Mindfulness Meditation - Friend or Foe?
Mindfulness meditation has come under some scrutiny recently, despite all the scientific evidence supporting its benefits. I've heard that several Christian ministers have suggested that mindfulness is a religious practice and not appropriate for Christians ... I have taught this secular practice to hundereds of people over the last 10 years, and have seen it benefit so many. I'm sad that because of misinformation, misunderstanding, and perhaps fear, someone would suggest to others that it should not be practiced, despite the fact that it is a very useful, stress-reduction tool. I'd like to address the comments I've heard from critics and discuss some facts about mindfulness meditation.
A few of the claims:
Mindfulness meditation is a primarily a Buddhist practice and that Buddhists believe in "non-attachment." Christians need to be attached to Christ. (Misunderstanding to be clarified below)
Buddhists believe in eliminating all desire, and Christians need to maintain a desire to be close to God. (Misunderstanding, explanation below).
Mindfulness meditation “empties you” and puts you into a state similar to hypnosis. The meditator’s critical thinking and judgment are suspended. (Not true. Scientific evidence of the opposite is below.)
First of all you do not have to be Buddhist to practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is not a religious practice at all. You are never asked to believe anything, to change anything, or to follow any "Buddhist rules." Mindfulness and other forms of meditation simply have to do with where you direct and rest your attention. It is very much a practice about training the mind to focus. This is so valuable in our Western world culture where multi-tasking isn’t only an option, but a necessity to finish all the things we need to do in a day. So many people are overworked, burned-out, or zoned-out in front of an electronic device that they have lost the ability to focus on one thing. Life isn’t so simple anymore. The mounting “to-do” lists that are a part of every individual’s and every family’s life create ongoing, chronic stress. Our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and stays revved up. Suddenly it’s not just a “to-do” list, but it feels like it’s a bear that wandered from the woods to attack us. High blood pressure, heart disease, raised cortisol levels, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers can be traced back to chronic stress levels. We don’t know how to settle our minds and emotions, so our bodies take a hit. Why not use a technique that is being proved again and again to help manage stress, lower blood pressure, lower cortisol, and create more balance? If we could center the mind, emotions and body, then the spirit would be more accessible to worship whatever your belief system allows. That’s the tie from meditation to spirituality. If the river of the body, mind and emotions is clear, calm and slow, you can swim with your spirit in whatever way makes sense to you. But if you’re living and trying to swim in the rapids of a stressed and overwhelmed mind, heart and body, you’ll feel like you’re drowning. Accessing your spirit will be the furthest thing from your awareness or ability when you’re just keeping your head above water. Mindfulness meditation is an effective tool in helping to calm the mind, emotions and body, so that you metaphorically float in the river of life.
Despite this, I’d still like to address what the critics mentioned in their list of reasons why Christians should be cautious of mindfulness meditation.
The Buddhist concept of “non-attachment” and the idea that it interferes with Christian values of being attached to God. First, I’ll repeat, you don’t have to be Buddhist or practice Buddhism at all to practice mindfulness meditation. So this explanation might be irrelevant, but I will still address it. There is a misconception that non-attachment means not caring about anyone or anything. Non-attachment actually refers to the practice of being aware of our preferences and choosing to not be controlled by them. For instance, say you interview for a particular job that you really want. You notice how much you feel engaged in getting this job. You work hard in the interview and try your best, but ultimately, to follow Buddhist “non-attachment,” you would try to not be attached to the outcome. So if you don’t get the job, you don’t freak out, get drunk, think the world is ending, or spiral into incessant worry that nothing will ever work out. Maybe you then choose to engage your spiritual beliefs and have “faith” that God or the universe (or whatever your belief system allows) will guide you to get another job. The point is, practicing non-attachment to outcome helps us accept change in life. Of course we have preferences and of course we feel attached to our loved ones, special beings in our lives. Non-attachment is the practice of “being calm” and “okay” if something doesn’t go our way, which inevitably will happen - frequently - in life. This concept might merely be considered a life coping skill. But here’s the key: You don’t have to do it. The only link between non-attachment and mindfulness meditation is that when you are focused and practicing mindfulness, your goal is to just notice what is going on...in your mind, in your emotions, in your body, in your surroundings, with a non-judgmental awareness. So you aren’t sitting criticizing yourself if your mind feels noisy and scattered. You aren’t pushing away your sadness. You aren’t trying to breathe in a certain way or wish that your shoulders weren’t tense. You are just sitting and noticing what is going on in your existence in the moment, without judgment, preference, or attachment to it “being a certain way.” Why? What is the purpose to mindfulness? If you’re able to accept your mind, emotions, body, and surroundings in the moment and simply say, “it is what it is,” rather than labeling it good or bad, you become a calmer, more accepting, loving, patient person. If you’re Christian and would like to model your behavior after Christ, don’t those qualities ring a bell?
Along the same lines of “non-attachment,” is the concept of desire, and the perception that Buddhists believe you should eliminate desire or preference all-together. I don't think Buddhists or meditators are trying to create a species of emotionless robots, but rather people who are awake to, and cognizant of their motivations, their desires, and their drives. Not with the intent of shutting them down necessarily, but for the purposes of observation, learning and choice, so one is not controlled by random desire. If you are awake and aware to your strong desire to study the bible and be close to Christ, or to practice Hinduism, or learn more about Buddhism, then great! Notice that and understand what those feelings are and where they're rooted. Recognize what they feel like in your heart, in your mind, in your body, so that when that desire arises, you can see it as your worldview, your belief system, and in what resonates with you at your core. Mindfulness will only enhance that, not take it away.
One criticism stated that meditation puts you into a state similar to hypnosis and that the meditator’s critical thinking and judgment are suspended. I can only imagine that this statement is rooted in fear of the unknown. Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, is all about being in the present moment, accepting whatever is present. Sometimes the focus might be to relax or to just feel and experience the body and mind in a particular moment. Hypnosis, to my knowledge, usually carries with it an intent to access the subconscious mind and to change or shift behavior. Plus, there’s intentional focus on something specific that you choose to change. Very different from mindfulness. Additionally, to suggest that a meditator’s critical thinking and judgment are suspended with meditation, is simply an inaccurate statement. The effect of mindfulness meditation on the brain of a practitioner has been studied quite a bit and the results are astounding on how it strengthens one’s critical thinking and judgment, as well as other areas of the brain. Research is starting to suggest that mindfulness meditation can slow the progression of dementia and possibly reduce risk for Alzheimer’s. There’s a lot of research on how meditation positively affects the brain, namely the hippocampus, which governs memory, and the frontal lobe, which governs rational cognitive functions. It also affects the anterior cingulate cortex, which plays a role in a wide variety of autonomic functions, such as regulating blood pressure and heart rate, plus it’s involved in decision-making, empathy, and impulse control. Here’s just one article discussing mindfulness meditation’s effect on alzheimer’s: http://www.prevention.com/health/brain-games/mindfulness-meditation-slows-progression-alzheimers-and-dementia
Mindfulness meditation is not only grounded in thousands of years of practice and positive experience by millions of people, but now it’s grounded in science, thanks to people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, whose Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Center and program have made their way into the medical community to help a wide variety of people with everything from anxiety to cancer, and the effect is great. People experience fewer symptoms and learn to manage their conditions with greater ease and less stress. Perhaps then it puts them in a more receptive place to reach out to their church or access their spirituality. Why should it be one or the other? Healing, whether physical or emotional requires multidimensional care. Social support, healthy eating, exercise, fulfilling work, a clear sense of spirituality, and a balanced mental and emotional state (meditation is one way to gain this) - all these are important to overall wellness.
Sometimes it’s easy to fear what we don’t know or don’t understand. Hopefully this article clarified some misconceptions and provides you with more resources on why mindfulness meditation is a critical tool in managing stress, preventing disease, strengthening the brain, and accessing your spirituality.
Want more? Check out this 2 and a half minute video on the research behind why mindfulness meditation is good for the brain. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0DMYs4b2Yw