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I have been suffering from recurrent depression and my doctor has recommended I try Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Someone in my church has said I shouldn’t touch it with a bargepole because mindfulness has Buddhist roots. Apparently it also involves meditation, and in meditation you are trying to empty your mind, aren’t you? Isn’t that dangerous?
I’m desperate for help – can you offer me any guidance?
Dear Concerned Christian,
You are right! There is some confusion and caution within the church when it comes to mindfulness. It is important to bring some clarity into this area so you can make an informed decision.
Mindfulness is our universal human capacity for awareness and attention. This capacity needs to be distinguished from the mindful awareness or meditative practices that help us develop this innate ability to be mindful. A doctor in the USA called Jon Kabat-Zinn who pioneered the use of mindfulness within medicine in the 1970s, through what he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), pointed out that saying mindfulness is Buddhist is like saying that gravity is British because Isaac Newton discovered it!
All the main faiths discovered the gravity of awareness and attention very early on and developed different forms of mindful or meditative practice. What is more recent is that the secular world, represented by cognitive psychology and neuroscience, among others, has become interested in mindfulness.
Because mindfulness is our universal human capacity for attention and awareness, Christians, Buddhists and secular psychologists can engage with mindfulness in different ways and with different intentions.
The main intention within secular psychology is to use mindfulness for health – in the treatment of depression, anxiety, stress, chronic pain and many other conditions. There is a lot of evidence-based research supporting its efficacy in these areas. Because the pioneering psychologists who developed MBSR and MBCT want their treatments to be widely accepted, they have worked very hard to separate mindfulness and its practices from its religious roots. Generally in secular psychology mindfulness is defined as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally’.
Christians can use these secular psychologies with the intention of using mindfulness for health. The meditative or mindful awareness practices (MAPs), although originally taken from Buddhism, are neutral – anyone can use them. These practices are ‘reality-focused’ practices helping you to develop an awareness of your inner life of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. In fact new MAPs are being developed which are not dependent on Buddhist roots.
When it comes to emptying our mind neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us it is impossible. Our multiple brain is constantly sending messages to our mind. In meditation within mindfulness you are not trying to empty your mind, even if it were possible. What you are trying to do is something else entirely.
How our minds work in relation to our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations is fascinating but we often operate without a clear map of what goes on inside us. A number of internal capacities are involved when we are practising mindfulness. If I say to you, ‘Tell me what you are thinking and feeling,’ you can tell me. The key question to ask is, ‘How can you do that?’
Human beings are the only animal that can observe their own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. This capacity is a form of awareness, sometimes called ‘meta-awareness’. We are cultivating this capacity when we practise mindfulness.
What you are doing is moving out of the thinking part of your mind into your senses and your capacity for awareness.
Alongside our capacity for meta-awareness, our five senses are streams of awareness within us, although we usually don’t think of them in that way – and we often take them for granted! Daniel Siegel, an interpersonal neurobiologist who works with mindfulness, says that we actually have eight senses. The sixth sense is our ability to become aware of what is going on in our body. We know when we are in pain, or feeling tired or elated. The seventh sense is our ability to become aware of our thoughts and feelings. The eighth sense is our ability to be aware of what other people are thinking and feeling.
When we are meditating in mindfulness we are switching from our normal analytical thinking – what has been called our ‘doing’ mental gear – to our awareness within, or ‘being’ mental gear. This switch is sometimes described as a move from our narrative self to our experiential self.
Why is this important? Knowing this helps us understand the central insight of mindfulness, whether from a Christian, Buddhist or secular psychological perspective. According to Christian contemplative writer Martin Laird, the key question to ask when we stand at the doorway of the present moment, which is at the heart of being mindful, is, ‘Are you your thoughts and feelings?’
This is a very important question. Many people think they are their thoughts and feelings. They are fused to their thoughts and feelings, totally identified with them. Psychologists call this ‘cognitive fusion’. In other words, they look at life from their thoughts and feelings. If these thoughts and feelings are anxious and depressed, that is what you become.
The mindful awareness practices help us to realise that we are not our thoughts and feelings, that they are passing events in our minds. In this realisation we are able to notice our thoughts and feelings and let them go. We don’t avoid them experientially and suppress them; we face them, accept them and let them go. We have switched from looking at life from our thoughts and feelings to looking at our thoughts and feelings. We can express this shift by saying, ‘I am having a depressed thought,’ rather than, ‘I am depressed.’ This is learning cognitive defusion.
There is a lot more that can be said about mindfulness, but if we understand the central insight that we are not our thoughts and feelings and that we can learn to defuse from afflictive thoughts and feelings, like depression and anxiety, then we can find the motivation to practise mindfulness.
Deciding our intention
It is important to decide our intention. I use secular mindfulness to step out of anxiety, as mindfulness for health. You can use secular mindfulness as a Christian to begin the journey out of depression. The meditative or mindful awareness practices actually change the structure and activity of the brain for the better, because of the neuroplasticity of our brains. It works!
I am also looking at the biblical and historical roots of Christian mindfulness. A Christian distinctive would be mindfulness of God, just as God is mindful of us (Psalm 8). There are Christian mindful awareness or meditative practices that have come out the history of the church through its contemplative strand.
The final key thing is to know that mindfulness can only be understood from the inside out. We are so stuck in the ‘doing’ mental gear that it is only practising mindfulness that enables us to see that we have a ‘being’ mental gear, an experiential self, streams of awareness within us that enable us to move from a bad place to a good place, from dry aridity to a place of bubbling creativity.
I hope this gives you enough to make an informed decision about whether to use mindfulness for health.
This piece is in the latest Accord magazine published by the Association of Christian Counsellors http://www.acc-uk.org/index.asp and Shaun will be speaking at their 2015 Conference
As well as being a trained counsellor and psychotherapist, Shaun Lambert is Senior Minister of Stanmore Baptist Church. He is currently researching a PhD in mindfulness from biblical, historical and psychological perspectives. Shaun is the author of A Book of Sparks – A study in Christian MindFullness, and His latest book is a children’s fantasy novel entitled Flat Earth Unroofed: a tale of mind lore, which has mindfulness woven into it.