On 21 September 2015, during his visit to Britain, the Dalai Lama met with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist representatives. This multi-faith occasion was sponsored by an organisation called ‘Action for Happiness’ of which the Dalai Lama is patron.
Action for Happiness’s website claims it ‘has helped over 100,000 people take practical action for a happier world in their homes, work places, schools and local communities’. And it introduces us to its master-plan: mindfulness.
It claims that: ‘Mindfulness changes your brain: an eight-week mindfulness meditation class [usually offered at around £90] can lead to structural brain change, including increased grey matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection’.
We are informed that Action for Happiness now has hundreds of thousands of members in hundreds of countries. It says, ‘We’ve created a course that helps people become happier and more caring. Help us bring it to everyone, everywhere’. Mindfulness is claimed to be scientific, as it ‘works’ and is embraced by many scientists.
Wikipedia describes mindfulness in action in this way: ‘Meditation is practised sitting with eyes closed, cross-legged on a cushion or on a chair, with the back straight. Attention is put on the movement of the abdomen when breathing in and out or on the awareness of the breath as it goes in and out the nostrils.
‘If one becomes distracted from the breath, one passively notices one’s mind has wandered, but in an accepting, non-judgmental way, and one returns to focusing on breathing.
‘Meditators start with short periods of ten minutes or so of meditation practice per day. As one practises regularly, it becomes easier to keep the attention focused on breathing. Eventually awareness of the breath can be extended into awareness of thoughts, feelings and actions’.
There are many testimonies to the benefits of this procedure. Supposed results include a significant reduction in anger and substance abuse, and an increased capacity for relaxation, self-regulation and optimism. We are told that mindfulness can successfully tackle anxiety, stress, exhaustion and depression.
It claims to be non-judgemental and peaceful. However, since its practices borrow heavily from Buddhism, it should be noted that in Burma — one of Buddhism’s homelands — Buddhists fiercely persecute the 5 per cent Muslim minority and are said to be fuelled by hatred for them (Daily Telegraph, 19 October 2015).
Mindfulness has been taught in prisons, with the aim of reducing hostility and disturbance and improving the self-esteem of inmates. Schoolteachers too have been enthusiastically embracing its techniques in order to reduce difficulties with unruly classes. For example, the National Union of Teachers in Wales advertised a mindfulness course stretching over eight evenings from October to December 2015.
Sir Anthony Seldon, a highly regarded educator and political author, and until recently headmaster of Wellington College (named as Britain’s best public school in 2013), is currently leading the drive to introduce mindfulness into British schools. Mindfulness treatment is even on offer from the NHS.
Not everyone, though, is enthusiastic about it. Celia Walden has written an article entitled, ‘I knew it! People who practise mindfulness are off their heads’ (Daily Telegraph, 12 September 2015).
She wrote: ‘Had anyone told me that mindfulness would still be hailed as the answer to our hectic lives — our mental and spiritual salvation — three years ago from the first “Mind Matters” workshop in LA I dropped in on for titillation purposes, I would have wept’.
She recalls that the Mindfulness guru in LA was ‘urging us all to concentrate on the shafts of sun beaming down on our small gathering through his studio skylights, he suggested we not just revel in the feel of it on our skins, but visualise ourselves “swimming in a pool” of celestial light.
‘Pointing up to the stray wisp of a cloud in the sky, he then encouraged us to conjure up a feeling (there are no “good” or “bad” feelings in the judgement-free, mindful world), put it on the cloud and watch it wisp away. Hampered by the need to suppress a violent snort of laughter, I was unable to do either of those things’.
Walden goes on to point out that a study at the University of California concluded that mindfulness practices might ‘make you lose your mind’.
She points us to psychology doctoral candidate Brent M. Wilson, whose research on mindfulness meditation (published in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association of Psychological Science, and co-authored with Laura Mickes of Royal Holloway London) revealed that false memories can be implanted, and that those participating in the study were less able to distinguish between words they’d seen written down and those they’d only thought about.
The New York Times (30 June 2014) carried an article by Anna North, entitled ‘The mindfulness backlash’. In it she referred to Dr Willoughby Britton, a professor of psychiatry and human behaviour, who works with people who think they’ve been harmed by meditation.
One man is described as going through ‘psychological hell’ as a result of the practice, while another worried he was ‘permanently ruined’. Dr Britton has tracked ‘dark nights of the soul’ — spiritual experiences that are frightening rather than calming — across a variety of religious texts, and believes this type of meditation’s potential ill effects have been under-studied.
Children may be doing mindfulness meditation at school without parents knowing. We should be alarmed and make ourselves aware of what is happening in the schools our children attend, and ensure that this meditation is not being imposed upon them.
The happiness offered by mindfulness is an illusion and a form of escapism from the admittedly real (not imagined) suffering that abounds in the world. It ignores the human sin that lies behind broken homes and family breakdown and offers no real hope for the future.
Mindfulness is essentially Buddhism posing as science. When we suspend the mind of all critical thought, and use breathing or mantras to help us to meditate in this way, we are opening ourselves up to satanic powers (I recommend Ray Yungen’s excellent book, A time of departing, which warns in great detail against Buddhist practices).
In contrast, the Bible teaches us that sin, suffering, stress and death came into the world through the sin of the first man, Adam (Romans 5:12). Our sin separates us from God, who created the universe and our greatest need is to be forgiven and cleansed from sin and to have peace with God.
The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, taking human nature, so that he could die to save sinners and bring us peace with God (Romans 5:1-2; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
God made us so that we would worship and glorify him in our lives. The Westminster Shorter Catechism opens with this question: ‘What is the chief end of man?’ Its answer expresses the truth of Scripture: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever’.
The Bible does not urge us to seek happiness first, but the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). We are most happy when we glorify God. True contentment and happiness come from knowing God and obeying his will as revealed in the Bible.
Christians have been delivered from the dark kingdom of Satan and brought into the kingdom of God, to enjoy righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17; Colossians 1:13).
The apostle Paul, when in prison though innocent of any crime, was able to write: ‘I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content’ (Philippians 4:11).
The Lord Jesus calls his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him (Mark 8:34). We are called to spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20) and sometimes suffering (Romans 8:18), but a glorious future awaits us.
Christian meditation is very different indeed to Buddhist meditation. Christians actively use our minds to think about God’s Word, with its precepts and promises (Psalm 1:1), and to meditate on those things that are true, noble, just, pure, lovely and of good report (Philippians 4:8).
The ‘mindfulness’ that urges us to blank out our minds from the real problems all around us is a delusion which trades in illusion. It has no real answers to the human condition. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only good news for a lost and needy world and there is no other way to lasting peace and happiness.
Alec Taylor was pastor for 31 years at Chelmsley Wood Reformed Baptist Church in Birmingham.