Is Mindfulness Christian?
In his article, “Is ‘Mindfulness’ Christian?” (Book Reviews, Life & Ministry 16, Oct 7, 2016) Ian Paul, an Anglican minister, enthusiastically reviews the booklet written by fellow Anglican cleric, Tim Stead, Mindfulness and Prayer, in the Grove Spirituality series. Stead devotes his booklet and much of his ministry to normalizing for Christians a Buddhist technique of spirituality known as Mindfulness. Is Mindfulness Christian? Ian Paul enthusiastically answers, “yes!”
Rev. Paul assures us that the values of Mindfulness are found in the Bible. According to him, the deep thinking found in Mindfulness is exactly what the prodigal son does. He “comes to his senses”: “Paying attention is simply a skill which needs practicing.” He assures us that we must not fear Mindfulness, for it is now found in mainstream clinical and psychological contexts [though to think such fields are neutral is surely a mistake]. Rev. Paul assures us that Mindfulness is a totally harmless technique for slowing down to a state of lucidity in order to enter into God’s presence in prayer.
We should, says Rev. Paul,
“note how similar some of the techniques of Mindfulness are to those suggested by the great mystics who have explored contemplative forms of prayer. My own inspirations have been Teresa of Avila and the Eastern Orthodox Jesus Prayer tradition.”
[Unfortunately it can be shown that those medieval mystics and their spiritual techniques were dangerously heretical, adopting a similar Buddhist form of contemplative spirituality, namely non-dual neo-Platonism. That is another, long story (see Pam Frost, “The Interface of Medieval Mysticism and Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation,” truthXchange.com, 2016)].
In raising this question of Mindfulness, we must not be ignorant of what has transpired in Western history since the 1960s—to which not enough mindful attention is paid. Many Westerners have turned to Eastern meditation, including, in particular, yoga, which is a subtle but clear introduction to Hindu spirituality. So in the West, yoga (Hinduism) gives us healthy bodies; and Mindfulness (Buddhism) gives us sound minds. But what is going on? Are we, in the church, like Westerners in general, being captured by alien spiritual influences? Philip Goldberg says yes. In his important book, American Veda: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West (NY: Harmony Books, 2010), in light of the great success of yoga and Mindfulness, he concludes that Americans (and we can include the West in general) have been deeply brainwashed. In Canada, Mindfulness or MindUP, is imposed upon children in state schools as normative practice, without parental permission. Doubtless without realizing it, the West has bought into the Indian worldview philosophy of Advaita, which means “not two” (“non-duality” or Oneism). This notion of existence is assumed to be the truth, so all distinctions are erased and oneness rules. Goldberg, who is convinced this is a good thing, is surely onto something, since we are seeing a constant and determined eradication of the “binary,” or twoness, especially in the area of sexuality and spirituality. Our world is seduced by the utopian idealism of oneness or unity, both politically and religiously.
Behind these Eastern spiritual techniques is a Oneist worldview in conflict with biblical spirituality, which I call Twoism. Twoism is the biblical insistence on the truth of distinctions—good and evil, true and false, male and female, God and creation. The Eastern worldview claims that by “going within” we find our inner divinity, so our problem is not sin but ignorance. We are ignorant of the god within, the god we actually all possess. God is not separate from us, He is within us. We are god. So this Eastern worldview advocates spiritual meditation and altered forms of consciousness to focus on the self, precisely to gain gnosis, knowledge of the god within. There is no distinction from God. We are god. We must ask whether these methods, yoga and Mindfulness, born in Eastern Oneism, can be scrubbed of their religious content.
In its essence, Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept and practice—not at all neutral—that has a profoundly religious goal. As my friend Marcia Montenegro, once a practicing Buddhist, says, it is
“an outlook on life and reality that ideally results from a type of meditation designed to cultivate detachment. Detachment in Buddhism is necessary, because Buddhism teaches that attachment to this world, to your thinking, to your identity as an individual self, and other attachments, such as desires, keep you in the cycle of rebirth… Mindfulness is often defined as a moment-by-moment nonjudgmental awareness of the present.”
In a subtle way, this seemingly harmless, stress-relieving technique actually promotes “detachment” of the self from created reality, which is marked by past and present, and by issues of good and evil. Mindfulness thus detaches us from the Creator behind that creation. It is like telling a fish to detach from the reality of water. Doing so has consequences. Eventually, Eastern practices lead people into an Eastern worldview. The goal of such practices is a particular spiritual experience, “a state of blissful perception that a Unitive Void is the highest reality beyond the illusion of material existence.” [See the article cited above by Pam Frost].
If this is not happening in the practice of “Christian” Mindfulness, why bother calling it Mindfulness? In contemporary Mindfulness, notions of creational reality and moral responsibility are eliminated from the stress equation. Why not speak rather of biblical meditation or self-examination, as the Puritans did? Full-on Buddhist Mindfulness seeks ultimate liberation from the life-cycle of human earthly existence by “detachment,” by denying one’s “creatureliness” and becoming a bodiless, timeless, amoral spirit. I am convinced that the practice of Mindfulness stress release will open the mind of Westerners to Eastern thinking—to an ultimately godless solution of creation-denying self-liberation that produces a soul-destroying false peace. In addition, Christians will also begin to think that interfaith is the right thing for the church, since all religions are practicing a similar form of spirituality.
John Kabat Zin is a Zen Buddhist professor of Medicine who has popularized the use of Mindfulness in the medical field. He sees it as neutral system, useful for all religions. He notes that rabbis, priests and imams who use Mindfulness have discovered a deepened experience of their own faith. He does not say how much it radically changed their views of their own faith.
Instead of this stress-reducing “mindlessness” we need the reassuring presence of our Savior, Christ, who takes away our genuine guilt and gives us real spiritual stress relief. We need the mind of Christ. The Prodigal son “came to himself” not by detaching himself from his pig-sty circumstances, but by coming to the realization that he was a sinner, longing for the joys of reconciliation with a loving Father. His stress departed in the full embrace of his father’s arms. Such is the path for all true believers: realistic evaluation, repentance, faith and new birth! Was Jesus practicing Mindfulness at crucial moments in his life, as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane or as he stood before Pilate? Definitely not! Jesus was fully in the reality of his suffering, which he bore for us. He was not experiencing a mystical trance to stay disconnected from reality. It is because he bore the brunt of the Father’s judgment that he was able to bring us peace. The peace of Christ comes through his objective, redemptive work, as he faced evil in our place and triumphed over it. Another “Rev.” Paul—the Apostle Paul— assures us: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). Christian, if this does not relieve your stress, nothing will.