4. Jesus and mindfulness
Who is Jesus?
The religious perspectives on Jesus vary among world religions. Jesus' teachings and the retelling of his life story have significantly influenced the course of human history, and have directly or indirectly affected the lives of billions of people. He is widely considered to be the most influential person to have ever lived, finding a significant place in numerous cultural contexts.
Most Christians believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine or ‘God in the flesh’. Jesus, having become fully human in all respects, suffered the pains and temptations of a mortal man, yet he did not sin. As fully God, death had no hold over him so he rose to life again. According to the Bible Jesus ascended to heaven, to the "right hand of God," and he will return again for the ‘last judgment’ and the establishment of the ‘kingdom of God’ (these future events are the source of endless debate and Jesus himself dissuaded people from trying to speculate about them.)
It is thought that Jesus died around the age of 33 having probably spent the first 30 years living with his family and working as a carpenter. It is thought that his public ministry lasted about three and a half years and it was during this time that he delivered his teachings and performed miracles.
As I began my journey with mindfulness I realised that Jesus modelled many of the practices I was learning about.
Below are some of the ways in which I think Jesus lived mindfully.
1. Jesus took time out
It is noticeable that Jesus, at key times in his life, made time for quietness, drawing away from the crowds, spending time alone high in the hills so that he could focus on the presence of God, away from the innumerable pressures and demands put on him. The text suggests that the busier he got the more he did this.
“Now, more than ever, the word spread about Jesus and large crowds would gather to hear him and be healed of their illnesses, but he would withdraw to remote places and pray.” Luke 5:15-16
Mindfulness encourages people to meditate daily and take three minute breathing spaces wherever they are needed throughout the day. Even three minutes is enough to refocus the mind and make wiser decisions.
2. Jesus was in charge of his attention
Within the Bible there is an implicit theology of attention and awareness.
“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages-so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” Mark 1:35
Jesus goes off very early in the morning to a solitary place to pray, which is an act of sustained attention. Peter and the disciples hunt him down and interrupt him, trying to distract him with what the crowd wants. Jesus switches his and their attention back to what he needed to focus on.
One of the aims of mindfulness is to put people back in charge of their attention.
3. Jesus encouraged people not to worry so much
Jesus encouraged people to focus on the present and resist the habit of ‘future tripping’, speculating about the future or resting one’s happiness on the achievement of some future state.
“Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?… Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:27-34
Instead he told people to learn from the way he approached life.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-29
Sarah Young, in her book, Jesus Calling, paraphrases these verses as follows, ‘You will not find peace in excessive planning. I did not design the human mind to figure out the future. I crafted you for continual communication with me. Commit everything to my care and turn from planning to peace.’
Mindfulness talks a lot about living in the present and not indulging in imagined negative narratives.
4. Jesus promoted an investigative awareness
Jesus asks us to enter into a process of investigative awareness of what is going on in our hearts and minds.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3
Of the 183 questions that Jesus is asked in the gospels he only directly answers three of them. Instead he answers questions with a question of his own. People often assume that the job of religion is to provide the answers but this did not appear to be Jesus' understanding. His questions often realign people point them to where they should be really focusing their attention. (Similarly Buddha often answered people by saying “But you are asking the wrong question!”)
Mindfulness encourages people to observe their thoughts and behaviour with curiosity and gentleness. This is not to say that everything is permissible but that by delaying judgement we are able to see the situation more clearly and make better decisions about what to do.
5. Jesus said that we need to stop and learn to see clearly again
Jesus teaching on earth was primarily about seeing things for what they are. He observed that people were stumbling around ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ and the religious leaders had created so many rules that they could no longer see that the essence of God’s law which was to ‘love and God and love neighbour.’ Jesus encouraged people to look again at what they thought they knew. When Jesus said, ‘I have come to restore sight to the blind’ he did not just mean physical healing but to help us ‘see’ our situation more clearly. Often described as the ‘light of the world’, Jesus came to bring clarity, discernment and spiritual insight.
The act of stopping in order to see more clearly is one of the key practices of mindfulness.
6. Jesus faced difficulty
Three times in Mark’s Gospel Jesus told the disciples about how he must suffer many things, including rejection and death but the disciples could not face it. Peter even rebuked Jesus for talking about his death. Jesus accepts what they cannot accept - reality. Jesus didn’t avoid the painful reality that he knew awaited him in Jerusalem.
Acceptance is defined as ‘being experientially open to the reality of the present moment.’ It is the opposite of thought-suppression. It is often misunderstood as passivity, but it is about ‘allowing’ current thoughts, feelings and sensations.
When Jesus met with people he seemed to immediately identify which areas of their life were most in need of healing and Christians believe that Jesus continues this work today through his Spirit. Jesus’ demonstration that out of death and suffering comes resurrection and new life, is the hopeful message at the centre of the Christian faith.
Mindfulness encourages people to gently face their difficulties and allow things from the past to surface so that they do not suck the joy out of the present and future.
7. Jesus encouraged people to prioritise the inner life and all else will follow
On one occasion Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Jesus knew what it was to be human and the basic need for food, drink and clothing but he also recognised that our greatest needs are internal. He said pay attention to your inner life and you will gain perspective. You will realise what to make a priority and you will gain wisdom to make good decisions.
Mindfulness encourages people to make meditation a daily priority and discipline, creating a valuable mental resource which can be drawn on through the day.
8. Jesus recognised the link between saying and doing
Jesus clearly recognised the link between what we say and what we do. He encouraged his followers to wish their enemies well, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. ” Verbalising an internal change in attitude or wishing someone well actually changes how we behave when we are around that person.
Mindfulness draws attention to research done in neuroscience and psychology, that shows words are closely connected with the action centres in the brain and verbalising something actually effects our behaviour.
9. Jesus cultivated an inner spaciousness
Despite the important work which Jesus had to do, and the fact that he foresaw how short and difficult his future was, Jesus modelled an inner spaciousness which allowed him to be open and present to others. He demonstrated that our time and attention are often the most valuable things we have to give others.
During Jesus’ short time in public ministry he had pressing work to do but still took time out to be with individuals. On one occasion, he sat down by a well to chat to a Samaritan woman. He listened carefully and answered her questions and in fact she was the first person to whom Jesus revealed his true identity as the Christ.
It is common for the mind to be so busy with thoughts and plans that it is hard to be fully present to others. Mindfulness meditation calms the cacophony of ideas and emotions which can stop us truly hearing what people are saying and responding instead of reacting.
10. Jesus recognised the link between mind and body
Jesus had a holistic view of the human soul. He recognised the innate link between the body and the mind and often offered people forgiveness/spiritual healing before he physically healed them.
During the time he spent fasting in the desert Jesus said, “Man cannot live on bread alone but needs every word that God speaks.” He taught that feeding the body only is not enough, the human spirit also needs feeding with God’s life-giving word to experience wholeness and peace.
A core pillar of mindfulness is that the body and mind are deeply connected. It provides practices to help people be attentive to their physical and mental needs and see the intrinsic connection between the two.