Text: The idea of mindful noticing is in Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, “Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, and how they grow; they are neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28-29).
Mindfulness is all about focus. Noticing. Duke Ellington said, “There are two kinds of music – good and bad. You can tell them apart by listening.” Listening in a focused way is another form of mindfulness.
To do: Stop and listen. What do you hear?
Mindfulness is simply paying attention, internally or externally, in an accepting way. It is characterized by attention with a gentle curiosity. You could mindfully count the bricks in a wall or books on a shelf.
Mindfulness is now big in psychological treatment with therapies such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). The effectiveness has been shown through randomized controlled trials. Mindfulness can be helpful when our minds are full of ‘speeding thoughts’, we can become grounded and present and not tossed around by distracting or negative thoughts.
For example, you could try being mindful in the shower. Simply notice the sensation of water hitting your body. No need to do anything extra, just notice. I walk Truff twice each day. He challenges me to be more mindful because he notices every smell, stopping to investigate and only reluctantly, with a pull of the leash, does he move on.
How applied in psychology:
We live busy lives. Maybe you can identify with the experience of eating a packet of chips in front of the TV and not tasting a single chip. Or reading a page in a book and not taking anything in.
We often find ourselves on auto-pilot. Practising mindfulness may help to anchor you in the present, where you can observe your thoughts and feelings without pursing them. You can observe these thoughts and not get caught up in them. Don’t judge them simply notice. This can help you to be more present in relationships and have a greater sense of connection.
So a first step is to reclaim awareness. We can most easily do this with our usual daily activities: eating, house-hold chores such as washing dishes, ironing or hanging out clothes. These can be done mindfully.
Mindfulness of Breath: Use attention to your breathing to center yourself. Practice this as you go to sleep – it will help!
Mindfulness is a skill. We can identify three components: “on purpose” or an intention to focus (in Buddhism was enlightenment and compassion for all beings), then “paying attention” or attention to the contents of consciousness moment by moment and “in a particular way” or with an attitude of open-hearted non-judgment. Shapiro called this “re-perceiving” in which there is a rotation in consciousness in which subject became object (Shapiro, et al., 2005, p. 378).
You can check in on yourself mindfully. You might think of doing a body scan to check where you are tense or tight in your muscles. Or ground yourself by noticing your feet and the floor.
A useful application of mindfulness is ‘urge surfing’. I use food as an example. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and if I want to control it with diet, I need to avoid carbs (=sugar). Almost everyone has a sweet tooth and for most of you (I do not include myself) have no problem enjoying a sweet biscuit or two after church. Lets say after church I spy a Tim Tam and feel tempted. Urge surfing would encourage me to observe the urge watch as it became stronger and more compelling, but then pass the peak and diminish. Then I would be able to walk away. After church every eye will be on me! But seriously this has been very useful to help with addictions to alcohol or recreational drugs.
How relevant to Spirituality:
The idea of having a better focus for our thoughts is part of our spiritual tradition. The Bible frequently talks about the spiritual benefit of meditation. Psalm 1 begins: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take a path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers; But their delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in due season and their leaves do not wither. In all they do they prosper.” (v1-3) Edmund Sherman said, “Silence is the language of the Lord and anything else is a bad translation.”
I think meditation implies sustained focus, or discipline but mindfulness can be brief.
There are some useful spiritual practices which can be practiced mindfully. These are found in the contemplative tradition of Christianity. I have never been particularly good at contemplative practices, being too impatient to be active, but even I have gained some benefit. This includes:
- Mindful breathing. Extend the focus on breath to breathing in the Holy Spirit.
- Christian mantra such as “In the beginning God” (Gen 1:1).
This can be done with an openness to God, or an amorphous spiritual dimension, or even the ‘best-in-us’. Perhaps address the Holy Spirit who blows where she will (John 3:8).
The Eastern Orthodox Church has a tradition of repeating a piece of liturgy or a Bible verse to help our mental focus on God. For example, “The peace of God which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Notice that the verse has both protective and encouraging aspect to keep the focus on our Lord Jesus Christ. The eastern tradition has the insight of repeating “The peace of God passes all understanding”. It is a form of repetitive prayer which becomes like breathing, in and out, resting in the presence of Christ.
Exercise: Think about a life issue that is distressing, how is it affecting you now? Be aware of that area of your body which is tense or affected. Visualize the hand of God or Jesus or an angel, and put it gently on whatever part of your body hurts the most (if numb where most numb) and if not feeling anything put on your chest. Feel the warmth flow from this hand, imagine your body softening around this pain. Continue for as long as you like (Harris, 2011). Remember to speak to yourself softly and kindly. This will stop the stress hormones and release the ‘feel good’ hormones.
My favourite Geoff Page poem is about his prayer plant. Some lines:
My prayer plant is a Christmas giftGeoff Page
from 20 years ago –
a couple long since split,
gone on to love and reproduce
elsewhere – and well past bitterness.
This plant, the only one I keep,
has been their long memento.
Each night in my agnostic flat
it lifts its leaves in prayer –
for me, no doubt – and yet my doubt continues undeterred.
[And after some lines about pruning it and white flowers appearing]
each year it keeps on bouncing back,
determined to outlive me, …
At bay among CDs and books.
If souls exist in need repair
then maybe my uncertain one
is in its steady care.
There is something wonderful about Geoff recognising a kind of transcendence in the one other living thing in his unit. It is an expression of mindful spirituality – something poets do so well!
The Rev Dr Bruce Stevens is an endorsed clinical and forensic psychologist and supply minister at GUC.