Sunday, 3 November 2013

Mindfulness or Sacrament of the Present?

One of the new buzz words in therapeutic communities is 'mindfulness'. There are many different ways of describing mindfulness. Basically it is a way of being fully present in the moment, focused on how you feel and not on future plans, past mistakes or present distractions. The regular practice of mindfulness is said to reduce stress considerably and also to alter the structures of the brain so that there is increased energy in the area (the pre-frontal cortex) that is to do with positive emotion. There are various techniques to help you practice mindfulness most of which utilise body awareness, breathing and noticing your thoughts, feelings and body sensations. Mindfulness is said to be able to help with depression, anxiety, addictive behaviour, stress, chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome and insomnia. The Mental Health Foundation website has details of some of the research that has been done about it here

There are many courses that can be accessed - in our local area you can do mindfulness training on a Saturday morning and it's increasingly becoming something that those who work in the caring professions use both to help their clients and patients and to deal with their own stress and sense of pressure.

Now, to someone who has prayed twice a day (or tried to) most of their life, mindfulness sounds very like what I have always called the 'practice of presence' and regarded as an awareness of the sacrament of the present moment. In a nutshell, this is an awareness that all we have is contained in the moment and that to be aware of this and give oneself up to it is to encounter the source of holiness and even God. Jean Pierre de Caussade in his seminal work The Sacrament of the Present Moment, says this, 'The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds. The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which only the heart fathoms insofar as it overflows with faith, trust and love.' Natalie Goldberg in The Long Quiet Highway says, 'Every moment is enormous and it is all we have. Our life is a path of learning to wake up before we die.' 

Working, as I do, in a hospice, I am very aware of the spaciousness and content you find in some people who have grasped the lessons of mindfulness or present sacramentality - perhaps 'lesson' is not quite the right word. They have learned to live their lives in the here and now, with consciousness of the depth of the present and all that offers in the way of opportunity to the soul. I'm sure we've all met elderly people who radiate graciousness, patience and a sense of 'being at home in their own skin'? It's not something that is often found so it stands out when you meet it. Joseph Campbell (professor of comparative religion and inventor of the 'follow your bliss' philosophy) said, 'One great thing about growing old is that nothing is going to lead to anything. Everything is of the moment.Now you could sit that alongside a belief that holds that this life is all there is, but I don't think he intended it that way; it is precisely as we immerse ourselves in God who 'is everywhere present and filling all things' and become aware of what God is offering us now that we learn how to rest and how to be in eternity. Time and space begin to collapse around us and an awareness of all things being one in the presence of the present God emerges. Is this what the writer of the epistle to the Ephesians is trying to articulate? 

'For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.' (Ephesians 1:9-11)

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