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Sunday, December 24, 2017

5 Common Misunderstandings about Christians and Mindfulness

by Catharine Hannay

Last fall, I was contacted by a school that received the following message from a parent:
"Our family takes our faith very seriously, and this kind of practice goes very much against what we believe... I respectfully request that these 'mindfulness' assignments and classroom practice stop."
They were looking for "any suggestions... to help this parent understand that we're not attempting to promote any religious activities or anything that will contradict their Christian faith."

The request couldn't have come at a better time, since I was about to spend the weekend at a Christian retreat center.

No one I spoke with on the retreat had any trouble with Christians practicing mindfulness. In fact, the spiritual director said he uses mindfulness as a way to calm his mind and focus his thoughts so that he can be more present and authentic in his prayer, rather than reciting by rote. 

I also had a long conversation with a fellow retreatant, a devout Christian who practices yoga and is studying in the renowned MBSR teacher training program at the University of Massachusetts.  She said that the deeper she goes into her mindfulness practice, the closer she feels to God.  

In these conversations, as well as a follow-up phone call to my sister after I got home (she's a pastor) we talked about how unfortunate it is that there's a persistent misunderstanding between some Christians and the mindfulness community, especially when people on both sides are so well-intentioned.

I hope the following post will help bridge the communication gap between secular mindfulness teachers and Christians who have a negative view of mindfulness. (Each of the five misunderstandings is based on similar statements I've heard multiple times from secular mindfulness teachers or read multiple times on Christian blogs.)

Misunderstanding #1: "Nonjudgmental awareness is immoral. If we don't judge anything, we just let everyone do whatever they want, no matter how bad it is."

I’ve spoken to dozens of mindfulness teachers and read dozens of books about mindfulness, and not a single one of them recommends that people engage in unethical behavior or do anything that might conflict with their religious beliefs.

Nonjudgmental awareness doesn't mean that we give up all standards of morality. We just try not to be judgmental. It's somewhat similar to the message in Matthew 7: 1; 3.
"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged... Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?"
Personally, I  prefer to think of it as 'non-attacking attention' because there's less room for misinterpretation. 

Misunderstanding #2: "Mindfulness meditation is dangerous to teach to impressionable kids. It involves clearing or emptying the mind, which leaves the mind open to evil influences."

It's impossible to completely empty the mind of all thought. Our minds tend to wander so much that meditation is more a process of gently bringing the attention back, again and again and again, to where we'd like it be focused. 

The type of mindfulness meditation taught to children in any reputable program basically does two things:
  • It helps the kids calm themselves down when they're upset.
  • It helps them focus on their schoolwork and other activities.
I like to think of it this way: as we drive around, our windshields get dirty. Using the windshield wipers helps us see more clearly; this isn't the same as removing the windshield (which would be foolhardy and quite dangerous). 

Misunderstanding #3: "Mindfulness meditation is the same for everyone regardless of your religious beliefs."

This is mostly true. According to Dr. Irene Kraegel, who teaches mindfulness at a faith-based college,  “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." 

However, Dr. Kraegel goes on to explain that "Where we choose to focus our attention and how we choose to act in response, 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.” 

Misunderstanding #4: "You don’t have to be Buddhist to meditate any more than you have to be Jewish to eat bagels." (or Italian to eat pasta, or equivalent comparison)

Well, no. You don't have to be Shinto to eat sushi, either. Or Mennonite to eat cinnamon rolls. But this is like comparing apples and apostles. Unless there’s a bagel mitzvah I’m not aware of, that’s not an essential part of Jewish religious practice. 

I much prefer this comparison: Devout Muslims pray five times a day, but that doesn’t mean thaonly Muslims pray. Similarly, it is true that most Buddhists meditate, but it is also true that many non-Buddhists meditate.

In an interview here at Mindful Teachers last year, Dr. Emmanuel Ande Ivorgba gave an overview of the long history of Christian meditation:
  • During the 2nd century A.D., a group of early Christian monks... retreated from the world to live in solitude and simplicity and to establish intimacy with God. 
  • For more than 1000 years after this, meditation increasingly became an important part of Christian prayer and practice. 
  • In the 16th century, Spanish mystics Saint Theresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross championed meditation... 
  • In the 1960s, Roy Masters developed a new variation which he called "Be Still and Know." 
In another interview, meditation teacher Giovanni Dienstmann explained three different types of contemporary Christian meditation:
"When contemplative prayer or contemplative reading deepens, you may find yourself in a place of silent contemplation... “being one with the Lord” ... or being consumed in God’s love... 
This state of silent surrender can also be consciously practiced, by focusing all your mind, heart and soul on the thought of God, and in the feeling of the immanent presence of God. This in itself is a practice of meditation... where everything else is cast aside, and only God is thought of and felt." 

Misunderstanding #5: "Lovingkindness meditation is a Hindu/Buddhist practice that conflicts with Christian beliefs."

I won't go into the theological differences between Hinduism and Buddhism right now, or the issue of whether or not lovingkindness meditation is really a mindfulness practice. I'll just say this: there is nothing inherently unChristian about lovingkindness meditation. In fact, the term lovingkindness is mentioned about thirty times in the King James Bible.  For example, 
"Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions." (Psalm 51:1) 

Most teachers who lead lovingkindness practice use some variation of the phrasing: 'So-and-so, may you be happy, may you be well, may you be free from harm.'  Some secular teachers use specifically Buddhist terminology like referring to 'all sentient beings.' 

If Christians are uncomfortable with this, the teacher and concerned students could discuss alternate phrasing ('God bless So-and-so' perhaps?) or connect 'sentient beings' to the Christian concepts of 'all God's creatures' and 'stewardship of the earth.'

When I sent a draft of this post to my sister, Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo, she said "my sermon this very Sunday will be about precisely this idea of blessings!! What timing!"

Here's a  passage from Rev. Sunoo's sermon that shows what the experience of lovingkindness can be like for Christians:

"I was taking a short walk at a local park, and then I found a bench, and just sat there for a bit, looking at the sunshine sparkling on the water, feeling the sun on my face, enjoying the leaves beginning to change color, and pretty soon, without even really thinking about it, I realized I had started saying little silent blessings for all of the people walking by. 
God bless the young mom pushing her newborn in a stroller, I thought, because heaven knows that was a hard stage of life: 'The Lord bless you and keep you.' 
God bless the high school kids running around the lake for PE credit, because life can be awfully tough at that age too: 'The Lord make his face to shine upon each one of you and be gracious to you.' 
God bless the older gentleman who’s got walking shoes on with his business clothes, clearly trying to catch a short break and take care of himself, in the midst of a full workday: 'The Lord lift up his countenance upon you.'
And God bless the younger guy who’s pulling his aging golden retriever in a wagon, to give his sweet, furry friend a blessing of his own: 'May the Lord give you both his peace.'
In the midst of rush hour traffic some morning, try catching a glimpse of a nearby driver or two, imagine how their days may have begun, and say a blessing for them: 'The Lord bless you and keep you.' 
Say a blessing for the big bunch of kids goofing around at the bus stop: 'The Lord make his face to shine upon you'… and another for the kid standing at a distance by herself. 'May the peace of Christ be with your spirit, sweet girl.' 
Pray God’s blessing on a family member or a friend... simply asking that they would feel God’s presence with them. 'The Lord bless you and keep you.' 
After all, who among us doesn’t need a blessing?   
God bless us, everyone."


Mindfulness isn't unChristian; in fact, practicing mindfulness can potentially make you a better Christian. You can bring your full attention to the Sunday sermon, or you can let your mind wander while you keep glancing at your phone. You can pray with your full mind and heart, or you can repeat phrases without really thinking about what you’re saying. 

don't want to oversimplify. There's a wide range of perspectives within Christianity, and even clergy from the same denomination don't necessarily see eye to eye on every single issue. That said, when Christians object to mindfulness or meditation, it tends to be based on a misunderstanding of the terminology or a miscommunication with a particular teacher. I've never heard objections from Christians who have a clear understanding of what mindfulness and meditation actually entail.

I'll give Rev. Sunoo the last word:

"We as pastors try to challenge our congregations  to do the Christian life, to act in love, to live in God’s ways and to work for God’s justice. But those kinds of messages are incomplete. 
We should also remember to 'Be still and know that I am God.' (Psalm 46:10) 
How often do we allow people to simply absorb or receive, to soak in a holy moment? 
How often do we allow ourselves, for that matter, simply to sit in the presence of God and receive a blessing? 
We need to rest in or soak up the very love of God we want to share."

You can find a full transcript of Rev. Sunoo's sermon at the Magnolia Presbyterian Church website.  

If you're a Christian looking for more suggestions on how to integrate mindfulness with your devotional practice, I highly recommend Dr. Kraegel's interview on How Christians Can Benefit from Mindfulness Practice, as well as her website You might also be interested in the  video of 'Just Breathe' by Christian pop singer Jonny Diaz; as well as 'Exhale' by Christian rock group Plumb.

*[Update 11/22/18: I heard a few days ago about a mother who did clearly understand what was being offered in her son's class and still chose to have him not participate--so I'm revising my thinking on this point. Update 9/16/19: See Can Christians Practice Mindfulness? (That's the Wrong Question.) ]


related posts:

Can Evangelical Christians Practice Mindfulness?

How Christians and Buddhists Can Teach Each Other About Mindfulness

7 Reasons Mindfulness Might Not 'Work' for Everyone

What Does the Bible Say About Mindfulness and Compassion?