Our need for mindfulness
Maybe you’ve had an experience like mine. Recently I watched the video of our daughter’s graduation from kindergarten, which took place last May. The video caught every moment of that happy hour. The one who took the video–me–remembered none of them. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of realizing you missed your freeway exit long after it had disappeared from your rear-view mirror. Or maybe you have finished an entire meal without really tasting any of it because your mind was somewhere else, sacrificing both the experience of deliciousness and the opportunity to savor time. The fact is that even though our bodies are forced to function in the immediate present, our minds don’t have that limitation. That can be a good thing. Our ability to think about something, to step back from simple stimulus response and observe, makes us extraordinary if not unique among earthly creatures. Imagining a greater future and treasuring a recollected moment are both functions of our creative minds. Self-reflection and contemplation of God are possible because our minds enjoy consciousness beyond direct engagement. But as we all know, our wandering minds can miss a lot. The richness of experience, the exquisite beauty of the universe, the need of someone in pain, even the voice of God can get lost in the noise of our unfocused thoughts.
God does not ordinarily compete for our attention. – Dallas Willard, The Great Omission
All those thoughts of past and future can be bothersome musings. The overabundance of facts and distractions leads us away from even our most cherishable activities. When we miss out on experience, beauty, others and God, we miss out on more than moments. We miss out on life.
What Christian mindfulness is
Mindfulness is paying attention. It is noticing what you are doing, feeling and thinking at the time you are actually doing, feeling and thinking it. Because God is part of our everyday lives, paying attention to God and focusing on God’s kingdom is a fundamental practice of Christian mindfulness.
What Christian mindfulness is not
2014 was the year of “mindfulness meditation cures everything.” Mindfulness meditation, as promoted for health and business benefits, derives from a certain Buddhist approach to meditation. In Buddhism, suffering is a state of mind that can be overcome by mentally and emotionally detaching from whatever causes one’s suffering. Detachment is achieved by emptying the mind of thought. Thus the goal of Buddhist meditation could be called “mindlessness.” The secular, Westernized purpose of mindfulness meditation is to settle the busy-ness of random thoughts and overactive bodies, leading to a cognitive state in which the physical systems of the brain and body operate more efficiently and effectively. There isn’t anything wrong with your physical systems functioning well; in fact, physical health is a goal worth pursuing, but as Christians we aim for something more than just good physical operation. Our goal is eternal living in God’s kingdom. Unlike Buddhist and secular mindfulness meditation, which is based on emptying the mind, Christian mindfulness is designed to fill the mind with just one thing: seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness. From this perspective, Christian mindfulness and meditation don’t aim to detach our selves from suffering, but to attach our deepest selves to God.
Life in God’s kingdom is now
Given how our minds–and hearts–are prone to wander, it’s no wonder that throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God repeatedly reminded people to remember both him and their history. “Remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant” (Deuteronomy 8:18). “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”(Exodus 20:8). But it wasn’t just remembering God wanted. God also wanted people to pay attention in the moment–to listen and watch, and then to act on what they heard and saw. Jesus asks, “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:17-18). God’s kind of remembering is not just nostalgic dreaming or remorseful musing. God-commanded remembering is a kind of present-directed mindfulness; it is summoning the past as it was so as to meet the present where it is. It is re-membering, putting back together the dismembered pieces of our lives.
Future tripping and destructive mental habits
Mindfulness was challenging for the people living in biblical times, and it’s even harder to manage in our age of distraction. Many of us live complicated, overbusy lives, crammed with work or looking for work, caring for children or aging parents or both, school, volunteering, commuting, health issues, and money worries. Cell phones compete with children and other drivers for our attention. The cereal aisle alone can be overwhelming, with its sky-high rows of options and promises. Relational and sexual intimacy can be impossible: our minds may be so filled up with checklists that the person in front of us disappears, and with her or him, the life we are supposed to share. Besides our habit of distracted multi-tasking (as if that can be done effectively) many of us also bear the burden of what has been called “future-tripping.” This is the mental habit of speculating about the future, or resting one’s happiness on the achievement of some future state. The Apostle James spoke to future-tripping when he wrote, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14, ESV). The actual mental experience of future-tripping has been described well byVietnamese Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh:
We have negative mental habits that come up over and over again. One of the most significant negative habits we should be aware of is that of constantly allowing our mind to run off into the future. Perhaps we got this from our parents. Carried away by our worries, we’re unable to live fully and happily in the present. Deep down, we believe we can’t really be happy just yet—that we still have a few more boxes to be checked off before we can really enjoy life. We speculate, dream, strategize, and plan for these “conditions of happiness” we want to have in the future; and we continually chase after that future, even while we sleep. We may have fears about the future because we don’t know how it’s going to turn out, and these worries and anxieties keep us from enjoying being here now.
Future-tripping is not only part of our training, it’s embedded in Western culture. We are constantly admonished to set goals, build in interim goals, plan out the tasks needed to achieve those interim goals, and schedule deadlines for starting and ending those tasks. Every job interviewer asks, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Advertising is constructed around building dissatisfaction with our current state and projecting happiness onto our future ownership of a particular product. The fitness industry’s balance sheet depends upon our new year’s resolutions…and our utter inability to maintain them. Paradoxically, recent linguistic research suggests that our ability to “future-trip” may actually reflect a diminished capacity to planfully take action to further goals. Grammar reflects and supports deeply ingrained cultural views, which in turn drive behavior. According to the study by Keith Chen, some languages do not strictly distinguish the future from the present. German, Finnish and Mandarin speakers, for example, may use grammatical constructions like “it rains” to mean what in English would be both “it is raining now” and “it will rain tomorrow.” This research suggests that cultures that speak languages that do not linguistically require distinctions between future and present save more money and address health concerns earlier. When your mind strictly separates future results from present circumstances and behaviors, achieving those future results is harder. The more you think in terms of “what will happen” or “when it happens” the less likely it is that you will take the actions needed to actually make it happen, whatever it is. Envisioning a future builds your capacity to pursue it. Living in a future destroys your ability to fulfill it. Thus the harder it is to be mindful in your daily life, the more you need to be, because
Mindlessness leads to lifelessness.
Mindfulness leads to fullness of life.
Living in the present means trusting in God’s future
You cannot pay attention to the present if you’re worried about the future. “Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear…. Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:24, 27). The sturdy foundation of Christian mindfulness is the assurance of faith that what we hope for is both real and waiting.
Hope is the confident anticipation of good… hope increasingly permeates our lives as our characters come to resemble Christ’s. – Elane O’Rourke, A Dallas Willard Dictionary
In the letter to the Hebrews, we read that “since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings… Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:22-23, NIV). Our future is assured, for God is in charge. When we trust that our future is taken care of, we can pay attention to what is happening in the present. For this reason, Christian mindfulness might be understood as present-moment living in the only eternal reality, which is God’s kingdom.
Christian mindfulness is present-moment living centered in a Christ-like worldview.
Christian mindfulness includes paying attention, doing one thing at a time, and refraining from “future tripping” and “baggage carrying.” Paying attention requires both effort and trust. The effort comes in choosing to “set your mind on things above” (Colossians 3:2) and “renew your mind” (Romans 12:2). That entire verse from Romans is instructive: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Once you recognize that the pattern of this world is to multitask, want for more, and regret what is lost, it’s easy to see what renewing your mind would be like: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a foundation of inner peace.
When Jesus wanted to tell the disciples to not worry, he started by having them pay attention. “Look at the birds of the air,” he said. “Consider the lilies of the field,” he insisted, “if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?… Therefore do not worry” (Matthew 6:25-30). By paying attention to the fact that since the beginning the creatures of the earth have been provided for, Jesus’ disciples could use their minds to extrapolate to their own situation. When we recognize that we are being provided for, peace comes more easily.
Mindfulness allows us to see what is really going on around us and to respond to those realities.
Jesus was the most mindful person ever. He was completely aware of the flow of life in his own body, noticing it go out to the woman in the crowd who touched his hem. He recognized the hunger and aimlessness of the crowds. He appreciated the gratitude of the woman who anointed him with perfume. He saw how the ruling parties were conspiring against him. He listened to his Father so closely that he and his Father were one in spirit, thought, desire and action. If Jesus were, as he is sometimes portrayed, a kind of lofty, otherwordly guru, he wouldn’t have been able to respond to his disciples, his community, his foes, or his God.
Mindfulness cooperates with simplicity of purpose.
Jesus was both the most mindful, and the most single-minded person ever. He was focused on one thing: the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness (Matthew 6:33). That focus shut out petty distractions, diminished worry, and opened him to whatever was happening around him at that moment. Jesus trusted that everything else was in God’s hands, and out of his own. Thus he was able to be fully present to the crowds, the woman, the Pharisees, and his Father because he put the kingdom first.
Each moment is all we need, not more. -Mother Teresa
Mindfulness is practiced in the present but operates in eternity.
God’s kingdom isn’t a future promise but a present reality. From an eternal perspective, every moment in all time is part of “now.” So while Jesus was mindful of the events occurring in the fleshly world at a specific moment in time, he maintained an eternal perspective. His deepest person was not actually motivated by the temporal present but by the eternal Presence. This may be the strangest aspect of Christian mindfulness: we are able to be fully engaged in “now” because past and future are part of God’s everlasting kingdom, and not our earthly ones.
Some practices to try
What are some practices that contribute to mindfulness? Here are a few. Try them on for 30 days. Notice if anything changes about your approach to living.
- Do physical activities that absorb your attention. Using your body in ways that fully engage your mind retrains your mind. Make even a little regular time for crafts, sports, cleaning, bathing, eating something truly delicious, or whatever it is that you love that uses your body or entices your senses so thoroughly that time passes without your noticing. Avoid activities that merely engage (or distract) your mind: it’s your mind you’re trying to retrain by using your body.
- Set an alarm to think about God. There are a number of classic spiritual practices that create regular times to think about God. These include such things praying the hours, playing the “game with minutes”, and the Ignatian exercises. A simple way to help “fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Hebrews 3:1) is to set an actual alarm on your watch or cell phone or computer. When it rings, take that moment to “set your mind on things above” (Colossians 3:2). Do this several times each day.
Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness. – Psalm 26:2-3, NIV
- Meditate. Meditation has a bad reputation in some Christian communities because it is associated with Eastern philosophy. But as Dallas Willard said, just because Hindus eat breakfast doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing to do. Christian meditation can be as simple as sitting still for ten minutes, breathing easily, and repeating a line of Scripture. Good phrases for this kind of meditation are “Maranatha” and “Be still and know that I am God.” This kind of meditation renews both our minds and our spirits. It provides a centeredness that helps us listen for God. It also trains us over time to release all the distracting thoughts that occur to us during the average day and refocus on what matters.