Mindfulness and Prayerfulness: Is There a Difference?
“Buddhism by the back door.” This is how one mindfulness organization defines what they are about. This organization is one of several, nationally and internationally, that are promoting what they call “mindfulness” and developing mindfulness based curricula for our schools. It further state on its website that “Mindfulness has been developed from a Buddhist base but it is totally secular and can be engaged in by anyone of any faith, or none.”[i]
Organizations like this are having success in integrating this type mindfulness into our schools. I recently saw a news report where instead of detention, some schools in my local area are implementing mindfulness. Additionally, I read how a local high school is incorporating mindfulness into their daily routine. Apparently, this high school is having faculty and students practice 15-minutes of mindfulness at the beginning and end of each day. This is happening in placed throughout the country, not just where I live.
So, what is mindfulness? As Christians, should we be concerned about it being in our schools? How is mindfulness different from prayerfulness, or is it? Mindfulness seems to be a growing movement whereas Church attendance is dropping so what is appealing about mindfulness that many do not find in Christianity?
What is Mindfulness?
The same organization mentioned above defines mindfulness as follows: “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. It is also a set of techniques and methods for systematically developing this awareness. The practice of mindful awareness has a variety of well-documented impacts, including a reduction in toxic stress, an increase in emotion regulation, and an improvement in sustained attention, focus and executive functioning.”[ii] Mindfulness is seemingly beneficial according to this organization that promotes us.
Others see mindfulness as beneficial as well. “Mindfulness grounds us to the present and focuses our whole being on the here and now. Taking time to practice mindfulness has been shown to change our brain chemistry, increase feelings of wellbeing, improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and decrease aggressive behavior in children (Rosenkrantz et al., 2013; Siegel, 2009).”[iii] Surprisingly, this is not a quote from a mindfulness organization or guru. It from an article called On Raising Children written Dr. Evelyn Bilias Lolis, a committed Christian who is an educational psychologist, school climate consultant, and a professor of Psychology & Special Education. Further, Father George Morelli, a Priest and a Doctor of Clinical Psychology writes the following: about mindfulness in his article called Mindfulness as Known by the Church Fathers:
“Current behavioral research literature has found support for a clinical tool called mindfulness that can be used to break bad habits and troubling emotions. One psychologist, Kabat-Zinn (2003), defined mindfulness as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment." The 'patient' can focus on the sensory and physical aspects of the present moment, recognize thought patterns, feelings and physical sensations that are occurring and learn to tell the difference between sensations, thoughts and feelings. The 'patient' then practices making decisions based on the choices they really want and feel right.”[iv]
It would seem since Dr. Lolis and Father Morelli, both of whom are Psychologists and Christians, write positively about mindfulness that it is indeed a good thing. If so, how should we understand mindfulness as Christians?
Is There Such a Thing a Christian Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, as most people understand it, has its roots primarily in an Eastern Non-Christian religion, Buddhism. In traditional Buddhism, there is no concept of God, and certainly not a personal God. It is essentially atheistic in that sense. Father George Morelli writes that Buddhism rejects any concept of ‘God,’ therefore it could be considered “atheological.”[v] This type of non-Christian mindfulness derives from an atheistic religion or philosophy. Obviously, this is a significant contrast to Christianity.
Father Morelli also writes, “…there is a profound anthropological and theological chasm between the ethos of mindfulness as practiced by those committed to Buddhism and the nepsis practiced by those committed to Christ.”[vi] Nepsis, pronounced in English as “neepsees,” may not be a familiar term to many Christians. It means to be awake, or a state of watchfulness, a state of awareness or sobriety. Essentially, it means to be mindful.
The scriptures testify to nepsis. 1 Peter 5:8 which reads “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” Our task as Christians is to be awake, to be watchful and aware. There are other Scriptures as well that evoke watchfulness. Christ says multiple times in the Gospel for us to watch and be watchful. In Matthew 24:42 He says, “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.” In Matthew 25:13, He says again, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. In Matthew 26:41, He says, “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 16:13, “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. The word watch in this Scripture comes from a Greek word from which we get nepsis. Here, Paul used it as a command to be watchful. As Christians, what are we supposed to be watchful for? The answer is God. Our watchfulness is a complete focus on the Person of Christ. As Orthodox Christians, we are called to be like God, to be like Christ and to grow into Christ-likeness. This growth in Christ-likeness is a slow death to the sin within us, as we gain greater and greater purity of heart, mind, and soul. With this growth in Christ comes an orientation of allowing Christ to fill us where we experience and see the world increasingly as Christ did.
When we read the Gospels, we see that Christ always had the peace of His Father, of knowing He was doing the will of the Father and the peace that came with that intimate relationship and obedience out of love. No matter what this situation, whether in extreme sorrow, suffering, rejection, and the like, He had this underlying peace. He wishes to share that peace with us. In John 14:27, He plainly states, “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”
Nepsis is all about being alert and watchful. But how are we watchful? How then do we as Christians practice mindfulness? In her article, Dr. Lolis’s writes “… we primarily practice mindfulness, that is, mindfulness of God through: prayer (particularly the Jesus Prayer); worship; reading the Bible and other devotional materials; the Sacraments of Eucharist and Confession; and appreciation for His Creation.”[vii]
Christian vs Non-Christian Mindfulness – The Profound Difference
Christianity affirms the self, whereas Buddhism negates the self. In its purest form, Buddhism essentially says the self does not truly exist, it is a form of ego, and that identification with self keeps someone in a cycle of rebirth. There is no soul and self in living beings. To be liberated form this cycle and achieve enlightenment one must break attachment. Detachment from self is a hallmark of Buddhism. One loses their personal identify.
In Christianity, Jesus said we must die to self and he who loses his life will find it. That is was the Christian life is all about; dying to self and find our real selves because Christ gives us our real selves as a gift when we turn to Him. In Christianity, we deny our self to find our true self. As we seek Christ and grow in Him and towards Him, He gives us our true self in abundance. In Christianity, we gain our true personal identity. Gaining our true identify through becoming Christ-like, occur through living the life of the Church at home, at work, in the Church itself. This seems so simple to understand and practice yet there seems to be some sort of obstacle to it. It seems sometimes that attraction to the practices of mindfulness in the secular Buddhist form is greater that the attraction to mindfulness as understood in Christianity as a life of regular prayer, meditating on scripture, fasting and everything else the church instructs us to do. But if true, why is this?
One reason could have to do with submission and obedience and understanding the peace Christ wishes to give us. Non-Christian mindfulness would have us derive this peace through attaining a degree of control over ourselves and our stress through employing methods and techniques that help us master ourselves. Self is in control of self even though the purpose is to transcend self. Mindfulness, understood in a Christian context, in a prayerful context, is all about letting go of self, dying to self as Christ calls it, so that He can fill us with Himself, and in doing so we gain our true selves with no loss of our identify but rather a greater realization of our identify and who are. Without this focus on Christ, in Christianity, we can never be practicing true mindfulness. Father George Morellis explains “… mindfulness that is separated from God is never a true Christian mindfulness. The mindful, noetic, mind of a person is enlightened by an illumination from God, through the Holy Spirit, in the depth of the heart and mind, which allows perception of spiritual experience. True and purified reason will burn more brightly, like a light. If the noetic mind is darkened by partial mindfulness, that is actually mindlessness; by drawing away from God, reasoning is darkened.”
But by letting go of ourselves to be filled by Christ, we are submitting ourselves to Him. Christianity in many ways is all about obedience and submission and perhaps this is what makes it less attractive then mindfulness sometimes since inherently as human beings we do not like to submit and be obedient.
Practicing Christian Mindfulness
Christ, in the Sermon in the Mount in Matthew 7:24, urges us to put His teachings into practice. Many of us do not actually put the fullness of Christianity into practice. We have not been taught how to. Most of us have been taught the Christian faith very legalistically, as a set off rules and a system of moral ethical teachings to follow, and it has become compartmentalized as a Sunday activity. Or we have been taught it is something to be studied and only approached through the mind and intellectual reasoning as if God is something philosophical that we can understand through our brains only. None of this very spiritually attractive or appealing at the depth level most of us are seeking, and certainly not for anyone who is trying to manage their stress, or, in general just seeking increasing wellness. It is a shame since Christianity is so much more than that. Christianity is the transformational way of life in response to our heart for God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and understood through the Holy Spirit.[viii] Understanding and living Christianity as such usually begins with how we understand and practice prayer. Do we have a discipline and rule of prayer in our life and if so what form does it take?
The monastics live by rules of prayer and they have prayers and services throughout the day and night. The monastic life and the non-monastic life are of course very difference but the principle of living by a rule of prayer is common to all Christians or should be. The important principle here is to have a rule of prayer accompanied by reading and meditating on scripture, and regular church attendance. I know in my own life, practicing a rule of prayer has been so critical to my own journey with God. Nearly 25 years ago, I adopted a rule of prayer in my life. Every morning I get up earlier than I need to get up in terms of my work schedule and begin my day with prayer. I light a candle, do not use any artificial light except that of my computer, go into my study with all of my books and icons and other stuff, and begin my Morning Prayer. I also pray in the evening before I go to bed and often during the day. This rule of prayer combined with reading scripture daily, and going to church regularly, has resulted in my always feeling the presence of Christ with me even during the most stressful of times. I think of the Disciples being tossed and turned in the boat during the raging storm and how Christ was there sleeping but He was there (Matthew 8, Mark 4, Luke 8). I feel when a day feels just like that boat that Christ is always there. This is what we want our children to understand and experience – the presence of Christ. We want them to have a relationship with Christ, a union with Him. Non-Christian mindfulness at best does not support this way of being and at worst can lead our young people away from Christ.
Conclusion – The True Benefit of Christian Mindfulness and the Danger of Non-Christian Mindfulness
Non-Christian mindfulness is all about stress relief, managing anxiety, physical well-being, self-improvement, and gaining peace. Although well-being, peace and contentment are a tremendous benefit, Christian mindfulness and watchfulness, which results in these things too, is really all about becoming and being Christ-like which is what our salvation is dependent on.
If we truly believe what Christianity teaches, then our form of mindfulness, nepsis, is incredibly important to our being both the here and now and our eternal being. That is why is very important that we know what we practice and why and why mindfulness as we understand it outside of Christianity really offers us little benefit accept for the temporary here and now. Further, non-Christian mindfulness poses a potential spiritual danger to our children. If their grounding in Christianity is not strong, they may be attracted to the underlying spirituality of Mindfulness which could lead them away from Christ.
[viii] Michael C. Haldas, Sacramental Living: Understanding Christianity as a Way of Life, Eastern Christian Publications, 2013, pp. 13-15