Despite the rage over mindfulness these days, I confess I’m a slacker.
Sure, I’m all for the focus meditative practices bring into my life. I practice at least twenty minutes of meditation once a day. Sometimes more. I have for years. Meditation centers me, pulls me away from the continual lure of distraction, and helps me train my mind not to follow every thought wherever it wants to take me. Through meditation the cage full of monkeys in my mind grows calm and still—or more calm and more still than it otherwise would be.
What’s more, meditation involves me in more than mental health exercises that balance the brain and free my body from many of the stresses of the modern age. Through meditation, I draw my renegade mind down into my heart and become more fully integrated as a human being—rooted in a non-grasping experience of the love of God who gives me a deep sense of belonging, meaning, and empowerment. I wouldn’t likely know all this without this kind of praying.
That said, while I practice what many call mindfulness, and I’m grateful for its growing popularity and the broadening of its practice, there are at least two reasons I’m slow to jump on the bandwagon.
1. The term for me is a turn off and, therefore, unhelpful.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be full of my mind. I’ve had enough already of all that goes on inside it. I want less of my mind not more. And mindfulness conjures up in my head visions of an oversized brain. Of course, Jon Kabat-Zinn and others will tell me I’m mistaken, and I maybe am. They’ll tell me that mindfulness isn’t about thinking. I get that. But mindfulness is a word like playfulness and joyfulness, awfulness and hatefulness. It is the state of being as full of mind as I might be full of hatred.
And I don’t want to be full of my mind.
To be fully and authentically and robustly human, I want my mind to find its proper place within me. And I don’t think that place is to fully dominate the rest of me.
Now of course, I know that’s not what mindfulness practitioners are after. But words matter, and frankly, the word just doesn’t help me to get where mindfulness is supposed to take me.
I’d rather experience the presence of mind. That is, I’d like to cultivate a mind that’s more present to my body and my heart (or soul)—a mind that knows and values its place within the larger household of my being.
So, when I become still and silent, I’m neither filling myself with my mind nor am I emptying it. To help my mind become present to the rest of me and to God, I pray this prayer that I’ve drawn from the ancient Christian tradition and recrafted for today:
I still my lips that my mind may seek;
I still my mind that my heart may seek;
I still my heart and hide inside the Deep Silence,
'till What I seek finds me.
Following this prayer, I just sit and bring my full self to full attention before God. Click HERE for an example of this kind of meditative practice.
In this way, my body, mind, and heart are drawn together in a unity of surrender and presence before God, and I avoid privileging any one of those parts. I mean no disrespect for those who practice mindfulness and who draw their practices from other religious traditions, but for me the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ honors the fullness of my humanity—all of me and not only one part.
Someone will say I’m splitting hairs over words. But hey, if mindfulness is a useful word for you and helps you find the balanced humanity we're made for, more power to you. But for me, and for a number of others I suspect, it’s a word that doesn’t carry me where I need to go.
2. There are benefits that come to a wandering mind.
While there are many benefits that come from mindfulness training—focus, clarity, release from the relentless machinations of the mind’s thinking function, and an increased ability to be present here and now—there's a downside to all this. Current research on mindfulness training shows us that there are real benefits that come from a mind that isn’t so taut, so disciplined, so focused on one thing . . . or no-thing.
This doesn’t mean that we want to celebrate distraction. No, distraction’s an epidemic today. And if mindfulness can help heal us of the disease, I’m all for it. But studies show that a mind that is too focused may not have the necessary freedom to wander down the interior paths that can lead us to insight, discovery, and creativity.
A week ago last Sunday, the New York Times ran an article called Breathing In Verses Spacing Out: Is Mindfulness Always Best? “Mindfulness could have unwanted side effects,” writes Dan Hurley. New studies in mindfulness show that “raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations could prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies.”
What this means practically is that the practice of meditation or contemplation—my mind present to the rest of me (that is, in my body and in my little part of the world rather than following my thoughts wherever they wish to carry me)—meditative practice can create an inner space that’s free enough from the relentless distractions of our modern world so that I can allow my mind to graze freely like a horse in an open pasture. Contemplative practices like “mindfulness”, tether the mind, or fence it in, so that it doesn’t wander too far afield. But if the mind is too tightly corralled the mind doesn’t have the freedom to discover new things.
So, yes, let's practice the presence of mind—focusing our awareness on the here and now—so that we can heal ourselves of the relentless distractions that pull and claw at us. And then let us let go and let the mind wander with freedom so that our creativity can flourish and we can stumble upon those epiphanies (or let them come to us) that make life interesting.