The next time you are in a grocery store or drug store line, take a look at the magazines. Alongside the sex scandals of the tabloids, you will inevitably find some periodical exploring mindfulness or meditation. The whole topic has become a massive cultural conversation, irrespective of one’s religious beliefs or lack of them. Popular author Ryan Holiday took up the topic in his most recent book, Stillness is the Key. He distills wisdom on silence and meditation from ancient religious and philosophical traditions and puts a modern garb on them.
Mindfulness in Technology and Medicine
It’s ironic to note that one of the main impediments to mindfulness — technology — has gotten into the same game. The Apple Watch comes with a Breath app, to teach you to slow down and breath deeply throughout the day. Other apps like Headspace carry it further with open-ended questions that help you identify what you are feeling, so you can live in the present moment.
The conversation turned physiological on a recent visit I had with a cardiologist. After talking through some of my bouts with a fast heartbeat (which he did not think a serious matter), we discussed heart disease in general. There are the more familiar causes, such as diet, smoking, or genetics, but there are less well-known ones too: stress, anxiety, and even emotional trauma. The heart acts like a super-sensitive barometer, registering everything that is happening to us. When I asked him what I should do if my heart beat starts to race again, he looked at me and simply said, “Meditation.” It seems that the surging interest in mindfulness has crossed over into the medical community as well.
Mindfulness: The What and the Why
But more often than not, mindfulness is a topic that comes up in therapeutic and spiritual circles. In fact, the use of the word has grown exponentially on the past 20 years. So just what is mindfulness? And why is everyone talking about it? Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to what you are feeling in the present moment. It is stopping to ask yourself what are you experiencing internally. Here is a definition with a bit more rigorous language that some researchers came up with: Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
That’s the what. But why is there such a huge interest in mindfulness? The interest brings to the surface a longing buried under our incessant busyness. The human psyche is telling us that mere activity is at odds with something deeper in our nature.
The relentless bustle is often driven by technology. We have become trigger sensitive to our phones and email accounts. The boundaries between work and home have become blurred with online jobs. The internet has exposed us to a tidal wave of opportunities, choices, and expectations. Despite the fact that we live in the most prosperous nation in history, there is an unprecedented epidemic of stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide. We are overworked, overstimulated, and overwhelmed.
The push-back to all of this has been along the lines of mindfulness. Here we take the exit door from all doing and enter the world of being. We turn off the social media and streaming TV and tune in to the world of silence.
Benefits and Questions
There is no doubt about the wide-ranging physical and emotional benefits of mindfulness. Research has shown that it can improve sleep, counter negative feelings, improve attention, manage chronic pain, and increase brain gray matter involving memory, learning, and emotion. Other studies have shown that it can help treat depression, lower anxiety, and even reduce age and race bias. Needless to say, something really important is happening in the experience of mindfulness.
As a Christ-follower, I see the explosion of interest in mindfulness as something of which the Holy Spirit is a part. He is always working in and through all things. Here’s what I mean: To be mindful is to open yourself to the deeper parts of your humanity — to the heart, the soul, the spirit. All the great religions have repeatedly told us that the inner life is critical and something to which we must be attuned. When Jesus came, He simply opened the surest way to mindfulness: by experiencing His presence around us and even in us as we come to faith in Him. To become mindful of yourself is to become mindful of Jesus and vice-versa.
But that leaves a lot of questions: What does this surging interest in mindfulness have to do with being a real man? How do you practice mindfulness with Jesus? What are some ways to get started? How does mindfulness make us more like Christ? And how can mindfulness become something that brings others to faith in Christ? I’ll address these questions in upcoming posts in January. Stay tuned…