About 3,000 years ago the Psalmist wrote, “Blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law, he meditates day and night.” The writer was referring to being mindful of God’s Word.
About 500 years later in China, the Buddha (“the Awakened One”) founded the Buddhist movement, the way of those who are awakened. He emphasized mindfulness as the key to enlightenment.
Christian monks from early on in the world-wide Christian movement practiced mindfulness in their routine, chanting the Psalms all the way through many times a month. They focused on Scripture many times a day. Their way of life always struck me as boring to the nth degree. Yet it apparently held personal satisfactions that attracted large numbers of Christians to the monastic movements from the 6th century until recent decades.
Psychologists today are re-discovering the value of mindfulness in coping with the challenges of modern living. Their practices have been taken from Buddhist traditions. Yet the basics apply equally well to meditating on God’s Word.
Here is what I have learned from psychologist Ronald Siegel in his lectures and book on The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems.
- Mindfulness can be cultivated.
- Mindfulness can help us see and accept things as they are.
- Mindfulness can help us loosen our painful preoccupation with “self.”
- Mindfulness frees us to act more wisely and skillfully in everyday decisions.
Ronald Siegel reports research showing that subjects who are distressed tend to have more activity in the right pre-frontal lobes, while subjects who are generally content and have fewer negative moods tend to have more activity in the left pre-frontal lobe. New research shows a relationship between mindfulness meditation and changes in activity in parts of the actual physical structure of the brain. There is support for the conclusion: these mindfulness practices dramatically change a person’s mind.
Siegel distinguishes between concentration practices, which teach how to focus the mind to observe mental phenomena clearly, and mindfulness practices that use concentration to actively examine how the mind works—in particular to observe how the mind creates unnecessary suffering or how we make ourselves unhappy by constantly seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain.
A big part of mindfulness with many practitioners is having a mantra, a sound or phrase to help concentrate the mind. This is a practice that is easily satirized, as with the image of a turbaned guru sounding a long Omm. Centering or contemplative prayer is a better description.
I do think ordinary Christians have favorite mantras to focus their thinking. Many are displayed prominently on wall plaques in the home. From years of visiting homes and hearing Christians’ side comments, I think these four italicized phrases are the most common biblical promises that serve as mantras:
- I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
- In all things God works for the good of those who love him.
- For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.
- Those who have hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on wings like eagles.
Martin Seligman, the psychologist who pioneered the study of happiness, observed that “our field has focused on how to move people from ‘minus five to zero’. Most of us hope for more.” The Holy Spirit can be at work in biblical mindfulness. He can take believers from Stages 2 to 3 to 4.