In the last post I reviewed some simple definitions of mindfulness, including some of the Buddhist ideas behind a version of mindfulness. In this post I want to consider how mindfulness, when reconsidered in the light of Christian thought, can be a valuable part of counseling practice.
A thought about mindfulness and the brain
Let me detour to one more thought about biology and mindfulness. What happens in the brain when a person is practicing mindfulness? Thought and feeling patterns result in neural activity in the brain (or is it the other way around?). Repeated neural activity creates stronger connections between neurons (increased synaptic activity and denser connections with neurons in the same neighborhood. Repeated activity leads to greater blood flow and activation in particular regions of the brain. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity.
Thus affective and cognitive patterns can indeed change your brain. Think about this. What patterns of thought do you engage in on a repetitive basis? Do you have a habit of fantasizing? Mulling over bitter or jealous thoughts? While some of these may come naturally to you, what you do with them may actually change or strengthen neural connections in the brain–for better or for worse.
Is mindfulness healthy or relativistic?
Mindfulness, no matter whether you take a religious, consciousness, or relational approach to it, includes the stepping back from shoulds, oughts, and other judgments. One might think that this would be dangerous for Christians. Within Christianity, there are rights and wrongs, truth and lie, righteousness and unrighteousness. The Bible is, among other things, the single guide for Christians to determine how to live for God. SO, it begs the question whether Christians should be wary of anything that seems to let go of shoulds and oughts?
Another view of shoulds and oughts
In my experience, those suffering from anxiety and depression suffer from a disorder of judgments. They are flooded by shoulds and oughts. Their self-talk does not seem to come from the Lord but are already laced with prejudice. “You should have been more vigilant against danger AND you weren’t. You’re a failure.” “You shouldn’t be rebellious BUT you are always a screw-up.” “I shouldn’t have to suffer this way AND God must not care for me.” Notice that most of these forms of judgment are careful consideration of the facts and experiences but well-formed opinions that may be based on only a smidgen of the actual events in their present circumstances. Notice that these forms of ruminative thinking come in disguise as careful, logical thinking. They are not. What they are narratives–well-practiced narratives–that have an already formed conclusion that we repeat regardless of the actual facts of our lives.
Mindfulness, then, is stepping back from these narratives. Mindfulness is a practiced discipline of just noticing and describing events so as to process them more carefully instead of automatically repeated a script or mantra. Mindfulness provides the opportunity to discover “what is” rather than compound suffering by focusing on what we just assume. Consider Dan Siegel (The Mindful Brain, p. 77)
When the mind grasps onto preconceived ideas it creates a tension within the mind between what is and what “should be.” This tension creates stress and leads to suffering.”
While I’m sure I would vigorously disagree with Siegel on what a preconceived idea is, on what can be healthy “should be’s”, and much more, he has a point worth considering. Have you ever engaged in a fantasy conflictual conversation with someone you are about to meet. You play out yourself winning, being mistreated, standing up for what is right, and so on. Notice how such conversations aren’t useful. They only increase your level of stress because your brain responds to the inner drama as if it were really happening, when it has yet to happen. In this way, Siegel is right. We create tension that leads to suffering.
Using mindfulness in Christian Counseling
I’m running out of room here and won’t be able to do justice, in this post, to the most practical part of mindfulness. [Isn't that just like us academics. We spend all our time pointing out problems but we never solve anything!]. Mindful practice may include time practicing being present in one’s surroundings. The counselor may encourage clients to take in their surroundings. While many thoughts may race through the brain, the mindful person may choose to not follow them but “drink in” the creation beauty around them–things growing, art, or anything that is a delight to the senses. This form of discipline must be practiced in de-stressed times so that it will be available during a crisis–just like a basketball player practices free-throws over and over so as to make the shot when there is only 1 second left on the clock.
Such work is the work of taking every thought captive. and resting (a la Psalms 131) without grasping after things “too wonderful” for us.