Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Be aware, be very very aware!

In previous posts on this blog I have extolled what I believe to be the potential of using mindfulness in general and mindful meditation in particular to enhance one's spiritual life (popularly referred to as spiritual formation). The goal of spiritual formation (or as Dallas Willard calls it - spiritual trans-formation) is to transform one's character into the character of Christ. This involves a transformation in thoughts, desires, behaviors, and ways of relating to God and others.

I have heard it said (though it may only be a legend) that when Michelangelo was asked how he created his famous statue of David, he stated, " It is easy. Just chip away the stone that does not look like David." I propose that spiritual trans-formation is a daily moment-by-moment process orchestrated by the Holy Spirit's chipping away all that is not Christ. Our one and only responsibility in this endeavor is to be available and responsive to this 'chipping away' process. But how we do this is the question. I believe it is through an enhanced awareness. After all, how can you change what you are unaware of? Awareness, it seems to me, is a primary way to be available to the Holy Spirit's desire and power to create change in us. Without it, we have a tendency to be 'auto-pilot' responders. Let me explain.

Suppose I have a lustful thought (remember this is just hyperbole). My auto-pilot tendency is to splash some color on the thought to make it more vivid in my mind. Then I may chase the thought, following it through all the twists and turns it may take me. The potential result is captured in James:1:14-15

                            But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire                                            Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it
                            is fully grown, brings forth death (ESV).

James uses a fishing metaphor here. When I was a boy, my father would take me bass fishing with him occasionally. He had a favorite fishing hole in this tiny cove on a lake in the piney woods of East Texas. I remember that his favorite lure was called the "tiny topwater."  When he cast it out and began to slowly reel it back in, this brightly colored and feathered lure would splash just across the surface of the water. Those unsuspecting bass, laying down in their protective environs would see that delectable looking morsel and be "lured" out of their hideaways. And when they went to take a nibble, they were hooked! Fish fry!

We can be lured by our auto-pilot tendencies. It could be said that this auto-pilot responding is a  function of one's sin nature and learning from others' sin natures (Deut. 5:9-10). The solution to auto-pilot tendencies is moment-by-moment awareness. And this is where mindful meditation practices come in. Probably, one of the most frequently mentioned benefits of mindfulness meditation is the cultivation of our awareness. As I breathe-in and breathe-out, my mind has a tendency to wander (we might say it is lured away by innumerable random thoughts). Each time I become aware that my mind has wandered, I gently bring it back to my breath. And through the miracle of neuroplasticity, I create new neural pathways for awareness. I enhance my ability to be aware in the moment.

With this enhanced awareness, I can then be more immediately aware of any time that I am having thoughts, desires, behaviors, or failures in relating ¹  that do not portray the character of Christ. Mindful awareness could be proffered as a way of more volitionally cooperating with the Holy Spirit in regulating oneself (i.e., as I become more aware of a sinful behavior or pattern of behaviors, I can choose to evoke the power of the Holy Spirit in changing that behavior).

Deepok Chopra said, "a person is a pattern of behavior, of a larger awareness."  What do you wish to pattern your behavior after?  If the answer is the character of Christ, then the cultivation of awareness is, I believe, a tool you want in your spiritual formation toolbox.

¹ For a wonderful treatment of our failures in relating, see Chapter 10, Transforming our Social Dimension, in Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart (NavPress).

Friday, March 23, 2018

Can Mindful Meditation be a Thin Place?

Celtic Christians (NO!!! I 'm not talking about the Boston basketball team). This Celtic - pronounced KEL-tik - carried on a tradition passed down from the early Druid days. The pagan Druids believed certain geographical locations brought one closer to the 'spirit world.'  When the Celtics converted to Christianity somewhere in the early 5th century, these places became sacred sites where one could be closer to the Holy Spirit and receive guidance. These 'thin places,' as they were called, were "places that give us an opening into the magnificence of God" (adapted from Sylvia Maddox). Eric Weiner in his book Man Seeks God said of such places, "I dream of places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blessed moments I loosen the death grip on life, and can breathe again."
And the contemporary poet, Sharlande Sledge, offers this description:

'Thin Places,' the Celts call this space, 
both seen and unseen, 
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy

Whatever is said of these thin places, they are a place of an immediacy of experience and a hallowed space and time. 

In my last post (yes, I am aware it was two years ago) I spoke of using mindful meditation as a means of spiritual transformation; as a way of drowning out distractions and potentially allowing me to be more present and available to the Holy Spirit. As I breathe in and out I become aware of any distracting thoughts or images and return to my meditative state by saying to myself the secret word (or mantra, if you will) that helps direct my attention back to my breathing; back to a place of non-striving (Ps. 46:10) where I just listen; listen to the Spirit's still small voice (I Ki 19:12). I begin and end this season of contemplation with prayer (I typically say the Lord's Prayer at the end). I often precede it with a time in the Scriptures (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2). For me, this experience is becoming one of my thin places. I still enjoy others as well, but this is becoming a befitting place- a place of an immediacy of experience and a hallowed space and time. A place I can visit whenever I wish, wherever I wish. Is it the only way to feel close to God? Of course not! But I have found that in the hustle bustle of daily life, it is a way that is readily available to me. I sometimes also begin with an image. I see a scene where I am in a meadow lush with green grass. And I am walking up an incline where at the crest there is a beautiful old oak tree. Sitting under the oak tree is Jesus. As I arrive, he stands and embraces me with his arms in a gesture of love and welcome. He is glad to see me. And in this "God-shaped space" nothing seems to matter  so much. Being with Jesus is the ultimate thin place. For he said of himself, "The Kingdom of God is among you" (Lk. 17:21) and "...whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn. 14:9). It doesn't get any thinner than that!

As I was writing this post, I Googled 'contemplative arts,' looking for some information, and lo and behold, this picture popped up. I laughed out loud and like to think Jesus was laughing with me.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Cultivating Christian Character

When I hear the word cultivate I immediately think of gardening. The last time (and the last time!) I tried doing a vegetable garden, I clearly remember the arduous task of cultivating the soil. Thank goodness for rototillers. But as I suspect any decent gardener will tell you, it's all about the soil. Without good soil, good luck.

In mindfulness you often hear the word cultivate, both as a verb and as an adjective. You cultivate (verb) mindfulness as in improving or fostering a deeper experience (nb: in neuroscience we might say that we are making new and stronger neural connections). Also, mindfulness, as a tool, can be used to polish or refine certain attributes (e.g., compassion). Hence, by practicing mindfulness you can produce a cultivated (adjective) compassion - a more refined compassion than you might have had previously.

In Galatians 5:22-23, we are introduced to the "Fruits of the Spirit." Jesus said, we (Christians) would be known by the type of fruit we produce ( Matthew 7:16).  And so, in Galatians 5:22-23, we are introduced to nine graces that are produced in us by the work of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.   In previous posts I have offered a view of spiritual formation that utilizes mindfulness practices (and their close relatives - centering prayer and Lectio Divina). With mindful meditation, I suggest, one can cultivate a more present moment connection with God. As the distractions of life are filtered out, one can potentially be more present to experience these nine graces. In other words, as I am more present and available to the Holy Spirit, I may also be more receptive to the cultivation of these fruits of the Spirit in my life. Commenting on Galatians 5:22-23, Matthew Henry says, "By describing the...fruits of the Spirit we are told what...we are to cherish and cultivate (italics mine)." The implication, I am suggesting, is that the fruits don't come to us all at once fully ripened. If indeed I can polish and refine these fruits in my Christian walk, then I de facto add more vitality to my walk with Christ.

I fully admit that these ideas are formative. I am just now learning how to practice a mindful connection to God. But I am encouraged that what I see in my own life might be enhanced even more by using mindful practices to cultivate these fruits of the Spirit. In my prayerful meditations I attempt to be more present and open to what God has in store for me. Since I already know that He desires to impart these nine fruits to me, can an enhanced openness and receptivity to them be of some benefit? As I expand awareness of my own desire to posses them fully, might that produce a more fertile soil in which the Holy Spirit can achieve it's work? Romans 12:1-2 tells us that we are "transformed by the renewing of our mind." How exactly does this transformation take place? The verse says it is within the mind. So, if I can be more mindful, more fully present in the moment, more receptive to the good gifts of God, I can potentially experience the richness of developing and refining the fruits of the Spirit.

Wish me good luck (or better, pray for blessings).

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Method to the Madness

I brush my teeth twice a day for good oral hygiene. I typically eat three times a day for sustenance (and hopefully good nutrition). I try to drink plenty of liquids each day to keep my body hydrated. I change my underwear...never mind...we won't go there. Point being, there are certain things I do fairly routinely to take good care of myself. I'm pretty certain you do, too. However, how much do you "brush your brain.?"* Mental and Spiritual health are two things I believe are intertwined or, at least, ought to be.

Enter stage right - mindfulness for the Christian. The meditative arts have been around a long time. Eastern meditation dates back to at least the Buddha (circa 624 BC) and probably earlier. Christian forms of meditation, what are called the contemplative arts, have been part of the early church probably from the beginning of the Church, but certainly by the 6th century AD. Contemplative prayer was a mainstay of many (if not all) of the monastic communities. And some may rightfully argue that the concept of meditating was clearly a part of the Old Testament era, making it predate even Buddha.**

Fast forward to the modern era. I have already presented, in an earlier blog post, how Eastern mediation and specifically mindful meditation made their way into Western culture. Going on 40 years now we have seen mindfulness develop through the vehicle of modern mental health until today it finds itself well anchored in a number of facets of our society (i.e.; physical and mental health medicine, military and para-military organizations, sports, and corporate wellness). A Christian form of this, known by such names a contemplative prayer, centering prayer, and Lectio Divina, have followed a parallel track

What I find interesting for my purposes, which, you might remember, are to integrate mindfulness concepts with the Christian walk so as to add a new dimension of vitality to one's personal walk with God, is that currently there are some in Christian academia and ministry that are exploring this similarly. It falls under the rubric of Spiritual Formation. Most interesting to me are the glaring parallels between some of the techniques (or tools) taught in mindful meditation and centering prayer.
For example, one of the first things I personally learned in my mindfulness journey was the formal breathing meditation. This is frequently taught early in most of the programs that utilize mindfulness in their treatment modalities ( e.g.; Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction - MBSR; Dialectical Behavioral therapy - DBT; Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy - MBCT). But, I wish to point out the clear parallels between the guidelines for a breathing meditation and centering prayer (a Christian spiritual practice).

       Mindful Breathing Meditation                  Centering Prayer***
1.     Focus on your breath.                        1.   Choose a "sacred word" on which to focus.
2.     Sit comfortably with eyes closed      2.   Sit comfortably with eye closed
         and silently follow your breath in           and silently introduce your "sacred word."
         and out.      
3.     When engaged with your thoughts    3.   When engaged with your thoughts
         return gently to your breath.                    return gently to the "sacred word."
4.     Repeat for any length of time and      4.   Repeat for approx. 20 minutes, twice a day
        at least once or twice a day.  

The reported outcome of the former is the cultivation of one's ability to stay focused in the present moment and become more intimate with oneself. The outcome of the latter is to cultivate one's ability to stay focused in the present moment and become more intimate with God. This is, admittedly, a simplification of both practices. We might think of it this way: Mindfulness is more about attention where Centering Prayer is more about intention.

Alas, to my point. This unique ability that God has created in the human brain can obviously be used for secular or sacred purposes. But it is still the same ability. For me, as a Christian, my use of mindfulness concepts and tools is about intention. I desire to take this God-given ability and use it to foster my conscious contact and intimacy with God. That is my definition of a vital Christian life.

 * This notion of "brushing your brain" is not my creation, but I simply cannot remember where I first encountered it.

** It is not the purview of this forum, at this time, to go in depth into Old Testament Theology or History. At some later time I will likely re-visit the idea of meditation in the Bible.

*** This is an approximate recitation of Fr. Thomas Keating's teaching on how to do Centering Prayer.

Monday, June 27, 2016

It's Not the Destination, But the Journey

Last year, just about this time, I was preparing for my first motorcycle trip Sturgis, SD for the world's largest motorcycle rally (there were an estimated one million bikes there). It was a "bucket list" thing.  I was going to be riding from the Dallas area with about five others. I had just purchased my 2015 Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited touring bike and was excited. As I was discussing the ride plans with another person in the group, she was talking about how she likes to ride fast and wanted to cover so much ground in the first day of the two we were taking to make it to Sturgis. I found myself replying, "I'm not riding to Sturgis to get there. For me it is the journey and not the destination."

Rewind the tape back about six years. I am attending a workshop on Mindfulness in Psychotherapy at my professional organization's annual conference. Not sure now why I was drawn to this particular topic, but chalk it up to just being open to new things. In the course of the two hour presentation the presenter stated that if we ever took up mindfulness practice, we would never give it up. I decided to take that challenge and went home with a commitment to do a formal sitting meditation just two minutes a day. I don't think I lasted even a few days. And I didn't give it much thought afterwards.

Now fast forward two years. I am back at the same organization's annual conference (gotta get those CEU's) and this same presenter is again offering a workshop on mindfulness. And she makes the same challenge! So off I go again with a renewed commitment to "follow my breath in and out" for just two minutes a day. But this time I did more than that. I began to devour several books (mostly by Buddhist monks), watch Ted talks by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and other's in the Western culture of Psychology (NO! not the cowboy boots and horses type, just in contrast to the Eastern philosophies from which mindfulness emanated), and kept on breathing.

After a time (exactly how long I don't recall), someone commented to me one day that I seemed happier. It was at that moment that I realized that I was gaining some benefit from this mindfulness thing. I had graduated past just sitting and breathing to incorporating mindful living into my lifestyle. I didn't quite put it all together at first, but I was training my brain to pay more attention. And I got to choose what to pay attention to. For instance, driving the same monotonous road to work each day became 20 minutes of pleasure as I began to notice things that were always there, I was just missing them. Usually because I was caught up in the whirling derby of endless thoughts about getting to work, getting my files ready for the day, expressing my frustration with the slow driver in front of me ( I won't say how I expressed that frustration), worrying about meeting a deadline, ruminating about some injustice someone had done to me...I bet you understand. It is an experience common to most all of us who are not 24-hour-a-day inhabitants of a Buddhist monastery.

As I ventured farther into the mindfulness territory, I began to find more and more applications of mindful living to my life experience. Not only did it help me to "slow down and smell the roses," but it helped me become more aware of things I needed to change. Remember that slow driver? One morning he was an old farmer lumbering ahead of me on one of the back roads I traveled each day. I don't tolerate slow very well when I am in the fast mode. But today would be different. As I became aware of my immediate frustration with the situation (in neuroscience we might call this an 'emotional hijacking'), I said to myself, "Self, here is an opportunity to learn patience." So I shifted (not the gears of my truck, the gears of my mind). I took that now familiar deep breath. I turned up the radio a notch, and I noticed the cool breeze coming through the window. Next thing I know, I am just about to the highway and the old farmer is nowhere in sight. He must have turned off somewhere, I just didn't' notice (or care). I was calm. I was content. And, I had nothing bad to confess.

I have plenty of these stories. But I want to get to the point (hope you aren't getting frustrated with my slowness). As I have progressed the last several years with my interest in mindfulness, it has taken a predictable direction. I didn't convert to Buddhism. Instead my interest peaked in the idea that mindfulness concepts and practices could potentially be integrated with my Christianity (after all, why should Buddhist's have all the fun). If mindfulness could increase my moment-by-moment awareness, could I use it to become more aware of God? Isn't Sanctification a journey and one I could be more innately aware of? Could  my experience of prayer, Bible study, fellowship, confession be enhanced in some way by mindfulness?

Hence this blog. It is my shared journey of what I have chosen to call Christmindfulness.
I hope you will ride along with me and invite others. But don't expect me to go too fast. For me it is the journey and not the destination.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

What are your "vitals?"

In my last post, I stated that I wanted to pursue the notion of using mindfulness as a tool to adding more vitality to my Christian life. Again, I have chosen to call this Christmindfulness. The very essence of the word vitality has to do with being alive. When paramedics are called to the scene of someone in distress, one of the first things they do is check for vital signs (often shortened to just "vitals"). Is the person breathing, is their heart beating, what is there blood pressure, and what is there body temperature? Stands to reason - you can't have vitality of life if you are dead. However, being alive is not guarantee enough of vitality either. I am fearful that there are plenty of the "walking dead" among those who say they follow Jesus (I would include myself in that category in times past). We have lots of names for this: "Luke warm;" "Nominal Christian;" "Sunday Believers;" "Fire Insurance Christians."  Yet a 'rose by any other name'... I trust that no one who becomes a follower of Christ sets out to be found lacking vital signs. We just seem to miss something.

Jesus said, "I came that they might have life and have it to the full." (John 10:10 NIV). This has been termed by many, "the abundant life." Note here that the context of this verse is a scene where Jesus has just healed a blind man. The Pharisees, having heard of this healing act by Jesus, question the blind man. When they didn't like his answers, they curse him and throw him out. Jesus hears of this and seeks out the man to explain a greater healing miracle than restoring sight. The Pharisees overhear this conversation and begin to question Jesus. He uses the Good Shepherd analogy and makes a contrast between those who come to steal (thieves) and himself - the one who comes to give a life full of vitality (my take on the abundant life).

You might be saying just now, "Thanks for the Bible lesson, but I came to this blog to hear about mindfulness."  Patience, grasshopper! I am getting there in due time. But first, I want to say more about vitality. Jesus' words in John 10:10b are important to this concept of vitality as I intend it.
Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament indicate that these word of Jesus are in the Greek present active subjunctive. Since I have forgotten much of 8th grade grammar, Robertson, thankfully, explains that this means that this is an ongoing possibility ("may keep on having").
In other words we both "may keep on having life" (i.e.' eternal life) and "we may keep on having" a full life (i.e.; abundance, vitality). The key in all of this, Robertson goes on to explain, is that this Jesus is the one who sustains this full life.

Now to my point. I have dedicated this blog to the idea of having Christmindfulness.  Literally, this implies that mindfulness is a tool that helps me create greater awareness and I use that awareness as a spiritual tool to more "constant contact" with Christ, particularly through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Just as the Triune God breathed life into the first man (Gen. 2:7), being more mindfully in contact with God breathes (a sustaining overflow) life into me, hence vitality. With my increased awareness, which is a direct benefit of mindful practice, I can moment-to-moment check my vital signs.

Next blog, as previously promised, I will talk about my own experience with learning mindfulness and the resultant vitality I believe it is bringing to my spiritual life. But you have to come back for that. So, become a regular follower and, please, tell others who might have a similar interest.

Monday, June 6, 2016

How can the Christian benefit from Mindfulness practice

In my last post I made a simple argument for why Christians should not be unnecessarily fearful or suspect of something because another system of thought (i.e.; religion) has brought it to the forefront of our attention. We can think Christianly about things that are discovered through other than Scriptural means (what some have referred to as the "Works of God" as contrasted with the "Word of God). Miguel Cervantes (you might recognize the name- he authored Don Quixote) said, "Where the truth is, in so far as it is truth, there God is." If there is any truth in mindfulness concepts, then it rightly belongs to God and is potentially useful to me.

Neuroscience has brought us new horizons over which we can peer into the truth that may lie in mindfulness as originally postulated by the teachings of the Buddha. Indeed, it is the migration of these teachings from East to West that has given rise to the opportunity to empirically investigate some of the attested advantages of mindfulness and related meditative arts (i.e.; yoga, for instance).
And neuroscience has done just that. Brain research, aided by the advent of the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and its cohort the fMRI (functional MRI), has been able to show a direct correlation between those who practice mindfulness regularly and such outcomes as:

  • Decreased stress
  • Reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia
  • Enhanced ability to pay attention
  • Increased quality of life.
It is this last one that I am particularly interested in exploring in this blog site: increased quality of life. In almost all of the studies on mindfulness, even after a very short sequence (typically an eight week training regimen in mindfulness such as used in Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program), most subjects have reported  an increase in happiness and overall well-being.*
Who could argue with feeling happier and more content with their life without having to change any of the circumstances of that life? Now, I am not suggesting that mindfulness practice is the only way to get contentment (after all, none less than the Apostle Paul himself stated that he was "learning in whatever situation I am to be content." Philippians 4:11 [ESV] ). I am suggesting that it might enhance my ability to do this in some fashion.

I would like to think of this as having a more vital Christian life. And trust me on this, after 38+ years as a Psychotherapist who identified as a Christian-based provider of mental health services, I have seen many a professing Christian who did not seem to be experiencing much vitality in their lives.
Personally I like that word vitality. defines it as: "capacity for survival or for the continuation of a meaningful or purposeful existence." adds, "the power of enduring." Is this not the very essence of the Christian life? God, the Father, through Jesus, the Son, and orchestrated by the Holy Spirit is what (in a Christian worldview) gives purpose to our existence.
Working through this same Holy Spirit that indwells us to empower us to endure (the parallel Christian concept is perseverance), God thus provides us opportunity to live a vital life.

This will be for another future post, but let me just say, in ending this post, that I am interested in exploring the notion (and hearing yours if you care to comment) that training this magnificent three pound, 2.69 square foot area-sized organ made up of over 100 billion neurons through this concept called mindfulness  (which, if it is truth, then I say with Cervantes, "there is God") and using this to bring more vitality to my walk with Christ ( I am going to term this Christmindfulness, though I am quite sure I am not the first to use the term). 

Walk with me on this path, if you will. Become a follower and "keep coming back."

* I will discuss my own experience with this in a future blog post.