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.
We just wrapped up Holy Week, and wow was that a roller coaster. Palm Sunday, we remembered the crowds lauding Jesus as he entered Jerusalem triumphantly. Maundy Thursday, we remembered Jesus washing his disciples' feet, the beautiful, unifying words that he shared with his disciples at the first communion, his betrayal, and his arrest. Good Friday, we remembered the crowds turning on him and his violent, brutal death. Holy Saturday, we remembered the hopeless, fearful hiding of his followers. Easter Sunday, we remembered his resurrection that conquered the power of death for us all.
Amidst all the remembering, my present-day life was a roller coaster too, filled with ups and downs throughout the week. By the time Easter morning rolled around, I hadn't yet recovered from a major emotional blow the evening before. I wasn't feeling a bit Easterish. I was feeling decidedly Good Fridayish. As the pastor prayed mid-service and I bowed my head, hot tears brimmed and I was miserable. He is Risen! And I was sitting in a puddle of self-pity and resentment.
It is the Jesus who lived the roller coaster of Holy Week that showed up for me in that moment on Easter morning. "It's okay," He told me. "You don't have to feel the Easter right now. I'm with you in the Good Friday too. I've been there too. I'm right here with you, whatever you're feeling. Life is hard, but you're not alone."
Oftentimes when we're down, we think we need to get happier -- to find the bombastic Easter inside of us. In that moment of Christ's tangible presence on Easter, I was reminded that what I needed was to open up to my experience as it was -- to let Christ in. On his own Good Friday, Jesus did not spend his time in the Garden of Gethsemane rejoicing in the power of the resurrection. He spent his time weeping and asking to get out of the suffering, feeling abandoned by his disciples who couldn't even stay awake for him. Jesus is not afraid of my Good Friday emotion. He's lived it, and he lives this roller coaster with me too.
This is the beautiful intersection of faith and mindfulness. Mindfulness reminds me to be fully present to my life, all of it. When I do that, my eyes open and I see Jesus. Usually, I'm like the disciples on Easter morning who cleared the scene of the resurrection and returned to their homes, not understanding. Or I'm like Mary who lingered by the tomb, cluelessly searching for some tiny scrap of hope (Jesus' dead body) when everything she longed for was right in front of her (the risen Christ). When I am mindful, I linger with the moment long enough, and I open my senses wide enough, so that I see Jesus standing in front of me, no matter how I'm feeling. My pausing and opening creates the opportunity to hear my name like Mary did, to recognize that all I need is right in front of me -- that Christ is risen, and Christ is present through it all. I must only pause, open, and listen for my name.
Mindfulness, at the heart of it, is about listening -- listening to our present-moment experience in a way that allows us to be fully awake to life. Because God infuses each moment with Himself, we have the opportunity to encounter God in this type of life-listening. When we are listening in the moment, we can hear God.
God's voice fills the universe, and when we listen to any agent we are potentially listening to God. - The Listening Life (p 62)
McHugh reminds us of God's listening nature toward us. And he casts a vision of a listening church, "a place where leaders listen to followers, adults listen to children, men listen to women, the majority listens to the minority, the rich listen to the poor, and insiders listen to outsiders" (p 203). He urges us toward a stance of listening towards those we love and those who have hurt us, those we think we know and those we don't know at all. He highlights the role of attending carefully to our thoughts, emotions, and bodies if we are to grow personally and to love others well. He encourages an open and gracious stance toward all of life's moments, toward the pain as well as the joy, noting that "loving your enemies will also mean learning to love the enemy voices in your head" (p 181). McHugh manages to be gentle, kind, and funny, while also motivating his reader toward growth and transformation.
We learn how to listen because we want to learn how to love.
The Listening Life is a beautiful book, inspiring in its simplicity and depth. Read it! You will not be disappointed. Or if you are, simply observe that emotion with curiosity and openness to your experience, just as it is in the moment. Perhaps God will be speaking to you :).
In the Lenten service I attended this morning, a man I don't know smeared ashes on my skin and told me “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Our familiarity with this ancient phrase might lead us to romanticize these words of Ash Wednesday as poetic, but let’s be honest about what this person was saying to me: ‘You are going to die and your body will turn into dirt.’ We typically wouldn't say this to our worst enemy. So why would I intentionally seek out someone to tell me this once a year? And even allow this person to smear dirt on me, in case there might be any confusion about exactly what my body will turn into?
Death is a reality that smacks us in the face every time it comes around. It has a way of taking us off guard, sneaking up on us, despite it being one of the only things in the world that is for sure. We don't know when it will come, we only know that there is no avoiding it. I will die. My body will turn into dirt. I am dust.
I have been contemplating the implications of this reality, this inevitability of death. How can our life be informed by our inevitable death? How then should we live? Jesus tells us.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?" (Matthew 16:24-26)
Life in this body is not something to try and save. I am not to hold onto my life, not that I can live forever anyway. There is not a breath I take, not a moment I am given, that is not a gift from the Creator. This breath...and then this one...and then this one... Each given directly from God, loaned to me during my time on earth. I am a person with a body only because that's how God set things up for me, for now. Remembering my mortality sets me back into my proper place as the creation, not the Creator.
This can be terrifying, and it can also be freeing. It can free me up to live small in the world, to focus on being rather than to doing. It can free me up to accept the gift of each moment with nothing to prove. Remember that you are dust.
This can be terrifying, and it can also be humbling. That self-righteous attitude I'm carrying around? That anger I harbor toward my neighbor? That pride I feel about my accomplishments, and that fear I feel of failure? Remember that you are dust.
This can be terrifying, and it can also be invigorating. Life is a terrific adventure. We live in these incredibly fragile, incredibly strong bodies -- jars of clay. Within us lives the Holy Spirit of God. Indwelling our dust is God himself. God loves this dust, enough to join in the dusty adventure on earth himself for a time 2000 years ago, enough to inhabit our jars today. Remember that you are dust.
Let's live with honesty about our lives, about our deaths. Know that we are jars of clay, made not of our own hands. Let's be fully mindful of each moment that we can, knowing that there is no joy in trying to hold on forever to this perishable life. Drink of each moment as it comes, and find that which is deeper than these bodies of dust--God's spirit deep within, sustaining us throughout this life and the life to come.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It's a snowy day, frigid cold, and the wind is flailing icy flakes against my face. I walk quickly along the sidewalk, shoulders hunched over, chin tucked down into my scarf, hands shoved into my pockets. Arriving at the bus stop, I huddle with the other passengers as we wait for our ride. We all turn our heads to the left, staring intently at the point in the road where the bus will first be seen, as if we can will the bus into being just with the intensity of our gaze. My mind inevitable wanders to all the other things I could be doing with this time of waiting, finding opportunity to berate myself for not getting life quite right. Despite all the challenges, this is a familiar scene to me, comforting in its commonness.
I often chuckle during these wintry busing experiences at the wasted effort. The quick walk, the hunched shoulders, the tucked chin, the shoved hands, the eyes searching for the bus -- the strain. These auto-pilot reactions of my body (often with auto-pilot thoughts of "this is miserable, I've gotta' get out of this") actually do nothing to reduce the unpleasantness of my experience. They simply increase the strain. So now I am cold AND physically tense, guarded against the mild unpleasantness of cold weather and unpredictable transportation with enough force to stop a mac truck. My mind's wandering through the other places I can be does nothing to change the reality that I am HERE. It simply adds unhappiness to my experience, a sense of dis-ease. A strain.
This strain, this wasted effort, is ubiquitous in our human experience. We tense ourselves in resistance to all types of mild (and major) discomforts, real or imagined. In doing so, we add to our suffering unnecessarily. When I practice yoga, I find muscles contracted that have no role in a pose. When I lay awake on a sleepless night, I find my forehead creased with tension. When my child acts up in public, I find my mind fixated on what his next behavior will be. When my spouse appears tired, I find my defenses on high alert because he might be mad at me. These are all real-life challenges that only become more challenging through my resistance. In some ways, these are challenges largely because of my resistance.
Mindfulness meditation gives us an opportunity to notice the resistance to our experience, to notice the strain. Occasionally that strain is helpful. More often, it's not. And we can choose to let go of the strain against how things are. We can choose to be friendly with our life experiences exactly as they are, to be open to ourselves exactly as we are. I can't control the wintry weather, but I can choose to walk with my shoulders relaxed and my head high, with my hands at my sides and my thoughts curious about the moment. Will I be any less cold? Probably not, but I certainly won't be any colder. And having given up the strain, I will be giving myself a chance to enjoy the moment given to me by God. Yes, our God dwells even in the icy snow flakes and winter winds -- there is nowhere we can go from his presence (Psalm 139). So let's be mindful of the resistance, let go of unnecessary strain, open ourselves up to the moment, and see if we catch a glimpse of God in what we find there.
Christmas is an oddly frenetic time. Sometimes I am amazed that the most basic of Christmas traditions in America can be accomplished by anyone. (Seriously, Christmas trees are a lot of work!) And yet the refrains of the season highlight our communal heart's longing for LOVE, JOY, and PEACE. The fruit of the Spirit.
...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. Galatians 5:22-25
Fruit is not produced on a tree by sheer force of will. We must make the conditions right and tend to the soil. Fruit trees need to be planted in the right climate, and then they need sunlight, water, healthy soil, and protection from damage. They also need pruning.
I really want peace, love, and joy this year. I can't make that happen for the whole world, but I am learning how to make the conditions right in my own heart. Here are some of the ways that I aim to cultivate a healthy "Spirit fruit tree" this Christmas season:
Peace, love, and joy are God's fruit, not my own. When I create these spaces and rhythms for abiding in God, His fruit has an opportunity to grow.
You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:3-5
I encourage you to give yourself time and space to observe the health of your fruit tree during this Christmas season. Notice which Christmas activities are facilitating openness to God's Spirit, creating healthy conditions for fruit production, and which activities are blocking you from opportunities to abide in God's Spirit. When we pay attention to God's presence, He will produce His fruit: love, joy, and peace.
I've got a perfect body.
What comes to your mind when you hear this statement? It's actually a lyric from a Regina Spektor song (Folding Chair) that goes like this:
I've got a perfect body, though sometimes I forget
Eyelash functionality is probably not what you thought of when you heard perfect body :). We're used to thinking of perfect bodies in terms of largely unattainable goals related to weight, height, facial features, and skin type. Lots of time and money is spent convincing us that we can and should reach for these unattainable goals... that our bodies need to be different than they are in order to be beautiful... that if we could just change our bodies, we would find the love that we long for.
But wow, have you ever noticed how your eyelashes catch your sweat? I never had until I heard this song. Eyelashes are downright amazing. They shield the eye from irritation and infection, alert the eye to close when a foreign object is too close, filter out sunlight, and reduce evaporation of moisture in the eye by diverting air flow. They provide a home for tiny mites that clean follicles and prevent stys. Eyelashes regenerate themselves within two months when they fall out, and they are connected with numerous other systems in the body that keep our bodies healthy and functional. Eyelashes are amazing.
I don't know all of those eyelash facts by heart, and I had to ask for help from my friend Google to find them. When I googled "how eyelashes work," the first page of search results included two sites about how eyelashes work and eight sites telling me how to change my eyelashes. In case you're interested, options include growing them longer (eyelid massage anyone?), adding extensions (for up to $500), dying them (with a possible side-effect of blindness), or perming them. (Perming eyelashes?!)
This is the world we live in. There is nothing about our bodies that is safe from critique and suggestion -- we are bombarded with tips about how to change so that we can be more beautiful and lovable. Sadly, there are not a lot of articles out there that recommend admiring your body as it is because it's already beautiful and amazing. There are not a lot of photo shoots highlighting the miraculous functionality of your body, but plenty offering up aspirational images of what your body "should" look like to be worth having around.
So let me be one voice proclaiming the truth about this temple that God created for His Spirit to dwell in (1 Cor. 6:19). YOUR BODY IS AMAZING. Your body is perfect. Just as it is. For a taste of what this glorious reality feels like, I recommend some mindfulness practice. Do a body scan meditation that gets you in touch with the sensations of your body, one area at a time -- noticing "what sensations are present for you in the toes, on the bottom of the foot, inside of the foot..." Do a sitting practice that allows you to observe the amazing phenomenon of your body breathing itself, moment by moment, without any instruction whatsoever from your conscious brain. Do a lovingkindness practice in which you train your mind to turn toward yourself (body and all) and others with kindness and compassion. Get curious, be open, embrace your body as it is in each moment. The eyelash is not the only amazing feature that your body has -- who knows what else you might discover with a little mindfulness practice? And when you discover that amazing thing, don't forget to be open to any simple appreciation that might arise in that moment for the amazing body that God has given you.
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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