In the last post I reviewed some simple definitions of mindfulness, including some of the Buddhist ideas behind a version of mindfulness. In this post I want to consider how mindfulness, when reconsidered in the light of Christian thought, can be a valuable part of counseling practice.
A thought about mindfulness and the brain
Let me detour to one more thought about biology and mindfulness. What happens in the brain when a person is practicing mindfulness? Thought and feeling patterns result in neural activity in the brain (or is it the other way around?). Repeated neural activity creates stronger connections between neurons (increased synaptic activity and denser connections with neurons in the same neighborhood. Repeated activity leads to greater blood flow and activation in particular regions of the brain. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity.
Thus affective and cognitive patterns can indeed change your brain. Think about this. What patterns of thought do you engage in on a repetitive basis? Do you have a habit of fantasizing? Mulling over bitter or jealous thoughts? While some of these may come naturally to you, what you do with them may actually change or strengthen neural connections in the brain–for better or for worse.
Is mindfulness healthy or relativistic?
Mindfulness, no matter whether you take a religious, consciousness, or relational approach to it, includes the stepping back from shoulds, oughts, and other judgments. One might think that this would be dangerous for Christians. Within Christianity, there are rights and wrongs, truth and lie, righteousness and unrighteousness. The Bible is, among other things, the single guide for Christians to determine how to live for God. SO, it begs the question whether Christians should be wary of anything that seems to let go of shoulds and oughts?
Another view of shoulds and oughts
In my experience, those suffering from anxiety and depression suffer from a disorder of judgments. They are flooded by shoulds and oughts. Their self-talk does not seem to come from the Lord but are already laced with prejudice. “You should have been more vigilant against danger AND you weren’t. You’re a failure.” “You shouldn’t be rebellious BUT you are always a screw-up.” “I shouldn’t have to suffer this way AND God must not care for me.” Notice that most of these forms of judgment are careful consideration of the facts and experiences but well-formed opinions that may be based on only a smidgen of the actual events in their present circumstances. Notice that these forms of ruminative thinking come in disguise as careful, logical thinking. They are not. What they are narratives–well-practiced narratives–that have an already formed conclusion that we repeat regardless of the actual facts of our lives.
Mindfulness, then, is stepping back from these narratives. Mindfulness is a practiced discipline of just noticing and describing events so as to process them more carefully instead of automatically repeated a script or mantra. Mindfulness provides the opportunity to discover “what is” rather than compound suffering by focusing on what we just assume. Consider Dan Siegel (The Mindful Brain, p. 77)
When the mind grasps onto preconceived ideas it creates a tension within the mind between what is and what “should be.” This tension creates stress and leads to suffering.”
While I’m sure I would vigorously disagree with Siegel on what a preconceived idea is, on what can be healthy “should be’s”, and much more, he has a point worth considering. Have you ever engaged in a fantasy conflictual conversation with someone you are about to meet. You play out yourself winning, being mistreated, standing up for what is right, and so on. Notice how such conversations aren’t useful. They only increase your level of stress because your brain responds to the inner drama as if it were really happening, when it has yet to happen. In this way, Siegel is right. We create tension that leads to suffering.
Using mindfulness in Christian Counseling
I’m running out of room here and won’t be able to do justice, in this post, to the most practical part of mindfulness. [Isn’t that just like us academics. We spend all our time pointing out problems but we never solve anything!]. Mindful practice may include time practicing being present in one’s surroundings. The counselor may encourage clients to take in their surroundings. While many thoughts may race through the brain, the mindful person may choose to not follow them but “drink in” the creation beauty around them–things growing, art, or anything that is a delight to the senses. This form of discipline must be practiced in de-stressed times so that it will be available during a crisis–just like a basketball player practices free-throws over and over so as to make the shot when there is only 1 second left on the clock.
Such work is the work of taking every thought captive. and resting (a la Psalms 131) without grasping after things “too wonderful” for us.
26 responses to “Stress & Christian mindfulness, part 2”
Will there be a part 3? Can you suggest any further reading?
There probably should be a part 3 but other matters will preclude that at the moment. Sadly, I don’t have any good readings from Christian authors.
hi phil, great to see something on this. i agree with you – we mustn’t let the buddhists have exclusivity on mindfulness. if you are ok, i’d love to use this on our site here in the uk. rob
I really enjoyed the article, Phil.
I think we’d much better Christians if we all practised mindfulness.
Interestingly enough, a Christ-centered rehab facility that I work at teaches a form of mindfulness, but they don’t call it that.
Henri Nouwen has a beautiful book called Here and Now which speaks gracefully and biblically to being present in the moment with God. It has been a life-changing concept for me, truly helping me let go of anxiety’s firm grip. If you are interested in mindfulness from a Christian perspective, please do go read this lovely and helpful book.
This is an excellent posting thank you. I would urge you to write more please 🙂
I am an Evangelical believer who has done a course on Mindfulness for stress reduction and found it of real value. My own view is that it is a compatible practise for Christian but care needs to be taken to avoid the humanistic elements. I like to combine the formal meditation times with resting in God
For those looking for Christian Mindfulness authors these are my favorites: Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, Carlo Carretto, St John of the Cross. All of these have useful insights into Christian Meditation and Mindfulness. Might also look into the use of prayer beads as a tool for meditation.
I am a Christian who has studied and thought about both neuroscience as well as pain and suffering quite a bit. I see mindfulness not as a religous practice per say, but merely a form of exercise that one can perform with the brain in order to strengthen its ability to cast aside the multitude of chatter in our heads that keeps us busy. This allows us to actually quite our minds in order to hear not only our own voice better but God’s. Many of us are constantly subjected to a rampage of positive and negative inaccurate thoughts about who we are. I see this as a practice that can quiet our minds so that we can redefine ourselves as God sees us, not in judgement, but in love. I often feel that the negative thoughts in my head are my own fears of inadequacy and failure and do not reflect the reality of who I am.
I think that the Buddhists stumbled onto this method of teaching the mind long ago, and as all things at that time were interpreted as religous experiences, it was also interpreted as a way to transcend suffering when it is actually just like learning to do math, play the piano or take out the trash. Only it is learning to identify your thoughts and choose how to respond to them. If you try to figure it out yourself, it will take a long time, and you might not accomplish it, however, with instruction and practice practice practice you can get quite good at firing the neurons in that particular sequence.
What I guess I am trying to say, is that I see mindfulness as a skill that the human brain is wired to do, but we must learn how to do it. It is likely not a religous experience at all and thus should not threaten our Christian faith.
Praise God for the internet– I’d just started googling for thoughtful Christian commentary on mindfulness since I’m contemplating attending a class on it. I’ve long enjoyed Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life–the title idea sounds like the same practice. I think something Steve Brown said bears remembering: “All truth is God’s truth.” Be still and know….
Becky, thanks for Stopping by and adding your comments!
I guess our challenge is discerning what is truth and what appears to be truth but is not…
Buechner is one of those authors I really need to take up but haven’t.
Wow, that’s right, “what is Truth?” Thankfully, a lot of Scripture is in long-term memory and, equally important, my current pastor encourages us to keep searching the Book for daily direction and encouragement.
Thanks so much for these thoughts! I’ve been practising some mindfulness techniques to help with chronic pain and this is the first article I’ve found to have dealt with it from a Christian perspective. I would love to think more deeply about this topic, but my pain is quite debilitating. However, the aspects of the mindfulness I have found helpful are the relaxation and the way it helps me to be less reactive to the pain, as well as me to be more aware of unhelpful thought patterns, eg will this go on forever. I have also been musing on the link between mindful idea of “being in the moment” with the Christian idea of godly contentment. There are some ideas about “non-striving” which I can see might be good when actually doing the practise but don’t really fit with Biblical understanding of sanctification etc. Please do write more!
I think “non-striving” is very compatible with the Biblical truth that it is God who began the good work in us that will be faithful to complete it. “Be still” and know that He is God reads “cease striving, let go, relax…” in at least one translation.
This comment/repy is being sent very late after your orginal post but I only recently found it. I am a christian who has benefit greatly from “Mindfulness Therapy” and to find now a Christian Psychologist who validates this approach is very gratifying. I also particulary like “Haley’s” comments. Now for the point of my posting a my “comment”…it is really a request…Please Write A Book on Mindfulness!!! From what I see of your insight and style in your blog on “Society for Christian Psychology” (02-14-10) and your two “Musings”…we’d all be in for a treat. How about it?
Thanks for the kind words. Maybe someday….
I, too, am a late comer to this article but found is so very helpful in my research on mindfulness based stress reduction. I am getting ready to take an 8 week class in this through Duke University and wanted to approach it with the proper perspective as a Christian. Thank you so much for making it so clear as to what it really encompasses. I have grasped the principle that I am creating the tension in my own mind through imagining the drama as what’s really happening. My goal then will be to choose not to follow these thoughts, but to turn to the beauty of God and His truth (Phil. 4:8, right?). I knew there was a way to reconcile mindfulness with my faith.
Has anyone read Marcia Montenegro’s article on mindfulness? She is an ex-Buddhist, ex-astrologer, ex-psychic, you name it, she has probably done it. Now she is a Christ follower and a Bible-believing woman.
She states emphatically that “mindfulness is in complete conflict with a Christian worldview”. I am curious to know what everyone else thinks.
(Sorry Phil for cross-posting, but I wanted to hear people’s thoughts.)
I think Ms. Montenegro’s warnings are understandable given her experience with Buddhism, etc. However, mindfulness as a matter of prayer which tries to “go beyond thought” seems to fall perfectly in line with Scripture: see II Cor. 10:5: We are detached enough from our thoughts to “take them captive” to Christ, not let them take us far from faith into anxiety, depression, etc.
Again, “to ‘hear’ from God. Nothing like this is taught anywhere in the Bible.”
I, too, believe we are to continually study the Word for wisdom and direction. I also believe that as Christians we do have a “mystical oneness” with the indwelling Holy Spirit who applies Scripture to our daily lives. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
I was diagnosed with GAD and more recently C-PTSD. Let me tell you as a believer NOTHING I tried before was able to decrease my anxiety. I lived with chronic anxiety that interfered with my life as well as avoidance behaviors. I felt hopeless and was losing faith in the God who I had believed promised to heal and help me from my fear. After hearing from others who practiced mindfulfulness and breathing in the face of triggers…I decided to try it. I joined a mindfulness stress reduction group,read some books and practised the concepts of being present and accepting what is, creating a space between my thoughts and myself…and recognizing that I am not my thoughts.I also used breathing which emabled me to remain and not run from my triggers..
I feel like God has sent his help to me.I am more peaceful than I have ever been in my entire life and have regained my trust and hope in God.
In terms of the concern about the non christian elements…I take what i need and wipe away what I dont need. . Mindfulness is about being alive and awake to the present moment. That is a concept I believe God would like us to embrace.
I have found mindfulness to be of great help in my day to day life. I am a better listener and have more appreciation for for the gift of life among others. I include prayer in my mindfulness. As my mind slows down, I invite Jesus to bring His healing presence to my mind. I stay open for His will for me rather than my agenda (though, I assume that His agenda for me is peace).
I notice that there is concern expressed about the “non-judgmental” aspect of mindfulness. I think that this concept is refering to letting go of our agendas and pre-concieved ideas, to simply be with “what is.” Have you every harbored an assumption about something only to discover that you were perceiving things incorrectly? Making such a discovery usually involves staying open long enough (not grasping to assumptions) to allow space for other possibilities. Have you ever tried to explain something to someone (a math probelm, driving directions, a cooking process, you name it) and they just couldn’t get it because they were constricted around, and fixated on their one particular view or perspective? They did not have any “room” available for other possibilites. Have you every tried real hard to figure out a problem and then you let it go and the solution just seems to pop into your head? When mindfulness people (at least the ones that I have read and studied (e.g. Jon Kabat-Zinn), talk about being non-judgmental, they are not talking about abandoning concepts of ethical and moral behavior. They are talking about creating some room to better perceive things (our environment; people, places, things) as they are rather than getting caught in narrow pre-conceived ideas about how things are. I think a “Non-judgmental” stance from this vantage point is very congruent with a christian world view because it facilitates discernment.
Nicely stated Don
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I have been suffering chronic fatigue syndrome for one and half years, and it is difficult for me to think clearly as I have to deal with fluctuating pains and headaches all the time. In effort to ease the pain, I read some books and articles related to mindfulness and neuroscience. And then something came up to my mind, “What did Christ told us about our mind? If mindfulness is the right practice of thinking as neuroscientist advise, would Christians are supposed to be the most mindful people, not the Buddhist?”
In my humble opinion, if Bible tells us the whole truth then it must have taught us something more fundamental than mindfulness. Finally, I see that the great commandments which are the most important commandments, should become the way of life of Christians and the basis of all teachings as Christ Himself declared. Loving God and others wholeheartedly at all times, imho, which was the way of shalom-oriented mindset in Eden, shall be the ultimate form of mindfulness and continuous relaxing “flow” experience. The opposite of loving God and others is desire for status (not hate or indifference), which is essentially Satan’s trap when he said in Eden, “you will be like God”, and it is manifested in our tendencies to make constant judgment for our interest all the time. Like Adam and Eve, we tend to use our mind for desiring empty status and abandon the ultimate shalom-oriented love that God gave. I myself am still trying to learn and explore this idea, so it is not complete nor thorough at this point.
As I cannot find your email address here, sorry that I write this in the comment section. No intention to promote my blog as it is not in good structure at this point, but I want to see Christians exploring the great commandments as our way of life, day by day, up to minute by minute. As I will not be able to explore this idea completely due to my health condition, I would really appreciate if you could have some time to take a look at shalom-gospel.blogspot.com and see if you may be able to expand further in your blog. As I’m not able to think clearly, you may find some unclear sentences or typos here and there. Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Romans 12:2 tells us not to conform any longer to the pattern of this world, reminding us our thoughts and feelings are shaped by the patterns of this world. It is small wonder that as Phil says we can suffer from a ‘disorder of judgements’. Mindfulness reminds us that our thoughts and feelings are not a direct readout of reality. If we are totally identified with them then as Martin Laird says we become a victim of our thoughts rather than a witness to them.
Thanks for the article- I’m a latecomer- found it when googling Christian response to mindfulness. You give some solid guidelines- confirming that it aligns with ‘taking every thought captive.’ Can you please comment on the notion of ‘restorative justice,’ and compassion for the abuser? My main abuser dead, was non-repentant, and i am struggling with the Counselor’s perspective. She has Buddhist influence . . . lists the dalai lama along with Jesus Christ as major influencers, so I know it is not the pure heart of God. I can forgive, and hopefully let go, but I feel that by mustering up compassion for my abuser, (trying to see what led him to abuse, and being compassionate) i am betraying myself in some way. Thank you.