In this busy world we live in we are bombarded with information that our minds are constantly processing. This information, or collection of thoughts, can interfere with our jobs, relationships, health, and, more importantly, interfere with our relationship with God.
This issue is nothing new to the world, or to Christians. John Wesley discussed the issue in a sermon entitled “Wandering Thoughts” (Sermon 41). Wesley was addressing an issue concerning Christian perfection and Paul’s command that “we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2Cor. 10:5b). This issue was disconcerting to some of Wesley’s parishioners in that they were unsuccessful in controlling their thoughts. If this issue is as true today as it was then, how should a Christian address wandering thoughts? One answer is to incorporate a Christian form of mindfulness into one’s daily life.
Mindfulness has been a hot topic in popular magazines, newspapers, and books over the last decade. Mindfulness can be described as “bringing one’s complete attention to the present moment on a moment-to-moment basis” (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999, p. 68) and as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). Over the past decade mindfulness has seen an overwhelming acceptance in Western culture. It is being taught in schools, businesses, athletic clubs, wellness centers, doctor’s offices, churches, and in counseling offices throughout North America today.
It appears the cultural acceptance of mindfulness has been due to its substantial psychological benefits. Research results conclude that the practice of mindfulness can result in one or more of the following benefits: reduced rumination, reduced stress, improved working memory, improved focus and concentration, reduction in emotional reactivity, increase cognitive flexibility, and increase in relationship satisfaction, just to name a few. With all these benefits it is hard to argue with the presupposition that by practicing mindfulness a person will resolve the issue of wandering thoughts. However, even with these benefits how should Christians approach the practice of mindfulness?
It has been debated by Christian psychologists and theologians that mindfulness promotes a philosophy that is counter to Christianity. Some of the concerns mentioned by some in the Christian community include:
(1) mindfulness directs people to be more self-focused versus God-focused;
(2) mindfulness postulates an acceptance of every thought and feeling, which has been perceived as living without ownership or conviction of one’s thoughts;
(3) mindfulness is about transcending selfish desires rather than relying on God’s grace and mercy, and finally
(4) there is no room for the Holy Spirit in a transcendent self.
For Christians these are all valid concerns and should be taken seriously. However, most of these concerns are based on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and not the present clinical version of mindfulness.
The origins of mindfulness can be found in Eastern religions. Mindfulness is considered the seventh practice in the Eight Fold Path in Buddhism. A significant contributor to the introduction of mindfulness into Western psychology is Jon Kabatt-Zinn. He and his colleagues developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the early 1980s to address the problem of people suffering from present stress due to past trauma. Kabatt-Zinn “operationalized” mindfulness by stripping its Buddhist spiritual content with the intent to maintain its psychological and neurological benefits.
Since the introduction of MBSR there have been several more psychotherapies introduced (i.e., Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Acceptance Commitment Therapy) that rely on mindfulness as a foundational component to effective treatment. Each one of these therapies describes mindfulness as a cognitive process rather than a specific religious practice. However, it is clear in the structure of these therapies that the mind is the primary catalyst for change and not a specific deity. Therefore, can Christians practice mindfulness without adopting a self-focused philosophy?
An approach to answering this question is to ask the question, “Can a Christian have an effective relationship with the Holy Spirit if they struggle with wandering thoughts?” It has been my experience as a psychotherapist that my clients are more self-focused when they are struggling with wandering or intrusive thoughts. They also complain that it is difficult to pray or to “hear God”. Through integrating mindfulness into my practice I have been able to see my clients be more God-focused rather than self-focused. How does this work? My clients learn how to be more present-minded and act on the thoughts that are more aligned with their Christian values.
The Christian tradition has a rich history of models for prayer and meditation—lectio divina, centering prayer, and contemplative prayer. However, these practices are limited by the specific time-frame in which they take place. Mindfulness is a state of mind that goes beyond meditation. It requires a constant awareness and willingness to experience internal and external events while simultaneously choosing, or acting, on the thoughts that are more relevant to the moment. In a Christian context, this can be understood as “praying continuously” therefore directing a person’s focus and attention on the Holy Spirit rather than oneself, opening the door for a person to surrender the disturbing thoughts over to God.
Mindfulness has demonstrated some significant psychological benefits for the person struggling with wandering thoughts. It has been my experience that mindfulness can also play a significant role in improving a Christian’s connection with the Holy Spirit.