Since publishing The Power of Stillness last year, we’ve heard two kinds of stories from people. The vast majority write about learning how greater stillness and silence is helping them to connect in new ways with their brothers and sisters and to feel closer to God and more secure in the Church of Christ. Occasionally, though, we hear another kind of story—one where someone has discovered that newfound peace, power, or love in the stillness of meditation, but then distance or a sense of estrangement begins to grow between them and their fellow Church members, from the Church itself, and sometimes even from the God they once knew.
What’s the difference between these two experiences? And how are we to make sense of the “same thing” (mindfulness) leading people closer and further from Christ and His Church?
These are serious questions. And we write with sensitivity to those grappling with them—or seeing loved ones struggling to make sense of them. We don’t begrudge brothers and sisters who look with skepticism or concern at mindfulness after hearing stories of people stepping away from the Church after starting to meditate. Yet we believe there are many ways greater silence, stillness and space that comes along with mindfulness can deepen our connection to Christ. As with any Christly attribute or practice, however, we must be sensitive not to elevate and engage with it to the exclusion of all other virtues and priorities, lest that virtue sends our lives and faith into tilt.
In what follows, we lay out five considerations that differentiate, in our experience, between a mindfulness that draws us closer to God—and a mindfulness that estranges us.
1. Judgmental mindfulness: Does mindfulness lead you to be more (or less) patient and judgmental of others’ struggles and flaws?
Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. (Philippians 2:1-3)
Many times, we’ve seen people tap into a greater calm and serenity after starting to meditate—which is not surprising. What has been surprising is what sometimes happens next. In some cases, people who have had this positive mindful experience then begin evaluating harshly those who have not—judging those who didn’t seem to be embodying this same kind of presence and calm with feelings like, “I can’t believe my ward members/spouse can’t be more present and accepting!”
Since non-judgmentalism, and compassionate awareness of self and others is core to mindfulness practice, it’s unsettling to see a practice designed to foster these qualities used as the basis for severe judgment.
Yet we can imagine how this might happen. As soon as someone feels they’ve arrived at a special, distinctive place—whatever that place is—it’s natural for that temptation to arrive: seeing oneself as somehow “above” others. We’ve seen the same tendency in some who have received special personal revelation or had an experience of feeling the overpowering love of God in their lives. Unfortunately, some people come away from these kinds of sacred experiences with perspectives that can spoil the sweetness by harshly judging others for not having the same experience—or not appreciating or choosing to pursue the same depth of experience they have.
Yet this is just the opposite of our own experience, and what greater stillness has meant in our own lives. Like charity, mindfulness practice must ultimately shower its blessings upon others or it becomes vainly isolating.
2. Commercialized mindfulness: Is this mindfulness practice moving us in a direction of positive growth, or simply affirming our thoughts and feelings exactly as they are today?
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
Though it is has many origins in different places across the globe, mindfulness in its classical eastern formulation, as taught by Siddhartha Gautama, involved an intrinsic, incremental developmental process of “enlightenment” where people aspired for “right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right view”… etc.
But in society today, many Americans have left much of that behind—reconceptualizing mindfulness as something divorced from the need to live, speak, and treat others rightly, in exchange for feeling more authentic, comfortable and validated. Rather than a philosophy and practice encouraging constant expansion and growth, mindfulness is in this way often commercialized and marketed to encourage acceptance of however we feel, think or live, irrespective of everything and everyone around us.
Needless to say, this approach to mindfulness inevitably conflicts not just with the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, which has plenty to say about change, repentance, communion, and eternal growth, but also with it’s eastern roots in spiritual practices that are in many ways similar to Christian aspirations towards something more transcendent and divine.
3. Buddhist mindfulness. Are we incrementally adopting another religious philosophy as we practice mindfulness—one contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
You are my Lord,
My goodness is nothing apart from You. (Psalms 16:2)
As people familiarize themselves with different mindfulness practices, we’ve seen something else happening. At times, they begin to adopt distinctive teachings and doctrines, some of which (certainly not all) conflict with the teachings of Christ.
While there are many teachings in the Buddhist “dharma” that align with the gospel, there are plenty that do not. We’ve sat in Buddhist retreats and attended mindfulness training from teachers of different traditions. Coming away, we often feel profoundly edified and blessed, even though recognizing Latter-day Saints “won’t be able to stomach a lot of this.” This isn’t because our people are “narrow-minded”—but because of how much foreign languages and traditions need to be sifted through.
At one retreat, one of the respected leaders concluded his talk insisting “no one is coming to save us…we’ve got to learn how to do this on our own!” One of us raised our hand, “With all due respect, some of us are Christians here—and that teaching you promoted undermines the core of our own faith.” One of our wives often comments on the commentary that accompanies many of her yoga videos—so much of which feels similarly conflicting, e.g.: “You have all you need right inside… you are perfect exactly as you are!”
When conflicts between different philosophies arise, some decide to reinterpret the gospel of Christ from this newfound perspective—rather than the reverse. For instance, the teaching of “non-dualism” suggests that good and evil is an illusion that breaks down when you see things more truthfully. One who has embraced this quickly sees the black and white distinctions in the gospel as woeful naivete—vaunting their own enlightened glimpse into a “deeper” reality where the difference between good and evil evaporates, even as they abandon the truth that all good things come from and lead to Christ.
4. Restoration mindfulness: Are we considering mindfulness as something foreign to and outside the gospel and Church of Christ—or very much central and instrumental to it?
As we begin to explore mindfulness practice, do we see it as somehow a critique of “flawed” gospel practices, or as a deepening and expansion of practices that are intrinsically good and trustworthy? Do we look to mindfulness meditation as a “replacement” to prayer as a source of peace?
As we pointed out in The Power of Stillness, contemplative approaches to faith (seeking God in solitude, pondering, meditation, etc.) have always been a part of our religious history as Christians—including Latter-day Saints, all the way back to the sacred grove. Jesus retreated many times during his ministry to find some space to pray and to commune with Abba, and many followers of Jesus ever since have seen contemplative retreat into solitude with God, in one form or another, as a key aspect of their discipleship. Recognizing this as something that’s been here all along makes it something strangely familiar—not foreign, not scary, not threatening. This comes down in many ways to what gets emphasized and developed at different moments and places over time. We’re lucky to be at a historical juncture where we are seeing the benefits and greater emphasis and integration of mindfulness and meditation with our own culture and faith.
5. Christ-centered mindfulness: Are we experiencing mindfulness as deepening our commitment to Christ himself—or something taking us on a very different kind of developmental trajectory?
Mindfulness is wonderful, but it is not salvation—and does not have the power to deliver us from our fallen natures. It is a means, not an end in itself. What this practice does really well is help us to sort through the static of mind, emotion, and bodily sensation to connect us and root us more deeply in our spirits—which naturally helps connect us with God and the Spirit, as well as our brothers and sisters.
Interestingly enough, this deeper connection to spirit (or awareness) happens by first connecting with the body as a concrete way to anchor the mind. In our experience, this kind of a stronger grounding in our innate physicality can indirectly prepare us for deeper communion with everything else around us.
Rippling outward from physical sensations and breathing, mindfulness practice invites people to bring awareness to emotions, thoughts, sounds, etc. But is that where the awareness stops?
In many cases, yes. For believers in Jesus, though, this is not sufficient. Because the One who created our bodies—and gave us breath—has a light and influence that is also “in and through all things.” Our mindfulness practice as Latter-day Saints needs to acknowledge that—and direct our attention there explicitly, regularly, and centrally.
Does it? The vast majority of secular meditation practices don’t even attempt that. And even some of the Christian-themed practices fall short. Faithful Latter-day Saints have attempted to remedy this gap by creating more Christ-centered meditative practices. Some of our favorite resources created by Latter-day Saints are the Small Seed Still and Refill My Soul apps (the first presents a range of creative mindful practices in different gospel areas and the second presents meditations focused on specific prophetic counsel or scriptures). Thomas McConkie has also encouraged believers to deepen faith and find ways to stay within the Church at his Lower Lights sangha, and through his Transformations of Faith course. Believers in other Christian traditions have created similarly edifying apps, such as Hallow, Centering Prayer and Pause (creating and operating a good app is incredibly expensive, and each of these request a modest subscription after their free trial).
One of our wise mentors reminded us that, in the end, the kind of contemplation God may want for us is unique and personalized to us—something impossible to standardize, and which He Himself will guide. Rather than giving us regimented steps (as he might well have tried), it strikes us that President Nelson has likewise said about prayer, “Are you willing to pray to know how to pray for more power? The Lord will teach you.”
Could we say the same of meditation? That it is impossible to standardize—and best learned with the companionship of the Spirit? Certainly, yes.
We do believe the Lord is our best teacher, and the One toward whom all our teaching should lead. We seek to model our own teaching efforts after His own. Recently, we created some guided mindfulness practices that draw out contemplative themes of already established sacred practices—Sabbath as Mindful Retreat, Communing in Mindful Prayer, and two other practices focused on preparing for mindful scripture study and temple worship. As our prophet continues to encourage, drawing out the deeper power of these sacred practices will help us find Him, hear Him, and receive His promised power. (You can easily access these gospel-themed mindfulness practices by downloading the Small Seed Still app here, which we highly recommend due to all the other gospel meditations they provide).
In closing, there’s absolutely no question that mindfulness can draw our hearts and minds closer to the Savior of the World and the entire human family. But not always. As noted above, mindfulness has sometimes been applied (and arguably, mis-applied) in ways that can have the opposite effect.
We must pay careful attention to these diverging paths—and help others do the same.