Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mindfulness or Whatever

"HOW DO I NOT THINK ABOUT IT?!" I often feel like screaming at 4am when I'm still awake, fuming over some injustice that's been done to me or some mistake that I've made or some huge thing that's simply gone wrong. I don't scream it, of course, because my husband is fast asleep next to me as I toss and turn for hours. How can I find this peace of God that surpasses all understanding when I can't even control my own thoughts long enough to fall asleep?

It's no secret that I have a mild anxiety disorder. Well, I don't know if it's a "disorder," per say. That word is thrown around far too frivolously these days to retain any real meaning. It seems more like I share a personality trait with millions of other insomniacs who just can't let stuff go. People who mull unpleasant facts and events over and over again in their minds, playing out what we should have done or said, worrying about what will happen next, about what we might do to fix it, about what we did to make it worse... You either are one or, like my dear husband, you're not and you don't understand what the problem is at 4am when no solutions to the situation can be offered anyway.

Now I often talk about focusing on the good and distracting myself from the bad. I've even gone so far as punishing myself for obsessive thoughts by snapping a rubberband on my wrist whenever those thoughts surface (a surprisingly effective technique). But the fact is I always struggle to actually truly and honestly let stuff go. Practically speaking, how do we do it?

"Mindfulness" is the Buddhist term for one of seven factors of their enlightenment. It is inherently offensive to ask a Christian to try and achieve it. It's the same thing as asking a Muslim individual to contemplate his baptism into Christ. (I ask everyone to please be mindful of that). And so, when such a concept is presented within a secular program or activity, like this one was presented to me during chronic pain rehab at the Mayo Clinic, we can either respectfully abstain from it altogether, or we can apply a Christian world view to it. I chose to do the latter, and here's what I found. (My sincere apologies to anyone who will find my oversimplification of this Buddhist ideal offensive. I mean no disrespect).

Very simply put, mindfulness is a spiritual and psychological awareness that enables one to be totally present in the current moment. "It is not to let what one knows slip away from one's mind," to not be distracted from the moment (Geunther, Mind in Buddhist Psychology). The most easily understood definition I came across is from a Zen master named Muho Neolke in "Antaiji: Adult Practice":
If you are mindful, you are already creating a separation ("I – am – mindful – of - ..."). Don't be mindful, please! When you walk, just walk. Let the walk walk. Let the talk talk. Let the eating eat, the sitting sit, the work work. Let the sleep sleep (Part 18).
Let the angries be angry? Let the worries worry? Let the injustices fester? No, that can't be right. Moments filled with obsessive thoughts are painful and harmful, so I spend most of my time trying to escape them, trying NOT to be in them. Thoughts about the wrongs that were done, or are being done, steal the present from me, it sets my mind in the past, or on the future, on things I cannot possibly change. And so I thinkand correct me if I'm mistakenthe idea of mindfulness is to be mindful of the real present despite the wrongs that are currently floating around our world, not to be mindful of the wrongs.

That's how we're supposed to treat all our chronic stressors. Suffering from chronic pain means that our bodies never stop hurting. The key to our survival is to enable ourselves to ignore the cries for attention our bodies constantly give and focus on life instead. Financial trouble generally isn't resolved as soon as we put away our checkbooks, but the key is to only think about the finances while the checkbook is out. 

It's the same with learning to live with the death of a loved one. The fact that our loved one is gone is always present, just like the reality of that injustice and all it's lingering consequences, but we can't dwell on it 24/7 without going mad. If the present moment is awful for whatever reason, then what moment are we supposed to be present in?? What are we supposed to be mindful of, exactly? The clock ticking? The birds chirping? The feel of the grass under my feet? Yeah, that's not really doing it for me. I don't pretend to understand that part of the Buddhist way, but thankfully St. Paul has his own answer to that question. 
Years ago, a beloved speech professor of mine (thank you, Charles) introduced me to a concept that's proved invaluable to me over these last few painful years: the distinction between the really real and the actual. The actual, being reality, is temporary and temporal. It exists only within a single moment of time. The really real, also being reality, transcends the temporal. The really real is where our loved ones who died before us live, it's also where the Crucifixion and the Resurrection took place (as well as in the actual). 

The fact that Christ died and rose for our sins, and we are redeemed, is REALLY REAL: it has happened, it is happening, and it will last forever. The fact that we have been wronged and are hurting is ACTUAL. It has happened, or it is happening, and it will not last forever. So, the "mindfulness" that St. Paul calls for is for us to live in the reality of our salvation and the salvation of the world while living with the actuality of our sinfulness and the sinfulness of others. 

Sounds great. I want to be in that moment. I want to be aware of the really real to the point that I forget everything else: the ultimate enlightenment, right? Well, I'm afraid that's not going to happen until everything else but the really real ceases to exist, so for now all I can do is try. Letting the walk walk―letting the salvation save?―is hard to do when, whether due to some chemical imbalance in my brain or some learned behavior or just some thorn given to me by God to keep me from becoming conceited, I am constantly being bombarded by thoughts I'd much rather forget but am powerless to stop remembering. They are a constant tether to the actual, the temporal, the temporary sinful imperfections of the world around me and everyone in it, including myself.

That's human. That's actual. That's sinful, and that's okay because as Christians, we know that our salvation doesn't depend on what level of enlightenment we are able to attain for ourselves. The ultimate enlightenment isn't something that I can achieve for myself at all: it's something Jesus achieved for me, something that will be actualized on the Last Day.
BUT WAIT! Don't be dragged into the belief that the only peace Christians can hope for is in death! We can be mindful of the really real, of our salvation in Christ, despite our anchors. The really real IS HERE NOW. You can touch it in Word and Sacrament: in church, in prayer, in our baptism, in the Bible. We may be powerless to make ourselves forget the wrong that has been done to us, but we can make ourselves remember what Christ has done for us. In other words, we can let go of the wrong that has been done to us by setting it at the foot of that magnificent cross.

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