One of the most interesting developments in Spirituality and Psychology is the new spiritual way of focusing that goes by the name of Mindfulness and how it can benefit a person. Very simply put, mindfulness is staying in the present moment and allowing the thoughts and feelings that often dominate our lives to just pass through us. It is recognizing a kind of inner sovereignty that allows one the time and the prudential regard necessary to make good decisions in the long run and not allow one to become a slave to the passing thought or feeling. To be fully present to the now of the moment while practicing an inner detachment gives a real freedom and a constant state of tranquility that does not merely react to emotional or cerebral stimuli.
Of course, this is not new to Christian Spirituality. The great saints and mystics all counseled the development of the habit of detachment that gives one the ability to distance oneself from the loud and often disruptive emotional triggers that distract us from the presence of God that can only be experienced in the present moment. This has been termed ‘the Sacrament of the Present Moment’ and has developed a whole genre of spirituality that has often been joined to Centering Prayer or to a more Eastern understanding: the “Jesus Prayer.” Together they have produced much of the same experience that in a more secular terminology we call Mindfulness Meditation.
However, when I began to study this spiritual approach, I found that it is often based on many Buddhist principles that negate some basic tenets of the Judeo-Christian spiritual landscape. As Christians and Jews (and I would also add Muslims), we believe that we are persons and that there is a personal God with which I can have a relationship that is at least analogous to a human relationship. The great Jewish theologian Martin Buber put it clearly in his formulation of the “I-Thou” relationship. This is something that we take for granted. Abraham’s relationship with God is the template for a relationship with the Almighty in the three monotheistic faiths.
Nevertheless, the Buddha was not interested in what we call God. He was trying to find a way to get rid of suffering (which often is self-produced by the unenlightened mind). Part of his Enlightenment was that there is no such thing as a ‘self’. What we call a self is the accumulation of mental processes that go by the names of thinking and feeling. While it would be wrong to say that the Buddha was an atheist, it would be accurate to say that he did not think the concept of God mattered; rather, he was agnostic about it. Suffering was caused by our desires, and meditation could help us distance ourselves from this false self and, in detachment, achieve a kind of desirelessness that frees one from pain.
However, the Christian Faith depends upon the fact that we are persons and are called into a personal relationship with God. While we have an understanding that there is a false self who we think we are (Thomas Merton has written persuasively and extensively about this), we still seek the true or authentic self which is from God. God for us is a someone. This marks off clearly the difference between Buddhism and the three Abrahamic faiths.
Nevertheless, I do not think that this makes Mindfulness Meditation a wrong spirituality for Christians. One can still get great benefits from it since our personal God communicates only in the present moment and all reality is imbued with Him, so that an open and honest presence to the present moment is to be in communication (albeit it hidden) with that Divine Self.
If one applies this dialogic perspective, Mindfulness Meditation can yield great results; but the theological corrective needs to be added if a Christian believer is to make sense of the very real practical insights of this form of self-guidance. Prayer, on the other hand, is different since it is a communication between two beings, God and myself. I see no reason why this conversation that we call prayer cannot be joined to some of these meditation insights so that a Christian can honestly benefit from this valid form of spiritual growth.