Friday, August 2, 2013

Martin Luther and mindfulness

In April of 2013 the psychology department of Trinity Christian College hosted it's annual conference. The conference, entitled Psychology Renewed, focused on the concept of mindfulness. The following post reflects one of the presentations at the conference. 

The German theologian and reformer Martin Luther famously told the story of a young man who came to him seeking counsel concerning intrusive and troubling thoughts of a sexual nature. In response, Luther told of a monk who gave advice to a man with similar mental intrusions: “'You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building nests in your hair.’ It is all right to have these thoughts, but let them remain just that—thoughts”(Luther, 1998). In this instance Luther provided an insightful example of how certain elements that we seek to control in our experience (such as unwanted thoughts) can become more disruptive when we attend to them and ruminate on their possible significance. Instead, Luther says to those troubled by such thoughts: "Let them pass by." Our tendency is too often to allow the thoughts to nest in our minds, take up residence, and provide us with subsequent opportunities to focus on them. In so doing we are often kept from exercising those behaviors that would be in greater accord with our values. What Luther was requesting of the young man was to be “accepting”--but not “embracing”--of the unwanted thoughts that were passing through his conscious mind. However, the question remains “How do I develop this skill to ‘let the birds pass by?’”   
For the young man who came to Luther, the behaviors that he valued may have been broadly defined or centered on the concept of "becoming more like Christ," the process of sanctification. The behaviors that were in accord with this concept may have been activities such working with the poor, loving others, Scripture reading, engaging in communal prayer, partaking of the Eucharist, etc. Perhaps the young man thought that if he had such intrusive thoughts repeatedly that he, by logical necessity, would be forced to act upon them: If he was the sort of person who could entertain such thoughts and feelings leading to overt behaviors he may have believed that this precluded him from engaging in the behaviors that were more Christ-like. Luther's mindful admonition points out the fallacy with which we usually work: Our feelings and our thoughts dictate our actions and our thoughts will result in overt behavior. Since we have already failed in our minds perhaps we shouldn’t try to live our valued life. Christ reminds us that “. . .nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15, English Standard Version). We have a choice in the path of action we take and our behavior is not decided solely by what has come before: What has entered our minds does not, by necessity, dictate how we will behave now or in the future.


Luther, M. (1998). By faith alone: 365 devotional readings updated in today's language. Iowa   City, IA: World Bible Publishers.

Derrick Hassert, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College.