Visit a yoga class, take any course on psychology or counseling, or crack open any “self-help” book these days, and you’ll be introduced to and/or encouraged to practice “mindfulness.” You may even be given a list of benefits for engaging in this practice, such as stress reduction, becoming more attuned to your body, and improving your focus.
But what is mindfulness, really? And is it biblical for Christians to practice it?
Despite the Bible’s numerous references to mindfulness and meditation (Gen 24:63; Josh 1:8; Neh 9:17; Ps 1:2, 19:14, 49:3, 63:6; Ps 77; Ps 104:34; Ps 119; Ps 143:5, 145:5; Daniel 2:30; Zeph 2:7; Heb 2:6; 1 Peter 5:8 – just to name a few), for some Christians, mindfulness and meditation are still linked primarily to eastern or polytheistic religion and therefore considered taboo. While several eastern and polytheistic religions do emphasize meditation and mindfulness, the Bible clearly provides examples of God’s people engaging in these practices as well. Often these practices in Scripture are used in attempts to draw closer to God and to know Him better.
So, mindfulness – what is it? There are several definitions out there, but I’ll share with you the two that I like best! In their article on the importance of emotional intelligence alongside mindfulness, Daniel Goleman and Matthew Lippincott describe mindfulness as: “a method of shifting your attention inward to observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions without interpretation or judgment.” According to therapist Russ Harris, mindfulness basically boils down to:
“paying attention [in the present moment] with flexibility, openness, and curiosity.”
What can you gain from practicing mindfulness?
Eden Kozlowski writes: “mindfulness teaches how to quiet the incessant dialogue that truly ravages our brain to then bring forth clarity and calm…When our brains are clearer, so are our decisions, our choices, our priorities. We are also more able to follow our hearts with empathy, compassion and openness as our very analytical minds have been given the opportunity to take a back seat.”
How does this show up in the Bible?
1 Peter 5:8 says to be “sober-minded and watchful,” since the “devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Paying attention to our inner experience can help us identify when we’re being tempted by sin or being lured away from God. Even more, it can alert us to primary emotions (such as shame) that we’re experiencing that often lead us to flee from God’s presence and/or disengage in our relationships with others. Mindfulness enables us to be more honest with ourselves, God, and others, as we consider what is really going on inside of us in the moment. If we choose not to be mindful and to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings instead, we may find ourselves coping in ways that drive us further away from God and the person He created us to be. Some examples: addiction (of all kinds), attempts to control (my personal go-to defense mechanism!), sarcasm, shutting down, self-righteousness, “spiritualizing” (“God tells me not to be anxious, so I will ignore these anxious feelings even if they’re still there”), etc.
Leisa Aitken writes: “mindfulness encourages us to ‘sit with’ difficult feelings and realise they are a normal part of every human being’s existence.” As Christians (and as human beings in general), we know we will encounter suffering because of sin. Suffering is inevitable and unavoidable.
But, mindfulness gives us information. When we experience a particularly distressing emotion, we tend to feel it in our bodies. Kim Gaines Eckert provides the following example: “When I feel as if I can’t take another minute of something, I can ask myself what’s going on in my body. My eyes are squinting and strained; my chest is tight and my hands are curled into a fist. I can take a deep breath and remember that physical sensations are simply that.”
So, where does mindfulness-as-information show up in the Bible?
Paul writes to the church at Corinth in 2 Corinthians 2:4: “For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” Paul made a difficult decision not to visit the church again, and he was aware of and present with the pain of that decision. His great level of anguish indicated his great love and care for the church.
Mindfulness can turn us back to Jesus, maybe even more so than if we apply a spiritual or theological “treatment” to our pain. Eckert writes: “Just because I feel hopeless in a dark moment doesn’t mean my situation is hopeless. My body alerts me to painful feelings that I can then lay at the feet of Jesus. Lord Jesus, I pray as I breathe in through my nose. Help me, I pray as I release the air through my mouth and slowly and intentionally uncurl my fingers.” The more honest and aware we are about the difficult thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing in the present moment, the more open we are to receive God’s comforting presence and to experience authenticity in our relationship with Christ.
Where does this show up in the Bible?
In Psalm 77, Asaph is very aware of his body in the present moment. He references crying aloud (v. 1), stretching out his hand (v. 2), moaning (v. 3), and even the Lord holding his eyelids open in verse four (how’s that for mindfulness?)! He’s very honest about where he’s at emotionally and spiritually, even questioning God’s love and character in verses seven through nine. It takes him getting to the point of questioning God’s goodness in order for him to then remember God’s goodness and faithfulness in the past. The psalm doesn’t tell us if his anguish and suffering are completely relieved, but at the end of the psalm, it’s clear that he is reminded of God’s power and His redemption.
In Deuteronomy 30, God tells His people that they will “call to mind” the blessing and the curse, and return to Him. We also see where a lack of mindfulness can drive us away from God. In Nehemiah 9:17, the people “were not mindful” of what God had done for them, and sought security by appointing a human leader. They sought to avoid their feelings of insecurity and fear by implementing a quick fix, instead of acknowledging these feelings, and recalling what they knew to be true about God.
I barely touched on the Psalms, but there are several passages that address the many benefits of meditation. I encourage you to conduct your own study if you still feel skeptical. Psalm 119 is a good starting point.
How can you practice mindfulness and being present if you’re brand new to the concept?
One of my favorite mindfulness activities involves candy! Put a Starburst or small piece of chocolate in your mouth and set a timer for a minute. Pay attention to that piece of candy in your mouth using your senses. What flavors can you taste? How does it feel against your tongue? Your teeth? The roof of your mouth? What can you smell? How does it feel as you swallow? Paying attention to the candy in this way, not only increases your mindfulness of the present moment, it usually prolongs your enjoyment of the experience!
You can also try a simple breathing exercise. This activity is adapted from a textbook on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a mode of therapy that emphasizes mindfulness, by Russ Harris:
“Take ten slow, deep breaths. Focus on breathing out as slowly as possible until your lungs completely empty—and then allow them to refill by themselves. Notice the sensations of your lungs emptying. Notice them refilling. Notice your rib cage rising and falling. Notice the gentle rise and fall of your shoulders… Simultaneously notice your breathing and your body. Then look around the room and notice what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and feel.”
If you’re looking for a guide for your mindfulness practice, there are apps for that! I love the free app, Calm. You get to pick a nice background scene (like a beach, mountaintop, rain, etc), and can choose guided breathing exercises for various amounts of time. Headspace is another free app that can help guide your mindfulness practice.
It’s important to remember when you’re practicing mindfulness (especially in the beginning) that it is completely normal for thoughts to wander during mindfulness exercises. Don’t beat yourself up when this happens! Just come back to your breath (or candy) and finish your exercise. The point is not to have no thoughts, but to be present in the moment.
Aitken, L. (2013). All in the mind? Psychology, mindfulness, and Christianity. Centre for Public Christianity. Retrieved from: https://publicchristianity.org/library/all-in-the-mind-psychology-mindfulness-and-christianity#.VOvCofnF_09
Eckert, K.G. (2016). Christian Mindfulness. Christianity Today. Retrieved from: http://www.todayschristianwoman.com/articles/2016/march-30/christian-mindfulness.html?start=1
Goleman, D., & Lippincott, M. (2017). Without emotional intelligence, mindfulness doesn’t work. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2017/09/sgc-what-really-makes-mindfulness-work
Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy-to-read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Kozlowski, E. (2013). Can Christians practice mindfulness? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eden-kozlowski/mindfulness-and-religion_b_3224505.html