Henry Williams is contributing as a guest writer from his blog, A Road Called Hope, where he writes about the intersection of depression and faith. He shares thoughts here related to self-judgment, Jesus, and peace. Thanks Henry!
“Which shoes should I wear today, Henry? My new pair of sneakers hasn’t been broken in yet, but my old ones are half a size too small for me.”
I sighed when my dear sister asked me this. I was upset that I didn’t think my advice would move her towards choosing one way or the other, and impatient at her for being indecisive when all I wanted to do was get everyone out the door. But what would have been a minor frustration for many of my friends turned into a lengthy internal dialogue as we sat next to each other in the car that morning. Was I right to be frustrated at her?
Only moments after we had left the house, frustration at my sister was no longer the main thing I was feeling. Rather, the memory of that impatience was causing me to feel guilty. Shouldn’t I have been more kind, more gentle towards her? Why couldn’t I be a good older brother to her? As in Dr. Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion exercises, my mind had created a dialogue between the accused and the accuser.
This is not an uncommon occurrence for me. I have long learned to stifle certain emotions (fear, anger, shame, guilt) by telling myself that I ought not to be experiencing them. The word ought involves moral evaluation, or judgment. Paradoxically, judging myself in this way has lead directly to more guilt and indirectly to more of my other ‘blacklisted’ emotions. As I became conscious of this pattern I began to ask:
Must self-examination involve self-judgment? Can investigating one’s motives, hidden thoughts and desires without evaluating them be a faithful moment in Christian worship?
These are questions that have concerned the Christian tradition for centuries. One thinks of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises, or perhaps the traditional Anglican collect for purity: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.” One thinks of the Puritans of England and New England and pious zealots throughout Christian history, who, at their worst, were consumed by thoughts of their own guilt and blind to the transcendent grace of God. One also might think of modern and postmodern philosophical interrogations (such as Nietzsche’s and Bernard Williams’) of the guilt-dominated Western Christian conscience.
As heirs to these rich—and, let’s be honest, confusing—philosophical and theological understandings of guilt, perhaps we might return to the words of Christ himself for clarity on the question of guilt. I’m thinking in particular of his words to the woman caught in adultery in John 8. After warding off her would-be executioners by simply inviting them to question their own righteousness, Jesus asks the unnamed woman, “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she answers. “Then neither do I condemn you,” he responds.
“Then neither do I condemn you.” Christ’s words here do not suggest an upheaval of guilt, or express the idea that guilt is an unhelpful emotion under all circumstances. They rather constitute a suspension of guilt and judgment. After all, Jesus is just about to tell the woman to “go and sin no more,” implying that her past actions were indeed worthy of guilt. But amidst the fury of her accusers, Christ invites the woman into a moment of blissful peace, peace brought on by the retreat of all accusations, the type of peace that Dr. Neff attempts to lead practicers of self-compassion into in the exercise above.
One could even say: Christ leads the woman into self-awareness. Paradoxically, the suspension of judgment allowed her to see herself as she truly was: a beloved child of God. Oftentimes we think that God is accusing us when in reality we are our worst critics, poised to throw the stones at our very selves. Do we dare to mindfully examine ourselves, suspending judgment? If so, perhaps we might encounter the very grace of God, who is always saying to us: “Neither do I condemn you.”
What if we were to practice this self-awareness? What if we were to sit, if only for a moment, in the absence of all judgment? For if Christ does not condemn us, “who is there to condemn?” (Rom. 8:34). What if the voices of judgment that we needed to learn to silence were not God’s, but our own?
If these voices are just noise and not worth a tenth of the heed we give them, then silencing them will bring us peace. And in the quiet, perhaps we might even glimpse the face of Jesus…tenderly speaking to us words of peace and sending us out to lead a transformed life.
- Henry Williams
Mindfulness means being at home in the deepest part of yourself. Finding over and over -- cultivating -- a deep sense of home within yourself, exactly as you are, exactly where you are.
I am in a season of home in my life. After a lifetime of constant moving (29 living spaces in my first 35 years), I have now lived in the same house for over 8 years. This is a phenomenal record for me. It feels great. I am learning my town and neighborhood in ways one can only do by spending lots of time here. I have gotten to know people – I run into friends and acquaintances unexpectedly when I go out. I feel an evolving sense of belonging and fit. Now when I see someone loading up a U-Haul truck, my instinctual response is repulsion and compassion – I am so sorry that they have to go through that. My days of perpetual restless moving are over. I have a home.
What feels like home for you? Is it a house? Or a person? A certain neck of the woods, or a favorite song? Is it a treasured wall hanging, a familiar meal, or a worn-out sweatshirt?
What do you go to when you’re sad, frightened, or displaced to get you back in touch with yourself? What grounds you? What is home?
This is the feeling of mindfulness – a sense of home. But a sense of home grounded deep within ourselves. The only way I know to get to this deep feeling of home is to meditate. Sitting quietly, observing nonjudgmentally, being curious, allowing the fog to clear – this helps me to know myself and to love myself. To care for myself and settle in.
When I meditate, I am opening up this pathway to home within myself. This makes it easier to walk that path informally during each day – to find my way home in the midst of feeling sad, frightened, or displaced. To get back in touch with myself, to be grounded. To be at home right here, right now. In this home, God is present – love thrives, and I am open to receive it.
It’s the same feeling I have when I remember an untouched, remote piece of nature from a backpacking trip. Or my young son’s affectionate snuggles with me after he returns from an adventure-packed sleepover at Grandma’s. Or the BFF talks that I share with my husband but no one else. Home.
Have you had this experience of home? If not, mindfulness meditation is for you. God is waiting to lead you through the chaos of thoughts and feelings, through the uncomfortable physical sensations, through the blinding fog of life… into a quiet and still place deep within you that is home. A quiet place that you carry within you every day in every moment. Home.
The Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus -- the Son of God -- was about to die, taking on the sins of the whole world in an horrific and public execution. He had spent years on earth, intentionally sharing the human experience in a life filled with poverty, rejection, homelessness, and violence. Now he was fully present to the reality of his upcoming sacrifice, "grieved and agitated," in deep turmoil. No avoidance of emotions here -- Jesus is throwing himself on the ground, sweating blood, asking his heavenly Father to "let this cup pass." And in the midst of all of this intense, divine drama, there is one simple request he makes of his disciples. Stay awake. He's taking care of everything else. He just wants them to stay awake. (Matthew 26:36-46 & Luke 22:39-46)
They can't do it. They are too tired. Luke's account gives them the benefit of the doubt and cites their grief as the reason they can't stay awake -- whatever the reason, the disciples are checked out. They are not present. They have left Jesus in his grief and turmoil, not even capable of staying awake to pray for their own salvation from the time of trial as suggested. Their attention is gone, and Jesus is urging them to stay.
I find myself comforted by this account. Because I, too, am not great at staying with Jesus. My devotion to Him flags, I doubt Him in my thoughts. I forget to notice Him. I live as if I am my own boss, generally oblivious to His all-sustaining care in each moment. I fall asleep. I neglect prayer. I am like the disciples. And so I know that His ultimate sacrifice for these wandering, sleepy, avoidant, checked-out men counts for me too. They didn't earn his love and neither do I -- He takes us as we are.
But what an example Jesus sets for us, and what a beautiful admonition. "Remain here, and stay awake with me." Wow. What does it look like to stay awake? To stay awake with Jesus? The Taizé song, Stay With Me, is often sung during Lent, and it draws me into this longing to stay with Jesus -- to be fully present with Him. Could there possibly be anything more fulfilling, more satisfying? No, nothing. Being unified with Christ is the answer to all of our deepest questions.
I use mindfulness to practice staying. Mindfulness is sometimes referred to as the practice of being fully awake. It keeps us from sleepwalking through life, so that we don't miss out. Through mindfulness practice, we train our attention to rest with intention on the present moment (which, by the way, is where we must be if we are to stay with Jesus). We train our awareness to be alert and our eyes to be wide open. We practicing noticing our wandering (whatever the reason for the drift), and we bring our attention back as many times as we are able. We practice staying.
Jesus, you are here. I choose to practice staying so that I can be with you.
I've always believed in the importance of silence -- my religious upbringing prepared me well to understand this cognitively. But for most of my life, I didn't know what to do with silence other than endure. To be in silence was an act of obedience, akin to taking my spiritual medicine. It was only through mindfulness training that I learned to listen to silence.
That's not quite what I mean. I didn't exactly begin to listen to silence. It was more that in listening to silence, I learned to pull away the curtain and experience God. To dwell in God rather than trying to hear a message or get a fix. To saturate my senses with God's goodness. In this way, mindfulness practice has opened the eyes and ears of my heart to the richness with which God has infused each moment of life. Before mindfulness, I had little interest in paying attention to the present moment because I didn't believe I would find anything there but pain, emptiness, and boredom. Now I know that every moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant, holds the delicious kernels of joy for which my soul longs.
Emily Barrett Browning famously wrote (in Aurora Leigh, 1857), "Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees takes off his shoes."
We rush through our days with the eyes of our hears closed to Him. Stop. Observe. Listen. Take off your shoes. Receive. Savor. Be curious. Open yourself to God. He is here. Now.
To get the good stuff out of life, we have no choice but to be real -- fully present and engaged in life, with our senses alive and our eyes wide open. And life is happening right now. So what's to be found in your moment? Silence will be your guide.
I have a very specific picture in my head of how Christmas is supposed to be. Chances are, I don't have to describe it to you because you already know. But just to be clear, the picture looks like this: We are all super happy. This happiness, of course, involves snow outside, a cute snowman, a fireplace, hot chocolate, a perfectly decorated Christmas tree, a loving family, the singing of carols, delicious food, and deeply meaningful (yet surprising) gifts.
Wow, talk about an unattainable vision. It is no surprise that so many of us get depressed during the Christmas season. Perhaps the bigger shock is why we're not all completely incapacitated by depression during the Christmas season. Because as someone once said (maybe Socrates?), "what screws us up the most in life is the picture in our heads of how it's supposed to be."
My Christmas tree this year looked smaller in the field than in my living room -- the trunk didn't fit in the tree stand, so we had to shave down the outside of the trunk to squeeze it in (requiring a few trips in and out the front door on a freezing cold night). As we decorated it, I stepped on a 35-year-old handmade ornament from my husband's childhood and broke it. We topped off the tree with our only tree-topper, a pale blonde angel that triggers anxiety for me about white privilege every Christmas season (when will I just buy a star?). A couple days later, all of the lights on the bottom half of the tree stopped working, leaving only the top half lit. In the meantime, our freshly-cut tree was quickly dry to the bone -- it was dropping needles faster than we could pick them up, and branches became rapidly bare. And the Christmas presents I bought were okay but not quite right. (Did I get too many? Too materialistic? Or did I not get enough? Too stingy? Will my child be messed up because of the gift choices we've made?)
There's no fireplace in my house. The hot chocolate we make is often too hot and too rich, and our feeble snowman attempts fall over within a few hours. Inevitably, the "white Christmas" of our dreams turns to a "slush Christmas," and the family doesn't get along as well as would be hoped. We all feel self-conscious (or cynical) about singing carols, so we don't. To sum up: Christmas is not always super happy. In fact, sometimes I find a feeling of deep emptiness and despair during Christmas time that freaks me out. Nobody sings about this on the radio at Christmastime.
I am learning to expect imperfections and even despairing feelings at Christmas, and this makes all the difference in my ability to enjoy the holiday. It is an attitude of mindfulness that allows me to be with what is instead of with the thoughts of what should be. Without mindfulness, I am prone to negatively judge the malfunctioning Christmas tree lights, the lack of carols, and the difficult family dynamics. With mindfulness, I expect these troubles and am okay with them (even curious about them) as they are. And isn't this what Jesus asked of us as he neared his own earthly life of difficulties? "...in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
Perhaps Christmas is a golden opportunity for us to practice noticing our expectations, laying them aside, and accepting things just as they are. It is what was asked of the Jewish people when Jesus appeared -- notice the expectation of a political Messiah, lay it aside, and accept the gift of this homeless infant Messiah laying in an animal's feeding trough. We struggle with this. Our carols still sing of Christ's arrival as a quiet and peaceful event. But in reality, births are not quiet, especially in stables in overcrowded towns. And we still long for a political Messiah today. Perhaps we know by now that God isn't sending one directly, but we think maybe we will be saved by a different political leader, maybe an Obama or a Trump -- and we are surprised and terrified when the "wrong" political leader doesn't save us or even threatens to cause harm.
Let's practice expecting the "trouble" that Jesus predicted and also accepting that we are okay. We can (and will) have trouble, and still have peace. We can (and will) experience grief, disappointment, anger, and fear, and still have peace. We can (and will) find that the world is a broken mess, and still experience beauty and joy amidst it all. This is mindfulness. This is also Christian faith. "...in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." With mindfulness and with Christianity, we practice an attitude of radical acceptance -- accepting things just as they are, recognizing that God is with us right here. Bringing a readiness to change what we can along with an openness to being with life as it is.
If you would like a meditation to support your acceptance (and enjoyment) of life as it is during this holiday season, you might try one here by Mark Williams. Whether or not all your Christmas lights work this year, and whatever you are feeling or not feeling during this season -- may you know the presence of the Christ-child with you. "In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."
A friend of mine recently took her child to a clinic where she was taught to ride a bike in two hours. One of the first steps in the process? Learning to fall. Kids fell intentionally, learning that falling did not spell catastrophe or failure -- it was simply part of the learning process. They also learned that there are ways to fall that are less painful than others (ex. into the grass), and that they could get up and keep going after a fall.
This is a profound life lesson. Falling is part of success. We can expect it, but not fear it -- it's part of learning, and it does not spell failure. When we pay attention, we discover what makes falling less painful (ex. try being more kind to yourself when you're down?), and we practice getting back on the bike as soon as we're ready. We learn that falls don't define our identity. They are simply part of life, part of learning, part of success, part of mastery. If we're going to live life, we're going to fall.
So go for it! Go out and fall, ready to learn and grow in the process, ready to try new things, ready to be a human being, just like the rest of us. Have some band-aids ready for those scraped knees, and then hop on that wobbly bike.
Struggling to get up after you fall? Here are some tips to ponder as you practice falling:
Enjoy the ride!
As Christians, we affirm that God is good and that we can trust him in everything. We commit to listening and responding affirmatively to His voice, to saying "yes" to all that He gives. We trust that what he asks is not more than we can handle, and we know that he works all things out for our good.
So what's up with all the complaining? Humans are master complainers, myself included. For most of us, nothing is ever quite right. We're not happy with the little stuff (like the weather), and we're not happy with the big stuff (like the people around us). We have a hard time accepting life as it is -- we have a hard time saying "yes" to what is given. When God hands us a moment, we tend to either ignore it or push it away. This is how our minds create suffering for ourselves, even when we know that God is working all things out for our good.
Mindfulness gives us a new option: to say "yes" to the moment, to extend an intentional, open, and curious welcome to each moment of life. With mindfulness, we do not suspend our welcome until a moment proves itself worthy. We extend our welcome to each moment. In doing so, we say "yes" to God -- not just cognitively, but by letting ourselves experience the moment fully in our bodies and hearts.
This is confusing in the face of suffering. We live in a world of injustice. In America, we suffer a climate of racism and political strife that is fueling murder and unrest across our country. We are nervous for the safety of ourselves, our neighbors, and our friends. We know that things are not right, that love is not the norm in our world. The more we talk about it, the more polarized things become and the farther we get from understanding one another. Many of us feel tired, worn down, and afraid. There are lots of reasons to reject the moments. The problem is, when we reject a moment, we are blinded to God in that moment, and we are blinded to the path before us. We cultivate wisdom when we pause to welcome what is before us, and this empowers us to act more effectively. Welcoming the moment also gives us the grace to experience goodness in the midst of pain.
What are you thinking about right now -- is your mind here, in the same place as your body? Most of the time, our minds are elsewhere. We ruminate about difficult memories from the past. (What did that person mean by that comment?... Why wasn't that handled differently?... What if I had made a different decision?...) We ruminate about anticipated difficult things in the future. (What if it's awful?... What will people think of me?... What if I can't handle it?...) In this way, our mind creates much of its own suffering.
It is easy to believe that thinking about past or future difficulties is helpful, and occasionally it is. Most of the time, however, our thinking is unhelpful and stuck. We create problems in our minds through negative looping, largely outside of our awareness. This pulls us into painful emotions that are disconnected from the reality of the present moment. When we pay attention to now, we can often find that we are okay in unexpected ways.
"The evidence is clear: brooding is the problem, not the solution."
Thinking is just one element of our experience in each moment. As long as we are alive, we are thinking. Our brain generates thoughts, one after another, in much the same way that our hearts pump blood and our lungs breath air. The goal of mindfulness is not to stop thinking. Instead, the goal is to work skillfully with thoughts, recognizing that they are only one element of each moment. They do not control us, they are not facts. They are simply experiences passing through the mind. We can decide what to do with them and how to respond.
God speaks in many ways beyond our thoughts, and He reaches our thoughts in many ways beyond our ruminating. He is here in the feeling of a breeze on skin, in the smile of a stranger, in that first sip of morning coffee, in the support of a chair. He creates and fills the sounds of the birds, the warmth of sunshine, the reflection in a puddle of water. He dwells within the green grass, the icy snow, the wet rain, the desert heat. Each step you take is in God, each breath you take. God is always here.
"Silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God everywhere — in the closing of the door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, in the animals."
For me, mindfulness is the practice of being where God is -- here. Over and over, whenever I notice that my mind has wandered away, bringing awareness back to this place and this moment. This is a powerful psychological tool on its own, even without any faith application -- awareness is deeply healing for the mind, body, and spirit. But when you take this present-moment awareness and add an openness to God's presence, you are opening yourself up to a whole other level of goodness. You are following an ancient faith tradition of training the mind to be present to God.
God is here. I use mindfulness to practice being here too.
Happiness is a beautiful thing, a sweet and delicious taste of God's goodness. Sometimes Christians think we shouldn't pursue happiness, or that happiness is a less righteous pursuit than joy (as if these were fundamentally different). I disagree. Happiness is lovely and joyful; it makes my life more fulfilling, and it makes me a better person to be around, and I want more of it.
Lots of things stand in the way of happiness. Here's one of them: we think we're supposed to be happy all the time. When we don't feel happy, we see it as a problem to be fixed. We believe that we are abnormal, comparing ourselves to people around us who appear to be happy. In the process, we repeatedly re-trigger our unhappiness by overthinking it. Happy feelings do not have a chance to re-emerge because we are locking ourselves into unhappiness by obsessively analyzing our normal emotional fluctuations.
No one feels happy all the time. As long as you are alive, your emotions will come and go, fluctuate and morph and transform. Happiness comes and goes, along with sadness, anger, joy, stress, excitement, grief, fear, compassion... This is okay, it is normal. It means you are a human being. It also means you are made in the image of God, who is shown in Scripture to experience the same range of emotions.
Getting happy is HARD for many of us because it means opening up to our unhappiness without resistance. When I first started mindfulness training, I came home and told my husband that I felt like I had just entered hospice care. Here I had been working so hard my whole life, trying to stop being so depressed, and suddenly I was just supposed to accept it? To just say yes, I'm depressed, and that is out of my control? To lay it all down and admit that I couldn't change it? That sucked, and I wept long and hard that night.
Fortunately, I've lived long enough to know the power of hospice care -- to observe how acceptance in the face of death can open us to all kinds of beautiful things. And this was the reality of mindfulness for me -- acceptance in the face of deep despair opened me up to all kinds of beautiful things. Now when I feel unhappy, facing deep despair, I have a new option: mindful acceptance. I know how to use meditation to watch the unhappiness with curiosity and openness. The unhappy feeling is no longer a problem to be fixed, it is simply an emotional event passing through. In the same way, a happy feeling is not a state to be kept or lost, and it is not a necessity for life -- it is simply a passing phenomenon. When I feel happiness, I can take time to experience the emotion without clinging to it or striving to keep it. I can experience and savor it with gratitude.
I'm a lot happier than I used to be, largely because I'm learning to be okay with feeling unhappy. Giving up the struggle against unhappiness has created new room in my soul for joy. This process of acceptance, of mindfulness, has led me to the first consistent feelings of happiness that I have experienced in my life, and I never want to go back. I am forever grateful to God for the way that mindfulness meditation has opened me up to His joy. Mindfulness meditation, and mindful awareness, get me out of my head and into the joy that God has woven into the very fabric of our universe.
I am Irene Kraegel. I work as a clinical psychologist and teach mindfulness on a faith-based college 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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