Should we mind “mindfulness”?

“Mindfulness”. It’s been embraced by Google, Transport for London, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Parliament. It’s encouraged by the NHS. And now our children are coming home from school, telling us it’s part of their lessons. What is it? and should we, as parents, be concerned? 

What is it?

Here’s Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition, who set up the Stress Reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts, and is one of the founders of the idea:  

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

“Mindfulness” comes in all shapes and sizes. It offers a variety of meditation techniques, from simple exercises, like touching your index finger and thumb together for a minute, through guided meditations on apps and YouTube, to full-blown eight-week courses. It’s highly adaptable, you don’t need to buy anything, and you can start these habits anywhere. It promises all kinds of mental-health benefits, with scientific proof to back it up. 

Where’s it from? Is it religious?

You’ll find different answers to that question. Some sites claim that it’s not religious, but is just a set of techniques that have proven to be psychologically helpful. They are “harmless” and “innocent” practices that it’s great for our children to be learning. Some of it has similarities to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). But you don’t need to scratch too hard to see the Buddhist background to the concept and many of the techniques. Kabat-Zinn, one of the founders of the idea, was a student of Zen Buddhist teachers. He helped start the Cambridge Zen Centre. The Oxford Mindfulness Centre has been promoting “mindfulness” in the UK since 2008, and a number of its trustees have Buddhist connections. 

In his book, “Mindful America”, the Buddhist author, Jeff Wilson, writes: “Over the past three decades, mindfulness has gone from being an obscure Asian religious technique to a widely touted panacea and a serious money-making industry”. His book argues that as Buddhism moves into new cultures, the new culture will always cherry-pick the bits it likes, and in so doing, develop new varieties of Buddhism. So, with “mindfulness”, the West is picking the bits of Buddhism it likes, but, rather than stripping the techniques of their religious roots, Buddhism is just recreating itself. 

What we often don’t realise is that Buddhism, and Hinduism, from which it comes, is not “religious” in the way that we in the West think of religion. It teaches a monistic philosophy in which all is one. It’s not actually a set of beliefs to be embraced, but a set of habits to be practiced. The techniques deliberately aim to foster a sense of “connection”, between our minds, our bodies and the world around us, which is all part of the “one-ness” of Indian religion. But “connection” isn’t a neutral thing – it’s confusing the creature with the Creator (Rom 1:25).

Even in the simplest definitions of “mindfulness”, like the one above, we should be able to spot the problems. A key phrase in all the definitions I’ve seen is “non-judgmentally”. All this mindfulness is “without judgment”. Surely, that should sound some alarm bells?! “without judgment”… “without judgment”… “without judgment”. These habits are deliberately training us to suspend our critical faculties and live in the moment. 

How should we react to it? 

The way mindfulness has swept into UK life and schools shows us that secularism has left a big, God-shaped hole in our lives; that’s what mindfulness is seeking to fill. In many ways, it’s prayer packaged in a secular form. Rather than teaching our children to pray to the true and living God, through Jesus his Son, our schools now teach them stripped-back versions of eastern religion. We are, after all, incurably religious. 

I suspect its popularity is also due to the fact that we live in a rushed world, where our devices stop us concentrating, and we struggle to slow down. Meditation is a biblical concept. “You shall meditate on the Book of the Law day and night” (Josh 1:8); “on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2).  I suspect these are practices that most of us struggle with. It’s hard to sit still and think about a Bible verse even for 2 minutes. Our private prayer lives can be very distracted, and ill-disciplined. So, these very practical techniques that “mindfulness” offers should spur us on to practice “self-control” ourselves. We do need to learn as Christians to “be still” and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). 

So, should we be OK with our children practicing “mindfulness” at school? I think not. We shouldn’t be naive about the neutrality of these exercises. The gospel doesn’t teach our children to turn inwards, but outwards. Paul didn’t write: “Set your mind on your breathing; set your mind on the present moment, without judgment “. He wrote: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth” (Col 3:2). This is the kind of mindfulness we’re called to. Let’s have some friendly conversations with their teachers, teach our children what their minds are really for, and fill up their minds with Jesus Christ, so that they experience real, lasting “connection” with God.