Last month, a principal at a Kennesaw, Georgia, elementary school apologized to parents who complained about the school’s mindfulness practices, which some thought promoted non-Christian beliefs.
“I am truly sorry that the mindfulness/destressing practices … caused many misconceptions,” Patrice Moore, the principal, said, according The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. “While we have been practicing destressing techniques in many classrooms for years, there have been some recent practices associated with mindfulness that are offensive to some.”
“Meditation and/or prayer exist in virtually every religious tradition, whether Abrahamic or with roots in the Hindu/Buddhist traditions, so from a ‘Sociology of Religions’ perspective, I tend to group the two things together.
“More specifically, I would define meditation as a spiritual practice in which one centers oneself through a variety of practices that give physical shape or temporal articulation to spirituality (and I would include in this breathing exercises, the use of prayer/meditation beads, mandalas, icons, etc.).
“Mindfulness is a type of purposefulness with which you practice your life.”
–Rev. Brandon Gilvin
Having grown up going to both Baptist and Church of Christ churches (at my own choosing as a preteen and teenager in an effort to explore Christianity, and-if I’m being perfectly honest-to socialize), the complaints didn’t surprise me.
Unfortunately, the situation is an example of the narrow-minded thinking that drove me away from practicing the religion.
And the parental complaints illustrate misunderstandings about mindfulness and meditation.
There are countless types of meditation and mindfulness practices. Although some of them are rooted in Buddhism, a lot of practices-especially those that are being implemented into schools, businesses and sports teams-have become secular and should be viewed as valuable tools; as exercise for the brain, mind and soul; and as complements to religion, if so desired.
But that’s a pretty obvious opinion coming from me, and I wanted to know what practicing Christians thought about this.
Christians weighing in
As if in perfect lockstep with my thought process on this topic, Chattanooga psychologist and Christian Kim Gaines Eckert wrote a piece for Today’s Christian Woman called “Christian Mindfulness” at the end of last month.
“Mindfulness is a huge buzzword in pop culture now,” she said in a phone interview with Nooga.com. “But for the conservative Christian population, there’s a lot of fearfulness around anything that rings Eastern.”
Eckert understands the benefits to the brain from a neuroscience perspective, and she uses some mindfulness/meditation techniques with her clients.
“It’s the same dynamic that happened with yoga before it became mainstream,” she said. “The majority of people can separate it in their minds, and that’s where I try to come at it from when I’m talking to people. And even regardless of its roots, it’s not like meditation or prayer are owned by any one religion … but the fear is ‘I’m going to get sucked in without knowing it.'”
She noted that some traditions and denominations have stricter, more fearful thinking about the topic.
And when she started practicing mindfulness for herself and reminding herself that she is not her thoughts, she saw firsthand the positive impact it can have. Part of what she experienced was detachment, and she pointed out that the idea of being detached from worldly goods and from self is a Christian idea.
Chattanooga’s First Christian Church Senior Minister Rev. Brandon Gilvin echoed that mindfulness and meditative prayer have long been a part of Christian traditions.
He spends time in daily prayer and practices mindfulness while on the treadmill or hiking.
He aims for 30-90 minutes of exercise daily and tries to make mindfulness a part of that routine, which is amazing. I’m happy if I consistently do 10 minutes a day, and experience benefits even from five minutes a day.
“It grounds me so I can better dig into other spiritual practices (reading and studying scripture, providing pastoral care, preaching and offering public prayer, writing, etc.),” he said via email.
Gilvin also acknowledged that some Christians, especially evangelicals, are wary of the practices. But he said there’s nothing to be afraid of.
“To be honest, most of us know nothing experiential about other religions, and it’s a rare-but invaluable-church that teaches about other traditions in ways that fairly represent it,” he said. “We are often wary of things we know little about or of which we have skewed notions.”
Back to my opinion
I’m a proponent of mindfulness/meditation practices because they markedly improve my daily mindset and help combat anxiety. Sitting quietly and meditating even for five minutes a day creates a better head space and has an impact on how I treat myself and others.
Learning about the scientific evidence of the countless mental and physical benefits cemented my faith in the practices.
When I meditate, I generally either focus on my breathing or use an app and home in on the guide’s voice and directions, and one of the main benefits is-as Eckert said-detachment from the swirling thoughts that take over my mind. It requires focus on the present moment, which to me is a very spiritually important act.
What could be more sinful than letting the life we’ve been given pass us by in a whirlwind of negative or judgmental thoughts?
What would be more of a waste than not taking time to feel the body we live in, to be thankful for the breath we have, to enjoy the very moment we are in?
I can see the rebuttal that some people get enough of what I’m talking about through their personal prayer routines. I respect and understand that, and if that’s the case, carry on.
But I’ll also venture to say that mindfulness/meditation practices have the potential to enhance the lives and brains of people who already find comfort in prayer.
And, at the very least, I hope society can move toward a place of better understanding and appreciation of these practices, because they are innocuous and pose no threat to Christianity.
How sturdy is a person’s faith if they are threatened by a mindfulness practice in a public school-which is supposed to be separate from church? It doesn’t seem strong; it doesn’t seem kind. It shows intolerance at worst and ignorance at best.
Instead of being afraid of things with which we are unfamiliar, we should make it our mission to understand, accept and enjoy differences. To me, that sounds more like the Christian thing to do.
The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 2:19 p.m. on 4/14/16.