How Does Mindfulness Fall Short of Biblical Counselling?

A few years ago, Andy Farmer wrote about mindfulness on the BCC Grace and Truth blog. I agree with everything Andy discussed and encourage you to read his article here. In this article, we’ll examine how mindfulness falls short of biblical counseling. In a nutshell, where mindfulness helps people become more intentional in what they do, biblical counseling addresses the whole heart, seeking to bring it into conformity to Christ.

Modern Mindfulness

Mindfulness is essentially a “form of meditation” which “involves mental training that improves our ability to regulate our attention.”[1] Mindfulness has roots in religious and philosophical systems in which meditation for the purpose of a mystical experience has been a major practice. While the connection is most frequently made to Eastern religion (and most specifically to Buddhism), this form of meditation is by no means limited to Eastern religions, but is very different from biblical meditation which is focused on God’s Word (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2).

Modern mindfulness has distanced itself from its religious background and is now instead in the realm of cognitive psychology. Where traditional cognitive psychology teaches people “to think in more adaptive ways,”[2] mindfulness (or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) “aims to change people’s relationship to negative thoughts and emotions.”[3] In other words, cognitive psychology is focused on what you think, while mindfulness is directed towards how you relate to your (negative) thought processes. Mindfulness focuses on your current state, particularly on letting go of emotional tension and focusing the mind so that you can “unwire unhelpful patterns of thought and behavior and wire in helpful ones.”[4]

In other words, cognitive psychology is focused on what you think, while mindfulness is directed towards how you relate to your (negative) thought processes. Click To Tweet

The Hit and Miss of Mindfulness

Mindfulness works because it identifies and attempts to resolve a problem related to the broken human condition. Namely, we spend a large amount of our time speeding through life simply reacting, and most of our reactions are unconscious and emotional. Because mindfulness, like biblical counseling, recognizes that our emotions are also cognitive, it calls us to be aware of our thinking and feeling and to make conscious decisions about whether to maintain those thoughts and feelings. The belief is that by putting aside “unhelpful” thoughts and emotions, we will be mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy.

Biblical counseling and mindfulness agree that our level of distraction and mental wanderings create a problem. Mindfulness practitioners (and social scientists) are noticing and responding to two things. The first is that we have the ability to reflect on what we think and feel, and that we choose whether to maintain those thoughts and feelings. The second is that not all of what we think and feel is “helpful.”

Both of these tenants are consistent with Scripture, which teaches that since we are created in the image of God, we have the ability to reflect on and respond to our thoughts, feelings, and actions. However, while we would agree that “negative” thoughts are “unhelpful,” Scripture goes further. The problem is not just that we react without reflection, but that since we are corrupt, our flesh influences our emotions, which in turn drive our actions and thinking. Scripture teaches that thoughts and emotions are not merely “unhelpful” or “helpful,” but are either sinful or righteous. As such, they cannot merely be put aside; instead, we must respond biblically, seeking forgiveness for sinful thoughts, emotions, and actions, which are an offense to our holy God.

The Missing Ingredient of Mindfulness

Because mindfulness lacks anything that serves as an anchor to the practitioner’s life, there are no principles to follow other than to focus the attention and choose how to think and feel. The effectiveness of mindfulness lies not in what the practitioner does, but that they are present in what they do. Therefore, a mindfulness practitioner can still be filled with pride, deceit, lust, murder, etc., and live out the consequences of a sinful heart.

Even when mindfulness leads someone to change “unhelpful” thinking or emotions, it isn’t theocentric. It does not consider those thoughts and emotions before a holy God, let alone attempt to resolve guilt if those thoughts, emotions, and their resultant actions are sinful. Mindfulness leaves the relationship between man and God unaddressed. It promises a degree of emotional peace, but without the need to recognize sin, Christ, God, or His purposes for us (1 Thess. 4:3). Of course, emotional peace is not the same as biblical peace that comes as a result of reconciliation (Rom. 5:1).

Mindfulness... promises a degree of emotional peace, but without the need to recognize sin, Christ, God, or His purposes for us Click To Tweet

Is Mindfulness Worth It?

Since mindfulness connects well with external value systems, it is adaptable to Eastern spirituality, secularism, and some might say, to Christianity. However, there are several good reasons for Christians to avoid the practice of mindfulness. First, its source is not biblical Christianity, but a foreign understanding of spirituality. While secular practitioners of mindfulness often assert that it is a neutral practice, it is difficult to isolate practice and spirituality. Ultimately, despite assertions to the contrary, many of the practices of mindfulness have inherent worldview assumptions and implications that are incompatible with Christianity. “Neutral” mindfulness writings find it difficult to avoid these implications.

Second, its goal is not biblical reconciliation, nor pleasing the Lord. Mindfulness is pragmatic – focused on what is helpful to me. This is not the goal of one who is united with Christ, who sees himself as belonging to Christ, even as His slave. We are not those who follow our own desires (Jude 16, 18), but those who please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9).

Some of the practices of mindfulness are already inherent in biblical counseling. Counselors often encourage people to reflect on what they were thinking or how they reacted. As Christians, we should examine our feelings and beliefs, submit them to the light of Scripture, and respond appropriately to the Lord.

How Biblical Counseling Is Different

Biblical counseling richly surpasses what mindfulness offers. The Christian considers all their ways, based not on whether their thoughts and emotions are “helpful,” but on whether they are biblical and please the Lord (Prov. 4:23; 2 Cor. 5:9). The biblical response to this reflection is not merely a choice to put off unhelpful thinking, but to put off ungodly thoughts, emotions, and actions, to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, and to put on godliness (Eph. 4:20-24).

Like mindfulness, biblical counseling seeks to change the way the individual processes life, but in a more holistic way. Biblical counseling is distinct in that it is rooted in God’s holiness, and therefore calls people to holiness and reconciliation with God and others.

Mindfulness doesn’t offer anything new to believers. However, many believers do not regularly take time to reflect on their thoughts, desires, and emotions. This is traditionally where the devotional life of a believer has a role. If we take time daily to consider whether our thoughts, feelings, and actions are in accordance with His will as revealed in His Word, respond to God in confession, and work with the indwelling Spirit to change (Phil. 2:12-13), the benefits we experience will far surpass that of mindfulness. More importantly, as we are transformed, God will be glorified.

Mindfulness may help the individual to be aware of their emotions and think more clearly, but it ultimately fails to achieve the purpose of God, that we be conformed to the image of Christ Click To Tweet

Conclusion

Mindfulness may help the individual to be aware of their emotions and think more clearly, but it ultimately fails to achieve the purpose of God, that we be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Therefore, mindfulness is simply a means to man’s end. It is another way to get what we want, while hiding from God (Gen. 3:8) and avoiding repentance. Biblical counseling seeks to grow our relationship with Christ by submitting all of our thoughts, thought processes, and their emotional and volitional consequences to Christ as Lord.

[1] Stephen McKenzie and Craig Hassed, Mindfulness for Life (Wollombi, Australia: Exisle Publishing, 2012), 7.

[2] Robert S. Feldman, Essentials of Understanding Psychology, 8th Edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), 494.

[3] McKenzie and Hassed, Mindfulness for Life, 56.

[4] Ibid., 58.

This article was originally written for and published by the Biblical Counseling Coalition.