Friday, 8 August 2014

Mindfulness and Identity

                                                    St. Mary Magdalene by Pietro Perugino

I keep the Lord in mind always.
Psalm 16:8

There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action
Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade

#Mindfulness is something that you may well find trending on Twitter from time to time. This is because it has become a fashionable lifestyle accessory for some Western elite groups. The name and to some extent the technique have been borrowed from Buddhism and put to the kind of use that might make actual Buddhists shudder. Hash-tag Mindfulness is a way of making you more effective at what you do, so that a #mindful arms dealer will be able to sell more arms or a #mindful manufacturer of equipment for torture will make more exquisitely painful products than their less #mindful rivals. As a Christian I don't know whether to be sorry that once again our Western elites have bypassed a perfectly good and ancient Christian tradition of mindfulness to seek out an exotic alternative or be glad that we have not experienced such a shameful abuse of a concept that aims at so much more than being the mental equivalent of jogging or going to the gym.

As a business strategy #mindfulness aims at changing how you do what you do, as a Buddhist one it aims at changing how you perceive the nature of reality. The basic idea is to spend time in being still so that you are only aware of the present moment. Brooding over the past, worrying about the future are let go off and you focus only on now, you become aware of your breathing, of your body, of your self as you are and not the self compounded of your imagination and anxieties. Time spent doing this overspills as it were into the rest of your life so that when you undertake a task it is the task alone that absorbs you, distracting concerns about anything outside of the moment are left behind. Business Reporter quotes a CEO on the benefits of this the ability to concentrate on one thing, and not get distracted. There’s no point in getting stressed about things you can’t control, they key is learning to understand that. Alternatively-

In mindfulness, we see things as they really are. The Venerable Gunaratana writes that our thoughts have a way of pasting over reality, and concepts and ideas distort what we experience.
 Mindfulness sees the true nature of phenomena. In particular, through mindfulness we directly see the three characteristics or marks of existence -- it is imperfect, temporary and egoless.
#Mindfulness helps to increase profitability but is derived from an approach which suggests that the drive to succeed materially in this material world is a deceitful illusion. A technique has been entirely ripped out of its context and applied to ends which are antagonistic to its beginnings. A Christian Mindfulness will have an effect upon what we do and what we perceive because it aims to fundamentally transform who we are, to change our identity. In this sense it too is antagonistic to #Mindfulness, Buddhist Mindfulness, of course would also have an effect of changing who we are but I will leave its practitioners to argue their case while I advance a Christian one.

The most important part of any moment, and of all our moments, is the relationship which we have with God and the relationship that God has with us. Derived from that the second most important part of any moment, and of all our moments, is the relationship which we have with our neighbours. To be mindful of these things continually is one of the aims of a Christian mindfulness. As I have already identified there is both an external aspect, what we do, and an internal aspect, what we perceive and who we are, to this. The two things are related and, as it were, feed off each other. Part of the relationship has been described in this way by the Buddha-

What we are is the result of what we have thought,
is built by our thoughts, is made up of our thoughts.
If one speaks or acts with an impure thought, 
suffering follows one, 
like the wheel of the cart follows the foot of the ox.
Dhammapada 
And by Jesus like this-
"The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person
Matthew 15:18-20

By 'thoughts' and 'heart' our Lord and Sakyamuni clearly mean something different from what we normally ascribe to these words. The mind as the seat of the discursive intellect, the heart as the seat of the emotions are both implicated in what we do and so is the rest of the apparatus which we use to respond to the world and to ourselves. We might think of 'ego' or 'psyche' as being words which describe the concepts which are being referred to. In any event there is a further dimension, thought or feeling precedes action but the effect of acting especially a frequently repeated action is to alter the things which we think and the feeling which we feel. A negative feedback loop is set up if we continually do harmful things then we will be ever more inclined to do more of them more often. Or a virtuous spiral is entered into if we do positive things we shall be ever more inclined to do more of them more often and so rise towards ever greater perfection. Aquinas said a habit of virtue cannot be caused by one act, but only by many.

We have more control over our internal environment than over our external one. Although you may think that this is a truism it is worth dwelling over for a moment. A great many people who are aware that they are 'worriers' prone to living in a semi-permanent state of anxiety are resigned to the fact that that is the way they are and that there is nothing they can do about it so they focus almost exclusively on trying to manage their external environment to reduce the number of anxiety producing situations. We do have basic personalities and there is indeed only so much that we can do to change that, although all things are possible to God, but that does not mean that we can do nothing. It is not a sin or a personal failure to be plagued by anxiety nor is there anything wrong with seeking to alter that by medical means such as medication but neither should we abandon all hope that internal changes can be brought about which, at least from time to time can significantly ease the burden that we bear.

In the internal environment which we inhabit we are not alone unless we choose to be, we can kill the presence of the Spirit by mortal sin, and so any practice of mindfulness should begin with our relationship not to our body but to our God. The psalmist words at the top of the page could be more literally rendered as I keep the Lord always before me If you stop everything which you are doing and thinking and simply become aware of the presence of the Lord within you, within your breathing, within every beat of your heart, within your silence and your noise, within your focussed mind and your dispersed one then you enter into a perception of the one thing necessary so that all the other things may exist at all. Your awareness of self becomes a felt, in the heart, and perceived, in the mind, awareness that firstly before all else your self is relational. You exist to be in relationship not to be autonomous. Moreover, since the same God is equally present to all then your relationship with Him necessarily includes the truth that you exist to be in relationship with each person in whom He is to be found ie everyone. The Lord is always before you in the double sense that He is always directly present to you as Himself and indirectly present to you in others. Actually you could extend the principle to include His presence in all that He has created but if I did so it would make this blog absurdly long. It may be easier to get a handle on this double sense if rather than being present to an abstract notion of God you make yourself present to Jesus who is fully human and fully God and who took on His humanness through Mary precisely as a consequence of the Divine Love for those in whom He dwells.

Relationships can begin without words and once begun can pass at times beyond words but communication is essential to any relationship and humans normally use words as an unavoidable part of that process. It therefore follows that to be mindful of the relationship which we have with our Lord and to help its growth and development we need to use words. But if our primary purpose is awareness of the truth of that Divine Presence we cannot achieve that by continually using our discursive mind to work out what to say next. Christian tradition suggests that during periods of contemplative prayer (which is to Christians what mindfulness is to Buddhists) we should use a small number of words frequently repeated. These are not magic formulae which will summon the Divinity or automatically raise our consciousness to new levels. They are ways of expressing essential truths about Him about whom we are becoming increasingly aware. The phrase or word which we use must, then, bring some facet of Him before the eyes of our heart. Every time we use a word or group of words in their train comes the associations which we personally have with those words. This may be an emotional memory or an event or an idea or some combination of these and other things beside. The more we focus on what we say the more associations come with it but even the least attention suffices to introduce these associations however slightly into our heart. And since we are sharing all those associations with our Lord He responds to us at a deep level and so adds new meaning and dimension to the words and associations, He creates in fact new associations. It is a fruitful process because each new encounter adds new associations and/or a deeper level of meaning to existing ones.

Much of the focus of #mindfulness in its business variety is on breathing and posture, in its Buddhist and Hindu original model it is additionally on a mantram. From a Christian point of view there is no harm in associating your prayer with your breathing or paying attention to your posture so long as you recall that these physical acts are strictly secondary considerations to what is primarily a spiritual relationship with God. If they help, thats fine. If they don't help, thats fine too. If sometimes they help and sometimes they don't well, guess what, that's absolutely fine as well. There is a Christian technique, hesychasm, associated with monks in the Orthodox tradition which firmly linked the Jesus Prayer with breathing and posture but never considered these as more than making someone more able to respond to the gifts of Grace which God sends and it is Grace which is the true motor of contemplation not this or that mechanical method.

So far so hypothetical. Of what would a period of Christian mindfulness/contemplation consist? I can only really speak to my own experience. I usually try to do this first thing in the morning (first thing means after ingesting caffeine nothing is possible before this.) I read from the Scriptures, always finishing with something from the Gospel. I then get myself into a comfortable position. I usually remain motionless but I'm not sure how helpful or otherwise that is, its just what I do. I make a bridge from everything else into contemplation usually by saying the Our Father. Then much depends upon the state of my psyche at the time of starting. Sometimes I am aware that I am in a good condition to concentrate well so I restrict myself to two words. I inhale silently saying 'Jesus' and exhale saying 'Mary' (I appreciate some Christians will be shocked at introducing Mary at this point but I will come to that later.) Sometimes if I am more scatter brained I will use a longer form of word such as 'gentle heart of Jesus, I trust in you.' I loosely associate that with my breathing but it really doesn't matter much whether I do or I don't. The benefit of the longer form is that it gives me more aspects to attract my attention too. When my mind wanders, as it often does, I find it easier to draw it back to a group of concepts, gentleness, the heart, Jesus, trust, than to only one or two. As an aside I never worry about my mind wandering, it is more distracting to get annoyed by distractions than it is to just accept that they are going to happen and just patiently re-directing your self back to the words as soon as you realise that you have been mulling over what to have for lunch instead of the gentle heart of Jesus.

There are a couple of physical things which I find to be genuinely helpful. One is not closing my eyes. Your level of consciousness alters depending on whether you are seeing or not seeing and it seems to me that you are more likely to go of into dreamy states which are pleasant but unproductive if you keep your eyes shut. Buddhist and Hindu techniques usually involve half open eyes more or less focussed on the tip of your nose. I find this unhelpful partly because I have a short nose and go cross-eyed trying this at home but more seriously because I am not seeking to look inward as such but to look towards the Lord who certainly inwardly present but is by no means confined to my internal environment. I find then that looking at an Icon while I pray is helpful both to keep bringing me back from wandering and to remind me that its really not all about me.It's not necessary to always use the same selection of words, God has an infinite variety of facets and we have a huge variety of moods and levels of awareness and so on. Using a few words from the Scripture we have just read or one that comes into our mind before we start praying might be good or selecting from the range of short prayers recommended by the Church or constructing one for ourselves that particularly speaks to our own relationship with God might all be suitable. What is important though is not to keep chopping and changing in the middle of a period of prayer because then it is your discursive mind which is dominant not your listening to our Lord. You are adding a conscious distraction to the involuntary ones which anyway assail you.

What has this to do with changing Identity? Well, it can happen in two ways one of which is potentially adaptable to people without faith as being a fruit of technique and one of which flows from the relationship of the lover with their Beloved. When talking about #mindfulness I mentioned the overspill effect of being able to concentrate on one thing. If you were to practice #contemplation then the overspill would relate to the content of your contemplative session. Holding in your mind for about 20 or 30 minutes a series of words or images with associations to them is not something that will remain confined to that part of the day. The more often you do it the more likely your mind is to revert to these words or images throughout the day. The longer you do it the more frequently this is likely to happen. I have held to this practice for some time and find myself reverting to my prayer words hundreds of times a day, when walking, when waiting for a bus, when eating. It doesn't need to be a prolonged thing, I can look up from a book to check the time and between looking up and looking down the words will have run through my mind. They can pop up while I am working or having a conversation without impinging on my ability to concentrate. Writing about the Jesus Prayer the author of The Way of a Pilgrim referred to this as self-acting and continuous prayer. I can't pretend that it is continuous in my case but it is certainly self-acting. Of course I choose to contemplate the objects of faith so by frequently calling into my mind my associations of Jesus (and Mary) I am invoking a set of values to do with love, kindness, gentleness, patience, humility and so on. This in turn has an immediate impact upon my behaviour, I cannot think of Jesus (or Mary) and yell at someone at the same time for example. And as my behaviour is modified many times a day so symbiotically my personality and self image change with it with a cumulative effect as the years go on. It would certainly be possible, of course, to substitute non-faith based words and concepts to contemplate and frequently recur to. The effect on your identity would depend upon the concepts you chose but that it would have an effect is fairly certain, as the Buddha pointed out, you become what you think.

From a Christian point of view this process is an auxiliary benefit. The aim is is not to become a what but to become a whom, you become whom you contemplate. As St Paul put it yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20) and All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18) That is, we do not contemplate our Lord (just) because He is a really cool dude.  We enter into a relationship with Him that we might, by Grace, be transformed by Him or more accurately that we might be united to Him so that being one with Him His thoughts are our thoughts, His deeds our deeds, we identify with Him in such sort that our Identity becomes indistinguishable from His. God became Man by nature that Man might become God by participation. The more we are mindful of Him the more we ourselves have the mind of Christ Jesus (cf 1 Corinthians 2:16.)

Finally, a word about Mary, the mother of Jesus. One thing to bear in mind about contemplation, everybody is different. Some people just don't benefit from it at all. Some people find that they have no difficulty focussing on God as an abstract concept. Some find that contemplation comes most easily to them in relation to the Sacraments of the Church and will contemplate best in the presence of the Consecrated Host. Yet others find that the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of the Passion is all that they desire. But that does not exhaust the possibilities. Many remember that our Saviour is also the Just Judge who will condemn unrepentant sinners on the last day. This can set up a barrier to contemplation if, like me, you have a good deal to fear from the Just Judge. Mary, however, is a perfect mirror of the Divine qualities which she has received as a gift from God. Justice and punishment are reserved to Himself but mercy, kindness, gentleness and the tenderness of a mother shine forth in our Lady. In contemplating her who in her turn uninterruptedly contemplates her Son we see those aspects of Him which will most encourage and strengthen us if we are weak. And so having recourse to Mary is the ladder that God extends to the most feeble and inadequate members of His flock of whom I am one. Indeed so keen is He to recruit to His Kingdom such folk He has even established a dedicated form of contemplation, the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin, through which Jesus can be viewed through the eyes of Mary. And for all the success of #mindfulness it is still the Rosary which is far and away the most popular form of meditation practised in the West, long may it remain so.        

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