Those who follow my blog know that I go through stages of posting about different subjects. Last year I wrote a lot about gratitude and positive thinking. Then I began posting about mindfulness. Recently I’m writing about the role struggle plays in the Christian life. These three themes are actually all related. Here’s why.
To develop the skill of gratitude, you need to practice mindfulness/watchfulness to retrain your brain to move from the negative to the positive, from anxiety to peace. But in order to get really good at mindfulness, you need to struggle. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily, let alone gratitude and mindfulness. In my article ‘How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice’ I outlined six specific ways a person can struggle to become more positive and at peace. I’d like to take the opportunity now to expand on this and give a specific exercises you can do to become more mindful, more grateful and more at peace with yourself and the world.
But before I begin, I just want to say one more time: gratitude and inner-peace are not gifts. That is, they aren’t personality traits that you’ve either been given or deprived of. Rather, gratitude and inner-peace are skills that can be developed with practice. Today I’m going to explain how you can begin practicing these skills right now. The exercise I’m going to present only takes 10 minutes each day, yet it has the potential to transform your life.
Go somewhere quiet and set a timer for 10 minutes. Sit on the floor comfortably (not a chair but on the floor or the grass). Now don’t do anything other than watch the hundreds of random thoughts that arise in your mind, one after another. As you watch your thinking try not to take up the thoughts and try not to judge them; just observe. Even if thoughts arise in your brain that aren’t necessarily bad, just observe them as something outside of yourself and let them go, quietly returning to a place of mental rest.
As you begin observing your own thinking, be prepared for a shock. You’ll be surprised to see how much garbage goes through your mind every minute. This is like a person who decides to start watching the food going into his or her mouth. After years of eating anything that looks good without ever reading the ingredients, it can be a real eye-opener to start paying attention to what we’re eating. Similarly, once you start paying attention to your own thoughts, you’ll be horrified to see all the garbage that comes into your brain every minute.
As you sit quietly, watching your thoughts, slowly bring your attention to your heartbeat or to your breathing. Try to maintain a rhythm of deep regular breathing. As you do, let yourself be enveloped by the Lord’s peace. If it helps, you can pray an ancient prayer known as “the prayer of the heart.” As you inhale you can say (quietly within your mind) “Lord Jesus Christ,” and as you exhale you can say “Have mercy on me” quietly in your mind. These techniques are not ends in themselves but tools for helping you connect with God’s peace.
As you do this, expect to be bombarded with hundreds of vagrant thoughts that draw you away from the quiet of Christ. Even if these thoughts are not bad, do your best to return your mind to a place of quiet, using the prayer of the heart to focus on Jesus.
As you engage in this “meditation” (don’t be scared by the word), you’ll probably think things like “I’m so bad at this”, but let those thoughts go as well. Remember, you are separate from your thoughts.
Hieromonk Damascene (now Abbot Damascene) talked about us being separate from our thoughts in his book Christ The Eternal Tao. I had the privilege of visiting his monastery earlier this year and reading the book while I was there. Here’s what he writes:
“As we continue the practice of going within and separating from thoughts, gradually we come to know what St. John Climacus meant by ‘ascending the watchtower’ above the lower mind, where we can ‘observe the robbers stealing our grapes’: this is, the thoughts that are trying to steal our attention away from the intuitive awareness of our spirit, in which we know God. …When thoughts come, we should not attempt to get involved or argue with them, for such struggle only binds us to them…. Each time we catch ourselves in a thought, we just return our attention to what is above it: to our spirit and to God. We do not validate the thought by giving it any more attention. This is already to repulse or cut off the thought without directly struggling against it. It is active, not passive; but the action does not involve movement towards the distracting thought. Rather, it is like a train that has been switched to a sidetrack and must simply be switched back to the main track, which alone leads to one’s destination.”
Resisting the pull of toxic thinking is hard work at first. Remember you are reversing years of bad mental habits. That’s why I recommend you start with just 10 minutes a day.
Resisting toxic thinking doesn’t mean that toxic thoughts don’t arise in your brain; rather, it means you don’t feed those thoughts by taking them up. In his book Search Inside Yourself, Chade-Meng Tan has an illustration that I find very helpful. He compares unwanted thoughts to monsters. If your house happens to get overrun by monsters, you have three choices. Either you can feed the monsters, in which case they will stick around. Or you can fight the monsters, in which case you may get clobbered and defeated with the result that the monsters become stronger. Or you can do your best to simply ignore the monsters. If you choose to ignore the monsters, maybe they will go away or maybe they won’t, but even if they stick around, you will have learned to treat them with the contempt they deserve and they will have lost their hold over you.
It’s the same way with unwanted thoughts. If we fight unwanted thoughts head-on, then we are focusing on the very thing we want to rid ourselves of, leading to a phenomenon that psychologists call the “Ironic process theory” or “the white bear problem.” This problem was described by Fyodor Dostoevsky in his ‘Winter Notes on Summer Impressions’ when he wrote “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Researchers have found that trying to directly suppress unwanted thoughts is about as successful as telling someone not to imagine a polar bear. The very act of trying not to imagine a white bear inevitably recalls the white bear to mind; similarly, the very act of struggling not to have an anxious or lustful thought is sure to bring the thought to mind. What tends to work much better is to treat unwanted thoughts with the contempt they deserve, and that means that we don’t feed them and we don’t fight them; instead we focus on what is important to us—our values, our goals, our core beliefs—and do our best to simply ignore the toxic thoughts. As Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993) observed,
“…it is best of all not to argue with [intrusive thoughts]. The spirit that debates with such a thought will be faced with its steady development, and, bemused by the exchange, will be distracted from remembrance of God, which is exactly what the demons are after—having diverted the spirit from God, they confuse it, and it will not emerge ‘clean.’”
This does not mean that there is never an occasions to directly engage with toxic thoughts. Sometimes we need to analyze the source of toxic thoughts to consciously bring our distorted thinking back into line with the truth of Scripture. We sometimes need to introspect to see how our stressful thoughts arise from trying to be God, or from lies we’ve believed about ourselves or others. I talked about this type of introspection in my earlier article on attentiveness. But the other side of the coin is that sometimes engaging with toxic thinking just makes things worse. Especially during your 10 minutes a day, try not to think at all, but to exist in prayerful quiet. As thoughts arise in your mind, just let them go, bringing your mind back to a place where you are simply resting in Jesus’ peace, love and compassion.
The really cool thing about this type of meditation is that the more you do it, the more skilled you will become in resisting unwanted thoughts at other times in the day, even when you are not actually meditating. Simply spending 10 minutes meditating each day will help you throughout the day in recognizing and throwing away ungrateful thoughts, anxious thoughts, complaining thoughts and lustful thoughts. That’s why this exercise I’ve described is absolutely fundamental to gratitude and peace of mind.
Think of these 10 minutes a day like your brain being at the gym. Just as someone who goes to the gym every morning is stronger and fit during the rest of the day, so as you practice controlling your brain for 10 minutes a day, you’ll find yourself more able to resist toxic thinking throughout the rest of your day. Moreover, I showed in an earlier post that regular meditation helps to develop the same neurological skills required for emotional intelligence and empathy.
Try it and see for yourself. Just 10 minutes each day.