by Rev. Dr. Daniel C. Wilburn
I just picked up a book on Sabbath that has a chapter on mindfulness (Sabbath, Wayne Muller, 2000). Mindfulness, along with a bevy of other hot buzzy topics (narcissism, EMDR, trauma, psychodynamic, acedia…) is current. Laurie and I looked at attending a continuing education class at Standford and one of the courses offered was Mindfulness. My counselor referred me to a book on trauma and one of the healing therapies is Mindfulness. Christians are calling for mindfulness toward God. It is a way of being attentive to God, a listening posture.
If you look up mindful on Wikipedia it will show that secular mindfulness has its basis in Buddhism, or at least borrows concepts from Buddhism. It sounds like a sub-part of Buddhist meditation. Some evangelical Christians are immediately put off by anything that suggests Buddhism, lumping it in with New Age self help. This is a good thing to be aware of. Any type of spirituality that makes the individual the center and end of attention isn’t Christian.
Christian spirituality is ultimately about others, because we are the embodied Gospel. Anthony the Great, (3rd/4th c) the father of the Egyptian desert fathers who lived the hermit ascetic life, did not believe his spirituality was simply about personal piety. After the first 20 years in the desert he went back in to the city and was “fully present” to others. Anthony dealt with his demons (inner and outer) and came forth a whole person. I suppose one could say he was “mindful.”
In my opinion, Mindful has a bit of a thin ring to it. That’s not a slam. But I think Christian meditation and contemplation are much richer and deeper, and have strong biblical precedent than how I understand secular mindfulness. Meditation and contemplation are biblical. How many times does a biblical figure have to go into the wilderness desert to hear God and sort out their calling and their garbage before evangelicals embrace “a lifestyle rhythm of quiet time?” Moses at the burning bush, Joshua takes off his shoes, David’s heart for God is formed alone in the hillsides with his sheep – and later in trouble, he flees again to the wilderness; Elijah flees to his cave and hears the still small voice, and Jesus is commissioned after the desert temptation – which the Spirit led him there! Call it what you want, but meditation and contemplation are spiritual disciplines necessary for transformation. I don’t know why evangelicals keep on thinking “that if I just take in some more information I will be transformed.” Information informs. Prayer forms and shapes the soul into Christlikeness.
Christians are expected to be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Romans 12). Transformation is normal and expected. Discipleship requires spiritual disciplines and practices and habits that shape us and return us to our true self created by God and then disfigured by selfish sin, which must be washed away by the blood of Christ. The cross of Jesus is our via, our way. It is a cruciform descent into submission. If the discipline of mindfulness does this, then good. If it is just self-help, then not so good, or at least it just isn’t Christian. The cross is our symbol of atonement. But atonement is not just abstract propositional truth necessary to keep your fanny out of hell. It is a life.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with secular meditation. I feel neutral about it just like I do about lots of secular things, money, entertainment, politics – all things that can be Christian or not. Often meditation and money are both used for selfishness or evil. Not good. But meditation and mindfulness are not magic or inherently evil. They can be Christian. Just because Muslims pray and believe the Creator forgives sin doesn’t mean as a Christian I now have to renounce prayer and atonement just because it is used by another faith.
We pick and choose. Be open. Be spiritually generous. I would rather be generous and sort through spiritual practices rather than fearful of mindfulness or meditation and how it might corrupt the soul and miss out on spiritual transformation.
We know how to pick and choose correctly. Halloween wasn’t a Christian holiday but Christians made it so. It’s the “eve of the hallowed ones” – November 1st, the day we remember the great cloud of witnesses going before us and praying for us (Hebrews 12). We chose a secular/pagan holiday and made it holy. Do the same with mindfulness.
I can make Mindfulness Christian. It is easy. It is now ‘being Mindful to God,’ Mindful to the voice of Spirit, listening prayer, solitude and silence. Elijah was mindful. Christ was mindful. We should be mindful.
I am currently working on a doctorate at Northern Seminary (Chicago) on the 4th century desert hermeneutic (application of scripture) as it applies to the suburban evangelical church.