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Noting the now of this nanosecond

01 March 2013

Terence Handley MacMath continues her Lent series on the practice of mindfulness


Look up: a helpful analogy for mindful­ness is to compare the self to the sky, with clouds passing through it

Look up: a helpful analogy for mindful­ness is to compare the self to the sky, with clouds passing through it

MINDFULNESS is technique, first and foremost. It involves meditating in various forms or situations; noticing the anatomy of stressful and pleasant experiences; identifying pleasurable moments in each day.

Mindfulness courses have counterparts in traditional Christian practice, such as the Ignatian examen of conscience and "discernment of spirits", or the practice of recollection in Benedictine conversion, in which the Christian is encouraged at all times to turn and return to God.

Gratitude is cultivated in the same methodical way as the old-fashioned keeping of an Evangelical "mercies diary", in which are recorded the good things received each day. Unlike this, however, the instructions are precise and avoid value-judgements: there is no instruction "just to be grateful that . . .". We are asked only to be aware of the time and place, the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, however small, that accompany the pleasurable experiences which we are aware of and grateful for.

More precisely analytical than the examen, which reviews experiences of the past day and evaluates them from a Christian standpoint, mindfulness teaches the practice of pausing in the moment of a pleasant or unpleasant experience to note it - without either grabbing or rejecting the thoughts, feelings, memories, and behaviour.

It endows us with new freedom to evaluate experiences with clear-eyed "friendly curiosity" rather than blame. We are too apt to ignore the habitual physiological responses. They are worth noting.

In unpleasant situations, we are all too likely to identify ourselves with what we feel is happening. This leads to self-blame: "I am always like this. I'm never any good. I will always mess it up," and so on. We think that these thoughts are valid reactions to an objective experience, forgetting that "objective experience" is an oxymoron.

It is easy to see how such thinking (or non-thinking) can actually be the cause of addictive behaviour or escapist habits - such as excessive drinking, shopping, or comfort eating - as a distraction from what we perceive is reality. This, then, sets up a different set of problems, in which dealing with temptations and addictions can become even more burdensome than the original difficulties.

Mindfulness, the practice of noting and acknowledging our difficulties with friendly curiosity and tolerance, distances us slightly from our habitual mental, emotional, and physiological responses. We are able to step back from the raw experience, and evaluate it, before "buying into it".

When it is too late for that, and unhelpful habits, thoughts, and reactions have already formed, mindfulness buys us the time that we need to realise what has happened, and to choose how we would rather think, feel, and act now.

A helpful analogy for mindfulness is to liken the self to a sky that has clouds and weather passing through it. We may note the changing weather, but we may choose to remain aware of the sky itself as the reality that is unchanging, and allow the clouds of painful or tempting thoughts to come and go, without being carried along with them.

Gratitude is a vital element of the spiritual life, and Christians place praise first in the five movements of prayer (praise, adoration, confes-sion, thanksgiving, and supplication). To praise and adore God is the human response to the realisation of God. In mindfulness practice, this praise is cultivated in the slow enjoyment of physical sensations - walking, movement, eating - or in the larger project of remaining aware of awareness itself, keeping the friendly curiosity about life, and being kind to oneself.

The perspective of the moment is important, as we train ourselves not to let past concerns or future worries shadow the goodness of life right now. The truth that mindfulness wants to teach is that the now of life - this nanosecond, and then this nanosecond - is almost always tolerable, and quite often very good indeed.

It is possible that this all sounds too self-regarding, inviting people to pay too much attention to their navels. The opposite turns out to be true. It is not possible to be properly thankful if you are unaware of the life within and around you. The friendly curiosity at the centre of mindfulness creates an openness to the Holy Spirit, who, of course, is to be found within ourselves as well as outside.

When we allow ourselves to concentrate on the nearest reality that we can imagine, which is our existential presence to ourselves, we begin to be mindful of the even nearer reality of all, which is God. We can know fully neither ourselves nor God; but giving our attention to what we can know may give us a glimpse of something deeper.

The hymn "Dear Lord and Father of mankind" expresses our desire for deeper reverence springing from a "rightful mind". We know instinctively that our exhausting desires and aversions are corrosive, and we long for God's coolness and balm.

For some, this can be accessed through the good habits formed with the help of a religious rule of life. For others, mindfulness can provide the sacred pauses in which the Holy Spirit works to heal and rebind us, and where we find the freedom to be the person whom God wishes us to be.

Next week: mindfulness and other therapies

The Revd Terence Handley MacMath is an NHS Chaplain, and a teacher of mindfulness in Christian and secular settings.

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