June 5, 2020

What Mindfulness Misses

In part one, we explored some of the background and foundational beliefs of mindfulness. Here, I want to contend that the deeper we dig into mindfulness, the more we begin to see the fundamental differences between its teaching and the teaching of Christianity.

Let’s focus on two major contrasting beliefs and solutions.

1. Our greatest problem.

Mindfulness says that our greatest problem is our mental suffering—negative thoughts, bad emotions, inner turmoil, and mental unrest. Mindfulness teaches that the reason for these struggles, and the biggest problem of all, is that we fail to see ourselves as “illusory”. In other words, we get caught up in our thoughts and we fail to let things go.

Therefore, the answer to the woes of life—according to mindfulness experts—is simply a change in mental perspective and a deep awareness that there is no “I”. Essentially, mindfulness teaches people to “cut through the illusion of self and negative thoughts or emotions”. Sam Harris, a secular mindfulness advocate, sums it up by contesting that mindfulness allows him to “escape the usual tides of psychological suffering—fear, anger, shame—in an instant” by cutting through the illusion of the self.

This may sound appealing. Who wouldn’t want to “escape psychological suffering”? But when we look at Scripture, we see that our greatest problem is not some psychological malady, but rather a total relational breakdown with our Creator. The heart of Christianity shows us that our biggest problem is our sin, which separates us from God. “The wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23)

Therefore, a change in attitude and perspective is not enough to address our deepest problem. It’s like trying to cure a terminal illness with painkillers. “The one who rejects the Son will not see life, instead the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36) No amount of meditation or positive thinking is able to fix the problem of sin. If we don’t have Jesus, we don’t have life.

2. Our greatest need.

Inner journey. Personal quest. Self-help. We probably hear these concepts on a daily basis. Mindfulness teaches us that because our greatest problem is external, our greatest need must therefore be internal. Answers are found by looking within. Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness is “ultimately a radical act of trust and faith in yourself”. Doesn’t it make sense, therefore, why the world (especially atheists) are so comfortable with mindfulness? It essentially says, “I am my own saviour. I have no need for God. I can fix myself.”

Can you see how the fundamental teaching of mindfulness is, at its core, utterly dangerous? Looking within ourselves will not only leave us self-focused and endlessly burdened but, ultimately, it leads to Hell.

The gospel teaches the polar opposite. Our greatest problem is internal—our sin—rather than something external. Therefore, our greatest need is external. We need help that comes from outside ourselves. We need a Saviour. Thankfully, we have one in Jesus Christ. The only true remedy is found in his death and resurrection. The Bible says it is “by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5; emphasis added) Doesn’t this offer so much more hope? We do not and cannot rely on our own mindfulness plans, programmes, and techniques. All we can do is come to Jesus—“The one who believes in the Son has eternal life.” (John 3:36)

Only Through Jesus

Maybe you are thinking, Yes, I agree with all that. I know that my biggest problem is sin, and my greatest need is Jesus. But mindfulness still helps me deal with the stresses of life. Well, I don’t doubt that. As Christians, some of the principles of mindfulness can challenge us to take more time out to stop, be still, and meditate on God’s Word.

The body awareness and breathing techniques are not necessarily sinful in and of themselves, and may genuinely help to calm your anxious mind. But we must remember that this is only a temporary fix. It is not the answer. Mindfulness can never deliver what it promises to achieve—Nirvana (the end of suffering). In fact, no matter how peaceful you may feel after attending a mindfulness course, meditating, or doing yoga, it can never provide you with real, lasting peace for your soul. This will only be found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As one of the prayers in The Valley of Vision so eloquently puts it:

“Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy,
cast off that I might be brought in,
tormented that I may be comforted.”

The Better Story

Mindfulness tells us that suffering is only an illusion, and something that should not be dwelt on. The Bible tells us that our worries, anxieties, and burdens are not merely an illusion. They are real, and they are known by God.

The comforting words of Jesus in John 16:33 show us that Jesus knows, sees, and understands our pain; “In this world you will have trouble . . .”—but—the verse goes on to say; “take heart”.

Why? Because the trouble is all an illusion? Because focusing on your toes will help you forget your troubles? Because you can learn to train your mind to not be controlled by trouble? No! Because Jesus has overcome the world! What rock-solid hope. Our perspective does need to change, but this is not done by trying to detach ourselves from life’s troubles. Instead, it changes as we focus on God, grow in relationship with Him, and remind ourselves of the care and love He has for us.

Mindfulness tells us not to dwell on the past or focus on the future because they have no real meaning and are just a creation of our minds. The Bible tells us we have a real past and a real future, which affects the present in a very real way.

As believers, we must look to the past, not with shame and guilt, but with thankfulness for what God has rescued us from. Once we were alienated from Him, living in the dark, and spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1–5). But through God’s great grace and mercy, He has made us alive in Christ Jesus.

We must also look forward to the hope that is to come. We have an inheritance waiting for us in heaven which is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading!” (1 Pet. 1:4). One day we will see Jesus face to face, “no more mourning, crying, pain” (Rev. 21:4) Sin and death will be defeated.

Mindfulness tells us we will find peace by living in the present moment. The Bible tells us we will find peace not in the present moment, but in the Eternal God who sustains us in every moment.

Be Present

Something we can learn from mindfulness is how to be present. We all know this is something that doesn’t come naturally to us. We live busy and distracted lives. How hard is it for us to take time out of our days to examine our thoughts and feelings? How often do we spend time in honest self-reflection?

I think many of us cling to distractions because we know deep down that if we gave ourselves time and space, some pretty dark, deep-rooted stuff may rise to the surface. As the book Emotionally, Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero suggests; “Most of us, in our more honest moments, will admit there are deep layers beneath our day-to-day awareness. Only about 10% of the iceberg is visible to the eye. But the roots of who we are continue unaffected and unmoved.”

If there’s anything we can learn from mindfulness, it should be this: We must slow down. This isn’t just secular advice. No, the Bible commands us to “be still” (Ps. 46:10), “examine ourselves” (2 Cor. 13:15) and to “meditate on the word day and night” (Ps. 1:2). Listen to what J.I Packer says in Knowing God:

“Meditation is a lost art today, and Christian people suffer grievously from their ignorance of the practice.” However, biblical stillness, reflection, and meditation is not the same as mindfulness. “It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God.”

Faithful God

As we learn to quieten our minds and “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5), our end goal is God. The purpose of this quietness isn’t primarily peace of mind or the absence of troubles, but rather it is a deeper awareness, knowledge, and love of God, which in turn helps us understand and know ourselves better.

For example, in Matthew 6, Jesus tells us to “look at the birds of the air” (Matt 6:26). Mindfulness would stop there and tells us this is where peace is found. However, Jesus speaks a better story and explains why we should consider the birds: “your Heavenly Father feeds them”. We consider the birds in order to stand in awe of God. We dwell in the present, take time to consider nature, our bodies, our breath—to widen our eyes to our Heavenly Father’s character and provision. Leading us to take our gaze off ourselves and “seek first the Kingdom of God”. Only then will we find true peace.

I hope this leaves you with a better understanding of mindfulness and the good intentions it seeks to provide, alongside a dissatisfaction of the surface-level, momentary, and faint hope it actually offers. And in comparison, I hope you see the deep, eternal, and rich hope we have in Jesus. Let us be thankful for the true words of God in the Bible that give us concrete promises as an anchor for the storms of life. And let us mindfully “consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up.” (Heb. 12:3)

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