Whether it be TV, news, podcasts, apps, offices, doctor’s surgeries, or businesses—‘mindfulness’ is everywhere we look.
Research shows that the mindfulness industry is worth around £1 billion, and analysts of the ‘meditation market’ forecast an 11.4% average yearly growth in the United States alone. There are nearly 100 mindfulness apps now available, the top being “Headspace”, which recently raised £24 million and has been downloaded over 6 million times. Products and wearable gadgets such as ‘Muse’—the connected headband costing £250 that measures brain activity during meditation—are becoming more and more popular.
From this information alone, it’s clear that there is a widespread and growing popularity of mindfulness in the West. So, what actually is mindfulness? According to its dictionary definition, mindfulness is “the practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
According to the NHS website, Professor Mark Williams (former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre) says: “Mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.” Additionally, we are beginning to see that professionals—such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE)—are recommending mindfulness as a way to prevent depression.
MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), which was founded in the late 70’s, is an eight-week intensive mindfulness training programme that attempts to change the responses to pain and reduce overall suffering and stress. This is done through a combination of meditation, body awareness, breathing techniques and yoga, as well as exploring patterns of behaviour, thinking, feelings, and actions. The vast majority of people I know who have seen a doctor due to poor mental health have been recommended to attend this mindfulness course.
The growing popularity of mindfulness warrants careful examination. Before I looked into mindfulness, all I could tell you about it was that it had some roots in Buddhism. From this alone I would have written it off as unbiblical and dangerous. However, when pushed, I could tell you little if anything of the teachings and beliefs at the root of mindfulness. I’ve spoken with various people about the topic, and it’s clear that there are a range of opinions—some view it with suspicion, while others embrace it wholeheartedly.
As Christians, it’s important that we learn how to address this topic biblically. Firstly, we need to understand people’s beliefs then reinterpret them in light of God’s Word. In other words, we need to allow God to determine and speak truth rather than simply touting our own opinions.
Despite the varying opinions about it, mindfulness does recognise that the world is full of hurting, broken, confused, and distracted individuals who are searching for relief from mental anguish and pain. As Christians, we can affirm these sentiments. And we can go further, because the Bible tells us why the world is in this condition. Mindfulness, on the other hand, can only provide a surface-level solution.
Enthusiasts who identify ‘distraction’ as the dominant condition of our age therefore see mindfulness as the most logical response. The sheer breadth of the stated goal of mindfulness may surprise you, but has remained the same over the years: the end of suffering. This is otherwise known as Nirvana, the final goal of Buddhism, which Buddha supposedly attained through the techniques of mindfulness.
The deeper you look at mindfulness, the more you see the connection with directing attention towards a ‘higher purpose’ to gain ‘spiritual freedom’. Therefore, mindful practices involve the focusing of attention on the higher purposes of one’s life. For the Buddhist, this would mean reflecting on the goal of enlightenment, or the person of Buddha. The spiritual dimension cannot be easily removed from mindfulness, and neither can the deep roots of Eastern philosophy.
While I am sure you might be spotting some red flags, I was surprised to find that, for some people at least, there were impressive benefits and testimonies which made me start to see why mindfulness is becoming so popular. The benefits are said to include: improved mood and level of happiness and wellbeing; reduced anxiety; prevention and treatment for depression; improved working memory; and reduced automatic bias towards race and age. It is said to promote kindness, non-judgement, patience, trust, acceptance, and letting go.
One story I read was about a former veteran who returned home from war in 1971, but unfortunately found the war still raged within his head. He was diagnosed with PTSD, and 46 years later, although he never completely freed himself from PTSD, is convinced that mindful meditation saved his life.
So, with the rising popularity and influence of mindfulness and the awareness of its roots, how should Christians respond?
Mindfulness is, in its simplest form, attempting to teach our wandering minds to be still. On the surface, it can seem biblical. We know Psalm 46:10 tell us to “be still and know that I am God”. Elsewhere in the Bible, we are told to “meditate” (Ps. 19:14) and “set our minds on things that are above” (Col. 3:2). Whilst Christians may be able to learn some things from mindfulness, there are fundamental differences between it and Christianity. These differences simply cannot be ignored. We will explore this in part two of this blog.
It could be that you (or others you know) have been helped by the techniques of mindfulness. I don’t want to dismiss this, but what I do want to do is shows how God’s Word offers a better story. If we were to ask, with the Psalmist, “From where does my help come?” mindfulness would say: “Look within!” But God says: “Look up.” “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth!” (Ps.121:1–2). Look out for part two as we explore these ideas further.