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All in the mind? Psychology, Mindfulness and Christianity

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Anyone who has done yoga will be familiar with the idea of being “in the present moment”, or being “mindful of the now”. In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris defines mindfulness as “consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience, with openness, interest and receptiveness.”1 This concept comes directly from Buddhist philosophy—in fact, it is plucked straight from Step Seven of Buddhism’s Eight-Fold path. And this same mindfulness is currently one of the most popular therapeutic techniques in the Western discipline of Psychology.

In Buddhism, mindfulness has a spiritual purpose. Suffering is seen as arising out of attachment to this world, and so learning to detach is an important part of the path out of suffering and into a state of nirvana. The practice of non judgementally allowing thoughts and feelings to come and go, in the moment, without “attaching” to any one, is part of this spiritual journey and is central to a Buddhist philosophy of life.

Mindfulness arrived in Psychology primarily via Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn who, in the 1970s, influenced by the writings of a Buddhist monk, began using mindfulness mediations in his work with chronic pain sufferers. His Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program began to see significant results and 30 years of research later, mindfulness is now standard in most evidence based treatments of depression, stress and anxiety. These include Mindfulness based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (mCBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). These days mindfulness seems to be hailed as the panacea for every psychological disorder, from depression to insomnia to psychosis.

So what is actually going on in mindfulness? Are there non-Buddhist ways to understand its benefits? Some secular researchers note that it combines several long established psychological mechanisms.

1. Mindfulness encourages ‘metacognition’ – the capacity to notice what you are thinking.

This is not something most of us do naturally; instead, we tend to get ‘lost’ in our thoughts. However, if you can catch unhelpful or negative thoughts in the early stages of depression or anxiety this may help to ‘nip it in the bud’.

2. Mindfulness helps focus attention on neutral objects

For example, being mindful of your breath, or of food (slowing down to appreciate the aroma, taste, texture, colours, etc.) or indeed any beauty in nature, helps us to be less focused on negative internal states.

3. Mindfulness provides a type of exposure therapy for your own distressing feelings.

For most of us, when we feel sad or upset we then make a judgement about this and assume there must be something deficient or ‘wrong’ with ourselves or our lives. We may avoid aspects of life that evoke unpleasant feelings—even though they may be necessary! In contrast, mindfulness encourages us to ‘sit with’ difficult feelings and realise they are a normal part of every human being’s existence. Interestingly, the more we are exposed to negative feelings without struggling with them, the less their presence distresses us.

There is no doubt that mindfulness can create some positive physiological changes. It improves the immune system and calms the stress response. Learning to focus attention on breathing and simply being aware of, with acceptance, any thoughts or unpleasant emotions or bodily sensations as they come and go is a common and helpful technique. In therapy, it is used to help people who are struggling with specific depressing or anxiety-provoking thoughts to notice them and learn to ‘let them go’. Studies from the University of Oxford have shown that this skill can halve relapse rates for depressed patients when added to a normal CBT regime.

While mindfulness has been largely secularised for psychology, most books and mindfulness meditation recordings on the market do let certain Buddhist assumptions sneak in. Some are quite overtly Buddhist (e.g. those of Kabat-Zinn) while others require some analysis to see whether the reader or listener is being subtly taught a worldview with which they may actually not agree.

Mindfulness, Psychology and Christianity

Here are my thoughts, as a clinical psychologist, a Christian and daily practitioner of mindfulness, on four aspects of mindfulness that are worth considering,

Acceptance

The way in which mindfulness teaches us to accept the negatives as well as the positives of life can be very helpful. After all, it is good to make peace with the fact that we all are imperfect and that life is a rollercoaster, rather than struggle incessantly with unpleasant emotions and constantly berate ourselves for every mistake.

However, there is a sense in which by accepting our imperfection, we acknowledge that we are not the people we are meant to be. In Christian thinking, this includes an acknowledgment that we have fallen short of the standards of our creator. The Christian notion of God’s forgiveness of us despite our failures provides a profound foundation for self-acceptance. The other aspect of Christian thought that differs from Buddhism is the concept that the hardships and evils of this life are not the way the world was designed to be, and the world is heading towards a day when it will be fully healed and restored. People can therefore live in the tension of accepting the struggles of life while having hope for the future.

Truth

Most mindfulness based therapies, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, have a premise that we judge the helpfulness of our thoughts by their impact in our lives, not whether we deem them to be ‘truth’.

On the one hand, it is good to recognise that our imperfect, anxious minds often come up with inaccurate understandings of the world. After all, we all see life and ourselves through our own somewhat ‘dysfunctional’ filters and we do need to beware of passively accepting our own thinking.

However, it is possible to take this attitude so far that you end in relativistic thinking with no firm footing as to what you actually believe about life, and how to live it. Christians have a worldview that includes a personal God who decrees right from wrong according to what he says about what constitutes human flourishing. This often includes making judgments to discern what is best by invoking different criteria to assess our own thoughts such as, “Does this thought help me be who God wants me to be?” or “Does God reveal any objective ‘truth’ on this topic?”

Detachment

Many who regularly practice mindfulness report developing the ‘side effect‘ of a somewhat ‘detached’ emotional stance to the world. Buddhism certainly does espouse compassion as a virtue, but this can be at odds with the actual emotional impact of mindfulness practice. It is true that in non-Buddhist religions, including Christianity, not clinging too strongly to the impermanent things of this world is also seen as liberating. However, it is part of Christian spiritual growth to choose to be very attached in some aspects of life. For example, to have a real emotional engagement with God, an outrage at injustice and even at selfishness in our own psyche, and a deep empathy with those suffering, all require deep connection and passion rather than disengagement.

Present moment

The Buddhist privileging of slowing down into ‘the present moment ’ is a timely corrective in our overly busy and easily distracted lives. However, it is possible for this to be over emphasised and so forget the benefits of learning from our past. This is especially important in Christian thinking as the past events involving God’s interaction in world history transforms present reality and a sense of relationship with God and each other. In addition, hope for the future is also considered a profoundly important characteristic of the resilient human, whether it be setting goals in this world or hope for life after death.

Ecclesiastes is a wonderful book of the Bible that provides a sense of the balance of the seasons of life, and a freedom to enjoy God’s blessings in the present but also ponder the impact of both the past and the future. Many Christians who practice mindfulness report that as they slow down to appreciate a sunset or even their breakfast, they are filled with gratitude to God for these blessings and what in Buddhism is a state of ‘non judgement’ becomes a relational act of thankfulness.

It should also be pointed out that Christians through the ages have practiced meditative techniques that align quite closely with mindfulness, but with many of the above cautions accounted for. In the 13th Century, St Francis wrote of the importance of ‘letting go’ of thoughts that distract from God. The notion of slowing down to be still before God to prepare the mind for prayer is common in the Eastern church (for example, as recorded in a compilation of monks’ writings from 4th to 15th centuries known as the Philokalia). This state, known as Hesychia, is the result of the meditative practice of being mindful of God’s presence. This existed not in the vacuum of a focus on self but in the context of a church community committed to prayer.

It is important to recognise the Buddhist assumptions of the practice of mindfulness, but having done that, those of us with a different worldview need not throw the mindfulness baby out with the bathwater. Mindfulness can be very helpful, not only for those struggling with stress, depression, and anxiety, but for any of us. In our rushed society where mindlessly going through the motions of life is all too easy, being aware of our thoughts and feelings and slowing down to smell the roses can only be beneficial.

Leisa Aitken is a clinical psychologist who is currently doing her PhD

1. Russ Harris The Happiness Trap, Trumpeter Books, Boston, 2007.