What is a Christian to make of mindfulness? Let’s start with Psalm 131:1-2, why not read it out loud, slowly?
My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quietened my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
I often use this psalm; it helps me to get into the right frame of mind for prayer. It also shines a biblical light on the practice of mindfulness. To show you how, please come and meditate with me…
I’m sitting in my favourite chair, feet on the floor, hands in my lap, my eyes closed. Beginning with my feet I give deliberate attention to each part of my body, working slowly upwards. My lower back it is really hurting today. Anxiety number one; I can’t control the pain in my body, and the Tramadol isn’t working.
Now I shift the focus onto my breathing. I feel calm, but random thoughts keep intruding; “What about…” (that’s anxiety number two), and “Has my..?“ (anxiety number three). These scary intrusive thoughts can take over and dominate my mindscape. Sometimes, those flights of imagination can terrify me.
But in the Psalm, the writer says, ‘I do not concern myself with great matters… but I have stilled and quieted my soul’. The 'great matters' are things the writer cannot control, so he sets them on one side refusing to let them occupy his mind. Mindfulness works the same way; I acknowledge that the worrying stuff exists, but focus instead on my breathing. With practise, those anxieties don’t derail my psyche. I learn to be ‘In this moment’.
After a while, I'm feeling very calm, very still.
Psalm 131 is – almost – mindfulness. But there is an important difference. In mindful meditation, I focus on my breathing, or my sense of being in my own body, to nurture a sense of calm. But in David’s song his focus is on the Lord, with whom he has an astonishingly intimate connection, ‘Like a weaned child with its mother’.
If mindfulness is a search for peace within myself, drawing on my own resources, Christian meditation seeks peace from God. That is why David finishes Psalm 131 with an appeal to all God’s people, ‘Israel, put your hope in the Lord, both now and for evermore’.
In mindfulness, my hope is in myself. Christian meditation is gaining a deeper peace by trusting someone much, much greater. Jesus put it like this: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
Mindfulness and me
I started practising mindfulness out of curiosity, just to find out how it worked. I now do a version of mindfulness – with Christian knobs on – regularly. It is a helpful discipline that enhances my ability to focus my attention and not be hijacked by intrusive thoughts.
We sing about stillness (‘Be still, for the presence of the Lord…) and we read about stillness (‘Be still and know that I am God’ – Psalm 34:10), but actually being still is quite a challenge.
The skills I have learned through mindful meditation have helped me towards the stillness I need for prayer, worship and reflection on God’s word.
And that is the key, a mindful stillness is not the goal, God is the goal. Psalm 46:10 says, ‘Be still and know that I am God…’, stillness clears the decks in my head, it prepares me for a more intimate appreciation of God. Imagine how that could affect your mental state. Held safely in His arms, peace, joy and hope flowing into you.
Against the might and majesty of the Lord, anxieties one, two and three don’t seem so huge.
“Be still and know…”