Is Christian Meditation Different Than Typical Mindfulness Practices?

 
Linda Allcock | September 24th 2020

I once made friends with a Danish student who was a huge fan of mindfulness meditation. She said it had cured her diseases and given her immense inner calm—and to be fair, she looked as if it had. She had bright, piercing eyes and exuded a quiet confidence as she enthused that I really should try mindfulness too.

Most of us would like to take a break from the stream of negative voices in our minds. My friend and millions of others claim that they’re able to do that by practising mindfulness. In recent years there’s been an explosion of books, apps, colouring books and even recipe kits claiming to help people become more mindful. So what exactly is this trend, and where has it come from?

Deeper Still

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Finding clear minds and full hearts through biblical meditation.

A Brief History of Mindfulness

The mindfulness boom began when Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn—an American researcher with a PhD in Molecular Biology, and a student of Zen Buddhism—realised he could bring meditation to a much broader audience by stripping it of its Buddhist elements. In the 1970s Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course teaching secularised meditation. The model he built was simple, replicable and effective. 

Since then it has been woven into a number of medical therapies, and is widely used to treat conditions from depression, drug addiction and binge eating to asthma and psoriasis. Most of us have experienced hurried, distracted thoughts. We are carried away by the lie that if we can just get to that next thing, then we will be satisfied. But we all know that once we are there, our minds will be jumping ahead to the next thing again. So mindfulness is about learning to be satisfied in the present.

How Typical Mindfulness Practices Work

Mindfulness meditation typically starts with breathing: noticing the rhythm, sounds and feeling of your own breath; listening for the background noises you normally zone out of; feeling the temperature of the room, the fabric against your skin; recognising the tension in your muscles and relaxing them one by one.

Another way to describe it is to picture the mind like a waterfall. The water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions running through our minds. It’s as if we live with this constant flow crashing onto us. But mindfulness takes you into the space behind the waterfall, against the rockface—here you allow your thoughts to pass in front of you like a wall of water, without being impacted by them. And when you find yourself being carried away by the stream, you don’t react, you just simply return to focusing on your breathing.

There is no doubt that this practice can be therapeutic. When I wake in the night, overwhelmed by feelings of “guilty, worthless, useless”, I’ll sometimes use some of those techniques to help me relax and drift back off to sleep—allowing those thoughts to pass by without engaging them, relaxing my muscles one by one, focusing on the feeling of the firm mattress beneath and the thick duvet above. That said, there’s a limit to who and how much it can help.

"Biblical meditation is fundamentally different—and so much more hopeful. The treasure is from outside of us, not within us."

The Limits of Mindfulness Meditation

Remember my Danish friend? As the conversation continued, it became clear that one painful struggle remained: her sister was battling serious depression. The sister had tried mindfulness meditation but couldn’t manage it.

This encapsulates the essence of, and the problem with, any sort of secular meditation: it is something I do. Tolle promises that mindfulness will allow me to unlock “the radiant joy of Being” and give me a “deep, unshakeable peace”. How? By accessing the “treasure within” (The Power of Now, p 12).

Secular meditation starts with me. Hence its popularity. It’s something I can do to escape from the incessant voices in my head. If I can practise the techniques, and discipline my mind not to react to the negative thoughts passing through…if I can forget the pain of the past and disengage from future fears… then I can find peace.

But what if I can’t? What if the struggle is too hard, the battle is too intense?

How Biblical Meditation is Different  

Biblical meditation is fundamentally different—and so much more hopeful. The treasure is from outside of us, not within us. We don’t duck behind the waterfall and allow it to pass. Instead God steps in to transform the water’s source.

Jesus says that the waterfall of our thoughts is not a pure blue stream, gently flowing from its source high up in the mountains. Rather, it is a murky torrent of evil.

The problem is not actually the thoughts themselves but what they reveal about the source—that our hearts don’t love God. This all sounds a bit harsh, but when you stop and think about what you’re thinking about, it is quite revealing. We’ve already noted that, essentially, I’m always thinking about me: my feelings, my rights, my desires. Even when I’m thinking about others, it’s usually how they compare to me, how they have impacted me, what they might think of me.

"There is nothing I can do to deal with the root of the problem—that my heart and mind love me, not God."

Biblical Meditation Brings Us Closer to God, Not to Ourselves

But the problem goes deeper than the fact that my thoughts revolve around me. The real issue is that there is no thought of God. That’s what “folly” means (see Psalm 14 v 1). We haven’t just forgotten him. The Bible describes the mind in its natural state as being “hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8 v 7).

That’s why secular meditation cannot lead us to God. There is nothing I can do to deal with the root of the problem—that my heart and mind love me, not God. And while secular meditation offers to lead us to a space behind the waterfall of our evil thoughts, Jesus has a far more radical solution.

Secular meditation leads us to a space behind the waterfall of our evil thoughts. Jesus leads us to the cross.

This is an extract from Deeper Still by Linda Allcock. This book will help Christians who feel overwhelmed by their thought life, as well as those who want to go deeper in their devotional life.

Linda Allcock

Linda Allcock works alongside her husband Jonty in The Globe Church, central London, lectures on the women’s ministry course at London Seminary, and is author of Head Heart Hands Bible reading notes. Her life is a crazy, fun mix of boys (she has three sons plus Jonty!), Bible teaching, writing and feeding people.

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