Mindfulness and the Doubting Christian: Finding Peace in Unknowing

Published March 16, 2019
(This is a shared post I think you will enjoy.) W.L. Ingram
This is Part 8 of my ‘Faith In The Fog’ series on my experiences with doubt, skepticism, mental health and forging a different kind of faith.

Two distinct threads of interest have dominated my thinking in recent years. The first is my evolving Christian faith, and the second is mental health. I always saw these two threads as separate, but recently they have become more and more intertwined. As strange as it may sound, both threads have led me to mindfulness.

Experiencing anxiety and depression during my early twenties led me to explore techniques and approaches very similar to MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), and these techniques have been helping me to stay afloat ever since. During difficult times they have been a lifeline (with something like depression, techniques like these can become a matter of survival) but I have found that whatever the situation, mindfulness can give me a better perspective and leave me feeling more alive, awake and present.

What do I mean by mindfulness?
The basic principles of mindfulness are very simple, and yet utterly counter-intuitive. Mindfulness is about intentionally bringing our awareness to the present moment by paying attention to the sensations, sights and sounds around us, and calmly noticing – without judgement – the thoughts and feelings that arise. The aim is to interrupt the mind’s natural tendency to be somewhere other than here and now, and to recognise that our thoughts and emotions are products of our minds and do not necessarily represent reality. Observing and interacting with our own thoughts in this counter-intuitive way allows us to take control of our minds and improve our experience of life.

What does an ancient Buddhist practice really have to do with Christianity?
Although the version of mindfulness that is popular today has been largely secularised, many Christians still feel uneasy about its Buddhist roots. Contrary to what I was taught growing up, I don’t think Christianity and Buddhism are in opposition to one another. They both offer valuable insights into what it means to be fully human and fully alive, and as far as I can see are entirely compatible.

Within Christianity itself there is a rich tradition of practices very similar to mindfulness, but in modern western Protestantism these have largely been forgotten or at least sidelined. Contemplative Christianity contains within it much of the same mind-training principles that are found within mindfulness. There are differences, but the basic approach is very similar.

When beliefs no longer provide an anchor

I see Christianity as offering a revolutionary way of being in the world rather than a concrete set of beliefs. I have not always held this view. This entire Faith in the Fog series has been about my experience of “deconstructing” the static belief system I was taught to hold above all else, and dealing with the confusion, grief and existential chaos this process has entailed. During the last ten years I have effectively tried to think my way through what felt like one long “crisis of faith”, looking for solid answers to construct a new belief system I could hold onto.
I eventually realised there would be no end to this search. I would have to learn to be at peace with uncertainty, or my thinking would become increasingly obsessive and unhealthy. Mindfulness has helped me find that peace. Rather than forever trying to understand and explain everything, I focus on what is actually going on around me. I am more awake to everyday experiences, more present with other people, and more appreciative of the beauty of it all.

I still have beliefs and hopes about God and the spiritual aspects of life, but they are no longer my anchor. So when these beliefs shift, as they inevitably do, I am not as disorientated as I once was. My anchor is this moment, this breath. I cannot control the nature of God or the reliability of biblical texts, but I can control how I respond to life in each moment. I am finding this to be a much healthier way to be, and indeed a more Christian way. I can be centred, calm and fully alive without feeling the need to understand everything.

Awakening to the divine presence
The main difference between contemplative prayer and mindfulness is that the aim of prayer is to silently focus on God and seek union with him rather than simply bringing your attention to the present moment. But where is God if not here, revealed in the beauty of nature and the gift of each breath? Where better to seek God than in the coolness of the breeze, the sound of laughter or the faces of those we pass by on the street?

Nothing provokes a sense of awe and gratitude like being fully awake and present to the world in front of my eyes. It can feel a lot like the presence of God.

Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/emmahiggs/2018/02

What Are Your Thoughts?

William L Ingram 
Your honest search for Our Father, God, and His Christ, Jesus, are being rewarded I believe. In my memoir: (Finding Heaven In The Dark), I illustrate many of the frustrations you encountered in “Churchi-anity” and it’s denominational, dogmatic, and holiness intellectualism that too often represents a counterfeit Christ. Not all meditations are equal and those that encourage escape or bliss are to be avoided by a genuine truth seeker! The inclination of your soul has followed the living Light of Christ in your conscience, and led you to a path of “mindful meditation’ that has blessed you and brought you closer to God. I credit the “Be Still and Know” meditation I learned to practice over 50 years ago, as a centering prayer, with saving my life from a path of self-destruction! It appears that most others that have commented also recognize the value in stillness as a way to let go of our ego and mind distractions, so we can “see” the Light from Heaven and be guided by it.

The one negative comment I read, sadly represents the attitude of holy purity that condemned Jesus for His living testimony of God’s Divine Presence. We can only pray that his heart and mind will be opened and he learn to love all those who honestly seek the right Way to God and Christ, and that his life is a beacon that anyone would recognize as a disciple of Christ even if he never uttered a word.

John Thomas 
I believe we have to differentiate between contemplative meditation and mindfulness meditation. During contemplative meditation, you contemplate on something. It could be from some reading from scriptures or some concept in metaphysics or on ultimate reality or on your own self so as to have a deeper understanding or resolution or actualization in our psyche. During mindfulness meditation, you try to stay clear of any thoughts, by being aware of each thoughts that come, identify them and let it go so as to remain aware of the present moment as it passes. I practice both and both are very refreshing and transforming spiritually.

Brad Kunkel 
That was beautiful! I was introduced to contemplative prayer in seminary, many years ago, and I know the parallels in all contemplative spiritual traditions. Yes, the mindfulness movement is something I feel is a part of what the Spirit of God is doing today to help us evolve spiritually. What I experience in what I call “mindfulness contemplation” is the divine: the God that is over all and through all and in all, and in whom we live and move and have our being. There is no end to the journey: the process is the goal. Keep it up!

jesuswithoutbaggage 
Emma, I love your phrase about ‘dealing with the confusion, grief and existential chaos this process has entailed.’ I once spent more than a full year dealing with this confusion, grief, and existential chaos. It was such a time of despair and so painful that I didn’t know if I would survive or ever be whole again. But then I found traces of hope and began to emerge on the other side of the chaos. And there I found that I was clear of the harmful burdens of fundamentalism and in touch with the God who loved me.

Kate 
I find when in my mind, I pray for, or give thanks for the person I am with, that helps me to be fully present.

DebbyJane65 
Hi John, Good reply. The Prayer of Inner Quiet (Prayer of Listening) is to center your attention on that hushed place within you where human and divine meet. Mindfully being still to hear your heart. At the core of your heart is the indwelling of God. Reading, then contemplating, then allowing the Holy Spirit to rest your innermost being is the refreshing place of His presence and quiet love. Yes, to God, the source of our being and life. God bless you.

DebbyJane65 
Prayer without God is mindfulness. Listening Prayer or Sitting In Silence is beneficial if the focus is on God. If God is not your anchor; then your soul is focused on other. Every heart beat, every breath you take….it came from God. By listening and talking to God; you are partaking of His Divine Nature. The wonder of God…that mystical connection, is His presence in every moment of your life. Heaven and Nature sing together in beautiful expressions of life that humans enjoy. God is the life-giver. Without God, you and I are nothing. Medical-minded, health-conscious terminology is prominent in our current global consciousness. Marketing and consumerism has blinded the cry of our souls. God is our soul keeper. Prayer is our connection to God. One may feel spiritually connected in mindfulness; yet it is superficial and deceptive to rely on self — although it feels good. Calming brain activity can be done using many methods. Your soul needs more of God, less of self. Prayer has been proven to effectively calm brain activity. Focusing and centering in prayer to and with God is our only real peace. Mindfulness is an activity, a method, an exercise in ancient practice; and is the latest trending “in-thing” to do. Ex: Empty headed yoga is futile. I am not a Buddhist and I do not pray to Buddha. I respect different cultures and learning about them; yet I see a huge danger in bringing some of our present day global and trending practices into the Church that are not appropriate. Yoga is not appropriate for Church. God is alive in the present moment and I am divinely awake.

momzilla76 DebbyJane65 
Yes it depend upon how you define mindfulness. Are you just blanking out while remaining aware of your surroundings OR are you sitting in quiet expectation that you are connecting with God/sitting in His presence while not actively expecting anything?
Although there is nothing to fear from just sitting as well. We are not excluding God when we do this. We are just not actively attempting to commune with Him. But as He is everywhere and in everything we are connecting and communing with Him anyway because we are stilling ourselves in His omnipresent-ness. If God is always elsewhere then one must seek Him out and attempt to actively connect with Him. But when God is here with you, indwelling you as a believer then you are never other focused, even if you are not actively seeking a God connection.