I’ve been dabbling in my expansive spare time in the very highly recommended “Catholic Mindfulness” program offered online by Dr. Greg Bottaro of Catholic Psych. And it’s awesome. I’m 2.5 weeks into 8 (and I should be 5 but c’est la vida con bambini <– multiculturalism right thur) and I’m already starting to look forward to revisiting the sessions for a second time. And I’m the least likely person who should be touting this to you, because I live much of my life in a haze of borderline panic which is antithetical to everything I’m learning here. Which is maaaaybe what makes me such an ironically excellent candidate.
Some pertinent information up front:
Mindfulness is not some kind of eastern mysticism or a hippie dippie corporate wellness concept. The term was coined in the late 70’s by a researcher working with chronic pain patients at the UMass medical center. And it didn’t exist before then. You can’t go back into the annuls of time and dig up ancient Zen mindfulness meditations. Jon Kabot-Zinn recognized some undergirding concepts from his own personal practice of Buddhism – namely an attentive, peaceful state of mind – could be separated from the religious worship and applied in a secular setting to assist his patients in their suffering. And so mindfulness was born.
But wait, isn’t that like doing yoga while saying the rosary and pretending there’s nothing inherently spiritual about the various poses? Nope. Kabot-Zinn didn’t co-opt any particularly Buddhist concepts or elements of worship and replicate them for his patients. He simply saw something that was essentially true and good – maintaining an interior peace and mental focus – and realized it could be useful when practiced in a completely secular application to help his suffering clients. And quite contrary to the practice of emptying one’s mind with the hope of achieving nothingness, mind-FULL-nes seeks an awakening to reality, a discipline of becoming fully present to the moment.
I hope that’s clear enough. If anyone has lingering doubts about the concept, recall that the Church has a long and robust history of finding what is true, good and beautiful in any culture and correctly identifying it as such. We Christians don’t have a corner on the market of reality, we’re just fortunate to be able to correctly identify it as “His” when we do encounter it.
Dr. Bottaro has, in this course, successfully wedded the practice of mindfulness to a profound Christian truth which ought to undergird our experience of reality: that we are safe in the Father’s arms. That He created us, that He saved us, and that He is carrying us at every moment of our existence.
And that is what makes this mental discipline so effective and so transformative. Because to be truly aware – moment to moment – of God’s total and sustaining love for us is to be profoundly engaged in reality. And to the extent that we can remain in reality and not fall prey to the one million distractions of work, laundry, kids, stress, pain, frustration, fear of the future, etc…is to find real peace.
That’s what I’ve taken from this course thus far: to remain in the reality of the present moment with God is the secret to real peace.
Because suffering will come. Bad things will happen. Stressors will arise. Life will unfold in an unpredictable way. And yet if we truly believe and choose to live in the experience of the Father’s unwavering care for us, we needn’t lose our interior peace.
So these first 2 weeks have been very mind/body centered, building on an increasing awareness and acknowledgement of the connection between the two. In lesson 2 Dr. Bottaro even jokes that in practicing mindfulness, we are consciously battling the heresy of Dualism. And it’s not a joke! We live in a wildly incongruent era of alienation between body and soul. We too frequently experience the cultural truth of a “separateness” between our minds and our bodies. St. JPII made this reintegration of the person – an adequate anthropology – the work of his lifetime. And so much of what ails us as a society has it’s rotted roots in the false dichotomy between body and soul.
I’m finding it fascinating as I go through my days and parent the kids, pay the bills, visit the gym, scrub the toilets, pray the Mass, how frequently I’m mentally “checking out” to escape the boredom/tedium/pain/discomfort of any sort. And when I do check out, I’m learning to gently return my attention to the present moment. To engage consciously in the practice of living my actual life, not the life I’m looking forward to at 8:45 pm when everyone is finally in bed and Netflix is firing up.
I once heard or read that God dwells only in the present moment, and that therefore the enemy works tirelessly to keep us either ruminating on the past or fixated on the future. Actually, I think CS Lewis says something very like this in his Screwtape Letters:
“…a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”
That’s essentially how I live my life. Every real gift offered to me now – this season of littleness, these cherubic messy cheeks, this house in constant need of upkeep and repairs, this youngish, healthy body capable of almost perpetual motion – I heap these gifts continuously on the altar of the future, burning them up in anticipation of some nebulously comfortable or satisfying “someday.”
But there is no such place. There is no such time.
St. Mother Teresa said it best:
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
That second part in particular seems to me to be the essential truth that underpins the whole practice of mindfulness: we have only today. Let us begin.
Next week I’ll start in on more of the practical applications of what I’m learning. But for today, try to stop in a moment of repetitive, ordinary work and allow yourself to be fully present in that moment. Maybe while brushing your teeth or loading the dishwasher or driving to work. Feel the water running over your hands or the tingling minty burn of the toothpaste against your gums. Allow yourself to connect with the solid shape and feel of the steering wheel beneath your fingers. Be present – wholly present – in the present moment.
It’s surprisingly wonderful. And surprisingly difficult. And my kids are acting verifiably psychotic this morning, so it’s deeply ironic that I’ve chosen this moment to write about it.