First published in Midwest Christian Outreach Journal, Volume 20, No. 1, Fall, 2014
Note: Although some Buddhist concepts are explained here, the thrust of the article is to describe the Western take on Buddhism via the New Age and the secular culture, and how some of its practices and concepts, especially Mindfulness, have migrated to the West, particularly the United States. In order to make a distinction between a generic understanding of the term “mindfulness” and the term used for the practice based on Buddhism, Mindfulness in this article will be spelled with a capital M.
“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” 1
“Developing wisdom is a process of bringing our minds into accordance with the way things really are. Through this process we gradually remove the incorrect perceptions of reality we have had since the beginningless time.” 2
“Be lamps unto yourselves.” 3
Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept and practice. Yet we now find Mindfulness taught and practiced in schools, businesses, hospitals, and prisons. People as diverse as educators, health workers, psychologists, corporation honchos, and clergyman advocate it. Its popularity is increasing with rapid-fire speed. Therefore, Christians need to know what it is, how it is being promoted, and if there is any conflict with the Christian faith.
The Meaning of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a meditative practice and an outlook on life and reality that ideally results from the type of meditation designed to cultivate the Buddhist concept of detachment. (Detachment for the Westerner usually implies not caring or indifference; whereas, according to Buddhist teaching, it is learning to disconnect from desire [grasping at this world] and false views of reality which keep one in the cycle of rebirth).
Mindfulness is often defined as a moment-by-moment nonjudgmental awareness of the present. Why is detachment necessary and what does that mean? To understand, we should know these essentials of Buddhism:
1. Life in this world is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire for and attachment to this world, which will bring further rebirth into this world.
3. The remedy for suffering is to cultivate detachment and thereby reach enlightenment and thus escape rebirth.
4. The final goal is nirvana, a state of release from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Nirvana means “to extinguish.”
The world, as it is perceived in Buddhist thinking, is not substantively real. The individual self has no permanent reality (it is called the no-self, anatman or anatta), and what one recognizes as the individual self is based on faulty perceptions (this is sometimes called the “conventional self”). Feelings, thoughts, physical sensations, and sense of identity, according to this view, have fooled us into thinking we exist as an individual. Continuing to believe this keeps us trapped in this life and the cycle of rebirth.
Desire, which is a grasping at or attachment to this world, is the cause of suffering, and so detachment must be cultivated, mainly through Mindfulness. Moreover, since the mind is part of this nominal reality, thoughts are in the way of realizing the true nature of reality and self. Mindfulness, as a meditation practice, is the tool by which one sees beyond or in between thoughts as a process of awakening to truth. The promotion of Mindfulness often includes the commonly heard maxim, “Be in the present,” since the goal includes detaching from past and future.
Practicing Mindfulness as moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness supposedly prepares one for a breakthrough in perception, an awakening to reality, which is formlessness (sunyata, usually translated as “emptiness”). Mindfulness is particularly emphasized in Zen Buddhism and, aside from TM (Transcendental Meditation), is the Eastern meditation practice that has most deeply penetrated the West.
Mindfulness meditation is a technique of sitting still (though there is also a walking meditation), observing the breath, being aware solely of the present moment, and learning to let thoughts pass by without entertaining them. Because there is no permanent content to the present moment since it comes and goes, eventually a state of no-thinking is reached. The goal is to divorce the mind and thinking process from one’s observation so that the meditator realizes that he is not his thoughts, eventually understanding that the “I” observing the thoughts (called the Witness) is not the conventional self, but rather the universal or Buddha self (terms vary). This Buddha self is the Buddha nature of the universe, which is the only permanent reality.
For many years, this writer attempted to incorporate Mindfulness into her life prior to becoming a Christian, and can attest to its power in altering one’s worldview and conforming thinking to Buddhist concepts.
The Chattering Monkey
How can an anti-individualistic worldview worm its way into a highly individualized culture as exists in the United States? This can happen slowly through meditation, which conditions the mind through employment of certain terminologies and familiar terms, but which have been redefined with Buddhist concepts.
You might notice the term monkey mind popping up here and there. In promoting Mindfulness, the thinking mind is targeted as a chattering monkey. Thoughts are the chatter, and meditation is to tame and silence this monkey mind, so that it can become what is called Buddha mind. As one source puts it:
Often in meditation, that monkey mind doesn’t transform into a peaceable primate, but continues to scurry about, distracting attention. Indeed, it is common for thoughts to appear to increase in intensity during concentrated meditation practice. This is either because whilst in the confines of the practice the monkey mind reacts with increased activity, or because in focused meditation thoughts are ‘lit up’ and are noticed more than they normally are. 4
Thoughts are treated as an independent activity, divorced from one’s true self, the Buddha self. The temporal world, including the mind, is part of an alleged rising and falling which is not substantively real. One must transcend this rising and falling through meditation practice. (Rising and falling is a term describing the Buddhist view that we are caught in the web of thinking and feeling which reinforces our identification with our mind and self, thereby continuing a false perception of reality)
Meditation trains the person to watch thoughts so that the meditator does not attach to the thoughts and follow them. Eventually, the space between thoughts widens until there are no thoughts and “No Mind” is reached. The site continues:
Buddha Mind is our real nature, the unconditioned ‘Mind’ – and words are metaphors here, remember – that lies beneath the conditioned monkey mind that is interdependent with the world with which it interacts. 5
Phrases based in Buddhist thinking include:
Rising and falling
Being not doing
These terms and others are appearing more frequently in literature and other media, including Smartphone apps that give advice on reducing stress. This subtle denigration of thinking portrays the mind as the problem and thoughts as a source of confusion. Moreover, when such terms become more familiar and popular, the concepts attached to them also tend to become more widely accepted over time. There is a prevailing assumption that we cannot truly function or have any peace unless we practice this type of meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is therefore the Buddhist way to tame the so-called chattering mind and uncover the silent Buddha mind underneath all the rising and falling. It was not designed for stress reduction or to be a trendy dabbling for harried Westerners. Whatever perceived benefits may accrue from Mindfulness, it is not spiritually neutral.
The Secularization of Mindfulness
Several people have pushed Mindfulness as a concept and practice in the United States. They can’t deny its religious basis yet they present it as a secular method. One of the most influential, Zen Buddhist Jon Kabat-Zinn (b. 1944), whose PhD is in Molecular Biology, runs the Center for Mindfulness (formerly the Stress Reduction Clinic), which he founded in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn’s stress reduction and Mindfulness program, MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), has spread to over 200 hospitals and medical centers around the country. One news article reports:
Kabat-Zinn is reluctant to use the word “spiritual” to describe the approach to healthy living that he promotes, characterizing it instead as being “grounded in common sense.”
“I don’t have to use the word ‘spiritual,'” he said. “Part of it is the power of silence and stillness. And part of that power is the power of healing that happens when you move from the domain of doing to being. It’s transformative.” 6
In a self-contradictory statement, he said:
“Mindfulness, the heart of Buddhist meditation, is at the core of being able to live life as if it really matters. It has nothing to do with Buddhism. It has to do with freedom.” 7
So Mindfulness is “the heart of Buddhist meditation” but “has nothing to do with Buddhism.” Kabat-Zinn himself is no secular person. He was a student of Zen Master Seung Sahn and is a founding member of the Cambridge Zen Center.
Another influential non-secular person in Mindfulness is Thich Nhat Hanh (b. 1926), a Zen Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who lectures around the country as a Mindfulness enthusiast and whose books promoting Mindfulness have enjoyed great success in the West.
Zen Buddhist Peter Senge (considered by many to be the successor to influential management guru Peter Drucker) incorporates Zen Buddhist concepts such as being “trapped in structures,” “trapped in the theater of our thoughts” in his popular book, The Fifth Discipline. Additionally, he recommends “some form of meditation” such as “contemplative prayer” or a method to quiet “the conscious mind,” as well as “regular meditative practice.” 8
Senge is a familiar figure on the New Age landscape as well, appearing in several interviews on New Age websites, including the website of New Age philosopher Andrew Cohen.
Additionally, Buddhist terms loaded with spiritual meaning are being used as though they have only a secular meaning. The word “compassion” is being joined with the term “Mindfulness” to promote Mindfulness in schools and elsewhere. Buddhist teachers make frequent use of the word “compassion” (this is very common with the Dalai Lama), but the problem is that non-Buddhists do not know all the implications of this term.
Compassion in Buddhism is not simply having empathy or care for people. Compassion includes the Buddhist view that all non-human beings (called sentient beings) are in need of rebirth as humans, because only humans can attain enlightenment. Since rebirth can bring a human into a non-human state,9 the Buddhist must spread Buddhist teachings as well as work at his own enlightenment in order to help advance Buddhist truths so that all can eventually be liberated from the cycle of rebirth. In Buddhism, Buddhist enlightenment is the only way for such liberation. Compassion in Buddhist thinking, therefore, is a religious term, not a secular one, especially when used in the context of Mindfulness.
Stress is the New Bogeyman
At the urging of the Dalai Lama through his Mind and Life Institute, neuroscientists have been doing studies on the brains of meditators.10 A study with only 16 people showed a “decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, a region of the brain that affects fear and stress, which correlated with a change in self-reported stress levels.”11 Whether this decrease really indicates stress reduction, temporary or permanent, is not known. Showing cause and effect in the brain is difficult with something as vague and varied as meditation (there are a variety of ways to meditate). Moreover, there are other ways to reduce stress.
Several corporations, such as Google, Target, and General Mills, offer Mindfulness training and seminars to their employees as a stress reduction program, as do business schools Claremont Graduate University and Harvard Business School.12
There has been a great effort on the part of alternative treatment practitioners to emphasize stress in the culture, which then allows them to advocate their particular remedies for it. Mindfulness therapy is now extensively used in psychology and psychotherapy.
Has anyone considered that instead of taking time to learn a stress reduction technique, it would be more valuable and practical to use that time playing board games, taking a walk, strolling in a park, relaxing to soft music, reading a good book, taking a nap, developing a hobby, or one of many other pleasant activities that people enjoy? Studies have shown that such activities lower blood pressure and bring down heart rates.
Mindfulness is the New Education
At least two articles in Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine (October 2011 and May 2014) have featured and promoted Mindfulnesss for children. The 2011 article, “Itâ€™s All In Your Mind,” by Lynne Ticknor, promotes Mindfulness, along with a brief interview of Goldie Hawn and her Buddhist-based Mind-Up program for schools. Hawn, like many other celebrities, is a devotee of Mindfulness. The article refers to Mindfulness as “based in the philosophy of Buddhism” and quickly adds, “But it’s not religion” and “there are no spiritual overtones.”13
Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child, has been teaching Mindfulness and promoting it in inner city schools through her foundation, Inner Kids Foundation. In an interview, Greenland said this about the link of Mindfulness to Buddhism:
“The Buddhist foundations/applications of the secular mindfulness work can be a great strength rather than an Achilles heel if reframed as a well-established, evidence based training protocol shown to reduce stress, improve immune function, develop executive function and attention with measurable results when it comes to changes not just in the health and wellness of the individual but also in the likelihood of an individual who has undergone that training in engaging in social, compassionate action.”14
She acknowledges that Buddhism is the foundation of Mindfulness, but implies that if Mindfulness can be “reframed” using terms related to mental health and stress reduction, then the messy issue of religion can be circumvented.
The Scholastics article states that children are taught to focus on their breathing, “an age-old exercise in finding calm and balance — or their ‘center.'”15 One photograph in the print edition shows a mother and child sitting in lotus position with eyes closed. Another shows two young children (about age 6) sitting side-by-side in a lotus position with eyes closed. Clearly, there is more than just breathing going on.
Zen Buddhism is primarily a mixture of Taoism and Buddhism which came from China, called Chan (Zen in Japan). Controlling breath was part of controlling and balancing chi (viewed as a universal life force), thus achieving health and longevity (in Taoist thinking). This idea of the breath as centering is very similar to the Taoist teaching that one must base one’s self in the flow of chi and thus balance the two forces of yin and yang.
Even if the children are not doing a full-on Mindfulness meditation (which would be difficult for most children), they are being introduced to it, taught how to do it, and told that it is the way to deal with their feelings. Being told that this is how to deal with anger or fear may also give the subtle message that emotions are a bad thing.
Mindfulness as taught in schools is communicating to a child that he should always be calm, always clear-headed, always in control. This certainly could convey a negative message to more emotional children, and to children with various psychological, neurological, and emotional problems, as well as making them self-conscious about their feelings.
Some educators are using visualization, meditation CDs and an iPad or iPhone app called BellyBio, “that helps regulate breathing rhythms.”16 Guided visualization is a form of hypnosis, so this should cause alarm, if indeed this form of visualization is being used.
Interestingly, Scholastic is the parent company of MindUP, the program started by actress and practicing Buddhist Goldie Hawn. Scholastic is a global enterprise, creating and distributing
“…educational and entertaining materials and products for use in school and at home, including children’s books, magazines, technology-based products, teacher materials, television programming, feature film, videos and toys. Scholastic distributes its products and services through a variety of channels, including proprietary school-based book clubs, school-based book fairs, retail stores, schools, libraries and television networks; and Scholastic.com.”17
The advocacy of Mindfulness by a corporate giant such as Scholastic is a prime example of how Eastern beliefs are being endorsed and disseminated in the culture. Is this not a type of therapy being foisted on children without parental consent? Are children, especially in the lower grades, able to handle such information? Should children be made to worry about their emotions? At the very least, using Mindfulness should be a decision for a parent, not for the school or educators.
Parents would benefit from monitoring carefully what is going on in their child’s classroom. They need to ask for information on all the activities are that take place in the class. Parents can talk to the teacher or principal and ask to opt their child out based on religious views. Even if the school denies that Mindfulness is religious, the parent can state that it conflicts with his or her faith.
The Mind and God
Whereas thoughts and thinking get in the way of spiritual enlightenment according to Mindfulness, God tells us that thinking and reason are part of how God wired us, since man is made in His image and having a mind is part of that. Reason and thought are rooted in Godâ€™s character. “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind'” (Matt. 22:37).
Moreover, the world is God’s creation. It is not a mere illusory phenomenon of rising and falling. The world was created good, became corrupt through man’s sin, but one day will be restored (Genesis 1, 3; Romans 5; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1).
Any teaching that the mind or thinking is negative or prevents spiritual understanding is at odds with the nature of God as an intelligent Being of reason. In giving us His word in the 66 books of the Bible, He expects thinking and reasoning since language cannot function without them. Using the terms chattering mind or monkey mind denigrates the mind God gave us.
Should You Practice Mindfulness?
Practicing Mindfulness meditation on a fairly regular basis may eventually lead the person to be open to or adopt the worldview behind it, because that is the purpose and effect of this meditation. Mindfulness experience tends to validate itself, leading the practitioner to believe that the process of detachment is at work. However, since the self is real and permanent, there can be no true detachment. Therefore, no liberation or true peace ever results from Mindfulness.
Buddhism teaches that there is no supreme God, no mind, and no permanent individual self. Ultimate reality is sunyata, a term loosely translated as the void, or emptiness, which refers to the ultimate impersonal reality of formlessness from which all has allegedly arisen. Mindfulness rests on the belief that the world is full of rising and falling, and peace comes only with the cessation of rising and falling. But how can there be experience of joy or peace in formlessness, when nothing with self or identity is there?
If you are a Christian, the rationale and goal of Mindfulness is in conflict with a Christian worldview. Mindfulness has nothing in common with biblical meditation, which is thoughtful contemplation and pondering of God’s word; nor is it prayer. Biblical meditation and prayer do not intend to go beyond thought, either to achieve a mystical oneness with God, or to “hear” from God. Prayer in the Bible is always presented as verbal praise, petition, confession, and expression of gratitude to God.
The tests on Mindfulness and its effects on the brain and behavior, often at the behest of the Dalai Lama’s organizations and those who promote Mindfulness, are yielding what appears to be evidence of positive changes in terms of clarity and calmness. However, the tests cannot measure spiritual effects or the possible spiritual cost. Engagement in a method designed with a spiritual purpose has the high potential to bring about spiritual effects. Furthermore, why encourage a practice that promises a counterfeit peace? Christians know that true peace comes solely through reconciliation with God through faith in Christ?
The concept of needing detachment goes against biblical teaching on necessary ties to the past and future: that we should remember what God has done for us through the atonement and bodily resurrection of Christ, and vividly keep before us the imminent return of Christ, our true Hope. There are many desires that are good, and desire to know God more deeply through prayer, Bible study, and worship nourishes believers in Christ. There is no need to fear attachment or good desires.
Mindfulness and the practice of Christianity do not mesh and cannot peacefully co-exist.
1 Quotes from Thich Nhat Hanh, http://bit.ly/1rvKNYo and http://bit.ly/1Hc0Dv1
2 The Dalai Lama, An Open Heart, Boston/New York/London: Little, Brown and Company, 2001, 86.
3 Reputed to be the last words of Buddha (though some sources dispute this), http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/btg/btg94.htm
4 “Monkey Mind & Buddha Mind,” 2-28-10, http://bit.ly/1zrW21O
6 Los Angeles Times, “Fully experiencing the present: a practice for everyone, religious or not,” Nomi Morris, 10-2-2010, http://lat.ms/1tf8v6K
8 Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, NY: Doubleday; Revised & Updated edition, March 21, 2006, 153, 169, 224.
9 Some Buddhist sources may describe non-human states as consisting of several types of Buddhas, disciples of Buddha, “and then heavenly beings (superhuman [angels?]), human beings, Asura (fighting spirits), beasts, Preta (hungry ghosts), and depraved men (hellish beings). Now, these ten realms may be viewed as unfixed, nonobjective worlds, as mental and spiritual states of mind. These states of mind are created by men’s thoughts, actions, and words. In other words, psychological states,” from “On Reincarnation,” by Takashi Tsuji, http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/reincarnation.htm. These states are also commonly called the “six realms” of “heaven, human beings, Asura, hungry ghost, animal and hell.” from “Buddhist View on Death and Rebirth,” by Thich NguyenTang, http://bit.ly/1BfzKCV
10 “Mindfulness Meditation Training Changes Brain Structure in 8 Weeks,” 1-28-11, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110121144007.htm
12 The Huffington Post, “Mindfulness in the Corporate World: How Businesses Are Incorporating the Eastern Practice,” 8-29-12, updated 1-7-13, http://huff.to/1f21Og6; The Wall Street Journal, “Business Skills and Buddhist Mindfulness,” Beth Gardiner 4-3-12, http://on.wsj.com/1zLwXRR
13 Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, “It’s All In Your Mind,” Lynne Ticknor, October, 2011, http://bit.ly/1xtEbt6
14 “Mindfulness With Children,” Jonathan S. Kaplan, Ph.D., 10-3-11, http://bit.ly/1ECB1JL
15 “Itâ€™s All in Your Mind.”
17 “About Scholastic,” http://bit.ly/1y2aJgH