Monday, July 9, 2012

Mindfulness versus Spiritual Mindedness


I am rather ignorant when it comes to Buddha’s philosophy and practice and I am no expert either on the works of the great Puritan John Owen.  Nonetheless, I thought it would be a worthwhile effort to put two products of these men side by side. The two both promote meditation as a means and promise peace as a result. However, the two practices that they describe, despite the seeming resemblance in names, are vastly different. Owen has written a work with the title The grace and duty of being spiritually minded (Owen, 1681/1813). I would like to compare his practice of being spiritually minded with another practice, namely that of mindfulness, which is otherwise known as the heart of Buddhist meditation (Kabat-Zinn, p. 4). The book I have chosen is titled Wherever you go, there you are (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). It is authored by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is active in teaching and promoting mindfulness and discussing how it might be effectively integrated into mainstream psychotherapy. It might seem that I a am comparing apples and oranges, but I have a sense that from this comparison we can learn something crucial for our practice of Christian psychology. 


Spiritual mindedness vs. mindfulness

Let me put the two practices side by side:

Spiritual Mindedness

Owen describes being spiritually minded as a disposition or an inclination of both thoughts and affections to be focused on spiritual things, and this so readily and with great delight (186). It is a continual sweet spiritual complacency (47). Becoming spiritually minded is both grace and duty. Through faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit redeems your thoughts and affections so that they now have a new orientation; being raised with Christ they are focused on God and operate from a basis of faith and love. This is a gift, it is grace. However, it is your duty as well to participate in this renewal process of mind and heart. Becoming spiritually minded is achieved by frequent and intentional meditation in all kinds of situations. Though diligence is required and the practice of meditation may cost effort and be challenging, it is essential (171-72). Meditation involves occupying the mind with all things spiritual, for example, thinking about heaven and the glorious future that awaits you; focusing on Christ, who he is and what he has done for you; reflecting on God’s attributes, his omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, and how he has cared for you throughout life. Other aspects of becoming spiritually minded include watching your thoughts and imaginations to see whether they are spiritually minded; being intentional about thinking spiritual things; having your affections become attached to the things of God; reading of Scripture; listening to sermons; praying; and mortification of unspiritual thoughts and desires. The result of being spiritually minded is that you are not attached to the temporal and passing things of this world any longer (322), and so you find rest for your soul (238), comfort, satisfaction, life and peace in all circumstances of life (163, 317), and the ability to discern the true nature of things (257). You are able to love God and neighbor the way God desires it. With these blessings as an intended by product, the end of being spiritually minded is to give God glory and to be conformed to his image (238, 253).

According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is intentional moment-by-moment non-judgmental awareness of the present moment (4). Living mindfully is the result of “holding the present moment in its fullness without imposing anything extra on it” (45). Mindfulness is a practice that requires effort and discipline. As with becoming spiritually minded, meditation is the key to mindfulness. However, in this case meditation helps you wake up from the sleep of automaticity and unconsciousness that you normally would live your live in (3). Meditation is about “letting the mind be as it is and knowing something about how it is in the moment” (33). Full realization and acceptance of what is; compassion and generosity towards self and others; objective observation of subjective experience; and not being attached to anything, are aspects of mindfulness that help you move through life (45). However, the goal of mindfulness is not to find out what to do next, it is not about going anywhere or doing anything (44), rather it is to be fully aware of and present in this moment. Meditation is witnessing everything that comes in through the body or the mind without evaluating, condemning, or pursuing it. The result of mindfulness is that you become enlightened and that you see things more clearly. You are liberated as you encounter deep emotions. You get in touch with the creativity, intelligence, imagination, determination, clarity, choice, and wisdom inside of you (8).  You receive peace, and learn to be patient and compassionate in all circumstances (49). Ultimately the goal is to carry out your personal mission or calling and to live out your personal values here on earth (78), but only in light of Tao or dharma. Dharma refers to the way things are, to the law that governs all of existence and non-existence (87). Mindfulness meditation is the means and the end to walking along the path of life and to be in harmony with things as they are (88).


So, how do the two practices compare? Both promise peace and satisfaction, both use meditation as a key tool to achieve the end, both see value in not being attached to the things of this world, and both esteem love for other people. But that is about where the similarities end. The actual nature of the two practices is as different as night and day. I disagree with Kabat-Zinn’s perception that mindfulness does not conflict with any tradition or religious beliefs (cf. 6). It certainly conflicts with Christian beliefs.

Being mindful means embracing dharma, that is, accepting the way things are because they are ultimately harmonious. Though we as Christians can and should have a high view of God’ sovereignty and as a result can come to terms with the way things are in our lives, we certainly do not believe that there is an underlying harmony in all things. In fact, the opposite is true, this world, as well as our lives, is characterized by the unfolding of a spiritual conflict between God and Satan, in which God has already shown himself to be the Victor through Christ’s death. Therefore, we do not just accept the way things are, but we evaluate everything that is in light of God’s intent. We may be mindful about the present, but if we do not mind God, true peace is far from us and we will not be able to discern things as they truly are.

Second, being mindful means looking at ourselves with generosity and compassion and to accept and embrace everything that passes through our mind and body. As Christians, we know that the basis for a healthy love of self is nowhere to be found inside of us. We are worthy only by virtue of being created by God and, in the case of believers, by virtue of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us. Also, because of our self orientation, we will not find inside us all we need to live peacefully and rightfully, we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to awaken us to insightful, creative, perseverant, and God-honoring living. And in contrast with the mindfulness practice, we should not accept the dark sides of ourselves in order to develop as full human beings by facing, honoring, and working with them (cf. 83). Rather, after being faced with our dark side, which is in fact a Christian necessity, our dark side needs to become transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. We need his grace to work out our salvation so that we can become fully redeemed, fully spiritually minded people.

Furthermore, being mindful means that we learn not to be affected by emotions, but to do everything in a composed and peaceful manner as a result of the letting go of any attachments we may have. As Christians, however, we will be affected emotionally and we will learn to cling to the things of God. Though we may receive a peace beyond understanding, we will not be calm and peaceful in every situation. Jesus is the perfect example for us; teaching us to stand up for what is not right, to be angry with injustice, to love our brothers and sisters as well as unbelievers. Owen’s advice is not to focus on the thoughts and let them pass by, but— in times of temptation, (156), solitude (158), difficulties, dangers and perplexities of mind, accidents that happen to people (161)— to become focused on God’s greatness and his promises. So it is not in the first place a mindfulness to what is happening within an individual, but a being mindful of who God is, even in the midst of our circumstances. This is what brings us true peace, for the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace (Rom. 8:6, which is the verse Owen used as the basis for his work). This is what will move us to action for God’s glory.

This ties in to the last point of this brief comparison, the difference in goals. The goal of mindfulness is to become one with dharma as you are not trying to go anywhere or to do anything but rather try to be fully in the present moment. This is supposed to have the effect that we do and live from what is most true of us, so that being in touch with our own deepest nature we can let it flow out of us unimpededly (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 6). The goal is rather selfless living that paradoxically finds its full source in the self and is driven by and oriented towards the individual’s vision. The goal of spiritual mindedness, however, is to be one with Christ. We are spiritually minded by virtue of grace, and, yet, we are also on the path to becoming spiritually minded as we are transformed by virtue of our Holy-Spirit-empowered active participation into greater Christ-likeness. The final end is the glory of God through whom all things are made and in whom is life and light (Joh 1:3-4).


You may get lost in Owen’s arduously detailed description of the grace and duty of being spiritually minded, but the value of Owen’s work for Christian psychology is many times greater than that of the Buddhist mindfulness practice, no matter how easy and attractively that may be presented.

If, according to mindfulness practice, you only pay attention to what is going on inside of you and forget your intentional practice of the fear and love of God, you will not become spiritually minded, you will only be earthly minded. This will ultimately and eternally leave you destitute (Rom. 8:6). Though a certain degree of mindfulness—learning to be in the present moment and knowing what is going on inside you (perhaps we should call this the sovereignty and self-examination aspects of meditation)—may be necessary to grow closer to God, it is only the grace and duty of being spiritually minded that brings true peace and satisfaction. 

Though Kabat-Zinn is to be admired for his effective and attractive way of making a Buddhist practice become part of mainstream psychology—and in this sense he may be an example to follow—,  Christian counselors have a different calling. This calling involves becoming spiritually minded themselves and seeking to help all counselees become spiritually minded too as they live through the joys and difficulties of life, so that they receive the peace that surpasses understanding. Glory to the Prince of Peace!


Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Owen, J. (1681/1813). Phronēma tō pneumatō, or, the grace and duty of being spiritually minded: Declared and practically improved. New York: Whiting and Watson. Also available online: 

Lydia Kim-van Daalen
PhD student in pastoral theology/Christian Psychology
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

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