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.
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.”
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!
© Irene Kraegel 2014-2019
Photo credit (header):