What is Mindfulness?

What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
Psalm 8:4

Mindfulness is trendy these days. Hospitals teach mindfulness to reduce their patients’ anxiety and promote healing. Businesses teach mindfulness to help employees increase productivity and avoid burnout. Universities offer mindfulness classes to help students focus more and reduce stress. Therapists train depressed clients in mindfulness so they can notice and let go of negative thoughts that sustain depression and anxiety.

Increased productivity, better focus, stress reduction, letting go — these are all important reasons to explore mindfulness. But why should we as God’s beloved care about mindfulness? Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline that dates back to the earliest days of the church.

Why Should Jesus’ Followers Practice Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, defines mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, without judgment, in the moment and to things as they are.

Jesus provides the perfect example of mindfulness. Mindfulness is not a goal; rather it is a means that enables us to live into the life God wants for us. It is the how that enables us to rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). It is the how that enables us to put on the clothes of God’s chosen people (Colossians 3:12-15). It is the how that allows us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength (Mark 12:30-31).

Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness

Have you ever danced without thinking or caring how you looked, just one with the music? Maybe you’ve listened so intently to a friend share a painful memory that you didn’t notice the tears streaming down your cheeks. You may have watched a sunset reflected on a lake not thinking just feeling awe at the miracle of God’s creation. These are moments of mindfulness, when just being present transcends wandering thoughts and self-consciousness.

All of us experience mindfulness sometimes. Research indicates people are mindful about 47% of the time on average. We recognize mindfulness most readily when doing some activity we love. It’s just you in the moment with whatever you are doing — gardening, listening to music, reading poetry, savoring the first bite of a new dish, playing an instrument, singing, running, lifting weights, working at your job, volunteering — or something else. Other activities demand mindfulness. It’s dangerous to operate a circular saw or drill press if you’re not paying attention. If you don’t cook mindfully, you spill hot liquids, burn the food, miss an ingredient or cut yourself.

Anything we do can be done mindfully. Being fully engaged, without judgment, focused on one thing in the present moment — that’s what it means to do something mindfully. Of course, anything we can do mindfully we also can do mindlessly.

Have you ever driven to work deep in thought and not remembered anything about the drive? Maybe you turned on Netflix with the plan to watch one episode of your favorite show. Three episodes later you realize it’s midnight and you have to go to work in the morning. You’re half listening to the Sunday sermon and half making a to-do-list for the rest of the day. When a friend asks about the sermon, you are clueless. You are mindless when you’re doing one thing but your mind is elsewhere. You’re on autopilot, reacting to whatever stimuli come in without stopping to think about how to respond.

When we are on autopilot, we miss the beauty of God’s creation. We know facts but we fail to understand. We miss the richness that solitude and silence bring to life. In our constant doing, we fail to recognize God’s loving presence. Instead, we substitute false idols, putting Facebook likes, celebrity idols and mindless striving above God. Isaiah (40:18) describes the consequences of autopilot, They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.

What is Mindfulness?

We intentionally seek to maintain moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, urges, emotions and body sensations as they shift and change in response to the surrounding environment. We pay attention with a nonjudgmental attitude as an impartial witness who simply observes without taking sides. We focus on what is happening inside and outside ourselves as it is in this moment – not a nostalgic clinging to the past or idealized, unrealistic expectations for the future. We focus on what is not what we want, expect or believe should be.

Mindfulness is a practice. It is the practice of bringing our wandering minds back to the present moment over and over (and over) again. It is a way of being in the world fully engaged here and now, noticing when our minds are reliving the past or worrying about the future. Moment to moment, we notice what we see, hear, taste, feel and smell from the external environment. Internally, we notice our thoughts, urges, emotions and body sensations.

It is both a means and an end. As a means, mindfulness keeps us ready for the arrival of the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-10), ready at any moment to rest in God’s loving presence. As an end, being mindfully ready to rest in God’s presence at any moment leads to greater happiness, compassion, joy and a host of other benefits.

Mindfulness is Paying Attention

Mindfulness requires paying attention in a particular way:

  • on purpose
  • in the present moment
  • without judgment
  • focuses on what is

Mindfulness is on Purpose

When we are mindful, we intentionally choose to direct our attention to the present moment . We notice there is a choice and we respond thoughtfully using our conscious mind.

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, describes the process. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space, we have power to choose our response. Being mindfully present creates that space. It gives us time to think about how we want to respond consistent with our faith, even if for just a few seconds. With each thoughtful response, we grow closer to God and the freedom He promises.

On autopilot, there is no space. There is a stimulus and we react almost immediately. The stimulus may be a an urge that comes to us, an automatic thought, an emotion, body sensation or external event. We have an immediate knee-jerk reaction. There is no space to choose.

The reaction might be a flood of mindless thoughts. (Research indicates up to 70% of these will be negative). It might be name-calling, yelling or physical harm to yourself or someone else. It could be body sensations — a racing heart, clenched jaw, muscle tension or pain.

At any point, we can return to mindfulness. It’s like waking up to what is here and now. When we wake up from the prison of autopilot reactions, we see options and can make intentional choices again. When we are mindful, we are free to be the person God created us to be — conscious, loving, forgiving and grateful.

Mindfulness Focuses on the Present Moment

Without intentional effort, our mind habitually wanders away from the present moment more than half our waking hours. It easily gets caught up in mindlessly rehashing the past and worrying about the future.

Both the past and future are stories we tell ourselves. While the past happened at a moment in time, our memories are biased and incomplete. The future only exists in our imagination.

The only moment that is real is this very moment — the split second when we choose one course of action over another. In the present moment we are aware of the stimulus and we can create space for a thoughtful response. We can participate fully in whatever experiences arise in the moment — an emotion, an interaction with a friend, a situation, a thought or an urge.

Mindfulness is Nonjudgmental

As humans we are hardwired to judge. When sabertooth tigers roamed the earth, our ancestors had to make constant judgments. Survival depended on snap judgments: is this situation safe or unsafe? is this food good or bad? is this person friend or enemy? In our modern world, snap judgments are generally not required for survival.

We are hardwired to have a negative bias as well. It made sense in the context of sabertooth tigers. It was better to err on the side of caution and assume the worst than get killed by that tiger. In our modern world, making snap judgments and assuming the worst more likely make us chronically miserable than save our lives.

In our modern world, making snap or automatic judgments as a way of being increases our fear, leaving us in a state of high alert, chronic anxiety and near constant worry. Jesus admonished, Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life …  can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?   Matthew 6:25-27 He promises to … never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid …  Deuteronomy 31:8 Our unwillingness to trust God’s promise separates us from his love.

When we are in the habit of making snap judgments, we make other thinking errors. In math, when A = B = C, we know that A = C. In others areas of our lives, this logic gives our negative snap judgments lasting power over us. My mother says it’s bad to be fat (A). I am fat (B). Therefore, I am bad (C). God loves obedience (A). I am not obedient (B). Therefore, God does not love me (C). You can see how easily this happens in our own lives.

That’s not to say all judgments are bad. That would be an automatic judgment. While mindless snap judgments and worry separate us from God, mindful evaluation, assessment and discernment can bring us closer to God. When we create a space to mindfully evaluate or discern the best course of action consistent with our faith, God is part of the process. We put our trust in his promise not to leave or forsake us. We recognize God’s presence in our life in that moment.

Mindfulness Focuses on What Is

When we want things to be different than they are, we create tension within ourselves. Regardless of the feasibility, we make choices based on what we want versus what is. Of course, we are dissatisfied with the outcome. It’s like saying I’ll be happy when I get a job. I’ll be happy when I get a raise. I’ll be happy when I get married. I’ll be happy when we buy a house. No matter what I achieve, I want more. The fact is I’ll never be happy until I can be grateful for what is in this moment.

When practicing mindfulness we don’t try to control, suppress or stop our experiences — thoughts, emotions, information from our five senses, body sensations and urges. In fact, the more we try, the more relentless they become. Think about a time when you had an itch. The more you focused on not scratching it; the stronger the urge to scratch grew. When you accepted the itch, the urge lessened.

Instead of trying to stop or control things, we simply do our best to pay attention to our experiences as they arise without judging or labeling them. Instead of fighting the experience, we accept it. That doesn’t mean we resign ourselves to accept the experience for all time. Rather it means, the experience is what it is in this very moment. We learn what we can from it and move on. Next time the stimulus arises, we create the space to make a different choice, if possible.

When we are mindful, we observe our experiences as they arise without getting caught up in them and swept away in their current. As an observer, we’re less likely to fall into old habitual ways of thinking and living. Acceptance frees us to be open to and curious about the next experience and the next and the next. It creates the opportunity to grow with each new experience.

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