In recent years, the practice of mindfulness has been regularly advocated and prescribed by various therapists, counselors, books, articles, etc. as a way to address many of the maladies people have with life, including depression, anxiety, pain management, the treatment of some personality disorders, etc. Given the origins of the modern understanding of mindfulness with eastern spiritual and religious practices, most particularly Buddhism, many Christians have felt and expressed concern about mindfulness and whether it can be faithfully integrated into the Christian life. Additionally, the way mindfulness is often taught, it rises concerns about its pracitioners becoming self-absorbed about personal experience and concerns, which may be seen as part of the human nature towards being curved inwards towards oneself, incurvatus in se. Others may feel concerned that mindfulness calls for people to not make judgments about their experiences, feeling like this is the denigration and letting go of a moral center. In what follows, I want to present an attempt to understand a way of practicing mindfulness in a way that can be deeply faithful and consistent with the Christian understanding of our relationship to God, while at the same time allowing us to incorporate a practice of mindfulness that avoids embrace the spiritual, metaphysical, or amoral perspective.
I write this not as an apologist for all practices of mindfulness, but as an appreciative critical of mindfulness who sees much good, wanting to plunder from the Egyptians while taking our thinking captive for Christ. I myself have had aversion to some of what has been said about mindfulness, particularly concerns that is somehow might make us less moral and more self-centered. However, in the end, I have come to discover that many parts of mindfulness actually accomplish the opposite, and the aspect of mindfulness that do that are not tied to the metaphysics, spirituality, and morality of other religious practices.
It is important to start from a more scientific definition of mindfulness. Daniel Siegel, a clinical psychiatrist and the lead mind behind a field of science called Interpersonal Neurobiology, defines mindful awareness as follows: “Awareness of present-moment experience, with intention and purpose, without grasping on to judgments.”1 He continues, “Traits of being mindful are having an open stance toward oneself and others, emotional equanimity, and the ability to describe the inner world of the mind.”2 We can perhaps rephrase those traits and being willing to accept other people, having a basic emotional calmness about life, and being able to honestly and fairly assess what is going on in one’s own thinking. Nothing of these traits seems to be amoral, but in fact, seems to be consistent with a vision of love that is concerned about the well-being, that bears the fruit of self-control, and values truth. While one might rightly question where the practice of mindfulness as Siegel defines it leads to those traits, as it is being presented: it doesn’t seem to be self-centered or lacking a righteous core to it. Furthermore, nothing in the definition is based upon the historical associations of mindfulness with Buddhism. It is a description of the processes of the mind with terms we in the West, including Western Christians, can use to describe ourselves.
At the heart of mindful awareness is the ability to be able to recognize what is happening in us and to us in the present moment. So much of our mental energy and effort is spent in other living in the past or imagining and visioning goals for the future. For the most part, people spend relatively little time paying attention to what is going on within their experiences at the present moment. To the extent that we do, we are processing the present either in analyzing it with what we are familiar with from the past or anticipating what we need to do and expect in the future. Attention to present experience is usually not our focus. Yet, the ability to mindfully focus on the present moment has a littany of benefits. Siegel describes the nine functions that occur in the middle prefrontal cortex of our brain:
Body Regulation—keeping the organs of the body and the autonomic nervous system coordinated and balanced.
Attuned Communication—tuning in to the internal state of another.
Emotional Balance—enabling internal states to be optimally activated: not too aroused, not too deflated.
Response Flexibility—pausing before acting to reflect on available options of response.
Fear Modulation—reducing fear.
Insight—self-knowing awareness that links past, present, and future. This is a mindsight map of “me.”
Empathy—imagining what it is like to be another person, to see from another’s perspective. This is a mindsight map of “you.”
Morality—imagining, reasoning, and behaving from the perspective of the larger good. This is a mindsight map of “we.”
Intuition—having access to the input from the body and its nonrational ways of knowing that fuel wisdom.3
Studies on these mental functions have verified that eight of them are found to be associated with a healthy, secure attachment of a child to a parent, while the ninth, intuition, having yet to be studied at the time of the writing of The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology.4 Similarly, all nine of these functions are found to be outcomes of mindfulness practice.5 At first blush, mindfulness seems to be consistent with healthy relations rooted in loved.
What makes mindfulness seem so contrary to Christian faith in the eyes of some Christians is that it does seem to not work from or accept the concept of sin, at least at first blush. Particuarly in some evangelical circles where people have been accustomed to emphasizing how the wrath of God is coming against human sin, it might seem that mindfulness goes in the exact opposite direction of the Gospel. And yet, I would say that the mindset of mindfulness is actually closer to the Gospel than what is preached in some evangelical circles. Why? Because what is fundamentally at the heart of mindfulness is a sense of compassion for oneself, just as God is a loving, compassionate God to us in the midst of our weaknesses. With that in mind, hear how Paul describes God’s kindness to people who were hypocritically judging people for doing the same evil things that they themselves did in Romans 2.1-5:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
Paul has mentioned some Gentiles doing some despicable things in Romans 1.28-32, but then puts the target on some Jews who do the same thing they rail against the Gentiles for. At the end of the day, Paul thinks such people who are storing up God’s wrath for themselves have made a fundamental mistake: they haven’t really understood and embraced “the riches of [God’s] kindness and forbearance and patience.” It isn’t that they are failing to appropriately appreciate it. It is that they actually despise it. They are so intent on judging others that their hearts have little place for kindness and tolerance. Some of them might have imagined that God was kind to them in virtue of them being Jews so that they wouldn’t sin, but even if they did, they had a special relationship with God as we see in Wisdom of Solomon 15.1-4. But there is a world of difference between imagining and assuming God’s kindness and perceiving God’s kindness in action. The former one can presumptuously assume or feel entitled to but associating kindness with simply getting what one wants and feels entitled to. To actually perceive God’s kindness in action, we have to understand what kindness is, and in order to do that, we need to be a person who values kindness at some level. If we do not value kindness, we will make light of, if not even despise, God’s kindness instead of recognizing it.
Furthermore, note that Paul says that it is kindness that leads (ἀγνοῶν) people to repentance. It isn’t a harsh sense of God’s anger hovering over them that leads them to repentance. It isn’t a deep feeling of shame that leads people to repentance. Even as knowledge of the possible consequences and feelings of shame can motivate us to disregard our past actions, that isn’t how Paul suggests God ultimately leads people to repentance. It is God’s kindness that shows the person the way, a God whose kindness shows that He is still not yet wrathful. If one despises this kindness, perhaps because they think people should be hard on sin, that people should show no tolerance, etc., then they will miss the instruction that God is giving to them as a sinner and they will continue down the pathway of judging others for what one does. In other words, the pathway to righteousness and holiness is laid down with the bricks of God’s kindness.
So, what does this have to do with mindfulness? Notice Siegel’s definition of mindful awareness: it is a form of a present awareness that doesn’t grasp for judgments. While this is broader than judgments about what is good and bad, but includes the ways we try to analyze and fit our experiences into specific labels, the mentality within us that is inclined to talk about something being bad and sin is one of the ways we label our own thoughts, experiences, attitudes, intentions, and memories of past actions. In other ways of expressing and defining mindfulness, it is often instructed that the person looks at their own experience with a sense of self-compassion, that they are not judging themselves harshly. For instance, when people get distracted from focusing on a specific experience, the person is encouraged not to judge themselves for getting distracted, but to observe the loss of attention and gradually redirect their focus.
Mindful awareness does not occur when people are highly judgmental of what they are experiencing in themselves. Part of the reason is that when we are aware of possible or actual moral failings, it can hav a way of activating stress in our bodies, making us fear the possibility of being disciplined and punished. When we get into this state, our minds become predisposed to trying to figure out how to fix the problem in order to protect ourselves. Our attention gets diverted away from what we are experiencing within ourselves so that we can see and understand what is it and focuses on correcting the ‘sin’ or trying to protect ourselves through one way or another. We do not learn well from these experiences, consequently. We don’t understand how our motives, intentions, and desires are undergirding our thinking. We don’t pay attention to how our circumstances influence what we think, feel, and do. At best, if we try to protect and restore our personal integrity (not the appearance of integrity) by simply reversing the bad thought, feeling, memory of the past, etc. and addressing any problems that may have been caused by them, we are learning only at a behavioral level. The learning will not lead us to more a nuanced, complex appreciation of how our own heart and mind interacts with the circumstances around us so that we can more appropriately align ourselves with God’s life-giving, shalom-bringing purposes.
Self-compassion is necessary to see ourselves more fully, to having a true repentance that does not simply operate at a behavioral-correction level, but at the level of our attitudes, desires, intentions, and goals that influence our way of life in wider-sweeping, broader ways. When we have self-compassion, we are more able to hear and recognize the kindness of the compassionate God speaking to us. Psalm 139.23-24 reads:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
It is God who knows our hearts and thinking. He knows the way we are inclined and how it could take us down a pathway towards wickedness. Yet, it is God’s kindness that leads us in the way everlasting, but if we lack the kindness and compassion towards ourselves, how little will we hear the kind, compassionate God calling us away from the wicked way and towards the type of life that lasts. We will despise this soft, kind voice, we will cast judgment upon it, perhaps unaware that this is God leading us, and so we will be left to continue down a dark pathway because we are resistant to seeing and learning about the potential in our hearts to desire and do wicked things.
At this point it is important to clarify, there is a difference between being compassionate towards oneself and seeing oneself through a self-enhancing bias. On the surface, they might look similar. Self-compassion might not judge one’s own possibility to do evil with harshness, whereas a self-enhancing bias will think one is a good person; both might feel like kindness. Yet, there is a big difference between the two. Self-compassion is not about telling us how good we are, but about not getting into an immediate sense of judgment about our own weakness. Self-enhancing bias is about how we are good, how we are worthy. As a result, a person with self-compassion can accept that one has struggles, weakness, temptations, and even bad actions in the past and accept them in developing a larger view of who we are as a person. A person reflecting on themselves with a self-enhancing bias diverts their attention away from all the things that do not accord with their desired self-image, being resistant to seeing and recognizing all the smudges in their lives. Both may seem “kind” on the surface but self-enhancing is kindness built upon denial, minimization, and distraction whereas self-compassion is kindness built on the foundations of openness and acceptance to the whole truth about ourselves. The difference between the kindness of self-compassion and the “kindness” of self-enhancement is as wide as the difference between the kindness of God that leads to repentance in Romans 2.4 and the “kindness of God” that minimizes the reality of sin as described in the Wisdom of Solomon 15.
Also, it is important to distinguish between self-compassion about our experience and then a recognition that there are consequences and outcomes of sin. Even as we may have self-compassion for our various weaknesses and foibles, then should not subtly be used to self-enhance our view of ourselves by making us resistant to recognize that there is harm, small or large, that our actions can and do cause. Self-compassion does not deny the reality that our behaviors create, good and bad, but these outcomes do not invalidate our whole lives, persons, and movement towards true life and shalom that our heart can take steps towards. Self-compassion as part of mindfulness is about awareness of the experiences that allow us to see how it interconnects with the rest of our life, not trying to shield ourselves from reality.
So, the practice of mindfulness is not against the Christian call to seek God’s righteousness: it is deeply consistent with holiness. While mindfulness is not inherently about seeing our sin, and can and fruitfully being used to address other struggles we have beyond moral struggles by paying attention to our own experiences with sustained attention, we can use mindfulness, formally and informally, as part of the practice of meditation upon God’s instruction as it speaks to ourselves and our hearts as we seek to let God show us where our hearts rejoice in His guidance and where we are resistant to it. Then, as we find ourselves in some sin, we can mindfully look at ourselves with self-compassion to let God’s Spirit show us the fork in the road of our hearts where we can move away from the world’s desires and towards a deepening desire for God’s will, where the Spirit will lead us to see how we can put to death the deeds of our (sinful) body. Yet, as we learn to have self-compassion because of God’s kindness, something else will emerge within us: we will begin to have a deeper compassion and kindness towards others than we previously did. As our sense of how we perceive others is caught up with how we have learned to see ourselves, the more we let God lead us to be kind to us with truth. Then, we will be able to speak and demonstrate kindness with truth towards others with greater skill, patience, and effectiveness. A self-compassion rooted in accepting the kindness of God’s love can lead us down the pathways towards perfecting God’s love within our own hearts.