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Pausing, not stumbling

22 February 2013

Terence Handley MacMath continues her Lent series

AS WE saw last week, once we are able to glimpse the possibility of the goodness that lies within us, the next steps and the goals are easier to choose. They are lit up for us, whatever obstacles we see along the way. Seeing is all; the sacred pause is the thing.

This could seem a heterodox remedy for sin: unduly optimistic, and placing the opportunity for grace in ourselves and our own ability to keep ourselves from falling into sin or running into any kind of danger. But Christians will know that the point of Cranmer's prayer, the Prayer Book collect for grace at morning prayer, is that actually we have little (or no, if you are very Augustinian) ability to do this.

Impulsive types know their sins of commission all too well. Cautious types might need to wait until the day of judgement, when they may be shown the extent of their sins of omission before they realise them. None of us can ever calculate, in this life, the real effects of our actions, well- or ill-intentioned. We are not asked to. We are not even required to be right. We are asked only to be faithful.

So, knowing all this, how can we walk safely through the complex jungle of inner and outer temptations that we are aware of - let alone the ones to which we are blissfully oblivious?

Mindfulness brings the sacred pause into play. It is what it says: the practice of bringing our attention to bear on the present, so that we do not miss the obvious stumbling-blocks beneath our feet because we are rushing towards a goal, or too dazed by panic, fear, or visions of glory that we miss the reality of what is.

Mindfulness is a philosophy and a practice that says that God is realisable only here, in the present moment. It is both a philosophy, because it sketches out a home for a certain theology of God and the world, and a practice, because it is a discipline of becoming aware before thought, movement, action, and speech, so that it is possible to weigh up the possibilities, and make a good choice.

Mindfulness has echoes in other disciplines. You will find the same pause in F. M. Alexander's technique for realigning the body away from "bad use", so that it moves with ease and without pain; or in neuro-linguistic programming, which also heals people by treating them as whole persons.

This pause is also central to the understanding that Gerald May brings to understanding theological concepts such as original sin, freedom, and grace, and their relationship to human physiology and psychology, epistemology, and addiction. Dr May practised medicine and psychiatry for 25 years, before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. His book Addiction and Grace (Harper One, 2007) has this insight at its heart.

At the root of all these approaches is the question of free will. There can be a pause (Alexander called it "inhibition") before making a habitual choice, whether it is to assume our usual posture in a chair, or to soothe the day's disappointments with a glass of wine. Here lies our escape from well-worn neurological pathways and the mind's confusing chatter.

Dr May helps people to deal with addiction, phobias, and patterns of unhappiness, by the first step of encouraging them simply to stop. The stop creates the pause, which then enables them to make a choice about what they really want to do next. Experiencing that freedom is what we might call grace.

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

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