THE one thing demanded of us today is that we should know the state we are in. While this may not seem like a very holy commandment, it could be the holiest of them all.
We are required to know the truth of ourselves, in this moment, as we make our assessments, deliver our sermons, manage our meetings, and offer counsel or advice. If we don’t, we are potentially dangerous people, inflicting our unexamined turmoil on the world.
It is not, of course, expected that we are always in a state of virtue or self-mastery. This is not a call to feel bad about ourselves (religion needs no training in that department). But it is a call to be accurate about the state we are in, whether we’re jealous, happy, angry, joyful, anxious, irritated, hopeful, lustful, sad, disturbed, numb, content, peaceful, or in despair.
This is all that is realistically possible for us, in this moment, as humans: to know our state; to be accurate about how we are feeling. It may not be everything we could be, or what is ultimately meant for us. But it does mean that, if we speak, we speak without illusion, without mixed motive, and without being disingenuous. And that is a great blessing, both to ourselves and to others.
SUCH present-awareness might guide me away from talking, and prompt silence or withdrawal until a healthier horizon appears in me. I construct my reality out of my state; so it is important that I know what I am in this moment, because what I am is the window for the brief take on reality that I call “Now”.
With such awareness, we will proceed more honestly, more accurately, more kindly in the world. So far, so obvious. But how is such awareness possible, when many of us are temperamentally trained to avoid true feeling?
“I don’t know why I’m here — I had a very happy childhood,” is the most common opening line in the consulting room; but I cannot remember an occasion when it was true.
Or take the extraordinary lengths that people go to, to avoid admitting that they are angry. “I’m not angry: I’m just disappointed”; “I’m not angry: I’m just sad”; or, “I’m not angry: I just don’t have an opinion on the matter.”
Denial, as the saying goes, is not a river in Egypt. This is where mindfulness can bring such extraordinary grace into our lives; and it is down this path that its visceral connection with Christianity gradually becomes apparent.
MINDFULNESS is not a belief, but a process. Simply defined, mindfulness is awareness of this present moment with acceptance; and the last word is important; for awareness only arises in us in a climate of acceptance. If I believe that anger is bad emotion — if I do not accept it in myself — I will not see it in myself, however huge a presence it is; or I will rename it. Mindfulness is allowing things to be as they are in our consciousness, without judgement; and then releasing them — letting them go, creating ever new space within us.
Letting go is the opposite of clinging — whether to a physical object, an idea, a feeling, a person, or an outcome. It is not abdicating responsibility, or saying that nothing matters. It is simply noticing an attachment that exerts some manner of control over us and our emotions — and letting go of it. This is health.
I notice that I am jealous of you. I read about you on social media, and you seem to have everything I want, or to be everything I want to be. So I notice I am jealous, which is fine: no feeling is in itself a crime. But then I have a choice: I can either run you down to all my friends as some sort of pay-back. Or I can greet my jealousy as my own low-grade insecurity, laugh at the comedy of it all, and gently let it go.
IF WE cling to an attachment, there is pain. We become controlling of our environment, and we experience resentment, stress, or vindictiveness when our attachment is threatened and our desired outcome does not materialise.
Mindfulness, however, is about kind noticing and prompt letting go. When we let go, we become space for change, rather than anxiety for change. These are different states, and they shape the world around us differently. This, of course, is a process echoed in life. Before we can breathe in, we must first breathe out; before we can fill our hands, we must empty our hands. Letting go really is at the heart of things.
There is an agony to letting go, which is why we struggle with it. To let go of a thought, a feeling, a person, or a hope, brings from us a scream of abandonment. It is a small ripping of our identity, and the agony of the Cross relived in us; this is holy ground.
But the agony of letting go, whether in small ways or large, brings us to the doorway of emptiness: a vulnerable space through which life may enter. And here is the visceral connection between mindfulness and Christianity. Mindfulness gives us a language and a process for letting go; or, as it’s called in the Christian tradition, kenosis, or self-emptying.
AT THE heart of Christian experience — the lost energy of Christianity — is the self-emptying of Christ, who did not cling to equality with God, but who, in the agony of letting go, created new space in the world.
All truth is God’s truth, however labelled; so it should not surprise us that, beneath the argumentative surface, these ancient traditions greet each other in recognition around the process and act of kenosis.
They greet us, too, with the offer of compassionate, stripped-down, simple, hopeful space within us; and the kind and present awareness of the state I am in — which is all that can be asked of me.