Road trip mindfulness

This month I needed to take a road trip that had me driving six hours a day four days in a five day period. Once, years ago, that would not have been a problem for me, but after a particularly trying time in the fall of 2012, driving has triggered some of my worst anxiety attacks. Several automobile breakdowns in a short amount of time (leading to credit card bills for repairs, bills that are still not fully paid), along with other emotional losses at the same time, have made time behind the wheel somewhat of a nightmare for me.

Last year I learned about “mindfulness,” an effort to deal with anxiety and stress by living in the moment, observing and experiencing what is happening without allowing it to become a burden. I decided, therefore, to try to make this road trip an opportunity to practice mindfulness. Combined with prayer—asking for help along the way, and expressing thanks for each successful segment of the journey—mindfulness (I hoped) would overcome the anxiety attached to this necessary driving.

Part of mindfulness is awareness of breathing. Whenever I felt tension welling from within, I made sure that I was taking slow deep breaths. Surprisingly, that helped.

Part of mindfulness is noticing things as they happen. From experience over the past several years, I know that one portion of the trip is particularly stressful. The pavement is in bad condition, and a stiff wind prevails from the west. The car always feels out of control on that section of the road, as if a tire is going flat or the car’s steering is malfunctioning. Usually I grit my teeth and bear with the rough section, but this time I paid more attention to the actual symptoms of wind and pavement that made the car feel out of order. That also helped.

I also remained aware of the physical sensations of my body. When possible, I used cruise control so my right leg did not have to remain in the same position for hours at a time. I scheduled stops midway through each day’s driving where I could walk around for a few minutes to relieve the pain of sitting in the driver’s seat. Merely concentrating attention on pain in my knees and lower back helped me to remain more calm, not allowing that pain to travel through my body and tighten other muscles.

I also made sure to pay attention to the scenery—the flowers along the road, the leaves emerging on the trees, and the birds circling in the air. Traveling north and south was like time travel, seeing different stages of springtime changes in different parts of the country.

Naturally I paid attention to the other vehicles on the road. For a while on the first day, I made predictions about what I would see. (“I will see a bright blue car at the next rest stop.” Well, there were no blue cars there, but a truck cab at that stop was bright blue.) By the last day, my game had become hopelessly complicated. During the last three hours, I kept a countdown of twenty-five different vehicles according to color—sixteen colors of cars, and nine colors of truck cabs. At the same time, I kept track of the yellow cars I saw, aiming for twenty-five of them as well. (They had to be private vehicles—no taxis, school buses, or delivery trucks. Generally, I counted them as private if they had no words printed on the sides of the vehicles. Yellow pick-up trucks only counted if they were solid yellow with no words.) Surprisingly, I saw all twenty-five colors in those three hours, and I saw my twenty-fifth yellow car just a few blocks away from home.

With mindfulness and thankfulness, I was able to endure a trip that was relatively calm and stress-free. I would not want to try it again any time soon, but at least I made it there and back again without a total emotional breakdown. J.

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Sunday morning mindfulness

When July began, I set seven goals for my life, seeking to develop a sense of Christian mindfulness. Three of those goals were:

“Worship services will be attended, not for me to be uplifted or entertained or educated, but for me to spend time in the house of my God and among the people of my God.

Personal devotional time, consisting of reading the Bible and of prayer, will be conducted, not as an intellectual exercise and not for self-improvement, but for bonding. The purpose of prayer and of Bible reading will be to spend time with the Lord, improving our relationship…

Because this is my personal experiment in Christian mindfulness, I will make regular reports by means of this blog to let you know how things are going. If any of you care to join in this experiment, please also make comments on this blog to let me know how things are going for you.”

Obviously I am trying to keep goal number seven, but I will do so by referring to the first two goals.

From time to time I visit a church where I used to work. Yesterday was one of those times. I sincerely like and love the people there, the building and artwork, the music, and so on. Otherwise, I would not return when I have the chance. Even so, Sunday mornings there can be difficult for me to endure. Members of this congregation brought (and still bring) a lot of resentment, frustration, and anger with them when they come to church, and they often aim it at one another. Under the surface veneer of a friendly and happy church lurks a powerful stream of vitriol that sooner or later emerges into the open. I feel the tension inside myself when I am there. As a result, I become petty in my own thoughts about the congregation and its members. I judge the preaching, both for what it contains (an occasional error) and for what it lacks (substance and significance). I judge the music, including the selection of hymns, the playing of the music, and the singing of the congregation. I judge the way people dress and the way they treat each other. When I do all this judging, I stand in the way of the Lord who wants to bless me in his house.

But not this time! When I went to bed Saturday night, I reminded myself that I would be going to a friend’s house in the morning, and I would not let anything there keep me from enjoying time spent with my friend. I said the same thing again when I got out of bed yesterday morning. It seems to have made a difference! It helps that two of my favorite hymns were included in the service. But I sang to honor Jesus, not to perform for others or to judge their singing. I picked up some good points in the sermon. And whenever my mind started to wonder, I let the artwork in the windows remind me whose house I was visiting and why I was there. For once, I left that building without anger and frustration churning inside of me.

I wish I could write as glowingly of my daily Bible reading and prayer, but the best I can say is that I have had good days and bad days. Since early childhood I have been a rapid reader with good retention, but some kinds of writing needs to be read slowly and thoughtfully. It needs to be savored, not merely read. Some days I have been able to remember this, but other days I have raced through my Bible reading and devotional reading, treating it more as a chore to check off the list than as time spent with a friend. I am still working to change this.

Along with the Bible reading, I have returned to some of the masterpieces of medieval Christianity. First I read The Cloud of Unknowing, limiting myself to ten pages a day so I could consider the flavor and the meaning of what I read. Now I am reading The Dark Night of the Soul, again sticking to ten pages a day. These texts are helping to remind me of the purpose of my devotional life, but at times I still read even them too quickly, too eager to get to the next task of the day.

Christian mindfulness does not develop overnight. It takes a long time to master the discipline of Christian mindfulness, just as Buddhist mindfulness or Hindu yoga take a long time to master. Any aspect of Christian living will take time to master, apart from salvation, which does not require any effort or practice on our part, because Jesus has done all the work for us. Thanks be to our Savior Jesus Christ!

J.

Christian mindfulness

In the last few weeks, I have become aware of an approach to life called Mindfulness. I first learned about it from another blog, then did some internet research about Mindfulness, and then was loaned a book about Mindfulness. I am only beginning to learn; I am by no means an expert in this field. Yet my early reaction consists of mixed feelings and mixed opinions about Mindfulness.

This way of life comes from the Buddhist religion or philosophy. Buddhists acknowledge the reality of suffering and of problems, and with that Christians agree. Buddhists see the origin of suffering as desire, and to a certain extent Christians agree with that teaching as well. Buddhists propose that it is possible to stop desiring and so to bring an end to suffering. They speak of an eightfold path that leads to an end of desire and of suffering. Christians find it hard to agree with those teachings. Christians are told to love God above everything else and to love their neighbors as themselves. Perhaps it is possible to love without desire, but that idea is hard to comprehend. More important, Christians are told that they are rescued from suffering and from all evil, not by their efforts, but by the grace of God and by the rescue mission of Jesus Christ.

That being said, I am not prepared to discard Mindfulness because of its Buddhist origins. Buddhism is arguably a philosophy that can be pursued by polytheists, monotheists, and even atheists. As such, it is similar to other philosophies that arose in the world around the same time, including Confucianism and Daoism in China and the Greek philosophers who culminated with Plato and Aristotle. Plato and Aristotle were polytheists, but Augustine was able to blend the philosophy of Plato with Christian teachings, and Thomas Aquinas succeeded at wedding the philosophy of Aristotle with Christian doctrine. Of the five, I see the best possible blend involving Daoism with Christian teachings, but I am not prepared to reject the possibility that one could pursue Mindfulness while remaining faithfully Christian.

In fact, my biggest concern about pursuing Mindfulness is not that it fails to be truly Christian, but that it may fail to be truly Buddhist. In that respect, I have the same concern about Mindfulness that I have about yoga. Yoga as practiced in the United States of America is generally thought to bring peace of mind, better health, and other kinds of self-improvement. In India, the purpose of yoga is not self-improvement. The purpose of yoga is escape from the self. Hindus practice yoga so that, through control of the body, they can remember that the body is merely an illusion, and that the mind or soul likewise is merely an illusion. The entire point of Hindu practices is to escape self-awareness, to become one with the universe. Reading about Mindfulness, I am concerned about a similar departure from the original purpose of the discipline into an American, self-centered, “it’s all about me” exercise that is meant to feed the ego rather than to escape the ego.

Of course many Americans practice Christianity for the same reasons, yet the origins of Christianity are not concerned with self-improvement. Jesus told his followers to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. He said that those who tried to claim themselves would lose themselves, but those who lost themselves for the sake of Christ and the gospel would gain themselves. The focus of a genuine Christian is upon Jesus, not upon oneself. As John the Baptist said about Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.”

I am prepared to practice—or, if necessary, to invent—a Christian Mindfulness, one which keeps Jesus Christ front and center and seeks service to him rather than to the self. Many Christians in the past have pursued such a path: Meister Eckhardt and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing in western Christianity, and a great number of teachers in Greek and Russian Christianity. The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”) is used as the basis for meditation in some Russian Christian groups. As an experiment, I have tried using the words of Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God.”) as an exercise in meditation. I breathe in with the first four words, pause with the word “know,” breathe out with the last four words, and pause again. It is too soon to say if this sort of meditation is accomplishing anything in my life, but I would be content if it did no more than remind me that God is in control and I am not.

I intend to try to continue this sort of Christian Mindfulness for the rest of the summer and the fall. Over the coming weeks, I expect to post more thoughts about Christian Mindfulness, about Christ and the self, and about the difference between meditation and prayer. God bless.

J.