Sunday, January 24, 2016

Mindfulness or Whatever

"HOW DO I NOT THINK ABOUT IT?!" 

I often feel like screaming at 4am when I'm still awake, fuming over some injustice that's been done or some mistake I've made or something else that's simply gone wrong. I don't scream it, of course, because my husband is fast asleep next to me while I toss and turn for hours. How can I find this peace of God that surpasses all understanding when I can't even control my own thoughts long enough to fall asleep??

"Mindfulness" is a Buddhist term for one of seven factors of their enlightenment. It is inherently offensive to ask a Christian to try and achieve it. It would be like asking a Muslim individual to be baptized into Christ, and no one would even think of doing that. So with that in mind, when such a concept is presented within a secular program as though it's not a religious concept, like mindfulness was presented to me during chronic pain rehab at the Mayo Clinic, Christians can either respectfully abstain from it altogether or apply a Christian worldview to it. I chose to do the latter and the following is what I found.

**My sincere apologies to all people who might find my oversimplification of this important Buddhist ideal offensive or incorrect. I promise I mean no disrespect.

Very simply put, mindfulness is a spiritual and psychological awareness that enables one to be totally present in the moment. "It is not to let what one knows slip away from one's mind," to not be distracted from the moment (Geunther, Mind in Buddhist Psychology). The most easily understood definition I came across is from a Zen master named Muho Neolke in "Antaiji: Adult Practice": "If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation ("I – am – mindful – of - ..."). Don't be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk. Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let the sleep sleep."

Let the angries be angry? Let the worries worry, the hurts hurt, the injustices fester? That can't be right. Moments filled with obsessive thoughts are painful and harmful, so I spend most of my time trying to escape them: that is, trying NOT to be in them. Thoughts about the wrongs that were done or are being done to me; thoughts of all that has gone wrong or is going wrong; thoughts of the way I wish things were and of how bad things are steal the present from me. Those thoughts focus my mind either on the past or on the future, and always on something negative.

If the present moment is terrible,
then what moment are we supposed to be present in?

I think the idea is―and correct me if I'm mistaken―to be "mindful of" the present moment despite the wrongs that are floating around in that moment as opposed to being mindful of the wrongs, present though they may be. That's how we're supposed to treat all our chronic stressors, right? Suffering from chronic pain means that our bodies never stop hurting. The key to our survival is to enable ourselves to ignore the cries for attention our bodies constantly give and focus on life instead. In much the same vein, financial trouble generally isn't resolved as soon as we put away our checkbooks, but the key is to only think about the finances while the checkbook is out. It's the same with learning to live with the death of a loved one. Our loved one's absence is always glaringly present, just like the reality of that injustice and all it's lingering consequences or our illness and all it's awful effects, but we can't dwell on it 24/7 or we will go mad.

But just what are we supposed to be mindful of in the present, exactly? The clock ticking? The birds chirping? The feel of the grass under my feet? Yeah, that's not really doing it for me. Sorry: I'm not at all the meditative type. I personally don't understand that part of the Buddhist way, but thankfully for me St. Paul has his own answer to that question, one that I can understand.
Years ago, a beloved speech professor of mine (thank you, Charles) introduced me to a concept that's proved invaluable over these last few painful years: the distinction between the really real and the actual. The actual is temporary and temporal. Though it is real, it exists only within a single moment of time. The really real is also real but it transcends the temporal and continues on after the temporal has passed away (see Matthew 24:35 for Christ's example).
1) The fact that Christ died and rose for our sins, that we are redeemed, is REALLY REAL: it has happened, it is happening, and it will last forever. 
2) The fact that we have been wronged and are hurting is ACTUAL. It has happened, or it is happening, but it will not last forever. 
So, the "mindfulness" that St. Paul calls for is for us to live IN the reality of our salvation and the salvation of the world and of others while at the same time living WITH the actuality of our sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world and of others.
Sounds great. I want to be in that moment. Like St. Peter at the Transfiguration, I want to live only in that moment and forget everything else (Matthew 17:4). Well, I'm afraid that's not going to happen until everything else but the really real ceases to exist, so for now all I can do is try. Letting the walk walk―letting the salvation save?―is hard to do when, whether due to some chemical imbalance in my brain or a learned behavior or a thorn given to me by God to keep me from becoming conceited, I am constantly being bombarded by thoughts I'd much rather forget but am powerless to stop remembering. They are a constant tether to the actual, the temporal, the temporary sinful imperfections of the world around me and everyone in it, including myself. That's human. That's actual. That's sinful and that's okay because as Christians, we know that our salvation doesn't depend on what level of enlightenment we are able to attain for ourselves. The ultimate enlightenment isn't something that I can achieve for myself at all: it's something Jesus achieved for me, something that will be actualized on the Last Day.

We may be powerless to make ourselves forget the wrong that has been done to us, but we can make ourselves remember what Christ has done for us.

Don't be dragged into the belief that the only peace Christians can hope for is in death! We can be mindful of the really real, of our salvation in Christ, despite our anchors. The really real IS HERE NOW. You can touch it in Word and Sacrament: in church, in prayer, in our baptism, in the Bible. We can let go of the wrong that has been done to us by setting it at the foot of that magnificent and wretched cross. Thank God that true "inner peace" has nothing to do with inner anything, but rather lies in an outer reality that is greater than whatever anchors us to the actual.

At the Transfiguration, St. Peter forgot that there was work do be done right here in the actual as we prepare for that Last Day (Philippians 1:21-26). After all, where would we be if Christ had done what St. Peter asked Him to do and stayed on that mountain where He never had to suffer and die? We cannot ignore this life and all it's tragedy, pain, and sorrow because that is where those who do not know Christ are. But we can stop this life and all it's tragedy from owning us. Fight the good fight of the faith until your race is run and then take hold of that eternal life to which you were called (1 Timothy 6; 2 Timothy 4). Until then, always be mindful of God's undying love for you in Christ.