Linda Allcock looks at different techniques for finding tranquillity at this uncertain time
At risk of stating the obvious, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a great deal more anxiety and stress than usual for each of us.
Statistics are now providing evidence of what we already know to be true – that mental health has worsened substantially throughout the UK. These effects are not distributed randomly across the population, but are affected by people’s social and economic position within society. ‘We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat’ comments one survey by the Mental Health Foundation. At the end of June, one in ten people in the UK reported having had suicidal thoughts or feelings in the past two weeks.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the therapies recommended by the NHS to help alleviate the distress caused by mental illness. Which means increasingly Christians are being taught how to practice mindfulness meditation. It is therefore imperative that we understand what mindfulness meditation is, its roots and its effects, in order to wisely help ourselves and other believers struggling with deteriorating mental health. What would be even better would be for Christians to be taught how to meditate in a way that is Biblical. This article explores what mindfulness meditation is, how it differs from Biblical meditation and why Biblical meditation is better.
The mindfulness boom began when Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn – an American researcher with a PhD in molecular biology, and a student of Zen Buddhism – realised he could bring meditation to a much broader audience by stripping it of its Buddhist elements. In the 1970s Kabat-Zinn developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week course teaching secularised meditation. The model he built was simple, replicable, and effective. Since then it has been woven into a number of medical therapies and is widely used by the NHS to treat conditions from depression, drug addiction and binge eating, to pain management.
Mindfulness is about learning to be satisfied in the present by noticing the smell, sight and feel of our immediate environment. It’s something I can do to escape from the incessant voices in my head. If I can practise the techniques, and discipline my mind not to react to the negative thoughts passing through… if I can forget the pain of the past and disengage from future fears… then I can find peace.
Secular meditation offers a way to manage the guilt, fear, stress, resentment, sadness, pain. But it will never shine the truth of God’s word on my thoughts and expose what I’m thinking.
Which means that secular meditation will never lead me to the cross, to see that there is forgiveness, and peace and power to change.
But there is a way of meditating that can.
Biblical meditation is better
‘Useless, worthless, guilty, failure’ is the mantra relentlessly reverberating around my head when I’m low. For a long time I assumed that ‘useless, worthless, guilty, failure’ was how God saw me too. I thought He must be so disappointed with me – I was such a terrible wife, mother, friend and Christian. Until one day, when I was in the bathroom humming one of those irritating kids’ memory-verse songs… and the words hit me like a ton of bricks. ‘God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him’ (John 3: 17). I looked into the mirror and I realised that though I condemned myself, that was not God’s verdict. The contrast between what God said and what I thought was stark. Was He wrong? Or was my thinking wrong? He sent his Son to save me – to take my sin in His body on the cross and give me His perfection. I believed that truth. And in that moment, it was as if the ‘useless, worthless, guilty, failure’ thought disintegrated. Peace flooded my heart and mind.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was meditating.
Meditation on God’s truth exposed the lies that I was believing about myself – that I was useless and worthless because I didn’t feel I was coping with motherhood – and led me to the cross. I saw that any and all my failures were taken by Jesus. He had given me His perfect life, and had sent His Spirit to empower me to love and care for little children as He did.
I could have managed my negative feelings through secular meditation. I could have allowed the thoughts of ‘guilty, worthless, useless’ to pass by without engaging them. I could have stood in the bathroom and felt the cool tiles under my feet, smelled the bleach from where I had recently cleaned the toilet (if only), noticed the sounds of children beating each other up in the distance and, relaxing my muscles one by one, focused on my breathing: IN for as long as it takes to say this sentence, OUT for as long as it takes to say this sentence.
But that wouldn’t have exposed the lies I was believing and it wouldn’t have led me to the cross. It wouldn’t have flooded my mind with the truth – and it is the truth that sets me free (John 8 v 32).
Biblical meditation does not exclude appreciating God’s creation, noticing the sight, smell and sounds of what is around us, but it goes further. Psalm 19 describes not just one voice that lifts our eyes from the pain of our struggles, but two. The voice of creation and the truth in God’s word.
Biblical meditation is not as difficult as you might think. It’s not about making Bible reading more complicated, rather making it simpler. It’s about filling our hearts with the truth of God’s word. Focusing on one truth, learning that truth, and coming to Jesus for help to live it out.
Life in the lockdown imposed by the pandemic was hard, but for many of us easing out of lockdown is proving even harder. Face masks, uncertainty, economic downturn and job instability inevitably fill our hearts with anxiety. Through Biblical meditation we can choose instead to fill our hearts with God’s truth. The truth that enables us to face and fight the anxiety. Which will we choose?
Linda Allcock lives in Central London with her hus-band Jonty, and loves working alongside him in The Globe Church. She lectures on marriage at London Seminary’s Flourish course, and teaches at various Christian conferences.
Her latest book, Deeper Still: finding clear minds and full hearts through Biblical Meditation (The Good Book Co.) was published on 1 Sept 2020.