I’ve been leading a mindfulness group for the last 9 weeks. “Leading” is actually a slightly misleading word. All I did was invite 10 to 12 friends to purchase the same book that I myself had decided to read and then I set up a closed group on Facebook with the idea that we could read in sync with one another and share observations.
The benefit of this to me was that I felt hugely responsible for having committed a dozen friends to purchasing a book! The book in question was Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. It is a classic text book by two well respected leaders in this field. This book gives 4 introductory chapters to the whole idea of mindfulness and then gives you another 8 chapters to take yourself through the course one week at a time. So we spent one week on the introductory chapters and then went through the course one week at a time. I use the word ‘we’ cautiously, because I’m not sure that anybody else actually read it!!
But I don’t mind in the least, I’d like to thank my reading group companions for being exactly what I needed you to be: a group of people to whom I felt accountable. Whether you were reading along or not, you ensured that I completed the course.
This post is simply to let you know what I got out of it. I know that not everyone in the group was able to read along: one person had appendicitis two weeks before her wedding, another person had a car accident which turned her life topsy-turvy, at least one person waited weeks before their book even turned up. Others have just found the normal stuff of life (holidays/everyday hassles/busyness) has swallowed up their intention to do this course. Please, please don’t feel condemned if you haven’t managed to read along.
I’m not sharing this from any sense of smugness for having completed the course! But from a genuine sense of gratitude for all that I have got out of the last nine weeks, and you helped me to complete it. What I most want to say to you is please don’t write off the whole idea of mindfulness and meditation as something that ‘just didn’t work for you’ simply because you were not in a time or place to fully engage with it.
Sometimes we inoculate ourselves against things because we feel we’ve failed. We decide that some things are ‘not for us’ before we’ve even really given them a proper go. I see this all the time, particularly in relation to exploring the Christian faith. People come along and ‘give it a go’ for a little while, they taste and experience a little bit about what it means to live the Christian life in a Christian community. But then Life comes along and offers them lots of reasons why ‘it won’t work for them’. Jesus speaks about this experience when he tells the story of the sower of the seed, how often seeds fall on willing soil and begin to grow but then that growth is crowded out by life’s worries, pressures, problems, even joys.
So whether it’s the subject of mindfulness, or the experience of growing as a Christian, don’t write it off if you haven’t properly been able to engage with it for whatever reason. Neither would I have you beat yourself up with self condemnation or self-criticism, it doesn’t help anyone to label yourself as a failure. Stay open to the possibility that there will come a time in your life when the changes you desire (work life balance/living with awareness/sensing the presence of God) will come about. But perhaps like me you will need to plan around your own weaknesses and the likelihood that you will give up on something. I knew I wouldn’t complete this book unless I put myself in a position of being accountable to other people. If we want to change we must be willing to take the necessary actions rather than live passively simply hoping the desired change will come about without us having to do anything about it.
For me personally, doing this course was one of the most helpful things I have done for myself in a long time. The week we did “keeping the body in mind” was the week when I trapped a nerve between my shoulder blades and found myself needing to lie down flat on ice packs for about 10 days! The very last thing I wanted to do was “keep my body in mind”. Everything in me shouted about distracting myself from the pain. I was still dealing with pain when we came to the week that encouraged us to “move closer to difficulties” but the funniest timing of all was the week we were encouraged to do “mindful movement”- I could barely move at all, let alone move mindfully!
But I did stick with the program and whilst I didn’t do it perfectly I did do it at least a little bit and in fact those very simple, very tiny, mindful movements became the first step towards doing the much more scary programme of neck exercises given me by my doctor. I have never before come through such an acute physical crisis without it dragging me down emotionally and spiritually. I can honestly bear witness to the fact that teaching myself the skill of meditation helped me manage my attitude towards pain. Previous episodes of this nature have left me on serious painkillers for months; this time I was off all of the powerful prescription drugs within three weeks.
I had come across the idea of “moving towards our pain not away from it” before. This is a recommendation made by Henri Nouwen, a Christian writer/thinker/theologian. Every instinct in our mind body and soul pushes us to move away from our own pain, whether that is physical pain or mental or emotional pain. We expend a huge amount of psychological energy either trying to ignore the pain or telling ourselves a negative story about that pain. Neither option is an acceptance of our difficulties, an acceptance of our powerlessness.
Only acceptance allows us to begin to see that even our difficulties bring ‘gifts’, gifts we didn’t want but gifts all the same. Pete Scazzero in his brilliant book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality teaches the same principle – that we should accept the ‘gift of our limits’. The gifts to me in this time were that I was able to see a number of friends I hadn’t seen or been able to spend time with; they came and made their own coffee and found nothing strange about talking to me even though I was lying flat on the floor. Another gift to me was that even though I would have preferred to be at the children’s holiday club running in my church, the team at church and several other friends pulled together fantastically to make it happen in my absence, a very good and timely reminder that none of us are indispensable.
Another gift to me from this time of pain was the opportunity and the time it gave me to focus on and practice this discipline of meditation and mindfulness. It has been like opening a box of treasure and finding so many connections to the Christian faith has added to my excitement. St Paul would never have used the word ‘mindfulness’ yet he said that he had learned ‘to be content in all circumstances’ (remember that he wrote that phrase in prison, possible the worst of circumstances). This contentment, together with a letting go of anxiety has been one of the main outcomes for me.
GK Chesterton wrote that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found hard and not tried”. The Christian faith encourages us to live in the here and now, to live with a sense of gratitude and to live with an ever present sense of God. Learning to live this way is not easy. It requires commitment. Mindfulness teaches us exactly the same things, to live with those same qualities (except, if you are not a Christian, you are not seeking an awareness of God). But it takes time and self-discipline to learn. It is something you only learn through experience.
I can tell you all about the Christian faith, I can explain theology by means of simple diagrams but until you experience it for yourself you will never truly understand it. I can understand the concept of forgiveness in my head but the experience of being forgiven is a whole other dimension. In the final chapter of this book I came across this sentence “we can tell you this (the usefulness of meditation) -we can even prove it to you with the most powerful tools that science has to offer-but you must experience it for yourself truly to understand it” (emphasis mine). I do not understand how it ‘works’, I do not understand how learning simple techniques such as focusing on your breath ‘works’ I can only tell you that it does.
Christians have for centuries recommended silent prayer. This course has given me the tools, the ‘how’ if you like, of being in God’s presence silently. I have found that it has altered and enlarged by mind, deepened my sense of compassion and yet relieved me of much unnecessary anxiety. I think more efficiently, I panic less over things which previously caused me a background sense of panic (specifically finding things on my computer). I do not understand it but I can experience it without understanding it and it’s only as I experience it that I am changed.
Eugene Peterson, another favourite theologian of mine, talks about the ‘blank space’ we often come across in the Psalms. Frequently these blank spaces mark the transition from desperation to expressions of trust. A lot happens in those silent blank spaces. When we learn to be still before God we become aware of the ways in which he is at work within us: “prayer is not a way in which we order things; it is a way in which we become ordered”.
“There is a kind of initial willed passivity in which all truly Christian creative living begins, silence and awaiting, attentiveness and adoration, a letting go and simply being here.”
(Eugene Peterson from As Kingfishers Catch Fire)