A decade ago, relatively few people had heard of mindfulness, but today it’s become something of a buzzword in psych circles. There are now hundreds of books, articles, seminars, and – of course – apps devoted to the practice of mindfulness.
So what is mindfulness? It might be best to explain what it is by looking at what it does.
We often find ourselves immersed in the rush – the chaos, the flux, the race – of our own thoughts and actions. As our minds pick up speed, our bodies grow tense, our anxiety spikes, our peace evaporates. We lose the ability to sit comfortably in the present moment, or to give attention to what’s right in front of us. And to boot, we’re not even necessarily cognizant of just how overwhelmed we feel. Most importantly, we become reactive rather than responsive to the people, situations, tasks, and experiences in our lives.
Sometimes mindfulness is characterized as a way to pay better attention to the present moment. But at its core, mindfulness is our mind’s innate ability to take a step back, to intentionally remove ourselves from that inner turbulence, and to get back in touch with our interior selves.
I’ve known some Christians that have been skeptical about mindfulness. Why? Because the practice of mindfulness advocated in most clinical settings has roots in Buddhist religious practice – “right mindfulness” (samma-sati) being the seventh step on noble eightfold path.
But Christians shouldn’t reject the practice of mindfulness on these grounds. For starters, Christians should embrace whatever is true or good in other religions. Moreover, many authors – most famously, Thomas Merton, the great modern monk – have argued that there is much in the Buddhist tradition that is consonant with Christian spirituality. But even more to the point, there is nothing about the practice of mindfulness which would commit one to any doctrines incompatible with Christianity (e.g., any notion of a literal dissolution of the self). Why? Because mindfulness is not a doctrine peculiar to any religion, but an innate capability we share.
For my part, I had been shouldering the burden of chronic anxiety and depression for years before I had learned about mindfulness. For years, I had trained my mind to ignore the root of my illness (a history of abuse) and to cope with its symptoms: my pent-up nervous energy, my overanalyzing of every social situation, my intense self-scrutiny, my hyperactive mind going to work on all my fears and insecurities.
When I did start trying to practice it, I quickly learned that mindfulness was not an eastern alternative to Christian prayer, but a way of exercising our abilities – frail as they may be! – to cooperate with the grace of the Spirit. True prayer – prayer which goes beyond words on a page – means entering the presence of God. The raising of the heart to God, as St. Therese of Lisieux put it.
Christ said: “When you pray, go into your inner room” (Mt 6:6).
What does that mean: to enter your inner room? It certainly doesn’t mean just removing ourselves from external sources of noise. It means something much more: removing ourselves from the hustle, the bustle, the chaos that goes on inside our own souls. It means, instead, allowing ourselves to become quiet, receptive, attentive.
The Fathers of the Church called this inner hustle and bustle “the passions,” by which they meant: those feelings that flame up, that try to derail us. Envy, greed, lust, unjustified anger, self-absorption, to name a few.
Everyone has experienced the struggle against the passions in one form or another. The second week into the diet, when that two slices and a Coke deal calls my name; the outburst of anger when I get stuck behind someone driving 10 below on the highway; the resentment I nurse against others... All reactions arising from our inner turbulence, rather than responses rooted in our call to freedom in Christ. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1).
Now by “passions,” the Fathers didn’t mean emotions. This is an important distinction, especially since emotions sometimes get a bad rap. Some people equate emotional with irrational. Some people say: Love isn’t a feeling; it’s a decision. And there’s a kernel of truth there: feelings come and go, but authentic love endures through all the ebbs and flows of our emotional states.
But we also have to keep in mind that God gave us our emotions, our feelings, our affectivity. The fact that feelings fade isn’t a defect in God’s gift of affectivity, but in us. We are meant to be affective beings, not Spocks or Stoics or robots. When the heart swells with love, it’s not being “irrational”; it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Mindfulness, then, isn’t a way to extinguish our emotions, but to seek freedom from the passions that afflict us. This terminology of the Fathers here is important: to confront the passions is to seek freedom, healing. Whether one is guilty for a passion or not, only God knows – but healing from the passions is for everyone.
But that healing isn’t achieved just through our own efforts. The practice of mindfulness isn’t something we do all by our own strength, but always through the Spirit working in us. Moreover, mindfulness is also just a first step on that path. Mindfulness is not an end in itself, but a method of making room in our hearts for the peace of Christ – of letting go, of emptying ourselves of inner restlessness, of retreating into our “inner room”.
Without practicing some form of mindfulness, however, we set ourselves up to be a Martha – anxious and troubled about many things, never pausing to sit at Christ’s feet and receive his light. Without practicing mindfulness, we set ourselves up to let our passions run the show – just as Martha let herself become envious of Mary, indignant toward Christ, and caught up in her own busyness (Lk 10:38-42).
There are two pieces to mindfulness, then: breaking with the inner noise, and growing in awareness of God’s voice speaking to us. The latter means growing in awareness of God’s presence, not just in moments of prayer, but throughout the world around us. Ours is a God who is present everywhere and filling all things, who gifted life to all of creation, and who fashioned that creation as a sign pointing back to Himself (Rom 1:20).
St. Patrick of Ireland described this awareness of God everywhere when he prayed:
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Christ is ever present with us. Christ speaks to us in the creation surrounding us. He speaks to us in other people –who are living icons of Christ. He speaks to us in the quiet of our hearts. We need only become mindful.
Brian Donohue is a Ph.D. Candidate in Philosophy at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and an engineer in the field of knowledge representation and artificial intelligence. He lives in Kenmore, New York, with his wife and two children.