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Sunday, December 25, 2016

How Christians Can Benefit from Mindfulness Practice (interview)

photo courtesy Irene Kraegel
Dr. Irene Kraegel is director of the student counseling center at Calvin University, a Christian university in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has 13 years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist, and her current work includes mindfulness training for students at Calvin. Dr. Kraegel shares her experiences and thoughts related to the integration of Christian faith and mindfulness practice at her website, and in her book The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith.

Many conservative Christians object to their children being taught mindfulness in public schools. How can teachers respect the needs of religious families in the context of a secular mindfulness program?

Mindfulness is a wonderful gift to give children in the classroom. Teaching mindfulness provides children with a tool for calming uncomfortable emotions and focusing attention. However, the historical and cultural associations of mindfulness can serve as barriers for some families in accessing this tool. Because of this, it is helpful to approach mindfulness teaching with a readiness to talk openly with such families about their concerns.

For many conservative Christians, mindfulness meditation will raise no concerns. Parents will be eager for their children to learn this tool to assist them with emotional regulation at home and at school (or will be neutral on the subject). For others, there may be a significant fear of mindfulness meditation that is rooted in a suspicion of “new age” practices or Buddhist influences. 

It is important to demonstrate empathy and understanding when it comes to these types of suspicions. Practicing curiosity and openness about parental reactions to mindfulness (without defensiveness) will provide you with useful information about the nature of their concerns, and will also serve as a calming influence on parents. If parents feel deeply listened to and respected by you, they are more likely to receive your responses.

You may find it helpful to provide education on the disconnection of modern mindfulness practice from any religious tradition, while also noting that present-moment awareness is present in all major world religions (including Christianity). You might also highlight that the practice is simply attentional training, and that students will never be asked to put their attention on something that would go against their religious beliefs. Rather, students will be practicing keeping their attention where they intend it to be.

When teaching mindfulness in a secular mindfulness program, it can be helpful to use “layperson’s” language throughout. Pay attention to words, actions, or symbols that may be secular in nature but trigger fear for those unfamiliar with mindfulness practice. 

For example, 
  • I often explain that the bell we use in mindfulness practice does not have any particular significance other than the beauty of its ring. 
  • I also point out that we can sometimes feel uncomfortable with the bell simply because it is culturally unfamiliar in most western cultures (coming primarily out of an eastern cultural milieu), and that it is an optional part of mindfulness practice. 
  •  As another example of avoiding trigger words, the mindfulness program used in my child’s public school avoids the use of the word “meditation” altogether (substituting words such as “practice” or “exercise”). 

Some Christians perceive mindfulness as ‘self-help,’ and therefore ‘selfish,’ or worry that meditation clears the mind and ‘if the mind is empty, it can be filled with evil influences.’ How do you address these types of concerns?

As a Christian practitioner of mindfulness meditation, I have found the practice to be deeply revitalizing in my relationship with God. Mindfulness provides increased clarity about what is in the mind, increasing one’s ability to correct inaccurate thoughts about God, ourselves, and the world. Mindfulness also creates space in our thinking to notice and connect with God. 

There is nothing selfish about this process -- it is a basic step in self-care that increases our ability to shift attention from ourselves to God and those around us. I often describe this in terms of the Parable of the Sower, a story told by Jesus that is recounted in the three Synoptic gospels (see Matthew 13:1-23 for one of these accounts). In this parable, Jesus calls our attention to our readiness to receive God’s word. 

Without mindfulness meditation, my mind tends to be quite full of “thorns” that prevent me from receiving the “seed” of God’s word. With mindfulness, I can spot these thorns early on and cultivate healthy soil so that God’s word has a much better likelihood of thriving in my heart and mind. Just as a farmer cultivates soil, I must cultivate my heart and mind to receive God’s word.

For those nervous about evil influences on an empty mind, it is important to provide clarification about the nature of mindfulness meditation. It is a common misconception that meditation involves “clearing the mind.” Clearing the mind is, in fact, impossible, and we do not make this our goal in mindfulness practice. 

Instead, we are exercising the mind’s ability to be more aware and more compassionate. 
  • We become less susceptible to unwanted influences because we gain increased clarity about our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. 
  • We also practice increased intentionality in responding to those experiences as we truly desire (rather than acting in auto-pilot and out of step with God’s direction). 
  • And we identify unnecessary judgments towards ourselves or others that prevent us from displaying love and compassion in the way that Christ has called us to do. 

Is there a scriptural/Biblical basis for mindfulness, and how is this similar to and different from the popular mindfulness practices derived from Buddhist traditions?

Despite recent skepticism about meditation within western Christian circles, there is a long-standing tradition of meditation and contemplation within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Old Testament is filled with accounts of meditation and exhortations to be still before God. In New Testament accounts, Jesus frequently withdrew from people to spend long periods of time alone with God. 

Early in the third century, the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers practiced an extreme form of meditation that involved withdrawing from civilization. Since that time, numerous other Christian traditions have emphasized the role of silence, contemplation, and present-moment awareness (including Benedictine and Trappist monasticism, the Eastern Orthodox church, and Quakerism). Attention to Christian meditation practices has been recently revived through the Centering Prayer movement, as well as through the practices of Lectio Divina, Taize, the Prayer of Examen, and the Daily Office.

All of these Christian meditation practices have significant overlap with mindfulness practice, and some historical authors have specifically focused attention on present-moment awareness as part of meditation practice (ex. The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade). 

While mindfulness meditation has recently been popularized through the Buddhist tradition, this does not mean Christians can no longer practice meditation any more than Buddhists engaging in prayer means that we can no longer pray. To step out of busy auto-pilot, quiet ourselves, and focus our attention on the present moment is a similar process, no matter one’s religious persuasion. 

Where we choose to focus our attention and how we choose to act in response, however, may vary. For example, the Buddhist tradition emphasizes detachment from self or personal identity, while the Christian tradition emphasizes the value of the self as a reflection of God’s image (with a rooting of identity in Christ). These differences can impact the way people from these two different traditions experience mindfulness meditation and where they choose to focus attention.

In your opinion, how can Christians benefit from practicing mindfulness, and how can secular mindfulness teachers benefit from the perspective of Christians?

As with all positive health practices, Christians can benefit significantly from mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness has been widely researched over the past several years, leading to evidence of its benefits for physical, emotional, and relational health. Mindfulness increases effective stress management, strengthens the immune system, decreases anxiety, decreases risk of depression relapse, increases positive emotions, decreases the impact of chronic pain, and increases a sense of belonging. 

 In my view, the opportunity for Christians to benefit from mindfulness practice is magnified by awareness of God’s presence during times of meditation. When we focus awareness nonjudgmentally on the present moment, we open ourselves up to the work of God’s Spirit. God is always in the present moment -- joining Him there allows us a deeper level of spiritual rejuvenation than can be found by rushing mindlessly through each day or simply “talking at” Him in prayer.

Secular mindfulness teachers can benefit from the spiritual awareness that Christians bring. While much of modern mindfulness instruction avoids any reference to spirituality, significant depth is lost in this approach. Christians remind us that all things are spiritual, whether or not we label them as such explicitly. It behooves us to be intentional about our spiritual practices, and many people can benefit from an intentional integration of Christian faith and mindfulness practice.

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

My word-association reaction to “mindful teaching” is “listening deeply.” Our students benefit when we are fully present to them, offering them the gift of our full attention. Hearing students well empowers us to speak more truthfully and more helpfully. Mindful teaching requires that we bring our whole selves to teaching, that we show up and stay awake as much as we are able in each moment.

One cannot teach mindfully without practicing mindfulness personally. Mindfulness practice allows us to be in a focused and calm space that facilitates growth for our students. When we teach, we are flooded with a variety of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and urges. Whether these experiences are pleasant or unpleasant, we are better teachers when practicing mindful awareness. 

As a personal example from teaching, a thought might pass through my mind that “this is going really badly,” accompanied by a feeling of despondency, an increased heart rate, and an urge to quit my job. In a mindless teaching mode, I might be aware that I am unhappy but keep pushing through with little checking of the thoughts triggering this response. 

In a mindful teaching mode, 
  • I practice curious and nonjudgmental awareness of my full experience.
  • I label and observe the thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and urges, and I note them as passing phenomena rather than facts to analyze or problems to fix. 
  •  I provide myself with compassion in that moment of difficulty, and remind myself that it’s okay to be having a hard time. 
  •  I open up my attention to the work of God in the moment and to the needs of the students around me, and I lay aside my need to do everything well. 
 In this sense, I am actively practicing mindfulness even in the midst of teaching and interacting with students. It benefits me, it keeps my ego out of the way, and it provides the students with a calm and non-reactive space in which to learn and grow. 

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

My mindfulness practice grew out of the completion of an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, which was deeply transformational for me. Through the program, I experienced a very real shift in my day-to-day emotional landscape. I found relief from a life-long history of depression, gaining a very specific (yet very deep) coping skill to utilize in times of emotional pain. I found that the world became beautiful and interesting for the first time, with an increased ability to notice and retain the good around me. I never want to go back to the way I felt for those many long years before learning mindfulness practice, and I will always be grateful to God for opening up this door to joy in my life (as well as to my excellent mindfulness teacher -- a shout-out to April
Kaiserlian at the Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness!).

And of course, feeling joy makes us all better at our work. Being happier means I am less irritable with others, more open to new ideas and approaches, and more able to see the good in those around me. I have more energy, and I find more meaning in my work. I am less hard on myself when I do not live up to my high expectations, and more cognizant of the strengths that others bring to the table. The language of mindfulness also provides me with a rich source of encouragement to share with those I encounter in my profession who are struggling.

In terms of my ongoing practice, I have never been one to sustain self-care practices in a daily, disciplined way. And so while my “ideal self” meditates for 20 minutes every morning and every evening, my “real self” meditates when I need it -- when I am feeling stressed or irritable or sad or overwhelmed. I consider my use of meditation to be similar to my use of drinking water; I try to pay attention to signs that I am thirsty, and then I drink what I need. 

But mostly, I practice mindfulness informally a lot through each day. 
  • I notice and connect with my present-moment experience whenever I remember to do so. 
  • I pause to breathe deeply (even one breath makes a difference!), to eat a few bites of my lunch with focused attention, or to really look at what is in front of me with curiosity. 
  •  I use walking as a prompt for me to bring attention to the moment throughout each day, focusing awareness on the sensations on the bottom of my feet as I walk and also checking in with how I am doing overall (with a particular focus on sensory inputs in the moment). 

In this way, mindfulness provides me with an avenue for refocusing and calming my mind throughout the day, which has a positive impact on both my work and my personal relationships.

Update March 10, 2019: Dr. Kraegel kindly agreed to a follow-up interview addressing the question Can Evangelical Christians Practice Mindfulness?