As many of my friends know, I researched the secular practice of mindfulness about 5 years ago, and ever since then I have integrated it into my spiritual life. At this point, I would say that I comment on mindfulness less as an academic and scholar, and more as someone who has dedicated upwards of 7 thousand hours to solitude, mental prayer, meditation, and a whole host of contemplative practices.
When I use the term “mindfulness” I am not so much referring to East Asian religions nor am I espousing some philosophy that I have added on to Christianity. My philosophy is Christian, particularly Thomist, and my spiritual path is very much of a disciple of Jesus Christ who believes in the fullness of truth found within the visible structures of the Catholic Church.
Thus, when I use the term “mindfulness” I refer less to ideas but rather to very specific psychological and mental skills which help individuals to process their stress and move their minds and bodies towards a more rested state.
In secular studies, psychologists have found that by paying attention to one’s interior life and it’s relationship with one’s body, one is able to still the biological markers of stress. They often discuss cultivating a non-judgmental awareness of one’s experience as a means of moving from a “doing” mode of existence to a “being” mode of existence. Those of us who have spent time in prayer and solitude know that this difference is not so much a matter of philosophy, but an actual experience that is common to those who dedicate themselves to meditation.
In my usage of the term “mindfulness” I also integrate the classical Catholic notion of discernment, particularly as articulated by St. Ignatius of Loyola. In my spirituality, mindfulness of one’s experience involves three layers each of which is integrated with the others. There is mindfulness, or awareness, of one’s body, mindfulness of one’s intellect or psychology, and finally a deeper awareness of the work of the Holy Spirit.
By learning to “see” our experience on all of these interconnected layers of experience, we are able to see cycles of what St. Ignatius calls consolation and desolation. In time, we learn how to respond according to how the Holy Spirit is moving in our interior life, and the rules on how to do so can be found in the work of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Modern Christian audiences can benefit from an approach that integrates mindfulness with classical spiritual practices because in contemporary life, the role of the body in discernment is not as clearly expressed as it needs to be. The framework for such an integration can be found in St. Ignatius and St. Thomas Aquinas, but perhaps the particular circumstances of contemporary living has made the need for such work more urgent.
With that in mind, I would like to discuss a very specific practice that I have been using which involves using St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of the “passions.”
When St. Thomas Aquinas refers to the passions, he means a very specific set of sensations in which the interior faculties are moved to either accept or a reject a certain sense experience. For St. Thomas, the emotions, or passions, are connected with the presence or absence of what is perceived as good or evil. When the passions are ordered and purified, they provide us with important information about our experience and our perceptions. When they are disordered, they form invitations to sin and harmful thinking by overriding reason. However, the passions are neutral in and of themselves.
For example, the passion, or emotion, of fear is good and helpful when it makes us aware of a problem that needs to be avoided. It becomes problematic when it is activated at inopportune moments that are illusions or in such a way that prevents us from responding to the Holy Spirit. The passion itself is not a sin, and experiencing it is not the problem. Rather, when disordered patterns of thinking and acting form because of strong passions that have gone unchecked, then we start to fall into sin.
I would hold that emotional intelligence from a Thomistic perspective requires a recognition of one’s emotions, but simultaneously the corresponding virtues which help us look past our immediate experience and live according to reason. The key is not to ignore or suppress the passions, but rather to understand, observe, educate, and move beyond them in the light of the Holy Spirit.
I wish I could neatly summarize in one article how my experiments with Thomistic Mindfulness could be of benefit to others. That being said, I have learned that a classical, scholastic study of the human person, when accompanied by a holistic spirituality that does not divorce the head from the heart, helps to gain greater emotional intelligence because it allows for a deeper appreciation for one’s interior life. Thus, as I chew and ruminate on my study of the passions, this in turn has helped me to grow in self-knowledge as well as enriched my preaching.
More thoughts on this topic to come!