Dr. Nathan T. Morton
The Myth of Christian Mindfulness
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
I was first introduced to Mindfulness Meditation (MM) at a health summit I attended. At this same time, I was going through a very dark period—one of the darkest in my life. It was an extraordinarily stressful season of ministry and in the seminar I was led to believe that MM would help me cope. However, instead of my stress being reduced it was complicated. I soon noticed that I was becoming much more emotional than normal. To cover for this, I joked to people that I believed I was going through male menopause.
At the time, I wasn't sure if there was any correlation between my increased melancholy and my practice of MM but I knew something was definitely wrong and not working. I had recently finished reading Warren Wiersbe’s 50 People Every Christian Should Know and at a recommendation in that book, I began reading Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret.
While reading the record of Taylor’s prayer life I was encouraged to stop the practice of MM and instead add an extended quiet time into my practice of prayer.
Where MM seemed to increase my emotional distress, meditation on the Word of God in my practice of prayer stabilized me. One may argue that MM and meditation in the practice of prayer are equal things, but that simply was not my experience nor is it now my understanding.
In time, God changed my path and I moved forward with little thought about this seemingly insignificant moment of time. That was until last week, when I read a BBC Radio 4 article entitled “Is Mindfulness Meditation Dangerous?” The article reported the experience of a French woman in her 20’s.
Just over a year ago, Suzanne (not her real name) decided to go on a silent meditation retreat in Manchester. As meditation goes, it was pretty hardcore—10 days straight. No talking or eye contact was allowed, even when the daily sessions were finished. Everything was OK until the seventh day. But then she had a panic attack. “It just felt like my brain literally exploded,” she told me: “Then I felt like I was completely separated from my own body.” She talked to the teachers, but they told her to carry on meditating.
At the end of the course, she made her way, with difficulty, back to France, where she effectively collapsed in her mother’s house. “I tried to go on with my life, but it was impossible. I could not get out of bed anymore; I could not eat. I was having symptoms of terror and panic. I had a lot of fear and I had ‘depersonalization’ - that’s basically when you look at yourself in the mirror and you’re unable to recognize yourself - and ‘derealization’, which is when you look at the world around you and it seems unreal.” She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and given anti-psychotic medication. A year later, she is still on the drugs. She is much better but, she says, “I still have a long road ahead of me.”
After reading this article I was curious to know if this was an exceptional or uncommon response to MM, it isn’t. Dr. Miguel Farias writes in the London Independent,
“In 1992, David Shapiro, a professor at UCLA Irvine, published an article about the effects of meditation retreats. After examining 27 people with different levels of meditation experience, he found 63 percent of them had suffered at least one negative effect and 7 percent profoundly adverse effects. ... The negative effects included anxiety, panic, depression, pain, confusion, and disorientation.”[i]
Another case reported by Dr. Farias was of a woman who had taught Yoga for 20 years. He describes what happened to her during one meditation retreat.
“The last day of the retreat was excruciating: her body shook, she cried and panicked.” She was referred to a psychiatrist and “spent the next 15 years being treated for psychotic depression.”[ii]
A PlOS ONE research article states that “meditation-related experiences are typically underreported, particularly experiences that are described as challenging, difficult, distressing, functionally impairing, and/or requiring additional support.”[iii]
Jared Lindahl, a visiting professor of religious studies at Brown University says that the “intensely distressing side of meditation is rarely mentioned,” and one has to wonder why.[iv] Especially when you compare it to the frequent airplay mindfulness meditation gets in Christian circles usually being recommended by people who are unpracticed and uninformed.
The MM seminar I attended was nothing more than a recounting of statistics regarding stress and ministry pressures accompanied with an abbreviated overview along with book and app recommendations. In reality, the seminar leader was as much a novitiate to the practice as me—and as I was under a great deal of stress, it seemed to offer hope. It was the case of an EMT offering surgical advice.
A quick google search of religious articles regarding Christian MM reveals multiple recommendations on Christian sites by op-ed writers who are merely echoing what they have read or heard elsewhere. Consider an article from the Baptist Union last year written by Shaun Lambert entitled “What does mindfulness offer the Christian?” Here is what he writes after making the claim that MM was central to our discipleship goal of becoming like Christ.
“When it comes to mindfulness of God I am reminded of a verse in Genesis, chapter 26 and verse 15, ‘So all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth.’ Mindfulness is one of our ancient spiritual wells, but it is not anyone else that has filled it in, we have done it ourselves, by ignoring the biblical witness to awareness and attention, and the Christian contemplative tradition which is concerned with mindfulness of God.”[v]
I will resist the fleshly urge to make the charge of eisegesis but there is certainly a great degree of glossing in his usage of the term mindfulness.
I could continue to reference multiple articles from Religion News Service, Baptist Health, Baptist News Global, and other Christian sites but instead I will cite one article that caught my attention asking the question “How do the Gospel, social justice ministry and meditation mix?” Jeff Brumley is quoted as saying, “mindfulness makes my praying and my living and my awareness of all that God has put in this world more vivid – more in Technicolor.”[vi] [A later quote from OSHO Times lists hallucination as one of the negative effects of mindfulness, but in fairness, he may have only been speaking metaphorically.]
All I have written could easily be characterized as nothing more than an opinionated polemic, or a semantical disconnect. “I mean doesn’t the Bible teach us to meditate?”
Here is what I perceive to be the grand difference. MM is the act of emptying one’s self whereas biblical meditation is the act of filling one’s self with God’s Word. Stress and depression empty the soul and what the believer needs in these difficult seasons is not a subtraction of reality but the addition of truth. They do not need more of self, they need more of God. Faith comes via the Word of God. Not only is Christian MM not Christian, it is spiritually, mentally, and emotionally damaging. Herein, lies the danger.
According to Dr. Miguel Farias an experimental psychologist “Meditation techniques were developed to stimulate altered states of consciousness.”[vii]
Dr. Utpal Dholakla in an article entitled “The Little-Known Downsides of Mindfulness Practice” writes, “By its definition and based on its Buddhist and Vedantic origins, the practice of mindfulness encourages detachment.” [viii] He goes on to write:
A core aspect of practicing mindfulness is to attempt a withdrawal from the streams of thought that have to do with current challenges of every form, whether they have to do with difficulties with a particular relationship or the tasks that one has to perform on that day. Unfortunately, such a withdrawal supports our natural, hard-wired tendency to be “cognitive misers” leading mindfulness practitioners to use the practice as a means of escape from having to think about difficult problems and arrive at reasonable solutions.”[ix]
You have to but read a few articles on non-Christian MM before you soon realize that many counterpart articles on Christian MM are nothing more than a rewording of the former.
MM (even if you tag “Christian” on the front) is Buddhist—that is its nature and the core of its design. It was never intended to bring one closer to God, nor is it intended to help one find resolve and healing in God—or any other healing for that matter. It is radical escapism.
“Buddhist meditation was designed not to make us happier, but to radically change our sense of self and perception of the world. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that some will experience negative effects such as dissociation, anxiety, and depression.”[x]
To date, researchers have identified 59 different kinds of negatives experiences, which they have categorized into seven domains: cognitive, perceptual, affective (related to moods), somatic, conative (related to motivation), sense of self, and social. These negative experiences include types of fear, terror, insomnia, detachment, hypersensitivity to light and sound, even hallucinations, false memories, and reliving past traumas. [xi]
Could anything be more antithetical to the gospel? If you can take the time, read Dawn Foster’s autobiographical account in The Guardian entitled, “Is Mindfulness Making Us Ill?”[xii]
One may assert that MM is good with the claim that all Christians should be mindful. I agree that all Christians should be mindful and we should meditate, but not on ourselves, our person, or our place in time and space. When the Bible calls us to be mindful and meditate it focuses us on God’s works, His law, His ways, His nature, His goodness, His glory, etc. MM is person-centric, dangerous, debilitating, and godless.
I do not ask for your agreement nor do I hope to coerce you into echoing my view. Instead, I appeal to you as a fellow follower of Jesus Christ who has also experienced seasons of stress and depression—one who knows something of the dark night of the soul. Do not look to self or nature, look to God. There is no source of cure in the sinful or human realm for the diseases of sinfulness and humanity. What we need only heaven can provide—God and His truth.
Instead of rushing to the newest fad or the trendiest quasi-Christian spirituality, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him.”[xiii] “How blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! O Lord, they walk in the light of Your countenance.”[xiv] So, “Set your minds on things that are above and not on things that are on the earth.”[xv] “For to set the mind n the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”[xvi]
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, think about these things. As for the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”[xvii]
[i] Dr. Miguel Farias, “Meditation is Touted as a Cure for Mental Instability but Can actually be Bad for You.” The Independent, May 21, 2015. [ii] Osho Times, “Don’t Just Sit There!” February 26, 2020 [iii] Lindahl JR, Fisher NE, Cooper DJ, Rosen RK, Britton WB (2017) The varieties of contemplative experience: A mixed-methods study of meditation-related challenges in Western Buddhists. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176239 [iv] Lila MacLellan, “There’s a dark side of meditation that no one talks about,” Quartz, May 29, 2017 [v] https://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/438217/What_does_Mindfulness.aspx [vi] https://baptistnews.com/article/how-do-the-gospel-social-justice-ministry-and-meditation-mix-ask-joe-phelps/#.YBWlpS1h03g [vii] https://www.sciencefocus.com/news/can-mindfulness-and-meditation-be-harmful/ [viii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-behind-behavior/201604/the-little-known-downsides-mindfulness-practice [ix] Ibid. [x] Ibid [xi] Op.cit. Osho Times February 26, 2020. [xii] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/is-mindfulness-making-us-ill [xiii] Psalm 37:7 [xiv] Psalm 89:15-16 [xv] Colossians 3:2 [xvi] Romans 8:6 [xvii] Philippians 4:8-9