Orthodox Mindfulness

In a culture that seems so set on searching alternative spiritual traditions for meaning and insight, I think we have largely forgotten the richness of orthodox Christianity. Perhaps this is due to over-familiarity with Christian practices: they have committed the sin of losing their zest and novelty in a culture that praises innovation and the latest craze. Or perhaps we as western civilization have allowed Christianity to lose touch with its multicultural roots, hemming it into big box church buildings and materialism. But Christianity is so much deeper than this, and perhaps even loyal believers are longing for a change.

I recently had the opportunity to take part in a four day workshop on nature-based trauma therapy, in which we focused on ways that the natural environment can provide tools for achieving emotional and mental wellness. Three of those tools are mindfulness (being fully present and aware of one’s internal state and surroundings), grounding (reconnecting with the present through the five senses), and resourcing (focusing our thoughts on the people, places, and things that we find supportive in times of need). These are tools we can use when overwhelmed with anxiety, fear, depression, and anger, and are particularly useful in calming a person who is wrestling with trauma symptoms.

Although nature-based workshops are typically presented in conjunction with Far Eastern meditative practices or shamanism, I noticed multiple parallels with Christian tradition. Given the scientifically proven effectiveness of mindfulness and resourcing on mental and physical health, perhaps it is time to dust off Christian traditions and represent them in terms understood by those searching for wellness elsewhere. Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening both internally and in one’s surroundings. It is more than self-awareness; there is an intentionality and purposefulness in pulling out of the sleepwalk or autopilot of daily life to focus on the here and now. Jesus said specifically that he came to enable us to live life fully (John 10:10). Countless other verses plead with us to awake from our slumber, to see with our eyes and to hear with our ears. God wants us to be mindful and present.

There are many ways to achieve this. Meditation is setting aside time for contemplation and reflection, and Christians are encouraged to meditate continually (not just once a day) on the word and character of God (1 Thess 5:17). Muslims do this with a specific call to prayer five times a day, and traditional churches observe official prayer times 5-7 times a day, known as Liturgy of the Hours. And while stretching (think yoga) is not typically incorporated, many pastors are now preaching that bodily position has some effect on the spiritual attitudes of the person, and that humility-inducing postures such as kneeling, bowing, raising hands, or prostration help us to acknowledge our position before God, and to connect more authentically.

Christian tradition has developed different techniques to help us achieve a more mindful meditation. Prayer beads, prayer cards, devotionals, maps, lists, rooms, gardens, candles, fountains, music, and journals are all utilized to focus thoughts on the spiritual. Gregorian chant and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, Psalms, or Creeds are examples of intonation and repetition utilized to soothe anxiety, focus thoughts, and strengthen resolve and intention. If we have been utilizing one of these tools to enhance our times of meditation on God and it has lost its effect, we should change it up! Again, these are tools for mindful meditation, and once they become second nature, they become a hindrance rather than support. We should not be afraid to experiment and use a tool associated with Christian traditions different from our own. The body of Christ is extremely varied, and Christ gave us freedom to worship in whatever way we choose.

Another tool used throughout the world to achieve mindfulness is fasting. Fasting is a practice that is intended to draw attention to the spiritual and the present through natural impulses and needs (hunger). The deliberate act of weakening the self is meant to humble the self and realign it with the will and power of God. Fasting brings awareness to our actions, both past and present, good and bad, and increases our spiritual sensitivity so that we can be led by the Spirit throughout the day. The act of fasting seeks deliberately to subject the physical world to the spiritual. Jesus makes it clear that we are expected to fast (Matt 6:16).

Resourcing is a fancy word that refers to thinking intentionally about something that makes us feel secure and supported. When we choose to do this in the midst of a difficult or stressful situation, we can achieve greater control over how we act and feel. We have a choice to act based on our emotions or to act with intentionality and self control. God gives us this control, if we are present enough to ask for it. As Christians, we have multiple spiritual resources to call to our aid, no matter the circumstances. The Holy Spirit provides guidance, encouragement, counsel and power in times of need or distress. Jesus is our advocate, mediator, savior, and healer in times when we need rescuing, defending, or healing. God the Father is our attachment figure, creator, disciplinarian, provider, protector, and caretaker. We can even request angels to be sent to our aid (Ps. 91:11). All of these are real supports that we can call upon and rely upon, not just mind games to help us calm down. They are present for us internally in the mind, heart and soul, and externally in the spiritual realm and in physical sensations.

External resources are people, places, or things outside of us that we can call on or think about in times of need. Christians historically have built built monuments, altars, and artifacts as external resources that help to increase our faith and reduce anxiety and stress by redirecting our thoughts to moments of faithfulness (1 Sam 7:12). The cross is an enduring symbol that appears everywhere. In my teenage years WWJD bracelets made their debut. Prayer journals can be used in this way if answers to prayer are recorded and easy to reference. Many of us have someone we consider a prayer warrior or spiritual mentor; just thinking about these bastions of strength in the midst of turmoil can be enough. Tatoos can be useful reminders of spiritual truths, battles we have won, or our identity. Christianity also boasts several ceremonies or rituals that we should utilize to anchor our minds and emotions. Communion and baptism are sacred rites that help us to self-identify with our convictions, with our identity in Christ, and with the body of Christ throughout the world. Baptism can be seen as a rite of passage and a declaration of identity and purpose. Communion (also known as the Lord’s Supper) is a ritual of rededication to beliefs, a reminder of identity, and an infusion of power. Both of these are sacred elements of the faith that are also resources that can be used when we experience confusion, anger, anxiety, or fear.

Nature-based mindfulness stresses the importance of things in nature that summon up certain emotions and sensations. David’s psalms refer frequently to elements of the natural world that communicate peace (quiet waters), plenty (pastures), strength (mountains, trees), power (storms), mirth, wisdom, trust, capability (animals), joy and warmth (sun), anger (smoke), mourning (ashes), life and power (fire), mercy and faithfulness (morning), permanence and reliability (rock), purity (gold), sweetness (honey), bitterness (vinegar), height and depth (sky and sea), confusion (darkness), and wholeness, vision, goodness, hope, and glory (light), among many others. It is absolutely permissible to use these elements of nature to reflect on God, our lives, our predicaments, and possible solutions. Indeed, most people receive a lot more from God on a mountaintop than in a Wal-mart aisle. The key in this practice is not to look to nature for the answers, but to the creator of nature (Rom 1:20-21).

One thing that has always captivated me and turned my thoughts to God is water moving among rocks. I love the interplay of three elements in the same place: liquid, solid, and gas. Without rocks to tumble over and swish around, water is pretty boring. Without water to rush around them, rocks can be pretty uneventful. Without air to pass through, there could be no waterfalls, or space for us to stand there and contemplate it all. Without gravity, there would be nothing to hold water in its course or pull it off a cliff. Light usually jumps in and makes a rainbow in the spray, adding color to the mix. The gush and roar of a river, a waterfall, or a wave on a beach is both invigorating and soothing. There is no other place in the world where my mind goes more readily to a state of contemplation. Nature-based mindfulness encourages us to find such a place, and to ask it what lessons we should learn. Orthodox mindfulness exhorts us to find such a place, and to worship God in the midst of it. We must not let the rocks do it for us (Luke 19:40). We can be sure that the lessons will come from the Teacher when we are fully present, and focused on him. And we will be sure to recognize and appreciate the subtle gifts he has for us daily when we choose to fully engage our senses in being present and mindful.

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