Written by Phil Monroe
Friday, 07 December 2012 00:00
Christian psychology exists to promote distinctly Christian study of the nature of persons, problems and solutions. Eric Johnson, founding director of Christianpsych.org, has done a masterful job outlining the nature and foundation of Christian soul care in his 2007 Foundations for Soul Care (IVP) book. Now, the next step is for us to develop detailed clinical applications to a variety of common human struggles.
But Christian psychology need not re-invent the wheel. Other psychologies (e.g., secular, Buddhist, humanist, etc.) have explored common human behavior patterns in significant depth and, at times, in very helpful ways. One such concept getting a fair amount of attention is that of “mindfulness.” I first read about mindfulness some years ago in the work of Marsha Linehan. Dr. Linehan is the main developer and researcher of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a research supported treatment protocol for those suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. Dr. Linehan has referred to herself as part behaviorist, part Buddhist, and part dialectical philosopher. Her treatment consists of 4 main components, one being mindfulness practice based on Buddhist principles. More recently, cognitive therapists have adopted mindfulness as an intervention in place of (or at least alongside of) the core work of challenging cognitive distortions and rewriting core beliefs. In addition, a number of careful studies employing mindfulness as an intervention seem to indicate that the technique works to reduce anxious and depressive symptoms—possibly even better than those techniques designed to challenge or distract from aforementioned problems.
While a few well-crafted research studies do not speak with ultimate authority, let’s assume for a moment that the data stands up over time—that mindfulness has a positive influence on human behavior and mental health. How might Christian psychologist think about mindfulness practice?
What is it?
Mindfulness is defined in several parallel ways. [I’ve blogged on mindfulness before. You can find these additional thoughts hereand here.] In short it is conceived of as a non-judgmental, present-tense, accepting awareness. In place of judging and categorizing, mindful persons seek to emphasize describing their environment, to maintain a focus on the present (vs. the past or future), and to foster an attitude of openness to experience.
How should we respond to it?
Christian therapists might rightly have some concerns about mindfulness. Buddhist beliefs about the goal of eliminating desire do not comport with Christian theology. Further, Scripture calls Christians to judge between right and wrong. Clearly, relativism isn’t part of Christian doctrine.
However, are there facets of the practice that do comport with Christian foundations of soul care? Some integrative counseling models might include mindfulness from a purely utilitarian standpoint, stripping out Buddhist teachings but maintaining mindful activities because they work. However, a better process would be to develop a foundation for consciousness and awareness of one’s surroundings using Biblical principles and Christian tradition.
Building a Christian psychology of mindfulness?
A Christian psychology of mindfulness might start by
Identifying the problem of distorted thoughts, perceptions and judgments and their genesis in the mind and heart.
Second, this model of mindfulness might then
Articulate the proper cognitive and attitudinal engagement in an unpredictable and frightening world.
In addition, those wishing to explore the possibility of a Christian psychology of mindfulness would do well to investigate our own traditions for similar concepts. For example, one might consider those spiritual disciplines designed to center one’s mind in Christ or to be “watchful” of thoughts. For example, IVP has published a book entitled, Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective. In this book, James Wilhoit (Wheaton College) has a chapter on centering prayer. Building on the writings of Christian forbearers, he depicts a prayerful stance of observing the thoughts. The goal is not emptying the mind but maintaining conscious connection with the Spirit. Such activity opposes “what if” or “if only” kinds of hypervigilant thinking—thinking accompanying depression and anxiety and which hinders contentment.
In a phone conversation a few years ago Jim Wilhoit described another concept—watchfulness—an “intentional construal of the world” from God’s perspective. In my thinking, this form of mindfulness does not grasp after logical constructions (e.g., parsing doctrines) but instead observes (a) the world as God sees it, and (b) the common but distorted scripts used as substitutes (e.g., Psalm 131).
While I have only outlined a possible Christian psychology of mindfulness I hope that my ramblings may encourage someone to build a rich model of mindfulness from our Christian tradition that avoids conceiving of the mind as only a logical instrument to talk ourselves out of feelings and perceptions.
[A version of this post was previously published on www.christianpsych.orgin 2010.] Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling and Psychologyand directs both the Masters of Arts in Counseling program and the newly formed Global Trauma Recovery Institute. You can read more of his musings at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.com.