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 anchorI 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.
Image via Pixabay
Read the entire series here.