Reclaiming Mindfulness

During dinnertime, my husband asked me to put my smartphone away. He explained that my sons and he often miss out on my presence and engagement at the dinner table, which he knows I cherish and value.

He was right. I was—I am—so easily addicted to the constant chatter on social media, frenetic checking of work and school emails, and instant messaging with friends. I do it all to stay present with the world, in my relationships, with my thoughts. Or, at least, that’s how I justify the propensity to veer into scattered inattentiveness.

For me, the antidote to this addictive tendency is mindfulness—awareness of the present moment, being still, and practicing meditation. Mindfulness employs breath meditation, focusing on one sensation at a time. A common mindfulness practice, for example, includes retreating from the busyness of everyday life or sitting quietly while led by someone to pay attention to one’s breathing, and approaching thoughts with a nonjudgmental attitude. A state of mindfulness results from such practice: a clearer, less-reactive mind attuned to the present moment and leading to neurological benefits such as elasticity in neuronal brain connectivity.

Of late, workplaces and popular culture have laid claim to mindfulness. It offers an antidote to the harried, frenzied, technology-enabled (arguably not enhanced) pace of our lives, meeting the desire and sense of longing within us to be still. And for believers, that desire goes hand in hand with knowing that the Lord is God.

Most use a secularized approach to mindfulness, but few know that its practice originated with Buddhist religious philosophy and is one of the habits of the eightfold path toward enlightenment and the attainment of nirvana. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, brought these ideas to the Western world in the 1970s with the development of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. His secularized intervention training helps patients suffering from chronic pain.

Clinical social workers and psychologists also employ mindfulness-based interventions to help clients decrease symptoms of depression, improve emotional self-regulation, and cope with everyday stresses. Even corporations such as Google include mindfulness training to help employees manage demands and performance expectations and raise productivity. Despite wider society’s embrace of mindfulness, many Christians remain skeptical of its use and application given the practice’s deep and obvious roots in Buddhism. Christianity Today blogger Amy Julia Becker critiqued the practice in a May 18, 2015, article, arguing it increases the temptation toward self-absorption rather than Christian love.

So what should Christians do with mindfulness?

First, Christ followers should know that mindfulness connects to our faith, going as far back as the medieval period with Christian mystics like Hildegard de Bingen, through the 1500s with Jesuit priest St. Ignatius and others, and into the modern day with Christian monastics such as Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington. Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, and breath meditation can be used to produce mindfulness. And the product of mindfulness rooted in Christian faith is increased spiritual and psychological capacity to hear His still small voice and respond to His call upon our lives.

As a social work scholar, my education and its application enable me to assist those in need, whether facing everyday challenges or life’s most difficult obstacles. My research evaluates the role of mindfulness from a Christian framework. I just concluded a study based on a six-week training session that I developed and delivered online through MP3 recordings, similar to Kabat-Zinn’s work, but incorporating Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina, and mindfulness interventions with a Christian twist. For instance, I ask the listener to first focus on breath, understanding that breath is a gift from God. Then I ask the person to move into a time of prayer that is less about supplication and more about connecting with God and paying attention to His voice. Lastly, I prompt the participant as we pause on each piece of the Lord’s Prayer in thoughtful meditation, asking the Holy Spirit to illuminate each word as the listener nonjudgmentally sifts through thoughts and attends to the Scriptures.

This study involved students from APU and another university as participants, divided into two groups. One received the Christian mindfulness training I described, the other did not, and I compared and measured their level of mindfulness—how present, attentive, and attuned they were—before and after the training. The group that received the training showed statistically significant, higher levels of mindfulness than the group that did not. This shows that Christian mindfulness practices are worthwhile, and there is an opportunity to continue to measure how this approach can enhance our spiritual, physical, and emotional lives, enabling us to be better servants of God. A mindful practice that is centered in our Christian faith is worth getting acquainted with. Or, for those who are already familiar, worth getting reacquainted with.

In situations that test us, amidst circumstances that elevate stress, and even in simple moments of busyness, creating moments of focused attentiveness that invite us to experience the truth of God’s active presence draws us closer to Him. A mindfulness practice sets our thoughts on God and allows us to open mental and spiritual space for listening. A mindful state means I am literally transformed by the renewing of my mind. Consider my tea-drinking practice employed in moments of stress or anxiety: As I hold my mug, I take a few breaths and attune to the warmth. I imagine I am that mug, and God’s hands surround me, reminding me of His love and grace. I sip the tea, paying attention to the warmth of the liquid as it slides down my throat and into my stomach. This mug of tea and my mindful drinking of it become a representation of His grace, which I physically ingest and can feel. My tea-drinking practice takes only a few minutes, but profoundly helps me be mindful of God’s presence in my life. Decreased stress, attunement to the present moment, a deep sense of God’s direction and presence in our lives—such are the gifts of mindfulness centered on God.