Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Mindfulness for Christians

The modern world ain't so good for your psyche. It's easy to get strung out, anxious as a wildebeast in a lion convention, with thoughts looping through your mind like a roller coaster.

Eastern religions have a bunch of techniques for developing peace of mind, colloquially referred to as "mindfulness". They generally involve directing your attention away from your thoughts and into something else, like your breath. This has useful side effects for defusing negative emotions like stress and training the purposeful direction of your attention.

Mindfulness has gone mainstream as a therapeutic and self-help practice in the West. The monks and yogis (and nuns and yoginis) of the East did these practices as preparation for contemplation of Ultimate Reality. Westerners use them to run a dual-income household under the demands of modern capitalism without drowning in a pool of tears. Either way, they do a lot of good.

So Christian and post-Christian society has looked to Buddhism and Hinduism for mental tools to cope with an often unpleasant reality. What is missed is that Christianity itself has a long tradition of similar mental tools for calming the mind and directing attention, that also help to grow in the Christian faith. It's overlooked because these techniques come from Eastern Christianity, which is unfamiliar in Western society. However, as far as I can tell there is no dogmatic incompatibility which would prevent a Western Protestant from using the mental tools of the Eastern Church.

The most powerful tool in the pocket of every Eastern Christian is known as "The Jesus Prayer". It has a few different forms, but I prefer the middle-length[0] form which is regularly spoken in church services:

"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me".

This is used as a mantra, repeated over and over. It can be used in times of stress, to short-circuit anger or racing thoughts, or just when you feel bad and don't know what to pray. Like Buddhists, Eastern Christians identify uncontrolled thoughts and desires as a major source of unnecessary suffering, and they prescribe the Jesus Prayer as medicine.

It's a simple practice, but the history and use of it runs deep. Its earliest recorded origin dates to the 5th century founders of Christian monasticism in the Sinai desert. The Jesus Prayer is the monastic's single most powerful tool in his or her quest to dwell in God. In the beginning stages, it clears the mind and the heart of passions and focuses the attention. There are also further stages that monks write about that are hard for me to comprehend. Eventually, monks seek to have this prayer constantly running in their hearts under its own power, every second of their lives[1].

Christian monks and nuns use the Jesus Prayer for contemplation of Ultimate Reality. But lay people use it for every circumstance, which includes running a dual-income household under the demands of modern capitalism without drowning in a pool of tears. The Jesus Prayer is their constant companion in traffic, at work, and when relating to others.

I once dated a girl that was a Buddhist. She carried around prayer beads and used them to count mantras. She liked to recite them silently to herself when sitting on a bus or a train as a substitute for checking social media on her phone. She found it left her in a better mood. Similarly, Eastern Christians often carry around prayer ropes and use them to recite the Jesus Prayer. They are a wonderful replacement for checking Twitter or Instagram.

If you're a Protestant Christian, you probably pray free-form prayers at specific times and when you feel you need it. But it is useful to have a little short invocation that you don't have to think about. The Jesus prayer teaches us to rely on Christ, and not on our own intellects. There is no demand on us to come up with the correct words, or to petition God in just the right way when we are distressed. Instead we just invoke the name of Christ, constantly, and trust in him. We run to him like little children and count on him to do what is right for us.

Elder Porphyrios of the Greek church says that it is not necessary for us to fight the darkness within us. Instead, we only need to open a little window to let the light in. The Jesus Prayer is that little window. The most tiny, minimal effort of turning towards God leaves us open to welcome his grace.

In this post I have drawn parallels between Eastern Christianity and other non-Christian religions. It would be irresponsible for me to not mention that elders in the Eastern church often resist this comparison[2]. In particular, they point out that Christian mental practices are relational tools for contemplation of an ultimate reality that is personal. In Buddhism ultimate reality is impersonal. So I hope I've done my duty by stating that caveat.

What unites the Christian and non-Christian takes on mindfulness is that they both encourage explicit awareness of our thoughts. Instead of identifying with our thoughts and thinking of them as what we are, we view the thoughts as something that happens. And that disidentification then allows us some amount of control to shape them and to improve our existence.

There are many more uses of the Jesus prayer, but this post is intended as an introduction. If you are a Christian looking for a more Christian practice of mindfulness, try incorporating this into your prayer life. You might start with saying it a fixed number of times in the morning and evening to get used to it. A prayer rope is useful, but not necessary. Try to focus on the meaning of the words - who Jesus Christ is, what it means to call him "Lord", and what his mercy looks like. Then you can take it out into the world and have Christ as your constant companion.

Brothers and sisters of all faiths, may we survive life in this hectic world together, with the help God's grace.

About me: I'm just a beginner, a catechumen in the Eastern Church. I'm pretty pumped about it at the moment, and I like to share things I like. Please forgive me if I unintentionally say anything that misleads or offends. 

[0] The shorter form is "Lord, have mercy" and the longer form is "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner".

[1] See this 60 minutes special on the monastics of Mt. Athos, the holiest site in Eastern Christianity. Be sure to watch part 2!

[2] See Father Sophrony's writings on the Jesus Prayer. He was once a serious Buddhist before coming back to Eastern Christianity.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Porphyrios (an Ode)

Who ever thought I would love someone with such a name?
But as I get to know it, it plays on the tongue
like a whiskey and cigar

What a blessed man! To be God’s puppy dog.
You decided you deserved nothing,
wagged your tail.
When he closed his door you did not go away
until one night he took you into his house.

You say this is the easy way,
Don’t you see how hard it is?
To be so utterly unsophisticated.
I have an 8th ex-girlfriend
and a 3rd career
envy my coworkers that have more shares than me
resent my government
have kinks
and daydream about sex, sometimes, in church.
How could I ever be a puppy?
Maybe I could be a smelly beggar outside God’s door
whom he slips a buck every now and then
out of pity.

But oh, Porphyrios!
You have shown the way.
It is never too late to grow in trust and simplicity,
wag more, whine less,
and maybe one day I will nip at your ear in the lap of God.

Fire Built for One (1)

At a campfire built for one
my heart aches for every flame you do not see.
When the sun rises, I will weep for every golden ray
nudging the mountain awake,
lifting the mist off of the tree,
and chasing the hare across the field.

I learned that joy was made for two,
in these last three years,
I would breathe the in
and you would breathe the out.

There was never any difference between me and you
and there still isn’t, now that we hate each other.

There is nothing in life that I haven’t earned,
And I know I will carry us both to my grave.