Thursday, June 18, 2015

Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Book Review #50 of 2015)


Mindfulness for Beginners

I provide a bit more to this than a normal book review. I give this book 4 stars, it is exactly as advertised.

Pray. Meditate. Don't worry. Relax. Breathe. Have a quiet time. These are all things we know we're supposed to do but neglect to do. They require intentional desire and discipline. This book is about how to practice being intentional about it.

This book is a short summary and introduction into the exercise of mindfulness. The author has a PhD from MIT. I became intrigued by mindfulness after watching the author in this 60 Minutes piece.  Tim Ferriss interviews a lot of Silicon Valley entrepreneur types on his show and practicing some form of meditation seems to be a common link among all of them. I blogged about that here.
I recently saw a profile of the CEO of health care giant AETNA, and how he offers yoga and meditation courses to employees, which are quite popular. They've seen a drop in health care costs that they attribute to the practice reducing stress.
"Employees report a 28 percent decrease in stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and 19 percent reduction in pain. "

I listen to several fitness podcasts and the elite athletes and trainers all practice some form of meditation and yoga as part of their mental fitness and physical recovery. Yoga (a difficult form) is included in P90X and is something that I appreciate and don't do correctly or often enough.

Most Christians think of Eastern meditation as emptying one's mind, whereas that does not appear to be the case with mindfulness. Zinn reportedly developed his style by combining his studies with Buddhist practioners "with science." It's instead a practice of focusing one's mind, and as such I find it compatible with a Christian discipline of meditation.

I read a couple books on spiritual disciplines last year, meditation and prayer are two points covered that are similar. Tim Challies has a brief "faith hacking" post on meditation on Scripture.

In another post, he interviews Joel Beeke on how the Puritans used the word "meditation," and I find it quite compatible:
Puritan meditation engages the mind with God’s revealed truth in order to inflame the heart with affections towards God and transform the life unto obedience. Thomas Hooker defined it like this: “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.” The direction of our minds reveals the truest love of our hearts, and so, Hooker said, he who loves God’s Word meditates on it regularly (Ps. 119:97). Therefore, Puritan meditation is not repeating a sound, emptying the mind, or imagining physical sights and sensations, but a focused exercise of thought and faith upon the Word of God."
...
"Here is a method for meditation based on Puritan writings. First, pray for the power to focus your mind on the Word with faith. Second, read the Bible and select a verse or two. Third, repeat those verses to yourself in order to memorize them. Fourth, think about what those verses say and imply, probing the book of Scripture (other verses on the same topic), the book of conscience (how you have believed or disbelieved, obeyed or disobeyed), and the book of nature (how this truth appears in experience and the world). Fifth, stir up your affections unto love, desire, grief, hope, zeal, and joy as appropriate. Preach the text to yourself with powerful application. Sixth, arouse your soul to the specific duty which the text requires, making holy resolutions for the glory of God. Seventh, conclude with prayers for divine assistance, thanksgiving for graces given, and singing psalms of praise to God."

The Psalmist wrote (Psalm 131) "But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me"

There's a quietness about it. There's a prayer closet we have to build, either physically or mentally throughout our day, to be like Jesus and move away from the crowds and pray (Mark 1:35-37). To appreciate that God is moving every molecule in our universe, including those in our immediate surroundings. "Multitasking jams the voice of God."

Zinn says that "mindfulness is a way of being, not just a good idea." It's about living in the present moment, not worrying about the past or the future (Matthew 6:34). When the Apostle Paul wrote "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:16-18) I think he gave us a command to be mindful of the truth of our salvation and how God is working His will in our lives all the time. Trusting in truth and accepting reality are an essential part of mindfulness, according to Zinn. Where a non-Christian gets his self-identity and truth from are another matter, but for the Christian it's important to think about large chunks of truth like Romans 5 and Romans 8.

Then, once we have taken the time to meditate on these truths, we have a basis on which to act. We can love others because we remember that Christ first loved us. "Let the doing come out of being," says Zinn.

Zinn invents the verb "awarenessing" which involves using your mind and all of your senses to appreciate your surroundings. You can "appreciate the senses individually as miraculous." Even focusing on something as simple as a raisin, as Zinn uses for his example. We Americans simply throw down a handful while we're sitting at our desk hurrying onto the next thing. Instead, think about the raisin that was once a grape that grew in a miraculous process repeated for millenia. It was picked by someone you don't know and literally thousands of people's effort went to bringing it to market for you to purchase. The process of chewing and digesting are all remarkable. When you slow down and think about it and really appreciate it. It's simple, but we don't do it.

Zinn states that a beginner's mind (like a child) sees infinite possibilities, whereas an "expert" mind sees only two: right and wrong. This brings to mind Jesus' admonition to "become like little children" to "enter the kingdom of heaven." A child marvels at the smallest and simplest things. A child doesn't doubt that God is capable of anything, whereas we lose that faith as adults. Mindfulness is somewhat about getting back that childlike marvel.

In the end, Zinn leads the listener in an exercise of breathing and focusing on the present moment, meditating on truth, and bringing your mind back in focus when it wanders. Any of us who have sat down to pray have had the problem of a wandering mind, the trick is to "lovingly bring it back."

Some prominent Christians in the media have decried mindfulness meditation as nonsense without understanding what it is, or looking at the scientific data on the health benefits of meditation and yoga generally. Yet they also seem to value having a quiet time, prayer, and meditating on scripture. It's a shame they don't recognize that non-Christians have become the developers of a practice once honed by Christians-- including the Puritans.

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