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Facing the dark side of modern mindfulness

24 March 2016

Established Christian traditions offer much wisdom about the negative aspects of spirituality, argues Christopher Dingwall-Jones

MINDFULNESS has been growing in popularity over the past few years, offering a form of meditation that can lead to reduced stress, among other benefits (Features, 23 October 2015). Recent reports have suggested, however, that some people experience negative effects from practising it.

Christian writers regularly mention both the benefits and negative effects of practices similar to mindfulness, and recovering both strands of such Christian traditions is part of what the Church can offer to those interested in a deeper spirituality.

Mindfulness is the practice of “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment”. Although the current secular fashion for mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, there is a strong current of similar practices in Christianity. The ideas of nepsis (watchfulness) and hesychasm (stillness), found in the Desert Fathers and later Eastern Orthodox tradition, offer clear parallels to the attentiveness suggested by modern mindfulness.

The Western Christian tradition also contains a strong meditative strand, from the mystical heights of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, to the popular devotions of the rosary. Br Richard Hendrick, a Franciscan friar and mindfulness teacher, says that, for Christians: “Mindfulness simply means coming into awareness of the presence of God.”

Whether practised in a Christian context or not, mindfulness and meditation have widely attested health benefits, as well as spiritual ones. They are recommended by the NHS as a way to improve mental well-being, and by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence for helping those who have had depression to avoid relapse.


SOME recent studies and anecdotal reports, however, suggest a dark side. A long article in The Guardian (23 January 2016), for example, drew together many individuals who felt “out of control” during mindfulness exercises.

More scientific research has also noted adverse effects. As far back as 1992, David Shapiro, a professor in psychiatry and human behaviour at the University of California, Irvine, observed in a study of the effects of meditation that, out of 27 subjects, 63 per cent had experienced negative effects, such as anxiety, depression, sobbing, and mild dissociation.

Both Eastern and Western Christian traditions also refer regularly to adverse effects of this kind. One of the most striking from the Eastern tradition is John Cassian’s story (Conference 2) of a man who, being dedicated to meditative prayer, threw himself into a well, believing himself invulnerable.

Similarly, St John of the Cross in the Dark Night of the Soul, believes that the majority of people who take meditation seriously will have experiences which are “bitter and terrible”, “horrible and awful”, as they progress in the spiritual life. St Ignatius Loyola also discusses the alternation of “consolation and desolation” in spiritual practice.

The mystics offer valuable guidance, which is grounded in a deeper experience of the spiritual. One insight is the importance of maintaining a link between physical practices of meditation and the spirituality that underpins them. The “desolations” described by the mystics are endured precisely because they serve a purpose: for St John of the Cross, they are how God teaches us to walk on our own, and, like toddlers taking their first steps, “everything seems to be going wrong with them.”

This understanding of mindfulness and meditation is different from the ways in which these practices are presented in contemporary secular culture. The company Mindfulness at Work claims that meditation can lead to “business success”, giving practitioners the edge; while mindfulness colouring-books are marketed as “anti-stress art therapy for busy people”.

This kind of language leaves no space for painful experiences, so that if negative emotions do arise while engaging in mindful practice, there is no framework in which to explain them.


CHRISTIAN mindfulness, in the tradition of the mystics, should be able to expect and understand the negative emotions that can emerge during meditation. Indeed, the 20th-century Cistercian monk Thomas Merton suggests that the “dread” that is experienced in meditation “must be seen for what it is: not as punishment, but as purification and as grace”.

If Christian mindfulness means to consciously come into the presence of God, it also means to be united more closely to Christ, sharing in his crucified and risen life. Life in Christ also, fundamentally, means life in community. Even John Cassian, who writes so vividly about the benefits of solitude, frames his teaching as “Conferences” — discussions between young monks and a more experienced teacher. Meditation does not draw us into ourselves, promising individual success and well-being; it draws us into communion with God and with others.

It is not enough simply to offer explanations for why distressing experiences might occur during meditation. Since the Christian life is a common life, founded in baptism and the eucharist, so the meditative life also relies on this shared element. A spiritual director who has first-hand knowledge of desolation is essential in helping individuals through such experiences.

Christian mindfulness, then, is about both proximity to God in prayer, and proximity to others in common life. It is a truly integrated and holistic practice, at once contemporary and ancient. It faces honestly the fact that meditation is a spiritual labour, not a quick fix; less introspective self-improvement than difficult and self-abandonment, focused on the other.

This ancient understanding of Christian meditation, in which the soul grows in awareness of the fullness of the living God, corrects some of the platitudes of secular mindfulness at its most banal. It is part of what the Church can offer to a society that is yearning after a deeper, more honest spirituality.


Dr Christopher Dingwall-Jones is an ordinand training at St Stephen’s House, Oxford. He holds a Ph.D. in performance studies and mental health

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