Hearts and Minds: Hearts and Mindfulness

Both of my children went through mindfulness exercises as part of an approved New Zealand Ministry of Education school curriculum; and both thought the mindfulness exercises were slightly “off” in some way.

I had only come across mindfulness on social media but was not inclined to look into it in any detail. When my children brought the topic up, I was motivated to check it out. I did a little research, talked to schoolteachers, looked at the Ministry of Education approved curriculum, and then went a little further and confirmed what my intuition was saying: mindfulness has its foundation and framework in Buddhism.[1] What is being practiced around the globe is a culturally mediated form of Buddhist meditation wherein the goal is to find calm amidst the bustle of modern living in order to find peace and inner harmony. With associated breathing exercises, a state of inner peace can be achieved where levels of stress and anxiety are said to diminish or even be eradicated.

It is important to know what the origins and goals of mindfulness are, so we as Christians can discern if this is a good practice or not. Mindfulness guru and influencer Jon Kabat-Zinn is often cited in New Zealand and abroad as the leading figure in the retrieval of mindfulness in the West. Kabat-Zinn runs the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and has written several books. Kabat-Zinn rightly alerts us to the challenges we face as modern people living in a fast-paced society and he provides ample evidence of the caustic effects society has on the psyche.[2] But how is mindfulness the solution? Mindfulness is the practice of being attentive and aware of what is going on, of being in the present or in the moment. By meditating on the action of breathing, mindfulness trains us to focus and be attentive and to not be distracted. Mindfulness of our breathing is said to calm the body, ease the mind, and de-stress the psyche.[3] Adopting a formal sitting position, or focusing on good posture, and sometimes using yoga, mindfulness teaches attentiveness and presence. Deeper than that, and more foundationally, mindfulness is the seventh element of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.[4] The ultimate goal of mindfulness is to reach Nirvana, that state of freedom from thirst, desire, suffering, self, and change. In the culturally mediated form mindfulness takes in society and in schools, the person is taught to focus, to concentrate, to be attentive to something, to anything; to be in the present. In its Buddhist form, mindfulness ultimately denies the existence of anything outside of the self and is a learnt practice of being self-sufficient.

New Zealander’s live in an overly industrialized, modernist, and individualized society that seems uniquely designed to create stress and anxiety. So, programmes, techniques, and practices that can relieve stress and anxiety, especially amongst young people, are generally to be encouraged. But as the saying goes, all that glitters is not gold. Followers of Christ are given ample ways to find peace and calmness, to de-stress and relieve anxiety. Contrary to Buddhist meditation, even if in our state school system it may be called “pause, breathe, smile,” we do not have all the answers to life hidden within us, simply waiting to be called out.[5] Rather, Christians are repeatedly told to fill our minds, to focus our thoughts, and to orient ourselves—not to nothing and no one, and certainly not to the self—but to God and his Word. Where mindfulness tells us to be present, to focus, and to be attentive, Christianity says to do that by means of Christ and the Spirit, Scripture and spirituality, personal engagement and relationships. In short, Christian mediation tells us to be filled and focus on the beauty of God.[6] Mindfulness tells us not to think but to be, as Russ Harris defines it: 

Mindfulness is an awareness process, not a thinking process. It involves bringing awareness or paying attention to your experience in the moment as opposed to being ‘caught up’ in your thoughts.[7]

In a flurry of biblical texts, we may recall some of how God’s Word tells us to deal with stress and anxiety; ways that ultimately run counter to the practice of mindfulness.[8] In Psalm 55:22 we read: "Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you."[9] The start of Christian meditation is the acknowledgement of God’s presence; he is the ultimate reality and the One we want to commune with. Proverbs 3:5–6 tells us to "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths." The path to peace and enlightenment is not within us, it is found only in God. Jesus gives us that lovely invitation in Matthew 11:28–30:

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

John 14:27 assures us with the words of Christ, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid." And Peter gives us two words of timely truth. 1 Peter 5:6–7, "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." And finally, 2 Peter 1:4–8,

For by these he has granted us his precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence … and knowledge … and self-control … and perseverance … and godliness … and kindness … and love” (NAB).

If mindfulness, as it is practiced in much of our schools, is simply about finding peace in the present, then that is a good thing, and it has a real place in our busy lives. When mindfulness is developed and the Buddhism behind the practice comes to the fore, then we face problems. Losing oneself in oneself is a sure recipe to find the same self you set out to lose! Mindfulness in its Buddhist fatigues is effectively a blind guide down a dark alley—the first few steps may be pleasant until you trip over or knock your head on something unseen. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s words to this effect when he wrote:

Some people think that after this life, or perhaps after several lives, human souls will be ‘absorbed’ into God. But when they try to explain what they mean, they seem to be thinking of our being absorbed into God as one material thing absorbed into another. ... If this is what happens to us, then being absorbed is the same as ceasing to exist. It is only the Christians who have any idea of how human souls can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves – in fact, very much more themselves than they were before ... The whole purpose for which we exist is to be thus taken into the life of God.[10]

The Christian vision of life is not to lose yourself by finding yourself, it is to lose yourself in God and in the process find your true self in him. The true self, according to Christianity, is to know yourself as a daughter or son of God the Father, in direct relationship with the eternal Son, filled and empowered by God the Holy Spirit. The cultural form of mindfulness we see exploding around us today can be a first step toward Christian meditation, and when it is, it is to be encouraged. But when mindfulness becomes its own goal, and the deeper Buddhist principles become overt, then this is problematic for the Christian as it pits the self against God and all other reality. The way to deal with stress, anxiety, and distraction is to meditate on God and his Word: this is the way to strengthen your hearts and mindfulness.

Myk Habets is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Laidlaw College, and Senior Research Fellow, Australian College of Theology.

[1] Typically a form of philosophical or Zen Buddhism.

[2] See Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (New York: Bantam Dell, 2005).

[3] The biomedical changes that occur with deep and slow breathing have been well documented as have the physical benefits that ensue as the pH of the blood rebalances, relieving panic attacks and hyperventilation.

[4] John Snelling, The Buddhist Handbook, (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1991), 52–55.

[5] Chronic stress and anxiety in individuals may require professional medical or psychiatric treatment. I am not saying that meditation alone, even on Scripture, is a panacea for all anxiety.

[6] See further in Christopher Kies, “An Orthodox Christian response to Mindfulness,”

[7] Russ Harris, ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (New Oakland, CA: Harbinger Publications, 2009), 8.

[8] For a helpful list of verses with very short descriptions see Jackie Frere, “20 Bible Verses to Help You Deal With and Manage Stress,” Woman’s Day (Jul 28, 2019):

[9] Unless stated, all biblical texts from the ESV.

[10] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fount, 1952), 137–38.