What is mindfulness, really? And is it biblical for Christians to practice it?
Despite the Bible’s numerous references to mindfulness and meditation (Gen 24:63; Josh 1:8; Neh 9:17; Ps 1:2, 19:14, 49:3, 63:6; Ps 77; Ps 104:34; Ps 119; Ps 143:5, 145:5; Daniel 2:30; Zeph 2:7; Heb 2:6; 1 Peter 5:8 – just to name a few), for some Christians, mindfulness and meditation are still linked primarily to eastern religion and therefore considered taboo. While several eastern religions do emphasize meditation and mindfulness, the Bible clearly provides examples of God’s people engaging in these practices as well. Often these practices in Scripture are used in attempts to draw closer to God and to know Him better.
So, mindfulness – what is it? There are several definitions out there, but I’ll share with you the two that I like best! In their article on the importance of emotional intelligence alongside mindfulness, Daniel Goleman and Matthew Lippincott describe mindfulness as: “a method of shifting your attention inward to observe your thoughts, feelings, and actions without interpretation or judgment.” According to ACT therapist Russ Harris, mindfulness basically boils down to:
“paying attention [in the present moment] with flexibility, openness, and curiosity.”
In Psalm 77, Asaph is very aware of his body in the present moment. He references crying aloud (v. 1), stretching out his hand (v. 2), moaning (v. 3), and even the Lord holding his eyelids open in verse four (how’s that for mindfulness?)! He’s very honest about where he’s at emotionally and spiritually, even questioning God’s love and character in verses seven through nine. It takes him getting to the point of questioning God’s goodness in order for him to then remember God’s goodness and faithfulness in the past. The psalm doesn’t tell us if his anguish and suffering are completely relieved, but at the end of the psalm, it’s clear that he is reminded of God’s power and His redemption.
In Deuteronomy 30, God tells His people that they will “call to mind” the blessing and the curse, and return to Him. We also see where a lack of mindfulness can drive us away from God. In Nehemiah 9:17, the people “were not mindful” of what God had done for them, and sought security by appointing a human leader. They sought to avoid their feelings of insecurity and fear by implementing a quick fix, instead of acknowledging these feelings, and recalling what they knew to be true about God.
I barely touched on the Psalms, but there are several passages that address the many benefits of meditation. I encourage you to conduct your own study if you still feel skeptical. Psalm 119 is a good starting point.
Allow me to share a few of the ways that mindfulness has enriched my spiritual journey.
Mindfulness slows me down so that I am less distracted from the things that really matter. Maybe you’re familiar with the story of Mary and Martha hosting Jesus in their home (Luke 10:38-42)—Martha was “worried and distracted by many things.” While these were good things, she was missing “the better part”—sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening. I don’t want to miss the better part of life with God because I’m too distracted by my fleeting worries.
Mindfulness opens my eyes to the tiny-yet-enormous Kingdom of God. Scripture describes this kingdom with metaphors like a mustard seed, yeast, and buried treasure. We don’t notice these things unless we’re really paying attention. Life is hard and messy, and I’m a lot happier and more content when I notice God’s beautiful kingdom sprouting up here in the midst of the mess.
Mindfulness gets me in touch with reality, including my own moment-to-moment experiences, and this allows me to get in touch with what God is doing there. If I’m going to experience spiritual healing and renewal, I need to be connecting with the reality of the present moment—the only place to meet God.
Mindfulness strips me of my illusions of control. It lets me be a beginner, reminding me that I am not God. It brings me back to a place of delightful dependence on my Maker, allowing me to rest in divine care rather than pushing, pulling, and jerking on life with ineffective striving. It helps me to “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” (Mark 10:15), stepping out of my overthinking grownup tendencies, just as Jesus asks.
How can you practice mindfulness and being present if you’re brand new to the concept?
One of my favorite mindfulness activities involves candy! Put a small piece of chocolate in your mouth and set a timer for a minute. Pay attention to that piece of candy in your mouth using your senses. What flavors can you taste? How does it feel against your tongue? Your teeth? The roof of your mouth? What can you smell? How does it feel as you swallow? Paying attention to the candy in this way, not only increases your mindfulness of the present moment, it usually prolongs your enjoyment of the experience!
You can also try a simple breathing exercise. This activity is adapted from a textbook on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a mode of therapy that emphasizes mindfulness, by Russ Harris:
“Take ten slow, deep breaths. Focus on breathing out as slowly as possible until your lungs completely empty—and then allow them to refill by themselves. Notice the sensations of your lungs emptying. Notice them refilling. Notice your rib cage rising and falling. Notice the gentle rise and fall of your shoulders… Simultaneously notice your breathing and your body. Then look around the room and notice what you can see, hear, smell, touch, and feel.”
If you’re looking for a guide for your mindfulness practice, there are apps for that! I love the free app, Insight Timer.
It’s important to remember when you’re practicing mindfulness (especially in the beginning) that it is completely normal for thoughts to wander during mindfulness exercises. Don’t beat yourself up when this happens! Just come back to your breath (or candy) and finish your exercise. The point is not to have no thoughts, but to be present in the moment.