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Christians Have Been Practicing Mindfulness for Centuries

Practicing Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is a big deal in today’s culture. Businesses such as Apple, sports figures such as basketball player Kobe Bryant, and the popular press such as Time magazine have all given it their stamp of approval. Governments are spending hundreds of millions of dollars researching it[1] and it has become a billion dollar a year business[2] In fact, Apple chose a mindfulness app as their app of the year for 2017.[3] But, should Christians embrace it? Yes, because mindfulness in the Christian tradition has support in Scripture and church history. It’s a lost spiritual discipline that believers should reclaim. I define mindfulness for the Christian with these two words: Holy Noticing. Holy noticing is noticing with a holy purpose, God and His handiwork, our relationships, and our inner world of thoughts and feelings.

Although mindfulness is no panacea that solves every problem, neuroscientific research continues to uncover many practical benefits. Here are the top 10 benefits of mindfulness, holy noticing, for the Christian.

1. Practicing mindfulness helps us avoid spiritual forgetting.

In the book of Psalms, the psalmist records what often happens to us in our walk with God: Our mental chatter and the stories we tell ourselves often leads us to forget God, what He has done, and what He is doing, at least temporarily. 

Mindfulness, however, can help us counter our tendency to spiritually forget God. It helps interrupt our thought stream that often gets hooked on unhealthy regrets and ruminations about the past, misrepresentations about the present, and worries about the future. It helps us spiritually remember by calming our brain’s fear centers while simultaneously engaging our thinking centers so that we can think more clearly and biblically. 

2. Practicing mindfulness enhances our mental health.

Neuroscientists have discovered specific brain processes involved in mindfulness. It helps keep negative emotions from running unchecked[4] and helps us avoid wrong assumptions and incorrect thought patterns.[5] It gives us greater awareness of our internal body sensations[6] which can cue unhealthy, unconscious thinking patterns. And it helps us ‘think about our thinking’ which make us consciously aware of unhealthy and sinful thinking.[7] We might call this mental reflection the Apostle Paul wrote about in Philippians 4.8.

As a result, this way of life helps us more consistently act upon truth since we have the mind of Christ (2 Cor 10.5, NIV). We think more biblically as we put into our working memory (also called short term memory) more truth (Phil 4.8). We become more present in the moment for God and others. And we less often ruminate over negative thoughts.

3. Practicing mindfulness increases our happiness by changing our interior landscape.

We are the product of both nature and nurture. That is, we inherited certain genetic traits from our parents’ genes (nature) and how they raised us also fashions who we are (nurture). Just as we received certain physical traits from our parents, we also inherited some of their mental and emotional natures. And genetics influences our happiness.

Psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research[8] indicates that 50 percent of individual differences in happiness are determined by genes, 10 percent by life circumstances, and 40 percent by our intentional activities. So, 40 percent gives us significant latitude in how we can shape our happiness with God’s help. Mindfulness can help make a difference with that 40 percent. 

A mindful lifestyle enhances the brain’s ability to rewire itself through experience, thoughts, and behavior. It’s called neuroplasticity. That is, the brain is more like pliable putty than rigid porcelain. What we think about and do changes our brain. When mindfulness affects neuroplasticity it’s like an electrician running new wiring to bring a house up to code. 

4. Practicing mindfulness helps us live more as human ‘beings’ rather than human ‘doings.’

God created us with incredible minds that allow us to solve intricate problems. But sometimes our problem-solving mode does not serve us well. When we face emotional pain and stressful thoughts, we try to solve these problems. Why do I feel this way? Where did these thoughts and feelings come from? What can I do to make them go away? 

This problem-solving mode is called the doing mode. The doing mode tricks us to believe that productivity, speed and efficiency are ultimate goals in life. When we stay in our doing mode, it is like being on autopilot all the time. We act with little clear thinking.

Our being mode gives us a new perspective that frees us from overthinking, mentally reacting and allowing afflictive emotions or thoughts to snowball. In the being mode we actually stay closer to Truth, which in turn frees us. Jesus said in John 8.32 that when we know the truth, it sets us free. Knowing the truth in Jesus and knowing the truth about the present moment does indeed set us free. And mindfulness helps us ‘be’ in the moment more often.

5. Practicing mindfulness helps us learn to live in the valleys of life with more peace.

Researchers have categorized mindfulness as either a trait (a lifestyle, habit or disposition stable over time)[9] or a state (temporary and may be induced by our current situation). As you grow in your ability to make mindfulness more of a trait in your life, you will more often bring an awareness of God’s presence to your mind, heart and activities, a posture Paul describes as praying without ceasing (1 Thes 5.17, NIV).

Devotional writer Oswald Chambers illustrates this state versus trait idea when he writes about mountain top experiences versus living in the valley. He says that we are made for living in the valleys of life not in the mountain top experiences, even though we may want to live there.[10] He writes, “It is in the valley that we have to live for the glory of God. We see His glory on the mountain, but we never live for His glory there.[11]

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Dr. Charles Stone is Lead Pastor at West Park Church in London, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of five books including Holy Noticing: The Bible, Your Brain, and the Mindful Space Between Moments (Moody Press, 2019). His sixth book coming in October by Equip Press, will be Every Pastor's First 180 Days: How to start and stay strong in a new church job.