Mindfulness practice draws our mind back from anxious wandering to notice what is real in the moment, in the now. One of the things we might notice in the moment is anxiety about the future, and you might be wondering what to do with those anxious thoughts and feelings, particularly during this season of fear about COVID-19 around the globe.
Anxiety feeds off vagueness. Our auto-pilot mode of thinking can push us through thinking loops that never quite land anywhere, stirring up emotional suffering without giving us an opportunity to notice what is true or to answer our own questions.
So if you’re feeling anxious during this coronavirus pandemic, you might begin by sitting down with a pen and paper and answering this question:
What are you afraid of?
Start by creating a written list of your fears. Take them to their natural conclusion, even if that raises anxiety in the moment.
Chances are, the natural conclusion of most coronavirus fears will end with “I’ll die.” (Ex. “While I’m shopping at the grocery store, someone will pass the coronavirus to me and I’ll die.” or “Those people congregating at the park will pass around the coronavirus. It will travel to me when I talk with one of them and I’ll die.”). Or maybe there’s even a fear beyond death (ex. “I’ll die and no one will remember me, meaning I will have wasted my life.”).
You may find other fears as well (ex. “I’ll lose my job and run out of money for food and feel hungry and sad.” or “I’ll have to stay inside by myself for a year until a vaccine is found by scientists and I’ll feel very lonely and depressed.”).
Make sure you’ve taken the answers all the way to their end by asking yourself “so then what?” For example, if your answer is “I’m afraid of using the washing machine in the basement of my apartment building,” there’s a little more digging to do there before you get to the ultimate fear.
Honor your survival instinct
Remember to breathe as you’re answering this question about your specific fears. It’s okay to experience anxious feelings in this process – that’s the body’s survival mechanism kicking in, the fight-or-flight mechanism. God created this mechanism in the brain, and we can honor the emotions and physical reactions that help keep us safe.
Humans can do lots of wonderful things, even while we’re feeling anxious, so we don’t need to judge our anxious feelings. It’s okay to have those feelings, no matter how strong they are. One of my favorite therapeutic expressions is learning to “pull up a chair for your anxiety.” As you do this exercise of identifying fears, pull up a chair for your feelings and continue making your list. Anxious feelings may stay for awhile and then wander off and then come back again, kind of like a pet or a small child. But whether or not there is anxiety, you can continue identifying your specific fears, which are simply thoughts and feelings passing through the mind.
Engage in problem-solving
Once you’ve written down a thorough list of your specific, fearful thoughts, take some time to problem-solve. Examples related to the coronavirus pandemic might include…
A slightly humorous example of this might be the toilet paper crisis of the last month. I noticed myself feeling anxious about this a couple weeks ago – what if we run out of toilet paper because there’s no more available at the stores? I got a little more specific about my fear, which came down to smelling bad and feeling physically uncomfortable. So I did some problem-solving. I researched alternatives to toilet paper, of which there are many. I remembered how toilet paper has not even existed for most of human history. I also reduced the amount of toilet paper I was using in order to conserve my supply, realizing I have been using way more than needed! All of this led me to let go of that particular anxiety. Turns out toilet paper is completely optional for us to lead meaningful lives. I can find ways to exist quite happily without it, if needed.
A heavier example might be death. There have been times recently that I’ve noticed my chest tightening and my breath shortening when I think of the coronavirus – that fight-or-flight instinct kicking in. When I get specific about my fear, I realize it’s a fear of dying. So I notice that and smile at the fear, knowing it’s quite normal to fear death. Then I come back to a few helpful truths – truths I have drawn on since I first experienced an acute fear of dying during the month after 9/11, truths that have provided comfort and seen me through the loss of many people I’ve loved over the years. I identify my specific beliefs about death, heaven, and God’s provision. I recognize that my mortality is part of what unites me with every human in the history of the world. I also return to songs that ground me in eternal truths stretching far beyond this human existence, sometimes even sitting down at the piano to sing them through myself. Here are a few of my favorites:
Firm it up
You’ve done some problem-solving, now be specific with yourself about how you will implement your plans. Identify your strategies for managing any actual dangers or threats, and take steps to minimize or reduce those threats. Identify thoughts, prayers, and songs that are helpful in connecting you with God’s comforting presence. Be intentional about next steps so you can rest in God’s provision.
As you engage in this specific planning, notice where you are making useful plans for the future vs. where your mind spins into less useful ruminating. Also, pay light attention to what is happening with you in the moment - what is happening right now? Is there any provision, any comfort, any goodness? Don't miss out on what God is providing in the moment. It is your reminder that he will keep providing for you in all of your moments.
God is bigger
The reality is that God is bigger than the coronavirus. Humankind has been through numerous pandemics of this nature, along with wars, natural disasters, and other devastations. This is not the first time, and it will not be the last. But our God is stronger, and his plan is bigger. We see the short game (this lifetime), but he sees the long game (eternity). We know only our own strength (as individuals and communities), but he holds the power of the universe. We can trust in him, even when we feel afraid. Someday it will all be more clear. For now, we have what we need, one moment at a time.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” 1 Cor. 13:12
A global pandemic is scary and dangerous, and it's also good for a few things.
It reminds us we are not invincible. The coronavirus reached my part of the world just after our celebration of Lent, when we heard the words "from dust you came, and to dust you shall return." These words are powerful because they let us off the hook of trying to be God. We are small and we are temporary. We can enjoy all we have as a gift, knowing that this earthly existence is only one piece of our eternal reality. It's okay to be mortal.
It slows us down. Although coronavirus has kicked my job into high gear (SO much work to do!), it has also cleared my personal calendar of all social gatherings, corporate events, and worship services. For others, it has led to even more disruption, such as job lay-offs or physical quarantine. Having an altered schedule (even in the midst of very real stress) can give us a chance to learn a less harried pace, to practice Sabbath, and to enter new rhythms of rest.
It provides solitude. However you feel about people in general, it is true that we need one another. It is also true that we need silence and solitude. The preventative practice of social distancing due to coronavirus forces us to confront our discomfort with solitude, our anxiety about silence. It teaches us about how much we care about each other, how important connection is to us - and it also provides us an opportunity to learn from silence.
It sheds light on our auto-pilot responses to stress. Whatever you are doing to respond to the virus provides a lot of information for you about your typical responses to anxiety. Are you sticking your head in the sand, obsessively watching news, lashing out at those who think differently from you? Or maybe you're focusing attention on what you can control, reaching out with kindness to those in your circle, or using humor to get through? Notice your go-to responses in this situation, and notice how effective these are in supporting positive coping and divine trust. This is helpful information for other stress-inducing situations throughout your life.
It forces us to release our grip on perfection. There are so many ways we push and pull and jerk on life most days, thinking that if we just did more of the things and followed more of the tips then we could get it all right. Coronavirus has reminded us that we cannot make the world perfect. There are forces outside of our control, and times where we cannot keep everything running just right. It's okay to be imperfect.
However you're experiencing this global pandemic right now, I send you some lovingkindness as we walk the journey together:
God has our good at heart, and he is seeing us through. I'm reminded often these days that we are living a story, and what an exciting story it is! Full of plot twists, surprises, and sheer terror at times - but God is the author of our story, and we know that the end is good.
We never know what a week will bring! My new book launched yesterday, and I crossed the midnight threshold of the day in an ER, before being transferred to another ER, before being hospitalized for a rare infection that now requires a 48-hour IV antibiotic treatment. This definitely was not the plan for launch week!
I love mindfulness for times like these. It helps me roll with it. It reminds me that change is the norm - that I'm not okay because I'm in control, but I'm okay because I'm in God's hands. It keeps me slightly amused by the every-shifting landscape of day-to-day life, moment-to-moment, with all of its challenges. And it definitely helps me receive the joy in the midst of the challenge.
But what I planned to write you about yesterday (and now today) is that The Mindful Christian book is out! If you're in the Grand Rapids, MI, area, please join us for a 7pm book launch celebration tomorrow (Thursday, February 20) at Baker Book House - you can reserve your free ticket here. And if you're not in the area or have other plans, I hope you'll find a copy of the book elsewhere and then have your own personal celebration! Better yet, share it with your friends at church, Bible study, book group, or work, and practice mindfulness together :). It's available online and in bookstores.
Building on the work of this website & blog over the past several years, The Mindful Christian book will provide you with an overview of mindfulness principles, devotional-style exploration of mindful Christian faith, and many practical exercises to try out on your own. It's meant to be a tool for you on your spiritual journey, helping you to clear the path to God's presence on your walk of Christian discipleship. I hope you will find the book to be an inspirational and helpful tool!
Back to my health... looks like I'm going to be okay, and a mindful lens has allowed me to enjoy these hospital pleasures over the past couple days:
These are the kinds of little pleasures that make up happiness - I don't want to miss them, whether the week is ordinary like last week or drama-filled like this week. I want to be paying attention so I can receive all the good stuff God has for me, moment to moment.
From my unexpected hospital bed, happy launch week!!
I have a book coming out in two weeks! It's called The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith. I worked really hard on it, and I'm excited to share it with the world. The book is meant to inspire, teach, and encourage, and it also has a bunch of my life story in it. You'll find options for mindfulness practice throughout, in case you're up for some practical application, and your heart will be invited to rest, heal, and grow.
If you pre-ordered, you may have received your copy already, otherwise it hits stores on February 18th. I thought I would share an excerpt of the book with you on my blog today as a teaser. I hope it refreshes your soul.
Excerpt from The Mindful Christian: Cultivating a Life of Intentionality, Openness, and Faith by Irene Kraegel, pp 7-8 (Fortress Press, 2020)
Mindfulness is called a “practice” for a reason, as it is more of a recurring exercise than a permanent state of mind. Even the most seasoned meditators find their minds frequently wandering, so instead of expecting to “arrive” at a mindful state, we practice “returning”—coming back, over and over, to this place and to this moment. We give up expectations of any particular result, and we give up fruitless striving, trusting that God will do God’s good work. Rather than trying to create a state of relaxation or calm through mindfulness practice, we practice being awake to whatever is in the moment. Whenever we notice that the mind has wandered off, we return to the present with gentleness and curiosity. We
come back to the place where God is working in us—right here and right now—as we reconnect with our calm center.
If you would like, you can try this in the form of a micropractice by pausing and noticing where your mind is right now. Notice any expectant thoughts for this small practice, and simply become aware of what you think “should” happen as you try this out. If possible, observe your thoughts with light, curious, gentle attention, no matter what you are feeling, and notice that you are sitting in God’s presence as you do this. This is Christian mindfulness—creating just enough observational distance to
become aware of your experience in the present moment with kind awareness, recognizing that God is with you in that moment as part of your present-moment experience.
Now, as you reflect on the micro-practice, what did you observe? Was there any way in which that light, curious attention changed your perception of passing thoughts? There is no right or wrong answer here, it is simply a moment to notice. As we progress through these pages, you will have additional opportunities to dive into mindfulness practice at various levels if you so choose.
For Christian disciples, each micro-moment is where we are learning and practicing the rhythms of grace; this is where we have access to God’s transforming presence. Whether we are enjoying the present moment or wishing it were different is irrelevant to its usefulness as a place of divine instruction. In the present moment, in the here and now, in the place where we are—this is where we are alive. And here is where we have the repeated opportunity to learn from our creator teacher. But such learning requires first that we show up, that we be present. This is the practice of mindfulness.
Grief has been on my mind lately.
I lost a daughter to stillbirth at 37 weeks. Since that horrible August day in 2008 when Elsa’s heart stopped, so many layers have been added to my life story and I don’t think about her every day anymore. But when I visited a new gyn a couple weeks ago, I was unprepared for the exposure to dozens of pregnant women moving through the waiting room – some alone, some with significant others, some getting ultrasounds to find out the gender of their new little one, some getting unexpected procedures that delayed the start of my own appointment. The grief snuck up from behind and caught me off guard, welling up in my throat and leaking out of my eyes. Suddenly it was hard to breath, hard to see, hard to hope. I didn’t see it coming. My heart hurt, and it hurt for a long time after that. I’ve been missing Elsa.
In my church, we’ve grieved many deep losses over the past year, including the death of Luther Ward who served as a founding member of our congregation in 1962 and was still cheerfully telling jokes to anyone who would listen at the back of the sanctuary a few short months ago. At my work, I’ve been guiding a group of students in a therapy group related to the loss of parents and grandparents over the past year – losses that make it so difficult to stay present to their work as students heading into finals week – and the grief in the room is thick and heart-wrenching. And then this weekend, I read Bridge to Terabithia, joining my tears with the millions of readers over time who have been swept up in the loss and pain of the book’s ending (based on a real-life experience of the author’s family).
When my grandparents died two years ago, I started a blog post about grief and mindfulness that I never finished. Now that grief is showing up regularly again, I think it’s time.
My grandparents both died in 2017. We had always lived far apart from one another. Over my many years of restless moving, they were settled in a quaint little Iowa town that pulled our family back every two years at Christmastime. Those holiday gatherings were nonnegotiable for my grandparents – my grandfather especially – and we found a way to make them work, even near the end when their health was failing.
As my grandparents aged, it took me by surprise to recognize the depth of my emotional bond with them. They were often reserved, quiet, stubborn, and fiercely independent. And yet it became clear over time that they had created roots that were also my roots – their abiding faith, their unwavering love for me, and their insistence on consistent family gathering created a foundation for my identity as a loved child of God. A better writer than I could put the power of these roots into words. Suffice it to say that their quiet and deep impact on my life cannot be overestimated. I owe so much of who I am to who they were.
When my grandfather was dying, my husband, young son, and I dropped all of our responsibilities and drove the 8 hours to Iowa to be by his side. I had never watched anyone die before. It was agonizing. He was thirsty, he was uncomfortable, and it was sometimes hard to tell when he was conscious. But in true Granddad style, he was mostly lucid and sweet and funny. The night before he died, he requested steak and strawberry ice cream – not that he was able to eat anything more than ice chips – and by golly, I bought him the most expensive steak in the store, and we grilled it up on the neighbor’s grill, and my husband fed it to him in tiny chunks. That man loved steak and ice cream, right up to the very end.
Perhaps my sweetest memory from that time was peeking into my grandfather’s room and catching my six-year-old son sitting at his bedside. With his newly acquired New International Readers Version, and his newly acquired kindergarten-level reading skills, my son was reading Bible verses to encourage Granddad’s spirit – reading in his adorable little-boy voice to my 98-year-old grandfather, a retired pastor, on his death bed. “We will be with him forever,” he read, "so encourage each other with these words of comfort." Later, he learned how to say “First Thessalonians” so he could repeat the reading of this verse at Granddad’s funeral.
This experience taught me the power of showing up. I’m not always great at showing up for the difficult, painful, emotionally vulnerable moments of life. Sometimes there’s nothing to say, and sometimes it’s just awkward. Being guarded and absent can feel pretty nice sometimes, or at least pretty numb – oftentimes, I don’t even notice that I haven’t shown up. But going through the dying process with Granddad was a profoundly beautiful experience, both individually and communally. I was so glad I was there.
It struck me as we drove home from my grandfather’s funeral service that saying goodbye is best done when we are willing to genuinely say hello to whatever is happening – when we have shown up. I thought of the people who flew across the country on short notice to show up for Elsa’s memorial service after her stillbirth, and how much that meant to me. I thought of our dear friend Bob who openly grieved that loss with us, crying for our daughter and his elderly wife who had died months before as we hugged each other in the farmyard. I thought of the clients I have worked with over the years who have courageously shown up for their own pain and grief, walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23) in order to find God with them, in order to find healing. All of this showing up has meant so much to me, has been so enriching, has made life so much better. All this showing up has made the goodbyes (miraculously) beautiful.
So here’s where mindfulness comes in. To grieve well, show up. Wherever you are in the process – maybe there’s a loss coming soon, maybe you’re right in the middle of a loss, maybe the loss has already happened (yesterday or sixty years ago). Maybe it’s a death you’re grieving, or an ended marriage, or a devastating diagnosis. But whatever the loss, and wherever you are now, show up to your feelings, to your community, and to the work involved in the loss. Be present. Don’t numb it all out, don’t run away, don’t miss it. As much as you are able, stay present to the loss in all of its pain, receiving God’s kindness and care toward you along the way, and you will find all that you need.
As I write this, we are entering the Christmas season. Christmas is filled with memories of my lost daughter, and the six children before her lost to miscarriage. “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care” is not just a children’s carol for me, it’s a prayer that speaks my longing for my kids. And the piles of family photos that come through our mail box pull up old feelings of jealousy and bitterness about the families other people got – feelings that are ugly and painful, not to mention largely irrational.
So I practice mindfulness this Christmas season. I will have moments of joy and of sadness, moments of gratitude and of anger, moments of connection and of loneliness. There will likely be times of deep connection with Emmanuel, God with us. (By the way, that’s what we named our first miscarried son - Emmanuel.) And then there will likely be times of spiritual ennui and disillusionment. None of this need be threatening. In the presence of a God who loves us, all feelings are acceptable. All feelings are safe. I choose full presence to my feelings of grief and everything else, knowing that God is also fully present there.
Is grief on your mind too? It’s okay – lean in, open up, feel what you feel, as much as you're ready. Showing up goes a long way.
In the children’s worship class at my church, there is a tug-of-war of sorts over the music. For a long time, the standard request every Sunday morning was Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho. Kids lined up along the wall and sang the song, and then fell down at “the wall came tumbling down” – except that several children found it hilarious every week to remain standing, and then we would sing it again to see if we could get the whole wall down.
After several years of this routine, a number of us teachers felt that we could no longer take it. The song was loud and chaotic, and there was no evident spiritual benefit. Some of the kids really disliked it. So we wielded our adult power and stopped taking that request in favor of songs like This Little Light of Mine and Jesus Loves Me. Before long, a formal petition was registered by one child participant in the form of a letter taped to the children’s worship wall: “Don’t band Joshwa foght the Batle of Jaraco from this cherch.” Our worship director’s comment? “Song preference troubles start young.”
Indeed, we all seem to have strong opinions about church music. Song preferences run deep in the river of culture, generational experience, and personal life history. I have struggled through many a church worship service in my life fuming about the music. This, I could point out, is not the most Christian attitude toward worship.
Mindfulness has something to offer here. The things that get me fuming about song choice are thoughts. Not facts, but judgments – my interpretations and cognitive reactions to the songs. Recently, I have started practicing mindful awareness during worship services.
Mindfulness helps me worship.
Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you are not qualified for your work, even when other people think you are - the belief that if others discover that you don't have what it takes to meet expectations competently, they will be disappointed and you will be shamed. Some groups at particular risk of Imposter Syndrome include first-generation college students, graduate students, minority group members, high achievers, and young women in the workforce. But any of us can fall prey to this anxious condition, and Christian mindfulness can offer relief. Here are some steps to follow:
Collect feedback and facts
Opening ourselves up to the truth can be the hardest thing to do, both when it comes to our strengths and our weaknesses - it feels vulnerable. But this is just what you'll need to do to build a rational framework for addressing Imposter Syndrome anxiety. Start by asking yourself (and/or others) these questions:
Write down the specific answers to these questions. Consider including feedback from others who know your work well - your boss, your professor, a coworker, or a customer. No interpretation, arguing, or minimizing here - keep your observations as factual as possible.
Now it's time to create some observational distance.
Here is where mindfulness kicks in. Read over the feedback and facts you wrote down and start to pay attention to the thoughts that arise in your mind while you read. With an objective and curious awareness, begin a list of these thoughts. Examples might include thoughts like “I have no idea what I’m doing," “they don’t know the whole story,” or “that was so dumb of me.” You might notice pleasant thoughts here too, such as "that was really nice of my boss to say” or “maybe they liked what I did.”
Whatever the thoughts are, without judgment, write them down and cultivate an attitude of light-hearted (even amused) attentiveness as you read them over. To cultivate observational distance, it might help to imagine that someone else wrote this thought list and you are simply reading it over with curiosity. In this step, you are becoming more aware of your thought cycles, the mental architecture that is driving your emotions and perceptions of your competence.
Now, it’s time to recognize some feelings. Put your writing aside and take a moment to close your eyes, sit in silence, and feel the emotional reaction to what you have written down.
So now you have three lists:
Set these lists before God with curiosity and openness to what He might do with them. Then give yourself time - lots of time - to observe these three areas day-in and day-out. Keep writing down your observations in each of these areas, and keep setting these before God to see how He might speak into them.
As you’re ready, consider adding one of these more formal mindfulness practices into your routine:
Along the way, engage in active beginner’s mind. This means a recognition that you (like all of us) come to each moment as a beginner. None of us can be a true expert in anything, since every moment in this vast, mysterious universe is brand new to us. Only God truly understands it all - we are free to be small and dependent learners during our short time here on earth. How freeing!
You don’t need to change your feelings or fears to move out of Imposter Syndrome, you only need to cultivate observational distance from those feelings and fears while also cultivating awareness of deeper truths. You are learning, just like the rest of us. You will make mistakes, and those will be opportunities for more growth and transformation. God has given you abilities and passions, and he will use those to accomplish his work in the world. You need only bring what you have and he will take care of the rest.
“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” Psalm 103:13
Being a parent has some really, really challenging moments. My lowlights reel from the past two weeks includes forcing my second grader to follow through on a performance commitment while he angrily panicked, feeling tearful and fragile after he beat me at checkers for the fifth time in a row (?!), and obsessively worrying about whether he will dread coming home for the holidays when he is an adult. These moments all included feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression. In fact, I would prefer to focus on my highlights reel, which is what you’ll find on my camera roll – moments of love, connection, pride, and raw joy. But it is our struggles that pull us together, so let’s take time here in this shared moment on the world wide web to pause and acknowledge the struggle that is parenting. Parenting is a hard job.
I don’t know about you, but here are some of the things that make mothering hard for me:
This is just an initial list, and if you’re a parent, you probably have plenty more types of challenges to add that reflect the particularities of your life. (Note: If you’re a parent who says that raising a child is all butterflies and rainbows, you’re not an honest parent. See #6 above.)
So I dedicate this blog post to all of the parents out there. If you would like to stop reading here and just dwell in the solidarity of shared suffering, be my guest – this is a nonjudgmental space. But if you are interested in hearing about how mindfulness can support us during moments of parenting pain and open us up to moments of parenting joy, I invite you to read on. Because parenting is one of the areas where I have found mindfulness to be the most delightful and impactful, and I am excited to share with you some of my experiences and practical applications in the area of mindful parenting.
Mindfulness is intentional awareness of the present moment with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and nonjudgmental acceptance. This is often effective in calming our intense emotions and providing a calming response for others who are struggling. This makes mindfulness a very effective tool in responding to children, who are still learning to moderate their own emotions effectively while often triggering our own emotional responses.
Savoring the Good
The most beautiful part of mindful parenting is when it creates connection with our children, helping us to experience and savor the joy-filled moments. Here are some simple steps I take, when I remember, to capture these moments of beauty:
Caring for Ourselves
One of the most useful aspects of mindful parenting is using mindful awareness to calm down our own emotions, making us more effective in caring for our children and also for ourselves. Here some simple steps I take, when I remember, to effectively manage my own emotions in the midst of challenging parenting moments:
Teaching our Children
One of the most impactful aspects of mindful parenting is the way it teaches our children to manage their emotions effectively. Here are some simple steps I take, when I remember, to support my child in applying mindfulness to his own life:
If you are a parent, I would love to hear about your own moments of mindful parenting. How do you practice mindfulness in the context of your relationship with your child? What resonates with you about these approaches, and what would you add?
If you are not a parent, whether or not by choice, I hope you will find these thoughts useful in thinking about your relationship with your parents, with children in your life, or even with peers who are parents. During my many years of pregnancy loss and childlessness, I held much resentment toward parents who complained of their struggles. Mindfulness would have been helpful for me during that dark period of my life. Perhaps you have thoughts on that as well.
Either way, I hope you’ll drop me a line in the comments below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Lora Armendariz, who invited me to blog on this topic. You can find her own lovely thoughts on the subject at The Beautiful Day Project – I hope you’ll check it out.
And thanks to my wonderful son, Milo, who when asked if he wanted to contribute anything about mindfulness to this blog post said "Yes. That it works really well. And that I really like it, so I think that other people might too.” So there you go -- try it out :).
“The story of David begins in the middle of another story. All stories do. We never get a clean start in this business of life. The tablet is already scribbled all over, smudged with ink stains, blotted with spilled coffee.”
- Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, p. 32
During the Christmas season, we become especially aware of the juxtapositions of pain and joy, despair and expectation, darkness and light that permeate our existence. Sometimes the holiday songs of happiness and cheer can seem like the saddest sound in the world. Sometimes the visions of warmly glowing homes can seem like cruel parodies. Sometimes “the way it’s supposed to be” can echo like a taunt through the realities of family dysfunction, strained pocket books, and the dreary dark days of winter. There’s nothing perfect about Christmas.
Other times, our hearts are gladdened by the sounds, sights, and smells of Christmas. We receive and give kindness and are encouraged by the message of Jesus’ birth. We experience Emmanuel – God with us – and we know that we are not alone. Christmas is a beautiful season.
We’ve been studying the stories of David in our Sunday School class, reading through the book Leaping Over a Wall by Eugene Peterson. We have explored this mysterious juxtaposition – that in the midst of our mess (and David was a mess), God keeps doing good things. This means that we do not have to feel, think, or act a certain way in order for God to advance his Kingdom. God is working in the midst of our mess.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the pathways God has given us to see His work in the midst of our mess. Sitting in silent, curious, accepting, nonjudgmental, open observation of the present moment, I become aware of God’s gifts. This heartbeat, this breath, this touch of clothing on the skin, this hum of sounds, this place – here is God, here are God’s gifts, here is God’s Kingdom. Emmanuel, son of David, God with us in our mess, God doing his good thing all the time, whether we are aware or not. Let’s use this Christmas season to get quiet enough to be aware and to see, to receive, the gifts of his Kingdom.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
-1 Corinthians 13:12-13
The emotional surge of falling in love happens unexpectedly. However, there are certain conditions that make it more likely. The foremost of these is awareness.
You can’t fall in love with someone or something of which you are not aware. So awareness, or seeing, is a prerequisite of love. (And this is not a reference only to seeing with the eyes. Seeing here serves as a metaphor for truly and directly experiencing, with or without the physical eyes.)
What gets in the way of you being aware, or “seeing”? Since beginning mindfulness training, I have discovered that my primary blindness comes from internal distraction. My thoughts scurry restlessly, roaming everywhere except the place that I am. I am rarely thinking about the present moment – sometimes I’m astonished that I get through most days without major catastrophe.
This is blindness. Not seeing the thing in front of me. Not hearing the sounds around me, or experiencing emotionally the person I am with. This is a lack of awareness, and this gets in the way of love.
Sometimes when I meditate, I have the humorous experience of falling in love with the things in my moment. Last week, I fell head over heels for my wood floor, and a week later I still swoon when I notice it again. I know I’m not alone in these experiences – a student of mine once talked extensively of falling in love with her raisin during a mindful eating exercise. She was smitten, completely enraptured by this tiny piece of dried fruit.
I think this makes God’s heart glad, when we see stuff. He has woven beauty and wonder throughout the world – our difficulty seeing his Kingdom is not because it is small, but because we struggle to see it.
Mindfulness meditation can be one way of opening our eyes to what is there. When we are aware, when we see, then love will spring up unexpectedly and take us off guard. Consider yourself warned.
I am Irene Kraegel. I work as a clinical psychologist and teach mindfulness on a faith-based university campus. I practice mindfulness because it opens me up to God (a.k.a. brings joy). I am writing here in hopes of sharing some of my experiences and thoughts related to the practice of mindfulness in the life of a Christian. Thanks for reading!
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