In Christian literature, asceticism is the necessary pre-condition for Christians to enter into an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. In this way, a thoroughly Christian mindfulness takes the authentic and true insights from psychology, and allows them to prepare the heart for a relationship with God. In other words, until the body and the mind are brought under the domain of reason, and we begin to experience freedom from their disorders, it will prove difficult to enter into familiar conversation with God.
In Christian thought, asceticism involves those disciplines and practices which help the Christian to master one’s interior life. It involves those active efforts to conform to Divine revelation which allow the believer to be receptive to the Holy Spirit. While prayer is always a gift of grace, a believer is called to cultivate an open, receptive heart which has become docile to God’s will. Thus, the first step is that we must learn to deny the disordered tendencies of our interior life.
This does not mean, however, that we repress our desires. Mindfulness resonates with the ancient wisdom of Christianity that always proposed a middle ground between giving free reign to our disordered thoughts, feelings, and desires, and a pathway of repression, a path which ultimately chokes and suffocates our capacity to love. Christian mindfulness helps believers to move past these two extremes, and instead teaches us to educate our interior life through a gentle process of observation and non-judgmental awareness.
Thus, the first step is to learn how to look at and experience our interior life without fear or anxiety. This includes our body as well. In the mindfulness literature, they talk about a “body-scan” in which the individual looks at the sensations which are taking place in each aspect of the body. Often, the key is to learn how to move beyond labels and to see each sensation as it is. For example, stress corresponds to a whole host of physical effects, and by looking at them with non-judgmental awareness, we can move beyond our patterns of toxic thinking which hide the reality of what is going on.
Non-judgmental awareness means that instead of applying a negative label to our discomfort, we instead learn to accept and experience discomfort and pain without prejudice. This can help cultivate what St. John of the Cross refers to as detachment and what St. Ignatius of Loyola refers to as indifference. For the Christian writers, the idea was that in the midst of good times or bad times, the goal is to have the freedom to participate in Christ’s unconditional love regardless of what we are experiencing. This freedom is ultimately a gift of the Holy Spirit, but ascetical effort prepares the heart to receive this gift. Likewise, non-judgmental awareness helps prepare the heart by teaching us how to suffer the moment without giving into the negative ruminations which tend to make pain and suffering worse.
Along these lines, I encourage you to cultivate the power of observation and non-judgmental awareness. When you begin to experience some disordered patterns of thinking, feeling, and desiring, I encourage you to take a step back and allow your conversation with the Lord to shift to the more elementary aspects of your experience. Be creative in trying to capture what your experience is like, and allowing yourself to move beyond the familiar labels.