Mindfulness and the Doubting Christian: Finding Peace in Unknowing

Mindfulness and the Doubting Christian: Finding Peace in Unknowing February 27, 2018

This is Part 8 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

< Part 7: Rebuilding Trust When Belief Systems Have Crumbled

Two distinct threads of interest have dominated my thinking in recent years. The first is my evolving Christian faith, and the second is mental health. I always saw these two threads as separate, but recently they have become more and more intertwined. As strange as it may sound, both threads have led me to mindfulness.

Experiencing anxiety and depression during my early twenties led me to explore techniques and approaches very similar to MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), and these techniques have been helping me to stay afloat ever since. During difficult times they have been a lifeline (with something like depression, techniques like these can become a matter of survival) but I have found that whatever the situation, mindfulness can give me a better perspective and leave me feeling more alive, awake and present.

What do I mean by mindfulness?

The basic principles of mindfulness are very simple, and yet utterly counter-intuitive. Mindfulness is about intentionally bringing our awareness to the present moment by paying attention to the sensations, sights and sounds around us, and calmly noticing – without judgement – the thoughts and feelings that arise. The aim is to interrupt the mind’s natural tendency to be somewhere other than here and now, and to recognise that our thoughts and emotions are products of our minds and do not necessarily represent reality. Observing and interacting with our own thoughts in this counter-intuitive way allows us to take control of our minds and improve our experience of life.

What does an ancient Buddhist practice really have to do with Christianity?

Although the version of mindfulness that is popular today has been largely secularised, many Christians still feel uneasy about its Buddhist roots. Contrary to what I was taught growing up, I don’t think Christianity and Buddhism are in opposition to one another. They both offer valuable insights into what it means to be fully human and fully alive, and as far as I can see are entirely compatible.

Within Christianity itself there is a rich tradition of practices very similar to mindfulness, but in modern western Protestantism these have largely been forgotten or at least sidelined. Contemplative Christianity contains within it much of the same mind-training principles that are found within mindfulness. There are differences, but the basic approach is very similar.

When beliefs no longer provide an anchor

I see Christianity as offering a revolutionary way of being in the world rather than a concrete set of beliefs. I have not always held this view. This entire Faith in the Fog series has been about my experience of “deconstructing” the static belief system I was taught to hold above all else, and dealing with the confusion, grief and existential chaos this process has entailed. During the last ten years I have effectively tried to think my way through what felt like one long “crisis of faith”, looking for solid answers to construct a new belief system I could hold onto.

I eventually realised there would be no end to this search. I would have to learn to be at peace with uncertainty, or my thinking would become increasingly obsessive and unhealthy. Mindfulness has helped me find that peace. Rather than forever trying to understand and explain everything, I focus on what is actually going on around me. I am more awake to everyday experiences, more present with other people, and more appreciative of the beauty of it all.

I still have beliefs and hopes about God and the spiritual aspects of life, but they are no longer my anchor. So when these beliefs shift, as they inevitably do, I am not as disorientated as I once was. My anchor is this moment, this breath. I cannot control the nature of God or the reliability of biblical texts, but I can control how I respond to life in each moment. I am finding this to be a much healthier way to be, and indeed a more Christian way. I can be centred, calm and fully alive without feeling the need to understand everything.

Awakening to the divine presence

The main difference between contemplative prayer and mindfulness is that the aim of prayer is to silently focus on God and seek union with him rather than simply bringing your attention to the present moment. But where is God if not here, revealed in the beauty of nature and the gift of each breath? Where better to seek God than in the coolness of the breeze, the sound of laughter or the faces of those we pass by on the street?

Nothing provokes a sense of awe and gratitude like being fully awake and present to the world in front of my eyes. It can feel a lot like the presence of God.

Image via Pixabay

< Part 7: Rebuilding Trust When Belief Systems Have Crumbled

Read the entire series here.

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  • Emma, I love your phrase about ‘dealing with the confusion, grief and existential chaos this process has entailed.’ I once spent more than a full year dealing with this confusion, grief, and existential chaos. It was such a time of despair and so painful that I didn’t know if I would survive or ever be whole again. But then I found traces of hope and began to emerge on the other side of the chaos. And there I found that I was clear of the harmful burdens of fundamentalism and in touch with the God who loved me.

  • Clayton Gafne Jaymes

    I knew what you were before I knew for sure what you were article writing lady. You are no follower of Jesus and thus you are no Christian. You are apolluter ofwhat is holy (clean and pure). That makes your ‘belief system’ ‘polluted’ corrupted’ tainted’ not from God or Jesus.

    And the fact that you are standing under Buddhism is proof that you aren’t walking with Jesus.Do you think Jesus is going to promote his ppl looking to this ‘Buddah no matter how much commonality it may have with the true God’s true teachings based on Him and not that of a man that denies the existence of [Jehovah] God a

    Do yourself a life saving favor and get away from things outside of Scriptue. That includes the Buddist teaching you are taking into your spirit and calliing it ‘bgood’. I promise you Jesus and Jehovah God aren’t agreeing with you and that puts you in a place where you can be sure you are going to the grave forever. And all the while you are taking others with you through being a false teacher. Please repent of this and stick to Jehovah God alone.
    You have no good reason to be giving credit to Buddha for this idea of ‘mindfulness’ as though it isn’t in Scripture before that. We are repeatedly told in Scripture about keeping God and the things He says in mind ‘reminders’ for just in case you forget to be ‘mindful’ about things.

    No, you are not to value your personal thinking whith the hel of another human’s help even if it is that of a ‘psycholigist’ that has ‘found’ some great techniques to cope with this or that as though it isn’t somehow connect in truth to God. You seem to forget that all good things are from God. that means even things that ppl of the world find are not doing something outside of the truth of God. It just means they are not porperly understanding some things they have ‘discovered’ and think they don’t need ‘god’.

    Do not ever forget that Satan only uses the things that God created. Do you think Satan is going to properly credit God while he, Satan, intend to deceive the world? Can you say ‘Buddha and spiritualism’?

  • momzilla76

    Do some research. Mindfulness has been in Christianity since very early times..

  • Naomi A. Flanders

    Clayton Gafne Jaymes, Perhaps you should reread the gospels. Gospel means Good News. What you have just told Emma seems harsh and threatening. We are told that judging is not what we are here for…” “Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.) We are asked to “love one another,” the commandment at the heart of Judaism and Jesus took it farther..love our enemies. And then there is this: “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you? ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, 45, NIV)
    Another reminder: “For God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus his only son. Not God loved the world..but SO loved the world! God loved and loves the world and us beyond measure..curious how Jesus hung out with the disreputable people,”The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and you say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a drunkard, a friend of publicans and sinners!” He had women friends and treated them as equals , he felt a woman touch him (forbidden then) and she was healed. He healed the sick, fed his disciples and hundreds of people, took a whip into the temple, overturned tables and said it had become a den of thieves, asked his disciples “who do you think I am?” and begged God to “take this cup from me” meaning his impending death while he sweat blood with fear, cried, “Abba(daddy) why have you forsaken me.” and died. He was fully human and fully Divine. God’s son.A teacher I want to follow with all my heart. The Good News is that we are loved beyond all measure. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”. We have a God that will never give up on us and always will love us.
    WE are the ones that decide to see hell rather than heaven and our loving God. The apostle Paul said, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8).
    This is mindfulness and what Emma is talking about. Try it sometime.

  • Brad Kunkel

    That was beautiful! I was introduced to contemplative prayer in seminary, many years ago, and I know the parallels in all contemplative spiritual traditions. Yes, the mindfulness movement is something I feel is a part of what the Spirit of God is doing today to help us evolve spiritually. What I experience in what I call “mindfulness contemplation” is the divine: the God that is over all and through all and in all, and in whom we live and move and have our being. There is no end to the journey: the process is the goal. Keep it up!

  • DebbyJane65

    Prayer without God is mindfulness. Listening Prayer or Sitting In Silence is beneficial if the focus is on God. If God is not your anchor; then your soul is focused on other. Every heart beat, every breath you take….it came from God. By listening and talking to God; you are partaking of His Divine Nature. The wonder of God…that mystical connection, is His presence in every moment of your life. Heaven and Nature sing together in beautiful expressions of life that humans enjoy. God is the life-giver. Without God, you and I are nothing. Medical-minded, health-conscious terminology is prominent in our current global consciousness. Marketing and consumerism has blinded the cry of our souls. God is our soul keeper. Prayer is our connection to God. One may feel spiritually connected in mindfulness; yet it is superficial and deceptive to rely on self — although it feels good. Calming brain activity can be done using many methods. Your soul needs more of God, less of self. Prayer has been proven to effectively calm brain activity. Focusing and centering in prayer to and with God is our only real peace. Mindfulness is an activity, a method, an exercise in ancient practice; and is the latest trending “in-thing” to do. Empty headed yoga-zen foolishness! I am not a Buddhist and I do not pray to Buddha! God is alive in the present moment and I am divinely awake.

  • John Thomas

    I believe we have to differentiate between contemplative meditation and mindfulness meditation. During contemplative meditation, you contemplate on something. It could be from some reading from scriptures or some concept in metaphysics or on ultimate reality or on your own self so as to have a deeper understanding or resolution or actualization in our psyche. During mindfulness meditation, you try to stay clear of any thoughts, by being aware of each thoughts that come, identify them and let it go so as to remain aware of the present moment as it passes. I practice both and both are very refreshing and transforming spiritually.

  • DebbyJane65

    Hi John, Good reply. The Prayer of Inner Quiet (Prayer of Listening) is to center your attention on that hushed place within you where human and divine meet. Mindfully being still to hear your heart. At the core of your heart is the indwelling of God. Reading, then contemplating, then allowing the Holy Spirit to rest your innermost being is the refreshing place of His presence and quiet love. Yes, to God, the source of our being and life. God bless you.

  • momzilla76

    Yes it depend upon how you define mindfulness. Are you just blanking out while remaining aware of your surroundings OR are you sitting in quiet expectation that you are connecting with God/sitting in His presence while not actively expecting anything?
    Although there is nothing to fear from just sitting as well. We are not excluding God when we do this. We are just not actively attempting to commune with Him. But as He is everywhere and in everything we are connecting and communing with Him anyway because we are stilling ourselves in His omnipresent-ness. If God is always elsewhere then one must seek Him out and attempt to actively connect with Him. But when God is here with you, indwelling you as a believer then you are never other focused, even if you are not actively seeking a God connection.

  • Kate

    I find when in my mind, I pray for, or give thanks for the person I am with, that helps me to be fully present.

  • Mr. James Parson

    …and this is one of the reasons why I am an atheist…

    Even when I was a Christian, I don’t think I could have fit into the box that you are laying out.

  • Your honest search for Our Father, God, and His Christ, Jesus, are being rewarded I believe. In my memoir: 9(Finding Heaven In The Dark), I illustrate many of the frustrations you encountered in “Churchi-anity” and it’s denominational, dogmatic, and holiness intellectualism that too often represents a counterfeit Christ. Not all meditations are equal and those that encourage escape or bliss are to be avoided by a genuine truth seeker! The inclination of your soul has followed the living Light of Christ in your conscience, and led you to a path of “mindful meditation’ that has blessed you and brought you closer to God. I credit the “Be Still and Know” meditation I learned to practice over 50 years ago, as a centering prayer, with saving my life from a path of self-destruction! It appears that most others that have commented also recognize the value in stillness as a way to let go of our ego and mind distractions, so we can “see” the Light from Heaven and be guided by it.

    The one negative comment I read, sadly represents the attitude of holy purity that condemned Jesus for His living testimony of God’s Divine Presence. We can only pray that his heart and mind will be opened and he learn to love all those who honestly seek the right Way to God and Christ, and that his life is a beacon that anyone would recognize as a disciple of Christ even if he never uttered a word.

  • cgosling

    Human thinking is fallible and must always be guided by reason and science. Dreams are not guidelines for behavior and neither are careless, unchecked thoughts that slip in and out of our consciousness. Human minds are liable to confusion and ripe for deception unless we use deliberate reasoning to counter unbridled emotion and blind faith. We have super computer brains that can make logical and better choices for ourselves rather than blindly following religious or political radicals. Ideas and policy are not automatically correct just because they came from a political or religious leader. Rather, it is better to be a skeptic until proof is offered.

  • The Mouse Avenger

    Well, I think you are closing yourself off to a wider & more-wonderful worldview. I actually feel quite sorry for you.

  • Tom Coipuram Jr

    Thank you for this very thoughtful and honest series. I think you are absolutely right that it is difficult and almost impossible to understand and explain everything (due to the infinite amount of information!) with theological and philosophical precision. To help with our uncertainty, I refer to Psalm 146:3
    “Put not your trust in princes, in mortal man, who cannot save” or Jeremiah 17:5 “This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind, who makes the flesh his strength and turns his heart from the LORD.” I came to realize that Truth (answers to all the big questions in life) comes from God and not human beings. I am sure you may have heard of the Oxford mathematician John Lennox. You may find his talks on the Bible and his debates with non-theists interesting and insightful. It has helped me a lot in understanding and explaining my faith to lapsed Christians and non-Christians. I hope it helps. God Bless!