The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Mindful Living

Dancing in the Mind Fields

This title is a play on a sweet song by Andrew Peterson about marriage called “Dancing in the Minefields.” I tweaked it for this column as I began to consider – not for the first time – what a battleground my mind can be. The skirmishes, “what if’s,” catastrophizing, and the “innocent” worrying and fretting have taken their toll not only on me but those who are, let’s just say, within striking distance.

French philosopher, Rene Descartes proposed, “I think therefore I am.” What this has meant for me is that when I think… of the worst possible scenario, I am… bitter, resentful and downright difficult to be around.

This has come as an unwelcome “surprise” because I have thought of myself as generally optimistic and easy going. Even my niece wrote me in a birthday letter I will always treasure that I have a “perpetual positive perspective.” And an acquaintance at church a number of years ago pulled me aside and remarked that I was a “bastion of peace.” Dear heavens, if she only knew!

Hamlet proclaimed, “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Oh how quickly we can deceive ourselves – and subsequently – others about who we truly are.

I happen to agree with Jon Kabat-Zinn that it is a gift to wake up and embrace “the full catastrophe” of who we are as well as of our situations. It is indeed very good for the bad – at times very bad – to come into the light. It is the only way we can move forward I believe. Our problem is we can get stuck in, well, the minefields of our minds. So if “it” is bad, name it so. Then the real work begins of surrendering and letting go.

How do we quiet our minds so that a swirling vortex of negativity, bitterness and resentment doesn’t wreak havoc on us and others? I would advise to hold every thought captive in keeping with scripture, but I don’t actually know how to do that. I do think it’s healthy to “get stuff out of our head,” which is the advice of productivity expert, David Allen. Write your thoughts down, speak directly to others without hurting them (still on THAT learning curve) and…pray.

Other great advice I’ve heard comes from the likes of Dr. Ken Baker, for example, who offers that he has “to use the word of God to direct his thinking.” He continues, “It’s like your mind goes in certain patterns, certain areas, and if you keep it ‘me-centered’ then that becomes the focus of where you’re heading that day.”

He goes on to suggest that directing our thinking directs our living. How true and…how hard. By keeping the “big picture” in mind, he offers, “it’s like putting a habit pattern into the nerve endings of our brain.” I just love that. Our small-minded thoughts – and especially our toxic ones – can just beat us down though, can’t they? As well as those we love most.

Author Frederick Buechner encourages, “Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought…unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort…than being able from time to time to stop that chatter.” I just love that too.

And you know what? Pope Francis, who has utterly captivated me by the way, must live that out every single day. The pope, now 78 (formerly a bouncer in a nightclub, I kid you not) wakes up at 4:30 each morning. From 5:00-7:00 AM, he “prepares his interior life” with prayer, reflection and his daily homilies. Not that he is alone in this practice, mind you, but if I’m “lucky,” I get up by 6:30 AM and have 5 minutes of quiet before my youngest catches the bus. These periods of “devotions” are longer some days and frankly, nonexistent others.

What if we all prepared our interior lives before the day began – getting out of our “selves” and focusing on something or someone larger . . . quieting our minds and “making silence” as per Kathleen Norris in her book, Amazing Grace?

Norris, a former teacher, once asked her third grade students to write about their experience of “making silence.” Norris reflects, “a little girl offered a gem of spiritual wisdom that I find myself returning to when my life becomes too noisy and distractions overwhelm me.” And this, from an 8 year old:

“Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.”

Wow…at 51 years old, my friends, I can’t top that.

Caroline Watkins