Mindfulness Practice: An Overview and Key Considerations for Christians

Have you ever found yourself at the end of your commute to work with a significant portion of your trip missing from your memory? Maybe you’ve found yourself stuck replaying a conversation repeatedly in your head. Perhaps you’ve gotten lost in depressive thoughts about your past, and to make matters worse, you’ve found yourself in a deeper spiral, wondering why you can’t stop thinking about what you’re thinking about. If nothing else, we can all relate to the experience of rushing through our days and weeks, having barely taken a moment to notice our experiences.

When our focus and attention are consistently away from the here and now, our brains and bodies become tense and agitated, and our souls become unfulfilled and weary. Adverse effects are especially likely when we continuously think about painful parts of our past or fixate on fearful thoughts about the future. In fairness, this is normal for the human brain. Our bodies and minds are perfectly imperfect, so we often find ourselves in this auto-pilot mode of mind. Thankfully, God created us with the ability to redirect attention and focus to the present, a skill also known as mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is everywhere. I mean this in more than one way. Folks use the word “mindful” all the time in conversations. For example, when inclement weather is in the forecast, one might say, “Be mindful of the weather while you’re out today.” Perhaps, during a teaching moment, you urge your teenager to “be mindful that your sister looks up to you.” Furthermore, references to mindfulness are abundant across self-help programs, books, and social media.

Mindfulness is also everywhere because one can practice and experience its benefits anywhere, anytime (more on this later). But what is mindfulness exactly? Given the everyday use of mindfulness in conversation and its varied applications, it’s challenging to know what mindfulness means. Furthermore, some Christians are understandably skeptical and even critical of mindfulness as a health practice. In this blog post, I will provide an overview of mindfulness practice, offer a Christian perspective, and highlight a few primary benefits and easy steps to start practicing mindfulness on your own.

What Mindfulness Practice Is Not

There are several misconceptions about mindfulness and its applications to a healthy life. To better understand mindfulness practice, it is helpful to think about what mindfulness is not. The following list summarizes the concepts that are commonly confused with mindfulness practice:

  1. Simply being conscious and aware – While mindfulness practice certainly involves these elements, it’s not enough to say mindfulness is merely conscious awareness.
  2. Buddhism – Because Buddhism includes meditation and concentration practices, it is often associated with mindfulness practice. However, mindfulness is not about enlightenment or self-liberation. Mindfulness practice is not a religion.
  3. Transcendental Meditation – Similar to mindfulness, it comes from the category of meditation known as self-transcendence. The goal of TM is to achieve pure consciousness, which is not a goal of mindfulness work.
  4. Guided Imagery – The goal of guided imagery is relaxation. Mindfulness can include guided practice, but not exclusively, and while one might experience relaxation as a result of mindfulness practice, relaxation is not the specific aim.
  5. Clearing the Mind – Because mindfulness includes activities like sitting quietly and being a neutral observer, some assume the goal is to clear or empty the mind. This is not the goal of mindfulness. In fact, it is counterproductive (perhaps impossible) to clear the mind from a mindfulness practitioner’s perspective.
  6. Only Meditation – Mindfulness practice includes meditation-like exercises. However, there are other ways to practice mindfulness and achieve its benefits.

What Mindfulness Practice IS

There are numerous ways to define and explain mindfulness practice. For this blog post, I’ve selected the explanations and definitions most helpful to me and my counseling clients. First, let’s define mindfulness before discussing mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness in a Nutshell

Mindfulness, simply defined, is paying attention to the present moment as best as one can, with openness and curiosity towards what is happening. In other words, mindfulness is noticing what’s happening right now without judging it as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. It’s noticing as a neutral observer. “Noticing what,” you might ask. Noticing the present moment consists of what’s happening inside and outside one’s body. Our thoughts, emotions, urges, and physical sensations comprise our internal moment, and our external moment includes input from the five senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste). Any mindful moment incorporates an awareness of one or more of these observable events (internal and/or external) as they unfold and simply as they are (without labeling good, bad, likable, etc.).

Additional Useful Definitions

Don’t just take my word for it. It’s essential to consider additional resources and perspectives on a given topic to increase understanding. Here are two of my favorite definitions from the book The Mindful Christian (themindfulchristian.com) that help me to understand mindfulness better:

“Being aware of what’s happening right now; enjoying the pleasant moments without holding on when it changes (because it will); being with the unpleasant moments without fearing it will always be this way.”

“Practice of paying attention to the present moment with intentionality, openness, and non-judgemental curiosity – a direct awareness of experience as it unfolds, moment by moment.”

Unpacking Mindfulness Practice

Now that you know what mindfulness is, you might wonder what it means to practice it or how the terms differ. Physical exercise provides the best analogy for illustrating mindfulness practice. Mindfulness, or present moment awareness, is like muscles in our body. To be fit and to work optimally, our muscles need exercise. The same is true for our brains and minds.

Training and practice are required to develop the mind’s capacity for non-judgemental awareness. I do not become fit simply because I understand the concept of fitness. I cannot gain strength or run a 5K race without training. I might try, but it will be challenging and frustrating at best. Similarly, I need to practice mindfulness regularly to be more present in my daily life. It’s not simply knowing what mindfulness is or trying it out occasionally. Mindfulness practice includes formal and informal exercises that improve one’s ability to be more mindfully aware throughout the day.

Formal Practice
Formal mindfulness practice includes structured exercises, often planned and guided (by a script or recording), designed to intentionally focus on one or more parts of our awareness (internal/external). Formal practice emphasizes safe physical posture and open, non-judgemental curiosity about what enters and leaves awareness, including when the mind inevitably drifts away from the exercise. I’ll elaborate on specific formal practices in a separate blog or video. You can also drop down to the How to Get Started section to get a feel for formal mindfulness practice.

Informal Practice
Informal mindfulness is less structured and builds on formal exercises by including mindfulness in everyday life activities. Dr. Irene Kraegel says, “Informal mindfulness practice is a way of keeping the tide flowing in the direction of increased wellness by paying attention to the present moment throughout each day, whenever we remember to do so.” (The Mindful Christian, p. 87) As formal mindfulness exercise strengthens the awareness muscle, informal practice may occur with little thought or effort. For example, I might take a few moments to notice the sights, sounds, and smells outside between exiting my office and entering my vehicle for my commute home. Or, as I write this blog post, I might realize I’ve drifted into thinking about the remainder of my afternoon schedule and gently bring my attention back to the task at hand by noticing the features of my screen and keyboard. Informal mindfulness practice occurs anytime I step out of the auto-pilot mode of mind and step into non-judgmental awareness of the moment,

Christian Mindfulness

Mindfulness from a Christian perspective incorporates the definitions, explanations, and practices discussed above with a Christ-centered focus and approach. One can practice mindfulness in the same way that Christian school, music, and books are not distinctly Christian but incorporate a Christ-centered and biblical worldview. Please remember, mindfulness is a tool, and from a Christian perspective, a God-given tool. However, mindfulness isn’t a replacement for the Bible, prayer, or other biblical disciplines. The goal of mindfulness from a Christian perspective isn’t to achieve spiritual superiority or to eliminate the pain inherent to Christian life in a fallen world. Instead, Christian mindfulness directs practitioners toward God’s presence.

More God, Less Me

In the Gospels, John the Baptist is well known for preparing hearts and minds for Jesus’ ministry and message. There is perhaps no better example than when John the Baptist exclaims, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30 – ESV) Mindfulness can help Christian practitioners to implement this important spiritual principle. When Christians pause to notice the present moment as it unfolds, there is a natural release of the control and business with which we engage our lives, which opens the heart and mind to God’s presence and renewal. It is difficult, if not impossible, to be aware of God’s presence and in God’s presence and still focus on self. By waking up to the present moment and noticing God’s presence, God’s strength carries our attention toward what is good, acceptable, and perfect – namely, the beauty of Christ (Romans 12:2). While specific painful thoughts, memories, and emotions emerge and re-emerge in a broken world, mindfulness enables Christians to notice them in the context of God’s presence and strength, thereby supplying renewal. The key is that often, we just need to be still.

Be Still and Know

God is everywhere at all times. Christian mindfulness practice facilitates the process of coming home to God’s presence repeatedly, again and again. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (ESV) This verse captures the essence of Christian mindfulness practice. When I pause to notice what’s happening in the moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant, and direct my attention toward God’s presence in and through all things, I’m less inclined toward myself and all of my self-reliant activity, effort, and problem-solving. Instead, my attention is captured by God’s presence and work, even in painful moments, thoughts, emotions, sensations, and circumstances. As such, I can engage my life with peace and acceptance only possible by Christ’s shed blood.

Benefits of Mindfulness Practice

Brain research is still very young compared to other fields, and many unknowns exist about how mindfulness works. What is known is that research consistently shows benefits to regular mindfulness practice. The most important benefits include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Regulate and soothe challenging emotions
  • Improved relationships
  • Self-compassion
  • Compassion and empathy towards others
  • Improved immune and stress responses
  • Improved sense of well-being and contentment
  • Improved attention
  • Reduce and prevent rumination and depressive episodes

The overarching benefit of mindfulness practice is its calming effect on the brain’s problem-solving, analytical, and survival structures when there is no solvable problem, or at least no solvable problem right now. This calming effect enables one to live in the small, everyday moments of life with a more accurate understanding of joy, pain, and everything in between. This is what I call the “data of now.” Right now is the best data point because now is the only time we can do anything about anything. The net result isn’t a completely harmonious, pain-free life; instead, it’s a life lived flexibly, in which life is lived rather than solved.

Double the Benefit for Believers

The benefits of mindfulness practice for Christians are identical to the explanations provided in the overview of Christian mindfulness. Essentially, a Christ-centered approach to mindfulness facilitates, by God’s grace, increased awareness of God’s presence, love, and providence in one’s life. As a result, one can experience a closer relationship with Christ and the freedom from over-control and self-reliance. Additionally, Christians may experience the physical, psychological, emotional, and social benefits referenced in the bulleted list above. It’s double the benefit—a God-aware life with improved brain health and functioning.

Limitations

It’s important to remember we live in a fallen world, and for Christians, our utopia awaits in eternity future. There is no magic solution to our pain and struggle. Mindfulness is no exception. Mindfulness is an instrument to help ease pain and sometimes reduce unnecessary suffering. Nevertheless, God is sovereign over all pain and suffering, and Christians should not use or think of mindfulness as a means to an end.

Mindfulness practice has other limitations independent of one’s faith and worldview. Most importantly, mindfulness may result in increased physical and psychological discomfort, especially for those who chronically repress thoughts and feelings. For trauma survivors, certain senses may trigger a stress response; similarly, eyes-closed exercises may feel unsafe. Overall, mindfulness practice can be frustrating for beginners simply because of the natural urge to get the exercises “right.” The great news about mindfulness is it’s all about not getting it right. Instead, it’s about kindly noticing when the mind wanders away and returning it to the present.

How to Get Started

There are numerous ways to practice mindfulness, including various styles and durations. Recall that formal and informal mindfulness exercises improve non-judgmental attention, resulting in the benefits summarized above. The key is getting started, followed by consistent practice. Here are two brief exercises (3-5 minutes each) to get you started:

5-4-3-2-1 Senses Exercise

Please do not practice formal mindfulness exercises while driving. To begin, imagine you are from a remote island, or if you’re feeling creative, imagine you are from another planet. Wherever you are, you are here for the first time. Direct your attention to your sense of sight and notice five things you can see, taking one item at a time, and notice as much detail as possible before moving on to the next. Imagine this is your first experience seeing this item, noticing colors, gradients, contrasts, textures, etc. If your mind wanders to judgments about the exercise, assumptions, and preferences for or against the item you are observing, that’s okay. Gently bring your attention back to the input you receive from your sight alone.

Once you’ve completed the fifth item, direct your attention to your sense of touch and use the same progression as your sense of sight to pay attention to four objects. Sometimes, it’s helpful to close your eyes or look away from the object you are feeling or holding to ensure you only use your sense of touch. It’s normal for your attention to drift. When you realize it, return to your sense of touch and notice everything you can (temperature, texture, hard/soft, etc.). Once you’ve completed the fourth item, move on to the next sense similarly, following this order: Three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Christian practitioners can ask God to direct their hearts to appreciate the gift of each sense and how He uses them to make His beauty known to us. Whether looking at a tree, a piece of art, or the wood grain on your desk, notice God’s grand design and presence in each component, thanking Him for each.

Breath Awareness Exercise

Please do not practice formal mindfulness exercises while driving. To begin, sit upright in a comfortable seat or on the floor, and extend your posture by raising your head. Fold your hands in your lap, and remember to take care of your body during this exercise; reposition yourself if you experience discomfort. Take some slow, deep breaths through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Notice the surface beneath you (and behind you if seated in a chair) supporting your body. Close your eyes or rest your gaze on the floor in front of you (whatever is comfortable), and bring your attention to the breath, the sensation of breathing. Rest your attention on wherever the breath is most evident, whether the inhale, exhale, rise and fall of your chest and ribcage, or a combination. Notice the breath without trying to regulate, control, or change it. Notice the breath as it is and acknowledge its constant presence in your life. Thank God as the giver of breath and life, and notice His presence in and through the breath. The breath is instrumental throughout Scripture (The Bible is “God-breathed”; Jesus breathed on the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit) and instrumental to anchoring to the present moment, a gift from God.

When your mind wanders away from the breath, take a moment to acknowledge your attention left the breath and, without giving yourself a hard time, gently direct your attention back to the breath. Continue to notice the breath as best as you can moment by moment. Notice the grace and strength God provides to redirect your attention as often as you need. If you have a mind, it will wander, and the task is always the same: when the mind goes away from the breath to distractions, judgments about the exercise, or the dreaded project scheduled for tomorrow, gently direct your attention back to the breath, back to where you intend it to be. Sit with your breath awareness and know God is “I am who I am.” When you are ready, bring your attention to the sounds around you, take a deep breath, and slowly raise your gaze or open your eyes. Slowly take in your surroundings and invite this awareness into the rest of your day.

In Summary

Mindfulness is a common term and a popular tool used by the helping professions. Misconceptions, like mindfulness is specifically tied to religion, can lead to skepticism. However, mindfulness is helpful for anyone interested in being more present and connected to their life and values. Simply defined, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Consistent formal and informal mindfulness exercises strengthen the capacity to observe internal and external experiences, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Christian practitioners apply a Christ-centered focus to mindfulness applications and exercises, aiming to observe and honor God’s presence and glory in all things. Mindfulness has many spiritual benefits and researched benefits to mental health and relationships, though not without some limitations. One can practice mindfulness anytime, and it is easy to start by practicing the five senses or breath awareness exercises.

I regularly utilize mindfulness with clients in my counseling practice and as part of my spiritual and psychological care. I can attest to its benefits and that mindfulness is not a magic solution. However, with practice, mindfulness helps me tune in to the pleasant and rich moments of life, feel less consumed by painful experiences, and feel more connected to relationships.

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