I started practicing meditation out of necessity. Mind you, it was before mindfulness and meditation were the buzzwords they are now. I started sitting in silence and focusing on my breath in seminary after my father was diagnosed with aggressive cancer. It was the only way I could be in the presence of God; the only way I could pray without getting furious or breaking down in tears.

Fast-forward a few years and I still practice meditation daily. I have learned more techniques, read more books, and listened to more podcasts about the practice. I even became certified in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Teens (MBSR-T).

Mindfulness is having a moment, for sure, and I have found that it is a helpful practice in my life and in the lives of the students and teachers I interact with in my work.

Over the past few months, a thought has been tossing around in my head about an unintended consequence of mindfulness.

Mindfulness has lowered my anthropology.

For a long time, I did not believe that I had a low anthropology. I wanted to believe that people are inherently good albeit misguided. I mean, look at babies and those uplifting videos of people doing good on Facebook! This line of thought is very popular in modern spiritual circles, especially the progressive Christian world. Despite being a solid heresy (hello Pelagianism!), it is very tempting to believe that underneath it all human beings are all sunshine and rainbows.

Enter meditation.

When you sit on a cushion and try to observe your thoughts two things become clear:

  1. You are not in control of your thoughts.
  2. Your thoughts are ridiculous.

From the mundane (“I wonder what’s for lunch”) to the utterly bizarre (“Do you think Jack could have taken turns on the door with Rose?”), my thoughts are an endless stream of selfish nonsense. I am almost always thinking about myself. I am rarely, if ever, deeply concerned with anyone outside of my immediate family. Most of my thoughts have to do with satisfying my ever-present needs of hunger, thirst, relief, and attention.

Spend any time in silence with your thoughts and you will realize that you are not alone in your head. You have a voice that is bossing you around and giving color commentary on the otherwise mundane details of your day-to-day existence.

This voice is, at best, harmless and somewhat idiotic. At worst, this inner dialogue can be demonic, promising undeliverable outcomes from dangerous and deadly actions. This is the beginning of understanding a low anthropology (or what Francis Spufford calls “the human propensity to f**k things up.”)

I want so badly to believe that I am good at my core; that, given a fair shot, I will choose the good, true, and beautiful thing over that which is bad, false, and selfish. Unfortunately, I know myself. I have observed my mind. I have sat on the river bank and watched the flow of my thoughts pass by.

Mindfulness has lowered my anthropology because “I have seen the enemy and he is us.” I have seen that no matter my intention, I tend towards selfishness. I always want what I want (and right now if possible). The practice of mindfulness makes it abundantly clear that I am not a saint who struggles from time to time, but a sinner stumbling in the dark.

This is not bad news; quite the opposite!

It is Good News for me and for all those I come into contact with throughout my day. This awareness has led me to be more compassionate to those around me because I know that we are all negotiating with our thoughts and our inner critics. We are all bargaining with the ten-year-old version of ourselves in our heads that is trying to convince us that we aren’t good enough.

This is why we need outside help. I certainly do. I need someone to step in and relieve me of the pressure of manufacturing my own salvation. I need someone to hold me close and say, “No matter what you think or do, I have called you mine and you are saved.”

This is what I hear in the Good News of Jesus.

Jesus told his disciples not to worry, but instead to set their hearts on God’s Kingdom. The work of salvation is something that has been done for us, not something we have to cook up in the furnace of our own mind.

Instead, we can come back to the breath and observe our thoughts with the knowledge that we have been given grace. God is more present to us than we could ever be to ourselves or those around us. In that presence, God offers comfort and rest.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Breathe that in.