As therapists, whether we are using DBT, MBSR, ACT, MBCT, MBRE or another mindfulness-based approach, most often we tell clients mindfulness evolved out of Eastern spiritual traditions when we introduce it. We take care to explain that the benefits of mindfulness are documented with hard science[i] and mindfulness will be presented based on the science stripped of its spiritual roots.
Some Struggle With Eastern Roots
Some clients, however, struggle with that explanation. In evangelical circles many people are cautious about mindfulness, especially mindfulness meditation, associating it with Buddhism or ‘new age’ practices. For many evangelicals these are things to avoid so people talking about meditation, even “Christian meditation,” are given wide berth. I had a client once who abruptly quit therapy after he started a DBT skills group because he couldn’t get past the idea that mindfulness was somehow associated with the devil. This outcome deeply saddened me because it could so easily have been avoided in my view (read on to find out how).
After that experience, I found myself asserting the benefits of mindfulness less confidently to my evangelical clients despite that the benefits of mindfulness are well-documented in sound research. My hesitancy did a disservice to my clients and left me feeling less competent and guilty for not having done my best. After noticing my response, I began researching how other religious traditions approach mindfulness and meditation (see below).
As a result of my research, I have started explaining mindfulness and meditation to some clients in the context of their own spiritual tradition, when appropriate. The key words here are “some clients” and “when appropriate.” Careful assessment is needed to determine which clients and under what circumstances to bring a client’s spirituality into session.
Assessing my own comfort level is just as important as assessing the client. Generally, I have a fairly high comfort level because I was actively raised as a Lutheran. At 19 years old, I converted to Reform Judaism and practiced for 10 years. Then, I studied Theravada Buddhism in Thailand for six months. When my children were born, I went back to my Christian roots, attending a Catholic church for four years, joining a Methodist church for 16 years and later an Episcopal church for 7 years. Today, I have a daily meditation practice and my spiritual life draws from all of the traditions that have enriched my life. That said, I do not attempt to put mindfulness meditation in a client’s spiritual context unless I feel comfortable. I let the client take the lead and then trust my gut.
When I do decide it is in both the client’s and my best interest to introduce mindfulness in the context of the client’s spiritual tradition, it provides an effective segue to therapeutic discussions of the role of spirituality in the client’s life. And it enables me to focus on the whole person, which improves therapeutic outcomes in most cases.
Most Religions Include Meditation
In addition to Eastern religions, the fact is virtually all major religions have a rich history of practicing mindfulness and meditation, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, among others. In each of these religions, mindfulness and meditation have seen a resurgence of interest in recent years.
Christian, Jewish and Islamic meditation differs from meditation in the Buddhist tradition in one fundamental way. The Buddha believed that religious conceptions of God have their origins in fear. In Buddhism, the purpose of meditation is to eliminate needless fear and suffering. In contrast, the purpose of meditation in Christianity, Judaism and Islam is to experience the presence of God. Either way, mindfulness and meditation should achieve therapeutic benefits described in the endnote of this blog. Aside from this significant difference, there are as many similarities as differences among them.
Meditation in Christianity
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26
Jesus’ prayer life alludes to contemplative or meditative prayer. After being baptized, he spent 40 days in the wilderness in solitude, praying and fasting. The Gospels contain many references to Jesus going out alone to pray, to listen for God’s will or to renew his spirit.
In the early church, the Desert Fathers practiced contemplative or meditative prayer. One of those Desert Fathers described contemplative prayer as “resting in God.” While resting in God, the mind and heart are not so much seeking God, as beginning to experience what they have been seeking.
Modern contemplative practices include formal centering prayer and Lectio Divina, among other approaches. Evangelicals use more informal terms, such as “devotional time” or “quiet time.” Devotional time is an informal meditation, similar to Lectio Divina, where a person contemplates silently on scripture or a devotional text, while “quiet time” is listening quietly for God’s intentions or renewing the spirit within. Mindfulness can also be experienced in music, congregational recitation of liturgical prayers and in movement, such as dance or waving hands in praise.
Meditation in Judaism
“Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love.” Psalm 48:9
“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” Habakkuk 2:20
The word “meditate” or “meditation” is used 21 times in the written Torah, most notably in the Psalms. Torah teaches that Jacob went out into a field to meditate, thereby finding his partner for life. Maimonides’ grandson wrote: “The biblical prophets did not prophesy at will. Rather they focused their minds and sat joyfully and contentedly in a state of meditation.” In the Talmud, Jewish teachers are described as meditating for an hour before and after prayer services.
Today, there is a resurgence of interest in meditation in Judaism. “Jewish contemplative practice can take the form of Torah study, chanting, sitting in meditation, walking in nature, gazing at names of God (on the printed page or in one’s imagination), focusing on personal qualities we want to cultivate, reciting the prayers in our siddur with deep intention and attention…and more. Many of these meditative practices are as old as our prayers. And all of them have deep roots in classical Jewish tradition” (Velveteen Rabbi, February 10, 2014).
Meditation in Islam
“One hour of meditation is more valuable than seventy years of worship.” Prophet Muhammad (S)
“There is no doubt that the heart becomes covered with rust, just as metal dishes, silver, and their like, become rusty. The rust of the heart is polished with dhikr [or meditation], for meditation polishes the heart until it becomes like a clean mirror. However, when meditation is abandoned, the rust returns, and when it commences the heart again becomes cleansed. The heart becoming rusty is due to two matters: sins and neglecting remembrance of God. Likewise, it is cleansed and polished by two things: seeking forgiveness and meditation.” Prophet Muhammad (S)
I know too little about Islam to write about Islamic meditation. I did, however, find a compelling article online that I would like to share from the Islamic Renaissance website. I encourage you to read this short article in full for a better understanding. Here are a few excerpts and paraphrases.
The Prophet Muhammad would regularly spend several days each month in quiet contemplation, meditation and spiritual seclusion, in Ghar Hira, a cave just outside the city of Mecca. During one of these extended periods of seclusion and meditation, the Holy Qu’ran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad.
“Meditation in Islam, in terms of a spiritual practice, can be defined simply as the art and science of presence, of simply be-ing, here, now. In other words, meditation, particularly within the Islamic context, is withdrawing attention and focus from the outer external world, from dunya, and from the ego-mind which is based in time, in past and future, and awakening to the essence and divine spirit otherwise veiled by the superficial world of forms and appearances. Meditation in Islam is turning inward, and thus away from the world created by the human ego, seeking to discover rather the Divine Presence of God, subtle and superior to the illusion of dunya.”
[i] In 2011, the American Psychological Association published a practice review summarizing the many benefits of mindfulness meditation to psychotherapy clients and citing the evidence to support those benefits. The review breaks benefits into three categories. Affective benefits include improved emotion regulation by increasing metacognitive awareness, decreasing rumination and enhancing attentional capacities AND decreased reactivity/increased response flexibility, neurologically disengaging automatic pathways created from prior learning and activating regions of the brain associated with adaptive responding to stressful situations, which results in faster recovery to baseline after a client is triggered. Interpersonal benefits include less emotional stress in the relationship and less anger and anxiety in conflict situations. There is increased ability to act with awareness and less distress contagion. Intrapersonal benefits include increasing functioning of the middle prefrontal lobe of the brain that increases self-insight, morality, intuition, fear modulation and information processing speed. A host of medical conditions improve with mindfulness meditation. Find the entire journal article here.
Sandra Miller, MSW, LCSW and sometimes blogger, is one of five therapists who see clients at St. Louis DBT, LLC. Learn more about St. Louis DBT.