Mindfulness in New Christian thought

Po Stephen Russell-Lacy
     
A bubble of air and a look of wonder.

Learning mindfulness

Mindfulness is gaining growing popularity as a secular practice in daily life. It is a coming together of the contemplative traditions, particularly Buddhism, and modern science

Mindfulness is learned through meditation and other practices such as walking and eating mindfully. It involves paying close attention to what is going on in one's body and mind in the present moment: perceiving without striving or rushing to emotional judgment.

In so doing one soon learns to notice how one's mind ordinarily takes one away from the present moment. Without realising it, we automatically get caught up in worrying about the future, mulling over past mistakes and being distracted by the stream of images, fantasies, and other fleeting and inconsequential aspects of consciousness that have been called 'mind chatter'.

Learning mindfulness requires an attitude of openness and curiosity about inner experience. Also understanding that things are as they are rather than as one might wish them to be. The spirit of kindness to oneself is necessary if one is to recognise sensations, thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable or unwanted, without turning a blind eye to them.

State of mindfulness

When we have learned to cultivate the state of mindfulness, we are able to dispassionately observe the contents of our conscious minds. Instead of treating sensations, thoughts and feelings as though they are our own, we have become aware that these experiences are simply passing mental events: ones we need not immediately identify with as part of ourselves.

As a consequence, in the state of mindfulness, one is likely to be more aware of thought processes, and neither impatiently jump to conclusions nor feel overwhelmed by what's going on around. In such a state, one is more likely to be able to let go of what would otherwise be negatively affecting one and as a result, feel calm and at peace.

Through this process of reflection, practitioners may become increasingly aware of goals or values that are deeply meaningful. This clarification of values then serves as a foundation for choosing actions that are in harmony with the person's values and goals.

A Swedenborgian perspective on mindfulness

The explanation for not identifying with what is in our mind

It is quite a radical shift to distance oneself from the contents of one's consciousness and see them as not coming from oneself.

The person's nature is such that he would be indignant if anyone told him that his thoughts and desires...did not begin in himself. (Arcana Coelestia 6324)

This shift could be helped by Swedenborg's teaching concerning the spiritual world. But this requires a different way of thinking about reality.

"I realize few believe that any spirit is present with them, or indeed that spirits exist at all." (Arcana Coelestia 5849)

Despite this, Swedenborg affirms that:

There are good spirits and evil spirits with every individual. ... When these spirits come to us, they come into our whole memory and from there into all our thinking....This ... has become so familiar to me through years of constant experience as to be commonplace. (Heaven and Hell 292)

Appropriation

Mindfulness teachers say by not identifying with the contents of consciousness, we are better able to let go of what is hurting us. From a Swedenborgian perspective, examples include envy, greed, malice.

Letting go of passing inclinations is very different from clinging on to them.

"What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11)

What comes out of the mouth comes out from the heart - in other words, is appropriated into the will.

Evil enters the will when it is retained in one's thought, is approved of, and especially when it is acted upon and therefore delighted in. (Arcana Coelestia 6204)

It is more likely to be retained in the heart when we believe tempting impulses and darker thoughts to be part of ourselves, for then we ally ourselves more closely with them.

Because he believes that it begins in himself he takes evil as his own, for his belief causes this to happen. (Arcana Coelestia 6324)

Self-examination

Teachers of mindfulness often speak of attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong. This allows us to clearly perceive without ignoring thoughts and feelings actually present with us.

However, it has recently been recognised that what we attend to strengthens neural pathways in the brain and that we can change these pathways by changing where we place our attention: but this takes time and the right sort of effort. Likewise, Swedenborg would point out that only by working alongside our own efforts can the Lord transform us.

Making the effort to observe our own minds is important when it comes to practising what Swedenborg calls self-examination - a crucially important component of repentance.

They who do not explore the evils of their thought and will, cannot do the work of repentance, (The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 164)

Unless we first intentionally focus on and recognise our thoughts and desires for what they are, we cannot then repent and try to change those we customarily entertain that are undesirable.

Peace

In a state of mindfulness, we let go of unhelpful feelings of worry and guilt associated with anxiety and stress and so find calm and related positive feelings. From a Swedenborgian perspective, troubling spirits are no longer present in our minds when we stop identifying with the selfish nature of their desires and thoughts. Then the inflow of good angelic life is not hindered by them and we experience calm and peace.

"There is nothing that a person thinks or wills that can originate within himself. Rather, everything flows into him; goodness and truth flow in from the Lord by way of heaven, thus through the angels present with the person" (Arcana Coelestia 5846)

Further reading

- Presence of spirits, Arcana Coelestia 5846-5866

- Appropriation, Divine Providence 78-81

- Repentance True Christian Religion 528-571

- Heavenly peace, Heaven and Hell 284-290

...and a useful book about Mindfulness, "Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World" by Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman.