Distraction has become a cultural epidemic, and mindfulness meditation is often suggested as a cure for this modern malady. Indeed, mindfulness has been shown to improve the mental well-being of many of its practitioners. However, along with other wellness practices such as yoga and Tai Chi, mindfulness finds its origins in Eastern religion and philosophy (Buddhism, to be specific). So, naturally, the question is often asked: Is it OK for a Christian to practice mindfulness?
The goal of mindfulness meditation is simply to become more aware of the present. This is an excellent goal in an age where we fill any lull in our day by gazing at a screen. Our minds are far too often distracted from the present moment, dwelling on situations that have not yet happened or wishing what has already happened could be changed. Christians would do well to learn how to be aware of the present. However, the Buddhist method of mindfulness may not be the best way to do so.
Both The Guardian and The Atlantic have reported on negative side-effects resulting from certain meditative practices, including mindfulness. Meditation as a self-centered spiritual practice without Christ as the focus has the potential to be harmful. However, there is a way to practice mindfulness while focusing on Christ and protecting our mind and spirit.
Not all mindfulness is created equal
Christ-centered mindfulness is nothing new and is not merely a sanctified version of the Buddhist practice. The practice of Christian mindfulness has long been known in the church as nepsis or watchfulness, and is closely related to prayer and contemplation. The practice of watchfulness is based on passages such as Matthew 26:41, Luke 21:36 and 1 Peter 5:7-9.
Both self-driven mindfulness and Christ-driven watchfulness may be practiced while sitting in silence, paying attention to one’s breathing, and being aware of one’s thoughts. The difference is that in the former, both good and evil thoughts are dismissed without judgment in order to refocus on the present moment. In watchfulness, any evil thought is to be killed through prayer (James 1:14-15). This may sound like a nuanced difference, but it is an important one. Mindfulness is done through one’s own effort. Watchfulness is a recognition of and participation in the transformative work of Christ.
The goal of watchfulness is not only to be aware of the present moment, but to discern it and to recognize Christ’s presence in it. As we learn to take each thought captive, we begin to reject the ways of the world and embrace the renewal of our minds. Ideally, as our minds are transformed, our words and our actions will be affected as well. We are told to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to bridle the tongue to find true life in Christ. Watchfulness can help us do this.
“I’m very concerned that our society is much more interested in information than wonder. In noise, rather than silence.” — Fred Rogers
If you would like to leave our noisy world behind for a moment and intentionally practice watchfulness, here’s what the process can look like:
- Take some time out of your day, even if it’s only 5-10 minutes (it might be too difficult to do more than that initially).
- Do not create expectations for this time. Having great expectations that are then potentially unmet may make you feel discouraged and frustrated. This is a discipline that takes time to do well.
- Find a quiet place to sit. It may be helpful to designate a certain space in your house for this purpose.
- Notice your breathing and breathe deeply through your diaphragm to calm your mind (most of us don’t breathe properly).
- As you enter this time, close your eyes. Contemplate the reality that you are in the presence of God the Father, who is over all and whose Spirit dwells in you if you are His. This is a time for you to be with God.
- If you find it difficult to simply focus on the presence of God, dwell on a truth about God or a teaching of Christ and remember that He is there with you.
- When a thought comes that distracts you from focusing on God’s presence, do not become frustrated. Gently return to your time with Him by saying a prayer to help you refocus. “Christ Jesus, have mercy on me” is a traditional example.
Setting aside time for practicing watchfulness is helpful, but watchfulness is not limited to this time. Christ is always with us and willing to transform our minds as we go about our day. As the enemy attempts to draw us away from God and into temptation, we learn through watchfulness how to be ready and to respond with prayer in every situation.
The benefits of watchfulness
I am an anxious person. I also have never been good at prayer. When I would try to pray, my mind would become so distracted that I would get discouraged and simply not do it. I’ve been practicing watchfulness for about a year now and it has helped me to both focus in prayer and fight off anxious patterns of thought (though I still have a long way to go in both areas). It has helped me to think about my thoughts and the motivations behind them, to better control my actions and reactions to certain situations, to realize that prayer does not always need to be done with words, and to recognize Christ’s transformative work in my life. Most importantly, I feel like I have grown in my understanding of who God is.
While watchfulness is more well-known in certain Christian traditions, there are many Christians who have never heard of it. My hope is that it will resurface as a common spiritual practice in the church.
The enemy wants to keep us distracted because distraction keeps us from being present with God and with others. It keeps our minds anxious, stressed and unprepared to respond to the temptations that come our way. Instead of giving in to distraction, be watchful. Christ is always ready and willing to transform our minds, we just need to take the time to be still and know Him.
Copyright 2019 James Clapper. All rights reserved.