Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Mindfulness in reformed perspective

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. 

Recently the Trinity Christian College Psychology Department held a conference on the topic of “Mindfulness in Life and Clinical Practice”.  As a psychologist in the Reformed theological tradition I wanted to share my own connection with this highly influential idea in the field of contemporary psychology and counseling.  Mindfulness in its contemporary form is largely associated with the meditative practices developed in Eastern cultures.  Way back in the 1970s the work of Herbert Benson achieved considerable attention under the rubric of the Relaxation Response and what was then referred to as Transcendental Meditation.  At the time I made some clinical use of Progressive Relaxation Exercises as a treatment for stress but did not explore meditative practice to any depth.  My sustained contact with meditative practice came later through my familiarity with the work of my departmental collogue, Dr. Colosimo in yoga.  As many in our community know, Dr. Colosimo is a highly proficient yoga instructor and has shared with her colleagues and our entire campus the gift of yoga practice for many years now.  I have supported Dr. Colosimo work over the years but I have not been an active student of yoga—not yet.   

My own therapeutic work and training has been largely from Western cultural sources:  psychoanalysis, existential, and humanistic.  Eastern meditative practice seemed far removed from the insight oriented therapies in which I was trained.  During the last 20 years however, meditative and mindfulness practices have gradually made inroads into mainstream therapeutic practice not through the psychodynamic paradigm, but mostly through the cognitive-behavioral perspective.  Through another department member, Dr. Hassert, I was introduced some years ago to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy developed by Stephen Hayes and it was through ACT that I first encountered what I consider to be a clinical approach that integrated Eastern concepts of mindfulness with Western therapeutic concepts of cognition, emotion, and behavior.   What do we mean by “mindfulness”?   A leading mindfulness proponent defines it simply as: “A way of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judgment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2005).  Mindfulness is a way of being present to the world and others without control or avoidance of what comes to consciousness.  To practice mindfulness is to release the demand/need to control our conscious experience, focus upon what is present, and develop acceptance of that which emerges to consciousness.
Postmodern persons seek a way of life that offers a functional context of purpose and value and can be embodied through practicing concrete patterns of behavior.  For postmoderns truth is not anchored in a tradition believed to be the one and only way. Rather than seeking a dogmatic orthodoxy, postmoderns describe themselves as pursuing a “spiritual journey”, searching for shelter under a “sacred canopy” (Berger, 1967).  Mindfulness works because it facilitates the spiritual journey.  It offers a way of being present in the world without rigid control or schematic filters that lead to behavioral avoidance and mental suffering.  Mindfulness must be practiced as an ongoing effort to be conscious in a manner that promotes resiliency in the day to day struggles of life.  When Christian counselors employ mindfulness techniques in therapy these liturgical practices from Eastern religious traditions are transformed into therapeutic exercises and then ingrafted into the Christian community as one might take cuttings from one species of apple tree and graft them into another species of apple tree.

The emphasis on “practice” in mindfulness and meditation training links up with a growing scholarly discussion about the formative role of practices in shaping a way of life.  Learning a catechism of propositions, “truths” or “worldview” is insufficient in a world marked by fragmentation, plurality and multiple voices from diverse perspectives. The gap between rationally formulated principles and the application of principles to action and behavior has widened to the point of disconnection.  As philosopher Jamie Smith suggests, persons living in advanced industrial societies need to integrate truth with action through the training of “desires”, the most important of which is the shaping of what we “love” (Smith, 2009).  Postmodern persons have needs that do not benefit from more information, intellectual activity or more material “stuff”, but yearn for formative structures that help bring order out of chaos and provide a way through the fragmentation of contemporary life.  

Therapeutic techniques rooted in mindfulness offer many benefits.  First of all, they make available a set of counseling practices based in theory and validated through empirical testing.  It is desirable for therapists to “secularize” liturgical practices taken from eastern religious communities and functionally validate through clinical practice.  To do so is not necessarily practicing idolatry as a narrowly Augustinian perspective might suggest.  Psychotherapy typically operates in a professional space of “functional secularity” even when housed in a religious organization, community or institutional context.  Secondly, Mindfulness practices offer client-specificity, that is, practices tailored to the needs of the individuals in distress and caught in dysfunctional patterns that often are widely understood to be inappropriate and emotionally unhealthy.  Thirdly, spiritual practices can be explored apart from authority structures in which specific rituals are organized into orthodoxies that may not be directly linked to functional values of personal flourishing or emotional well-being.  Finally, spiritually oriented practices in professional counseling occur in the context of a supportive relationship with a mentor/therapist who is exclusively dedicated to the needs of individual clients.

It would seem right then to argue that in the context of Christian communities eastern meditation and mindfulness practices can be identified as psychological techniques that purport to achieve therapeutically valid results capable of empirical and experiential verification.  They are in fact extra-ecclesiastical, apart from the liturgical structure of the church.  Their value and effectiveness lies in their relationship to creational structures given to all humankind or in terms familiar to Reformed thinkers gifts of “common grace” like the warmth of the sun or the blessings of marriage.  What about techniques such as yoga, ACT, DBT or Mindfulness Stress Reduction?  All of these techniques employ mindfulness and meditation in the practical context of efforts to relieve human suffering and distress. The application of these techniques does not require assent to a larger framework of religious dogma.  Nor is it necessary to understand or believe in the transcendent meanings assigned to these practices in the religious systems from which they originated.  Rather taken as psychological techniques their validity is measured through empirical testing of their effectiveness in reducing psychological dysfunction and distress.

It is incumbent upon Christian communities and individuals to responsibly articulate this posture in the context of their employment of meditative and mindfulness practice so that misunderstanding can be avoided. To achieve this requires sensitivity to the concerns of those who are skeptical regarding these techniques.   Exploration of these techniques must be practiced in dialog with the faith communities in which they are located but ultimately the proof is in the fruit.  Growing numbers of counselors and clients testify to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices.  We ought to embrace and celebrate these gifts of healing and life-enhancement.


Berger, P.  (1967). The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.      Garden City, NY:  Doubleday Publishers.

Kabat-Zinn, J (2005).  Coming to our senses:  Healing the world and ourselves through mindfulness.  New York:  Hyperion.

Smith, J.K.A. (2009).  Desiring the kingdom.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic.

Further Reading of interest

Boykin, K.  Zen for Christians.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Jones, J.W.  (2003).  The mirror of God.  New York:  MacMillan

Michael J. DeVries, PhD, Professor of Psychology, Trinity Christian College