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Non-religious Mindfulness?


Mindfulness is in.

And in conversations about mindfulness, people are very quick to point to the scientific information. And if they talk about the history of practices at all, they normally refer to Hinduism and Buddhism. Many, many Westerners are very comfortable talking about their chakras, mantras, chi, the dantien, and so forth. Talk about Western, Christian meditation and contemplation disciplines, however, and many/most will have no idea what is being referred to – the practices of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Jesus Prayer, the Cloud of Unknowing, John of the Cross, apophatic,…

I’ve already argued that it is the fault of us Christians that we have not made our own community, let alone those beyond our community, aware of our meditation tradition

I suspect that for many, this fascination with things Eastern, and the eschewing of Western/Christian heritage, comes with an infatuation with Hinduism and/or Buddhism that ignores their shadow side: caste systems, the karma of poverty being your own fault from a previous life, etc – these are all obliterated in the Westerner’s captivation by the photograph of a peaceful monk or sadhu in the lotus posture in the setting sun.

Or let me press this a little more: the same disciplines found in Hinduism and Buddhism, which I stressed were there also in Christianity, are to be found in Islam. Let’s see some American companies, quite happy to mention Buddhism and Hinduism, let’s see them saying that they are drawing the disciplines, that they encourage their employees to practice, from Islam…

In this era of the popularity of the refrain “spiritual but not religious”, we are here asking questions like: Can mindfulness ever free itself from its religious roots? Is mindfulness better practiced within the religious framework in which it evolved?

As part of that we may need to debate what is meant by “religion”. One of the suspicions that I have is that the term “religion” is actually a colonial concept. (Western) Christians went to other cultures and asked, “what functions in this society in a similar way that Christianity functions in Europe?” Buddhism met that criteria in Thailand, Hinduism did that in Bali. But maybe Buddhism is not at all answering the same question that Christianity is answering. Christianity answers a question about god – Buddhism, at least the Theravada version, seems very unconcerned about the god question. Hence I am cautious about piling Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity into the same “religion” bucket as is too quickly done.

The questions continue: How do Buddhists, as just one example, actually react to Westerners ripping their practices out of their total Buddhist context? Buddhists – do reply. My suspicion is that there is not one, single, unified answer to this question by all Buddhists.

Mindfulness – consisting of right thought, right awareness, and right concentration – these are three of Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path. And that path is a response to the Four Noble Truths, which are founded on the Three Signs of Being – dukkha, anicca, anatta. Are Westerners who use and teach Buddhist-originating mindfulness practices buying into this undergirding Buddhist philosophical foundation? Can the practices be removed from those foundations? If so, what are the philosophical foundations onto which they are being transplanted?

It seems to me that many contemporary Western post-Christians want to denigrate the West’s Christian philosophical foundations, and yet they are uncritical of the philosophical underpinning of what they espouse instead.

There is also a trend, amongst Western post-Christians, of plundering the Christian cupboard of its symbols, rituals, concepts, and practices. If you are going to be an authentic, secular, Western post-Christian, go and find your own symbols, rituals, concepts, and practices! Don’t vitiate Christian ones. The bones and ligaments of Christian symbolism and practices rest on a consistent spine of understanding of the nature of reality. That we humans have a hunger for these is an argument for the truth of that understanding. It does nothing to buoy commitment to secularism if it parodies Christian symbolism, rituals, practices, concepts, and ethical frameworks. Go and find your own approach. And many Buddhists, Hindus, [and Muslims] may think the same.

Just as I do not think Christian life is complete without growing into contemplative life, and I encourage Christians to renew our contemplative focus, so I think much is lost in attempting to rip Christian contemplative life out of the context of growth in the rest of one’s life.

Whilst affirming all that is scientifically demonstrated about mindfulness, and encouraging people who find this helpful, practicing mindfulness will not, of necessity, make you a more moral person. In Buddhist terms, mindfulness belongs with the other eight which include right speech, right action, right livelihood. CEOs who practice mindfulness, for example, may still mistreat their employees, and run grossly unethical, exploitative companies, they may just do so more efficiently than those who don’t practice mindfulness. And they may do it with scientifically-verifiable peace of mind.

What do you think?

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8 thoughts on “Non-religious Mindfulness?”

    1. Thanks, Mike. As elsewhere, I’m thinking aloud. A lot of the feedback happens “behind the scenes”. It’s great when the dialogue is useful to others. Blessings.

  1. One of the suspicions that I have is that the term “religion” is actually a colonial concept. (Western) Christians went to other cultures and asked, “what functions in this society in a similar way that Christianity functions in Europe?”

    You are right, I think, but the level at which you read the question is not. The reason for missionary activity and trying to establish Christianity in places where it had no roots was a non-spiritual, pragmatic one of control – and that is basically what religion is about. Religious order fears the disruption that comes from subjective experience, and in Christianity, as in Islam, it is discouraged.

    1. Thanks, James. I agree with some of what you say, and approach some of it differently.

      I would separate the definition of “religion” from missionary activity – which you appear to be combining. I’m suggesting that the common understanding of “world religions” is piling together, homogeneously, different traditions that are not as easily categorised together as we are wont to do.

      Certainly, Christian missionary activity was closely coupled with colonial control. I don’t agree, however, that “control is basically what religion is about”. Nor would I generalise that Christianity discourages subjective experience. I think in many versions of Christianity, subjective experience is unhealthily idolised.


  2. Earlier this year I was receiving counseling for anxiety from a secular counsellor. He was strongly encouraging me to practice “mindfulness” as part of my treatment, and as a Christian I found myself regularly translating the meditations he was suggesting into Christian contemplative practices (which occasionally required some internet research).

    You made the point well in your prior post: my personal goal was less about “wellness” and more about increasing intimacy wuth God, although this was difficult to explain to my counsellor.

    I found my mental and emotional health improved as I focused on Truths such as grace, atonement, redemption and salvation. Biblical meditation was a tool that helped me refocus, but wasn’t so much the source of healing in its own right.

  3. Thanks, Bosco, for the thoughtful distinctions in this post, and the reminder of our rich Christian spiritual traditions. The richness of spiritual practices are indeed best found within the particularities of their originating contexts, and a la carte spirituality may not provide a balanced meal. And the point about peace of mind divorced from justice and ethics is well taken. At the same time, exploring points of commonality, as Merton did, and learning from applicable insights of other traditions can also bear fruit. Finally, can we learn anything from the explorers in less charted terrain, the “in=between” spaces, who return to us with reports of what they find? I found, for example, Robert Kull’s account of a year alone (“Solitude: A Year Alone in the Patagonia Wilderness”) to provide some fascinating data. Raised an evangelical and migrating to Buddhism, he found out there a presence to which (whom?) he found himself, in his best moments, surrendering. Was he being Christian or Buddhist or a hybrid? His book raised interesting questions which I explored in a couple of posts. If it’s appropriate to include the links, they are: http://jimfriedrich.com/2015/02/11/solitude-part-1/ and http://jimfriedrich.com/2015/02/18/solitude-part-2/

    1. Thanks so much, Jim. This reinforces the point I made in an earlier post: “The effects of mindfulness practices (that do not have the same intention as the Christian disciplines) may result in growth into union with God.” This may be worth exploring further. Thanks for the links to your posts. Blessings.

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