A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Being Mindful

by Sue Jones

by Sue Jones

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I have a concern for the happiness of others. Why? Because my happiness is connected to their happiness. I saw recently an advertisement for a course in Practical Philosophy which was headed ‘Mindfulness – Meditation – My Life, My Self.’ The sub-title states, ‘There must be more to my life than this!’ It asks readers to consider if they have ‘ever had this thought?’ What comes next is a little disturbing for a follower of Jesus Christ. According to the person or persons who wrote the advertisement, the question above arises ‘from a sense that we have a right to be happy, inspired, and fulfilled, rather than stressed and dissatisfied.’

Somewhat related to the thinking behind this advertisement is another article I came across in the Weekend Herald over the holiday period. It featured in the Careers section and was about the discipline of mindfulness. It was titled, ‘Taking each moment as it comes.’ Telling the reader about mindfulness was a clinical psychologist, the managing director of Umbrella Health which specializes in workplace wellbeing.

The quest for happiness and wellbeing has much to do with how we get on with our inner self and with other people, be it in solitude, in family life, community life, or in the work place. For followers of Jesus Christ, this quest is a God-centred exercise in which we think of God as a person we must get on with and please. We do all sorts of things to build up a relationship with God through the personhood of Jesus Christ. In the early Church, disciples called this graceful exercise in living the ‘way.’ On the ‘way,’ we do not think of ourselves as having an entitlement to be happy, but as persons who are co-operating with God to bring to fruition his plan for our lives and the wider world. We hope that our personal happiness will come about through doing this good work.

That sort of attitude to life and happiness has been rejected by the post-modern world to the extent that we are able to see in the above examples the continuing development of an alternative ‘way’ for people to find happiness and wellbeing. On this alternative ‘way,’ people are becoming aware of a spiritual dimension to the world, but they do not want an old tradition of formalised spirituality that comes in any shape or form from Christian religion. The secular world wants to make its own connections between spirituality, happiness and wellbeing. Mindfulness is the newest discipline sold to people by the self-help industry to enable them to make those connections.

What is mindfulness and why is it so good? The opening paragraph of the article states, ‘It would be all too easy to cast mindfulness in the cringy-left-over-from-the-70s category, if not for the huge weight of scientific evidence backing it up.’ Mindfulness is defined as a process of, ‘deliberately focussing your attention on the moment you are in.’ Mindfulness in the Western context is based on Buddhist concepts, and was developed in a therapeutic form in the late 70s to help people suffering from chronic pain. The Herald article is about the vocational context of mindfulness and its application to the corporate world. ‘Taking each moment as it comes,’ has both personal benefits of ‘less mental and emotional fatigue, an ability to see the bigger picture, calmness and responsiveness’ and this creates ‘better social connections and a kinder, more understanding, workplace experience.’

Another advance in the development of the secular ‘way’ to happiness is the idea that a person has a right to happiness. People are beginning to understand that they cannot have absolute happiness just because they want it. When individual hopes of getting happiness are failing and the effort put in is fruitless, it is very human to demand that some outside agency act on behalf of the individual to deliver happiness. The self-help industry seems to know about this human tendency and offers alternative thinking, which bridges the gap between unrealistic ego-centric demands and the higher ideals of human behaviour.

Mindfulness teaches people a technique to search outside what they know about themselves, what makes them the person they are, by going inside themselves to find out something they do not know. It seems to have something to do with love. People are asked to ‘think of a state they are in when they are fully immersed in doing something they love.’ When taught the right technique, people are able to re-create this state of mind and come out of it with happy feelings of wellbeing, which predispose them to actions which ennoble their human spirit. Aside from the personal benefits, which do read like ‘cringy-left-over-from-the 70s’ stuff, there is evidence that those who can go into themselves and find a peaceful state of mind are better, less judgmental people.

All of the above might sound familiar to lay Catholics. We have our own sort of mindfulness and have been told over and over that the present moment is the only one in which we meet the person of Jesus Christ. Our mindfulness is a form of prayer. We go into meditation, we are invited into contemplation to meet with the person who is the source of our happiness. There may be techniques associated with this action but they are secondary to the relationship we form with Jesus Christ in prayer.

Return of the Prodigal Son,
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1668

God’s mystical love is at work in the self-help industry. It is softening up hardened hearts to hear about his Son, the source of all human happiness. The lay vocation is to live alongside those seeking happiness the secular ‘way,’ with our ‘way’ of discipleship. In this new era, culture is not as supportive to the rightness of our discipleship as it was when society was more Christian, and so the living out of our discipleship has to be a guerilla-type activity. We are the ones who can infiltrate an environment that is hostile to religion with the newness of a lay spirituality. For the most part, that spirituality will be founded on living out faithful, hopeful, loving family lives. This may not feel like evangelization, but it is. It may not be institutional enough for us to feel we are pulling our weight in the overall mission of the Church, but it is the sort of evangelisation in which the secular world can sense the gentle, fragile mystical love of God being taken up and shaped into something desirable.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, we Christian disciples have an example of a person who went inside himself to find out things about himself and about God that he did not know. In the story of Martha and Mary, we have an example of what happens on the ‘way’ of Christian discipleship when we do not take time out to be mindful of God’s presence in the world.

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