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Shortreads

The Absent-Minded Christian: Self-Talk, Self-Awareness, and the Christian Life

David Wang

Why is Christian mindfulness important?

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Biola University / Associate Editor of the Journal of Psychology and Theology
June 22, 2015

I’ve been acting like an absent-minded professor long before I actually became one. I am often so engrossed in my own world that I forget to keep track of my surroundings: running on automatic pilot as I walk (and even drive) from place to place, forgetting people’s names as soon as I’ve been told it for the first time, breaking or spilling things as I clumsily trudge through my day. Most people don’t realize it, but the consequences of this lack of awareness may become dire when it is applied to the landscape of the inner voice(s) that seem to constantly run inside our heads.

Psychologists call these inner voices “self-talk,” which encompass not only our conscious thoughts, but also our unconscious beliefs or assumptions about ourselves, others, and/or the world. If and when one’s self-talk is brought to the fore (which can be a daunting task since most of us feel that it would be too shameful or vulnerable to disclose), you’d be surprised to find out just how much of people’s minds are occupied with voices that address themselves in profoundly cruel, condemning, hopeless, and self-defeating ways. It is a fair question to wonder whether the mental landscape of Christians—even those of us who self-identify as born-again—are any different. My strong suspicion is that for the most part, the answer to this question is “no.”

The Meaning of Mindfulness

This helps explain why mindfulness-based practices have become so popular and widely applied among Christians and non-Christians alike. But first, let’s briefly review what mindfulness actually is.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness consists of “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” [1] What can be gleaned from the preceding statement is that mindfulness incorporates at least two foundational activities: first, an attentional component whereby one’s conscious awareness is sustained to what is immediately occurring in the present moment, and second, an affectionate, compassionate quality within this attending to the present moment, whereby one sustains a sense of open-hearted, nonjudgmental, friendly presence and interest.

“Self-Compassion”

The term “self-compassion” highlights this affectionate, compassionate quality of mindful attending; Kristen Neff explains that as compassion can be understood as being open to and moved by the suffering of others, self-compassion can be similarly understood as an openness to being moved by one’s own suffering—that is, to take an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude towards one’s own inadequacies and failures, recognizing that one’s own experience is part of common human experience.[2] It’s amazing to consider how for many of us, it is so much easier to be moved with compassion towards the suffering of others and comparatively so much more difficult to be moved with compassion towards our own suffering. Or perhaps more specifically for Christians, it is as if we believe (at least in practice) that everyone in God’s good creation deserves grace except ourselves. Would it not be tragic for people like this to be in such close proximity to the good news of the gospel—to even eagerly offer it to others—and yet remain so far from tasting the fullness of it for themselves?

It is as if we believe that everyone in God’s good creation deserves grace except ourselves.

 

 

Speaking to the benefits of mindfulness, the findings of research are staggering, with new discoveries and applications continually being made. To name a few, we currently know that mindfulness decreases depression and anxiety, assuages chronic pain, treats binge eating, helps people quit smoking, and reduces both alcohol and illicit substance use. Additionally, mindfulness increases gray matter density in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory (i.e., the hippocampus), stimulates one’s bodily immune response, promotes better sleep quality, assists weight loss, improves overall emotional well being, clarifies one’s sense of life purpose, helps people more effectively cope through life stressors, and enhances work engagement, satisfaction and performance—even when workers are subjected to hostile or unsupportive work environments.

Buddhists, Monks, and Contemporary Christians

Although mindfulness practices were originally drawn from centuries-long Buddhist meditative practices (historically, mindfulness has been described as the “heart” of Buddhist meditation), the application of mindfulness-related concepts and practices within the context of Western mental health is typically done in a manner that is independent from its original religious and cultural traditions.

Christian mindfulness is one that holds both the self and God within one’s conscious awareness.

However, notably, like-concepts and practices are also well represented within distinctly Christian spiritual traditions, spanning the desert monastic movements of the first and second centuries all the way to the present day. While I don’t believe that these Christian practices are one and the same with the Buddhist conceptualization of mindfulness, I do believe that they offer a robust and compelling precedent for Christians to cultivate and reap the benefits of a sharpened, open-postured, and attentive state of being without feeling the need to leave the context of their own religious tradition. In other words, these historical Christian practices can serve as helpful guides for Christians today to practice Christian mindfulness in their everyday lives.

Exhibiting Christian Mindfulness

A few examples that I would like to highlight here are Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God and Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s The Sacrament of the Present Moment. While I don’t have the space to deliberate on either of them in depth, I would like to, nonetheless, draw your attention to some common themes shared between the two works. I hope that this may whet your appetite and serve as an invitation for you to discover and explore what mindful Christian spirituality might be like for yourself through these spiritual writings.

Both Brother Lawrence and de Caussade similarly articulate a mindful Christian spirituality that is characterized not only by a conscious, moment-by-moment awareness of one’s own inner landscape (although it is important to note that this quality is still prominent in both authors), but perhaps more importantly, a sustained, moment-by-moment attentiveness to the presence of God. This is perhaps the greatest distinction between conventional mindfulness and Christian mindfulness, for Christian mindfulness is one that holds both the self and God within one’s conscious awareness.

Not only so, this awareness of God is ultimately an awareness of the continuous unfolding of God’s love. And believers are not only aware of God’s love, they are to continually receive this love. This act of receiving may entail movement towards a state of surrender, of contentment in divine will and providence, of taking delight in and conversing lovingly with Him at every moment, without limitations (and this would apply most keenly during those times in life when the Christian feels the least Christianly, when they are heavily burdened under the weight of shame).

The guilt that typically plagues Christians after moral failure does not seem to burden these men significantly. It is not that they take sin lightly; rather, their moment-by-moment awareness of their total dependence on God spares them the need to mull over their failure, to make resolutions to try harder, or to be surprised or shocked that they were capable of such wrongdoing.

And finally, I would like to leave you with a passage of Scripture that prominently emerges in both works and is (from my opinion) indispensable to the notion of Christian mindfulness: John 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”

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