Mindfulness meditation is in our schools, business seminars, and health centres. But where does it come from, what does it teach, and how does it stack up to biblical doctrine?
Mindfulness or the mind of Christ
The singularly brilliant Christian apologist of the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal, noted the existential reality that the human condition was one of inconstancy, boredom and anxiety. For him, the only real cure was made known in history by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and was not located in the abstract ideas of philosophers and scholars. The solution to man’s condition was the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, who declared, “Come to me all you who are weak and heavy laden and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28).”
Jesus also declared, “I have come that you might have life, and life in all its fullness” (John 10:10). For those in Christ, we are assured of a peace that passes human understanding in place of our anxiety and inconstancy: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14: 27). The human malady hasn’t changed since Pascal described it in the seventeenth century, and neither has the promise of Christ. Nonetheless, the numerous quack remedies for what is the direct result of man’s alienation from God have persisted and are experiencing a massive renewal in popularity in our time.
The challenge society faces when Christ’s gospel is rejected is, how are man’s fears and anxieties, evil thoughts, desires and destructive impulses to be addressed and overcome? In keeping with the overall direction of Western cultural life in this century, our social order has been turning back to paganism for answers. Some Western media elites have been calling 2014, “The Year of Mindfulness” because of the sweeping popularity, in every stratum of society, of mindfulness meditation – among business people, health professionals, celebrities, scientists and even school boards.
Mindfulness is no longer the preserve of Tibetan monks and highflying jet-setters buying books on meditation and spirituality at international airports – it is now mainstream. So much so, that just a few weeks ago, the CBC radio show The Current, did a program on the popularity of Mindfulness and its widespread use in schools across Canada, including extensive use of these techniques in Toronto schools – in part as an attempt to reduce the massive suicide rate among youth. Some teachers are spending solid class time in meditation with students and some schools are having a school-wide Mindfulness minute every day where students adopt a Mindfulness posture, do a breathing control exercise and turn their palms up at the sound of the chime. Moreover, all new doctors coming through McGill Medical School are being trained in Mindfulness techniques in hopes of holistically treating depression and anxiety.
So what is Mindfulness? Simply put, it is a Buddhist meditative technique. At bottom this practice cultivates the realization of an experience described as ‘cessation’ in which mental afflictions are removed because the illusion of the ‘self’ is uprooted. In his recent book Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama promotes Mindfulness as a means of creating ethical world unity, and so secularizes the language of Buddhism as far as he can. He claims the human problem is inner dissatisfaction and the negative emotions that arise from this, spilling over into social relationships. Mindfulness, he claims, enables us “to gain a measure of control over our emotions as a step toward developing a calm mind” (p. 127). This cultivates a state of equanimity, free of prejudice, where the recognition of a fundamental equality of being is reached (p. 172). The Dalai Lama teaches people to begin by relaxing and settling the mind through a breathing exercise, followed by repeating a simple phrase like, “I let go of my distraction” (p. 179). He resists going into all the metaphysical beliefs behind these methods, but the goal is that the mind ultimately is freed, not simply from distraction, but from thought itself.
For some, a more surprising contributor to this pagan revival is the rabid atheist, Sam Harris, as seen in his latest book, Waking Up, in which he reveals he is experienced and practiced in the art of Mindfulness. Having studied for a number of years under various Buddhist experts in meditation and even done lengthy retreats (including a one year silent retreat) seeking ‘cessation,’ Harris is a committed pagan – though he would resent the term. Paganism and atheism are natural bedfellows and humanistic scientists seem particularly susceptible to the promises of pagan thought that offer spirituality without God. Harris offers this personal account of an afternoon at the Sea of Galilee:
As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self – an “I” or a “me” – vanished…. I no longer felt separate from the scene, peering out at the world from behind my eyes. Only the world remained (p. 81).
He goes on to say, “I’ve spent many years practicing meditation, the purpose of which is to cut through the illusion of the self.” Harris argues like a good Buddhist that the sense of self is an illusion and that spirituality consists in realizing this, moment to moment. For Harris, when the self is examined, it disappears, and this is done through Mindfulness.
Again, the ultimate goal of all this is cessation – a direct insight into the unconditioned one that is the reality behind all manifest phenomena. Harris believes he can cut through the illusion of self, and that the instruction of one of his Buddhist masters in doing this was, “without question, the most important thing I have ever been explicitly taught by another human being. It has given me a way to escape the usual tides of psychological suffering – fear, anger, shame – in an instant” (p. 137), though he says that at ‘his level’ these moments of respite from suffering only last a few moments.
Freedom, on this view, is found in a realisation. Simply put, pure consciousness is all that is (i.e. you are consciousness), and the way to escape the human condition, true freedom, is to realise that subject-object dualism is an illusion, and all your anxiety is merely a transitory appearance of consciousness. Moreover, there is no true “I” and this realization liberates us from any sense of sin, shame, fear or even desire. For Harris, belief-based religion is a dreadful thing because it confronts us with the world outside of us and thus with who we are. Which begs the question why someone who thinks that reality is pure consciousness, and that thoughts are merely a transitory appearance of consciousness, should be so vociferously opposed to other people’s thoughts about God and the world!
Salvation, then, is the death of man and the real world. Thus the pursuit of mindfulness in the schools, business world, or on the yoga mat is the cultivation of death and the eradication of personhood. The biblical view of salvation could not be more removed from this pagan quackery. In biblical faith God is not pure consciousness, but a divine relational community of persons, where intellect, love and will are fully actualized. Man, being made in God’s image, is a person, a real individual, and this individuality is the basis for true community, bringing the experience of unity within real diversity. Mindfulness on the other hand is the ultimate pursuit of a nihilistic self-absorbed world obsessed with the motions of my own thoughts which denies the reality of the other and collapses life into pure consciousness, or more properly, extinction.
The truth, however, is that our minds are not fragments of pure consciousness, but an aspect of created spiritual reality, embodied in the human person. Our problems are not metaphysical, that we are alienated from pure consciousness; the reality of desire and emotion is not our problem. The human problem is moral. Our problem is sin.
The cure for our anxiety, fears and evil desires is not the cessation of self, where man deludes himself into thinking he can escape God, creation and his own life. The cure is in facing ourselves and our sins, and by repentance and faith being reconciled to God. In fellowship with God through Jesus Christ, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, where perfect love casts out fear. The rule of God in our lives is productive of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, who is with us forever.
St Paul declares that we have the mind of Christ. Christ was in perfect fellowship with his Father, and as we walk in the love and grace of God, we are enfolded in the loving embrace of the divine community. The Christian therefore is not trapped in an endless struggle to be free of distraction (that is, creation) to the end that we realise we are god; rather we rest in the Lord as his creatures, filling our minds with his word of truth and applying it to our circumstances. As the Psalmist says, “I meditate on all that you have done, I ponder the work of your hands,” and “I will mediate on all your statutes.”
The command of Scripture regarding all our fears and anxieties is to cast them all upon God because he cares for us, and in so doing, “[God will] keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you” (Isa. 26:3). God’s peace will guard our minds, not empty them (Phil. 4:7), and it is this reality, not cessation, that surpasses all understanding.