Monday, October 12, 2015

The Real Zombie Apocolypse: The Rise of Mindfulness

What would it be like to live among a generation of people who've grown up in a mild hypnotic state, having been psychologically conditioned not to question what is right or wrong, but instead to ignore their consciences and detach themselves from their thoughts? Perhaps a bit like living in a nation of zombies. And it might not be long before we actually find out.

Why? Because the psychological conditioning described above, commonly known as mindfulness, is being practiced in our nation today. As a form of therapy, the practice of mindfulness is a growing trend in psychology and psychotherapy, which has been strongly promoted through mainstream media outlets as an effective stress-relieving remedy. Subsequently, the adoption of mindfulness has already become widespread.

 Illustration of the benefits of mindfulness
from the University of Michigan
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, for example, are common adaptations of the practice to the healthcare field, which are purported to alleviate stress, foster "awareness," and improve quality of life. These practices have been widely implemented in the American workplace (in companies such as Google, Safeway, Target, General Mills, and Aetna), in the federal government, and even in the armed services. Celebrity-backed mindfulness programs, such as Goldie Hawn's Eastern-based MindUp program, have become popular in public schools and children's hospitals. Many schools have experimented with incorporating mindfulness programs into their curricula with a view to boosting focus and lowering stress levels. Patterson High School in Baltimore, for example, has made mindfulness meditation a central part of the students' everyday lives, implementing a 15-minute yoga and mindfulness session school-wide at the beginning and end of each day. At the McLean School, near Washington, DC, many classes routinely start with a brief mindfulness practice.

So, what exactly is mindfulness?

Psychology Today describes mindfulness as, "a state of active, open attention on the present," explaining that, "When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience." (Emphasis added).

There are red flags in the above statement that should jump out to any Christian reading it. To refrain from "judging [thoughts] good or bad" is a blatant contradiction of our biblical command to flee from evil, embrace righteousness, and consciously follow God's commands. And the mindfulness goal to "live in the moment" is in direct contrast to the biblical premise of perceiving one's life in the light of eternity. Yet, sadly, many professing Christians have also been duped by the fad.

How so? Perhaps because the benefits of mindfulness programs have been so widely reported. A University of California study published in 2013 found that undergraduates who participated in a two-week mindfulness training program demonstrated heightened working memory and improved reading-comprehension scores on the GRE. Researchers at the University of Exeter, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), tested 522 students between the ages of 12 and 16 from six UK high schools during the British summer exam period. The 256 teens who went through a nine-week introductory mindfulness course reported fewer symptoms of "depression, lower stress-levels, and greater well-being overall at the end of the nine weeks," compared to the control group of students who did not participate in the program. The Huffington Post reported that research has linked the practice of cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment to lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, as well as producing greater emotional stability, improved sleep quality, heightened feelings of compassion, and greater success achieving weight-loss goals, among a number of other advantages.[1]

Aetna employees practicing mindfulness
Reportedly, stress costs American companies an estimated $200 billion to $300 billion in lost productivity each year. Indeed, stress poses a very real public health concern having been linked to cancer, heart disease, and other serious ailments. Any program that offers a solution to this type of profit-loss and health benefit, therefore, is sure to be eagerly embraced. Take Aetna, for example. More than one-quarter of Aetna's 50,000 employees have participated in at least one class, and of these a 28 percent reduction in those employees' stress-levels has been reported, as well as a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 percent reduction in pain. While the measurement of such stress- and pain-reduction is arguably subjective, Aetna posits that these employees have also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which the company estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year. Indeed, demand for the programs continues to rise at the company and every class is overbooked.

In light of the benefits, surely mindfulness can't be that bad, can it?

With stress being viewed both as a serious public health concern, and a money-guzzling problem in the corporate context, it is little wonder that mindfulness has seen such a steep rise in popularity over recent years. Indeed, the meditative practice of mindfulness may seem harmless—arguably beneficial—on the surface, but don't let its popularity or celebrity-backing fool you. Mindfulness represents an increasingly dangerous phenomenon in our society for several reasons:

1. Mindfulness isn't just a meditative practice; it is a key part of Buddhist philosophy. While many mindfulness advocates, especially those in the public school system, choose not to use Buddhist terminology when presenting it as a stress-relieving, mind-focusing remedy, in actuality, the practice is fully entrenched in Buddhism, as Marcia Montenegro of Christian Answers for the New Age explains. Simply put, mindfulness is the method for reaching the Buddhist goal of detachment from one's individual identity. Christians should be aware that this is the ultimate goal of mindfulness, which stands in blatant contradiction to Scripture. As believers, we know that we are loved and cared for individually by God (Psa 139) who calls us each by name (John 10:3). Christians should not be naive about the true dangers of integrating the teachings and practices of false religions into their lives; the insidious lies behind them have a habit of seeping through and causing confusion.

2. Mindfulnessespecially when practiced routinely over a prolonged period of timeplaces the mind in a mild hypnotic state, thus leaving it more vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Mindfulness deliberately conditions people to disengage from their [God-given] ability to exercise conscious reason and discernment in order to simply "experience" life stress-free. But, "awakening to experience," as it is described, is a highly subjective activity. And any notions and feelings that arise during this meditative practicewhen the mind is opened up to the power of suggestionare questionable, to say the least.

The mental and spiritual vulnerability that comes from practicing mindfulness meditation is especially unsettling when one considers the growing number of public school children who are now doing so on a daily basis. Who knows what unsavory influences—demonic or otherwise—could be seeping into their suggestible minds and spirits? Instead of putting on the full armor of God to protect them against the enemy's schemes (Eph 6:11), which includes a cognitive grasp of God's truth, these children are being dangerously and routinely exposed to them. For they are urged to let go of a conscious understanding of God's absolute, transcendental truth and to instead find "truth" and "peace" within their amorphous feelings and subjective experiences of the moment during meditation. The fact that this is happening in our schools should not be taken lightly.

3. Mindfulness is essentially narcissistic. Because mindfulness focuses on the subjective experience of the moment, it unapologetically places the fleeting feelings of the self at the center of everything. It trains young people to believe that what feels right/good/true to them in a particular moment, is right/good/true. In this, there is of course much room for error. Moreover, the quest for inner-truth (sometimes referred to as Buddha-nature) that mindfulness facilitates stands in direct contrast to our biblical exhortation to center ourselves on Christ and seek truth in God's Word.

Mindfulness advocates do not, of course, concur with the above assessment that the practice gives rise to narcissism. In fact, they frequently claim the exact opposite, holding that the practice of mindfulness fosters increased compassion and empathy in people because it instills a sense of connectedness between them. This outlook is fueled by the Buddhist teaching that the individual self is not an integral, autonomous entity (it doesn't really exist). But because the increase in compassion and empathy that is perceived to result from mindfulness is based on a false premise to begin with, such claims are highly doubtful (and any measurement of the presumed increase is subjective to say the least). Furthermore, compassion that comes from human strength alone cannot last. It is only through God's strength that we can achieve unconditional, unfailing love of others (1 Cor 13).

4. In contrast to the biblical concept of dying to self, mindfulness culminates in losing the self. While narcissism can result from mindfulness, so can self-destruction. As usual, the two go hand-in-hand. Mindfulness is the meditative method for achieving ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is to let go of one's sense of individual identity in order to be freed from the cycle of rebirth and experience Nirvana. But what culminates in effectively losing oneself, stands in direct contrast to our biblical exhortation to die to self. The goal of dying to self is to live in Christ. In this, our true self is reborn—the idea of it is not evaporated into some amorphous state of being. As Christians, we also know that reality apart from God will pass away, but each of us, as part of God's Kingdom, will last forever in Glory (as individual children of God). Tragically, Buddhism represents a deadly path to securing self-loss, even before death.

5. Mindfulness philosophy, as taught as a therapeutic method today, assumes that the origin of stress is, in part, associated with the judgment of good and bad. And therein lies a fatal mistake. Mindfulness might reduce stress temporarily, (in the same way that smoking pot might, for example). But, instead of fostering true peace (which can only come from Christ), mindfulness lulls the mind into a false sense of security, producing a glazed-over, morally ambiguous, and relativistic view of reality. "Stress" in the context of mindfulness is often confused with a sense of conviction about sin. To compensate for this, mindfulness produces a neutralized, trance-like state of mind that glosses over absolute truth (especially the truth of one's need for a Savior) in favor of temporary relief. Yet, mindfulness, however much it is practiced, will never permanently quell the unsettled spirit that comes from a deep-down yearning to be reconciled to a holy God.

Furthermore, exercising judgment is not innately negative, as mindfulness implies. It is, in fact, integral to the Christian faith. While Jesus warned us against self-righteous, hypocritical judgment of others (i.e. "judge not, lest you be judged"), He repeatedly urged us to exercise sound judgment—discernment—when it comes to sin. Scripture is clear that we are to wisely judge right from wrong, to examine ourselves, to flee from sin, and to purge the evil from among us (2 Cor 13:5; 1 Cor 5:13). The problem is, mindfulness, by discouraging self-examination and wise judgment, lures us into becoming comfortable with our own sin and the sin of others.

6. Mindfulness is actually an attack on the mind rather than the therapeutic treatment of it. This is because it openly discourages analytical thought and self-examination, as has already been touched on. But it's worth further expanding on this aspect of mindfulness here because it is actually part of a wider post-Modern movement to place feelings and experiences over conscious belief.

Basing one’s worldview primarily on feelings and experiences has fatal pitfalls, however; the Bible clearly teaches that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9) and is naturally wicked (Gen 8:21). Hence, the heart, when left in its original condition, contaminates one’s whole life and character (Matt 12:34; Matt 15:18). The Bible teaches that the heart must be changed and regenerated (Eze 36:26; Eze 11:19; Psa 51:10), otherwise it will lead us deeper into sin. But mindfulness rejects the need for heart-change. 

Through moment-by-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of the present, mindfulness seeks instead to achieve the Buddhist goal of neutralized detachment. In this vein, mindfulness encourages people to watch their thoughts as they go by, in order to realize that they exist apart from themThis is often referred to as, "taming the monkey mind." While mindfulness does not seek to stop thoughts, it does seek to separate a person from themTo put it simply, in mindfulness teaching, we should not get wrapped up in our thoughts, but be freed from them.

The "don't worry, be happy" mantra might have widespread appeal. But it also has sinister implications in the context of mindfulness. It's almost like mindfulness seeks to produce an effect that is ironically reminiscent of Peter Gibbons in Office Space after he was hypnotized. Having been a stress-out, disgruntled programmer at Initech, hypnosis caused him to stop worrying about outcomes and became comically carefree—yet only to end up making disastrous, morally corrupt decisions! Of course, this is never the way mindfulness is presented by its advocates. But there are interesting similarities here that are too uncanny to ignore!

Unlike living in a pleasantly chilled-out state like that of Peter Gibbons, however, biblical living is quite often convicting and unsettling, particularly during seasons of spiritual growth. And following Christ (as in carrying one's cross daily), while peace-giving, does not allow one to feel comfortable in sin. For the peace doesn't come from pretending truth away, but from embracing the Prince of Peace, who is the truth. This is the difference between the true peace that passes earthly understanding and mental numbness.

popular image used by
mindfulness practitioners
Indeed, Scripture teaches us that using our minds—our God-given ability to exercise reason, discernment, and sound judgment—is a crucial part of our Christian faith (Matt 22:37; Luke 10:27; Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 10:3-6; Phil 2:5). A cognitive grasp of God's Word is essential to Christian living. Learning, pondering, and examining Scripture in order to know God more is strongly encouraged (2 Tim 3:16-17; John 15:7). And Biblical truth is worshipfully mind-stretching, not mind-separating.

7. Mindfulness distracts us from eternity to immerse us in the fleeting moment. This is perhaps that most insidious aspect of mindfulness. The boldly stated goal to "live in the moment" perpetuates the deadly lie that we can be safely at home in the present. But the truth is, this worldly moment is not our home. We should not be immersed in it, but are sojourners briefly moving through it. Our hope is not rooted in this world—or our momentary experiences of it. And our short lives on earth are like a vapor (James 4:14).

The fleeting pleasures the present moment has to offer can entrap us into losing sight of the everlasting riches that await us in Glory. Peter reminds us of this when he writes, "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul." (1 Peter 2:11). Mindfulness tells us to focus on the here-and-now, but Scripture tells us to live our lives in light of Eternity. The idea that the practice causes any type of "awakening" is, therefore, itself a deadly deception.

...The cumulative impact of the routine practice of mindfulness in our schools, hospitals, prisons, and in the workplace is quite frankly mind-boggling.

Can you imagine the widespread impact of a both conscienceless and consciousless mindset on a society of fallen human beings? And think about the long-term implications of our public school students growing up with the practice of mindfulness. They might have better attendance records and test scores (as has already been reported by a number of schools). They might feel more relaxed temporarily. But they won't truly be at peace. And if this practice continues to grow in popularity in our schools and children's hospitals, it'll be like we're fostering a generation of zombies who are trained to be indifferent to sin, having been preconditioned to resist their consciences for fear of experiencing stress. Think this is an overstatement? Google the number of schools that have adopted the practice already. It's a growing trend, and it's coming to a school near you.

The fact is, Satan can't destroy the gospel, but he'll do all he can to distract us from it. And this is exactly what mindfulness attempts to do. Rather than considering one's life after death, and pondering matters of eternal significance, mindfulness encourages a life lived in the moment and a detachment from the only truth that can save us.

Christians need to take heed and take a stand. And Christians especially need to take a stand against mindfulness being taught to vulnerable and impressionable children in the public school system. For the real zombie apocalypse might be less of a fantasy than we had all thought.

For more information on mindfulness please see the following CANA resources:

Mindfulness for Children

Mindfulness: Taming the Monkey
Mindfulness: No Mind Over Matter


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