Mindfulness isn’t a religion. Rather, mindfulness is a secular toolkit that can help reduce stress and improve well-being. However, there is a tangled ancient and modern relationship between religion, spirituality, and mindfulness.
Let’s clear up any doubt: mindfulness is not a religion.
And, at least as practiced in scientific studies, it’s not even necessarily spiritual.
Rather, modern mindfulness is a secular toolkit that can help reduce stress and improve well-being, among other things.
So why does this question even come up?
If it’s more complicated than it appears on the surface, that’s because mindfulness has a past that’s intimately woven with practices that originated in the context of religion. Many of the practices that make up what is today considered mindfulness, have their roots in ancient religious practices.
Mindfulness isn’t a religion (but it can be part of a religion)
Mindfulness isn’t a religion because, among many things, a religion implies a set of shared beliefs. Mindfulness is, instead, a set of shared tools.
Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone of any faith, or no faith at all. Its roots are most clearly seen in ancient Buddhist principles that teach us to observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment. However, it’s not just Buddhists. Similar practices have been seen in other world religions.
Rather than a religion, mindfulness is a collection of wellbeing techniques to improve the human condition which have been practiced for centuries. Over time, these practices have been extensively researched and shown conclusive benefits in multiple studies. As that’s happened, practices like meditation, giving gratitude, breathing techniques and others have moved into the secular realm and popularized as tools to live a better life.
All that being said, mindfulness is certainly a feature of religions, and many (if not most) religions encourage followers to sit in quiet reflection, to practice gratitude, and to participate in some form of prayer or meditation.
Is mindfulness Buddhist?
Mindfulness has roots in ancient Buddhist principles that teach us to observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment. The technique of mindfulness meditation goes back as far as 1500 BCE.
However, today’s mindfulness is secular, and has diverged away from those religious origins. In fact, some Buddhist teachers hold that mindfulness meditation, taken out of the context of Buddhist teachings, cannot be considered mindfulness meditation in the Buddhist sense.
The scientific community has cooperated with Buddhists in recent decades on studies related to meditation and mindfulness, including one showing that monks and long-term meditators experienced decreased reactivity to negative emotional stimuli.
Is mindfulness Christian?
Mindfulness is a part of all major world religions, including Christianity.
However, mindfulness is not specifically a Christian practice, and can be practiced by people of any faith or no faith at all.
Christian practitioners of mindfulness have pointed to mindfulness related passages from the Bible. For example, one passage encourages Christians to “be mindful and live with awareness of the present.” Another advises not to “be distracted by worry about the future.” And of course, there is prayer and meditation (in the sense of reflecting on divine will) throughout the Bible.
Is mindfulness dangerous?
When asking whether mindfulness is dangerous in the context of religion, what people sometimes are wondering is this:
Is mindfulness a secular “gateway drug” that will cause me to lose my religion?
In reality, mindfulness isn’t as foreign of a concept as you may think. Mindfulness in some form has not only existed in major world religions since the beginning of recorded history, whether that means prayer, reflection or gratitude.
Mindfulness has also codeveloped with modern-day religious practice in the 21st century. Practices like meditation and yoga have also increasingly gained ground with Christian traditions, for example.
But at the end of the day, mindfulness is a tool – one that can be used in any context, secular or religious.
Can you be mindful without spirituality?
Mindfulness practices are supported by hundreds of evidence-backed studies. So it’s certainly possible to engage in mindfulness practices with no spiritual element.
For those who want the benefits of mindfulness without the trappings of religion or spirituality, it’s not only a possibility – it’s the most likely way you’ll get started. Secular mindfulness is probably the most easily accessible way to engage with mindfulness as a practice. Today’s most prominent mindfulness apps, books and guides focus not on spirituality or mysticism but on the utility and evidence-backed benefits of mindfulness.
Interestingly, Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered one of the most influential popularizers of mindfulness in the Western world, has expressed that he prefers not to use the term secular mindfulness:
“As soon as you say secular mindfulness, you’re abstracting the sacred out of it. It’s not really about the breathing, or the object of attention, but it’s the attending itself…. That’s where the transformative power lies, that you’re adding a measure of deep introspection and perception to ordinary experience. And then realizing: There is no such thing as ‘ordinary experience.’ Everything is extraordinary”
Find the form of mindfulness that works for you
Whether you’re coming from a Christian, Buddhist, spiritual or secular position, there is undoubtedly a form of mindfulness that works for you.
For Buddhists, it’s baked into their religion. Christians often rely on religion-specific forms of practice like Christian meditation or Christian yoga.
The key is not to let labels distract you from a set of tools and practices that have the potential to improve your well-being.
Call it what you want! But if you’re looking for ways to improve your well-being, reduce mental chatter, ease stress and stay more present, consider incorporating mindfulness into your life in some way.
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