the moment rather than reacting and doing something, are more likely to be describing events, feelings, perceptions, etc. rather than judging them.
In Dan Siegel’s The Mindful Brain (W.W. Norton, 2007), he lists a number of component parts to mindfulness:
- Intention (rather than reactive), attention (aware), attitude (open, curious, non-judgmental)
- Nonreactive to inner experiences (I notice my inner experience, but I am not merely my inner experience)
- Observation, noticing, describing, labeling
- Attending to sensations; acting with awareness
- Either focused attention on the present or merely noticing all that passes through the mind
What about the Buddhist part?
There are two terms you’ll find when reading up on Buddhist meditation: vipassana (insight, clear thinking), samatha (concentration or tranquility). I’m not a Buddhist scholar but I do believe I’m in the ballpark about these next bullet points:
- The goal is to get beyond (ab0ve) the experience of good and evil; of pleasure and pain to a higher level of experience
- The goal is personal transformation and character development; awareness leading to the drying up of demands (desires?)
It is important to point out that Buddhism is not the only religion that espouses meditational practices. Christianity, from the beginning of the Church, has promoted the concept of meditation, albeit in significantly different form and purpose.
How ought we Christians to think about it?
Some might suggest that engaging in practices that encourage openness, neutrality (which is a misrepresentation of Buddhist practices) open oneself up to the occult. Others might be suspicious of hidden, subtle belief systems (personal transformation vs. Spirit-led transformation). These are legitimate questions. And yet I contend that we do not need to reject these concerns to acknowledge that God has given all humans the capacity to observe and grasp concepts that are true and right–even if we might staunchly disagree with their personal philosophies. This does not mean we take a concept into our life and practices without considerable critical thinking, but it does mean we are open to learning something that our own tradition has lost, ignored, or deemed unnecessary to healthy living. I’ll attempt to do just that in the next post.