“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.
In traditional mindfulness practice, there is a meditation called Lovingkindness. During lovingkindness practice, the practitioner extends good wishes to a variety of people. This generally begins with the self: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” The good wishes are then extended to a loved one, an acquaintance (or stranger), a difficult person, and then to all beings everywhere: “May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.”
There is a prayer-like quality to this meditation. We are requesting good things for the world, cultivating care for others and including ourselves in this circle of care. As Christians practicing mindfulness, we can consciously request these good things in the presence of our loving God, knowing that he cares deeply for us and all others in the world.
I struggle with the wording of the lovingkindness practice. It feels unChristian to pray for these particular things - to be safe, happy, healthy, and living with ease. And yet when I look at the requests being made, I am challenged to ask whether these things are truly unChristian or whether I have simply encountered a cultural difference in the words being used. Do Christians not regularly pray for safety? (“Lord, please keep Aunt Jo safe as she travels home to Missouri today.”) For happiness? (“Lord, Bill is struggling so deeply right now - please restore his joy.”) For health? (“Lord, we pray against this cancer in your name, knowing that you heal.”) For ease? (“Lord, this pain is so intense - please bring relief.”)
I sometimes use an alternate Blessing meditation that instead holds people in the loving presence of God while offering this prayer: "May I (you) know God’s love. May I (you) know God’s rest. May I (you) know God’s peace.” This is also a beautiful practice. Receiving and extending blessing is deeply life-giving. But I wonder at my discomfort at the traditional lovingkindness practice. I wonder if this is just one of the ways that my faith-related cultural norms -- my usual American, evangelical ways of doing things -- get in the way of me seeking God’s face wherever, in whatever cultural context, he may be found. This is not a knock on American evangelical culture. Simply a reminder that God shows up in every culture. I don't want to get tripped up by unfamiliar language -- I want eyes to see Him everywhere I go.
So I pray for you today: May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. Amen.
One of the best thank yous that I’ve ever received for a gift was from a one-year-old, a person too small to talk. How did he say thank you without words? He looked at the gift for a looooonnnng time. He examined every nook and cranny of the elephant pull toy, swiveling the ears and pointing his tiny pointer finger at each color. He turned the wheels with curiosity. He gazed up in his mom’s face, smiling and pointing her attention to the new toy. He gestured to unwrap it, and then took more time to point, examine, and smile. His gratitude overflowed, and my heart as a giver was warmed.
This tiny, wordless human was practicing mindfulness. He centered his full, direct attention on one thing in the moment. He allowed himself to experience the visual and tactile features of the toy without preconceived notions about what a gift should be like. He was unencumbered by the filter of language, experiencing the object (and his mother holding it) in a pure form rather than getting lost in interpretations, analysis, or judgments.
We can receive gifts in this way; we can practice mindfulness as a way of experiencing and demonstrating gratitude to God. In mindfulness practice, there is nothing off-limits to our attention. All of life is a gift, every thing in every moment, the pleasant and unpleasant. So in every moment, we have the opportunity to really gaze at the gift. We can pause to experience the gift without expectation, without interpretation or analysis or judgment (positive or negative). We can be absorbed in the gift, long enough to experience the beauty that God has woven in. Long enough for the heart to settle, the peace to grow, the smile to come. I can only imagine that this brings warmth to God’s giver heart - us entering into a full experience of what he has lavished on us in the moment.
Here are some recent examples from my moments:
The examples are endless because the moments of our life are too many to count - the sheer extravagance of God in giving us so many moments, so many gifts, is staggering. By practicing focused, nonjudgmental attention, we receive God’s good gifts with gratitude and even with joy. The gifts are there, if we but take time to receive. When we do, we warm the heart of our giving God.
My six-year-old told me yesterday that he can go through life just thinking “oh, there’s a tree, there’s the sky, there’s a splash pad.” But when he goes “behind the scenes,” he notices how beautiful these things really are. I asked what he meant by “behind the scenes.” He said, “oh you know, just really noticing them and looking.”
Stop to notice, to really look. The beauty is always there for those who have eyes to see.
I typed out a snarky Facebook post: A quick perusal of FB this evening reminds me that everyone else is having a better life than me. Then I deleted it. I was feeling glum. James was in Hawaii. Anna’s kids had grown up into striking, good-looking teenagers. Susan got into a new graduate program and looked great in her snazzy professional suit. Alexis’ husband was publicly professing love for his beautiful wife who is an amazing mom. Jane’s family was vacationing in some tropical location so exotically cool that I had never even heard of it. *
None of these things were happening to me. Reading everyone else’s “highlights reel” in my frumpy pajamas, I felt discontent, jealous, and covetous. I was not experiencing the fruit of the Spirit – there was no abundance of love for myself or others in my heart. Things were looking pretty ugly inside.
Maybe you already know that the Bible has something to say about this common social media predicament? Coveting is uniformly discouraged, even condemned, in Scripture. We see this most famously in the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” A social media version might read “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s partner, or kids, or outfits, or career, or car, or vacation, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
So there was a pretty clear disconnect in that Facebook moment between my life and my faith. It was mindfulness that got me reconnected, following a path that looked something like this.
I noticed that it was raining and that the sound of the rain was beautiful.
I noticed that I was hurting, and that my viewing of Facebook was creating unnecessary suffering.
I chose to step away from the screen and into the present moment.
I closed my computer.
I stood up.
I noticed that my sweet husband of seventeen years was sleeping next to me. My heart grew warm.
I walked into the next room and saw my sweet son sleeping, ensconced in his stuffed animals. I felt a wave of amazement and joy.
I noticed the moonlight shining through the bathroom window. I stood in awe.
I became aware that I had a roof over my head, water piped into my house, and plenty of food in the kitchen downstairs – I felt deep gratitude for these provisions.
I remembered – oh yeah! This is where life’s good stuff is. Right here, right now, in the present moment. But I have to get my eyes off social media, off other people, and onto my own life, with mindful awareness, in order to see it.
* Note: Names have been changed for confidentiality…
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 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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