A Buddhist form of meditation called “mindfulness meditation” has taken the mental health field by storm. It has produced many well-documented positive effects and has been basically touted as a panacea for most psychological ills. In terms of popularity and buzz, mindfulness is to mental health what organic coconut water is to physical health—a somewhat good thing promoted as a cure-all. Some think, “What’s the harm? It has documented positive effects, and at the very least it’s harmless.”
But is it? Relatively little has been said about its adverse effects, but good science and responsible living demand that we examine the whole picture. Fortunately, a study has now emerged that inserts one dissonant note into the otherwise unison chorus of praise for mindfulness meditation.
Definition of Mindfulness
Before quoting the study, let me define mindfulness and mindfulness meditation:
Mindfulness is the practice of self-awareness, of being “in the moment” rather than letting the thoughts take us elsewhere. When we are mindful, we observe our thoughts and feelings in a detached, non-judgmental way.
Mindfulness meditation involves breathing and relaxation, while clearing the mind of cluttered thoughts and focusing on the breath. It induces a trance-like state that often brings at least temporary relief from suffering.
“Mindfulness” was translated from the Sanskrit word smrti, which means “to remember” and refers to remembering the dhammas, or teachings of Buddhism. The student of smrti uses this form of meditation to detach from this world and enter “the stream” which leads to Nirvana, a state of freedom from desire and its consequence, suffering. One doesn’t need to dig very deep to discover error here because Buddhism, like all world religions except the biblical Christianity, crafts an elaborate method of salvation through self-effort.
As Buddhist mindfulness has become a mainstream practice used in clinical and therapeutic settings, it has lost its religious overtones while retaining its core purpose of detachment from reality, in particular suffering.
Pros and Cons of Detachment
And who wouldn’t want to detach from the difficult aspects of life? All have diversions that put a distance between ourselves and our suffering for at least a short space of time. But apparently detachment works like any other good thing—some helps, but too much can harm. Even water taken in sufficient quantities is a poison.
The study, published in January in The Journal of Counseling and Development, says:
“Adverse effects were reported in three major domains: intrapersonal (e.g., increased negativity, disorientation, addiction to meditation, boredom, pain), interpersonal (e.g., family conflicts, more judgmental), and societal effects (e.g., increased alienation, discomfort with the real world). It is interesting to note that respondents with the longest meditation practice history reported the highest rate of adverse effects at each time point.”[i]
Contrasting Buddhist and Biblical Meditation
Is there a type of meditation that provides the benefits of mindfulness meditation without the adverse effects cited in this study such as negativity, boredom and alienation? I think so. It’s meditating on the Word of God. “Oh, how I love your law!” David exclaimed, “It is my meditation all the day,” (Ps. 119:97). Let’s compare and contrast these two approaches:
Rather than emptying the mind, biblical meditation fills the mind with spiritual truth. “You should keep your mind filled with the precious promises of God,” Ellen White counseled us, “As Christians we do not make half enough of the promises, for God will never fail in any good thing which he has promised. We should take these promises singly, view them critically in all their richness, meditate upon them until the soul is burdened with their greatness, and delighted with their strength and power.” [ii] Notice she is not recommending a Bible study that jumps from line to line here, but rather a focusing on one point at a time, taking the promises “singly.” In this way we receive the benefit of quieting and focusing the mind without the risk of emptying the mind.
Rather than detach us from all desire, biblical meditation refines and redirects our desires. “A new heart also will I give you,” God promises, “And a new spirit will I put within you. And I will take away the stoney heart out of your flesh. And I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statues. And you will keep my judgments, and do them,” (Ezekiel 36:26 and 27).
Rather than merely detaching from my suffering, biblical meditation attaches me to Christ. God, the ultimate social being, created us in His image. We can’t experience fulfillment apart from relationship. Worldly meditation can lead to withdrawal from relationships, but biblical meditation will connect us to God and ultimately lead to healthier relationships with people.
Through a walk with Jesus we enjoy the positive aspects of mindfulness without the negative aspects. Through meditating upon His Word, we look toward a better world where suffering will end for once and for all.
[i] Hanley, et. al, “Mind the Gap: Are Conclusions about Mindfulness Entirely Conclusive?” Journal of Counseling & Development, January 2016, Volume 94
[ii] ST APR.14,1890