Physical sensations can be difficult to read and understand. Compounded by this, my research on Mindfulness Meditation seems to suggest that our thinking patterns not only analyze and label those experiences, they also play an important role in how those sensations are being expressed in the first place. For example, we have a series of experiences that we generally associate with being “tired.” As we ruminate on this idea of being tired, we give into some pretty toxic ways of thinking. We might complain in our interior dialogue, “Man, I am so tired and I just must have a rest. I can’t take any more of this.” Such patterns can exacerbate and make the situation worse as they lead to greater tension in the body.
Our habitual ways of dealing with suffering, strain, and other physical sensations can reinforce and make worse what we are experiencing. Instead of allowing ourselves to suffer by not giving into negative patterns of thinking, we tend to try and force away the pain in as many ways as possible. In the end, we tend to be hard on ourselves as we desperately search for ways out of our predicament.
Although dealing with pain is complex and there are no easy solutions to the question of suffering, there are strategies that have been proven to help reduce pain and to learn to accept its consequences. In the previous article, I mentioned what Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has called a “body-scan.” In this practice, we explore the physical sensation with a “non-judgmental awareness.” Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes this exploration as simply looking at the sensation and exploring it without attaching labels. In this way, we slow our thinking down and try to have a more nuanced understanding of what we are experiencing.
Instead of saying, “I have a terrible headache,” you can use your imagination to explore and describe the experience. For example, “My head feels like a locomotive train chugging along.” In my own practice of these insights, I find that attaching music and art to what I am experiencing helps me open up to it and understand it in new ways. Often this helps me to relax and let go of the tension that often accompanies pain. This does not mean that the pain automatically goes away. However, I have found that it does tend to lesson my personal reactions to pain. Furthermore, in the Christian context, all of this is done in our ongoing dialogue with Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Thus our suffering becomes an avenue for greater intimacy with God.
As I mentioned before, there is a lot of great literature on this topic, mostly written from a secular perspective. A book that I enjoyed is called Fully Present by Susan Smalley. I presume that it is a good introduction to Mindfulness, but I do not know enough of the field to say for sure. There are also many great workshops throughout the United States that can help people who are dealing with intense suffering to use mindfulness to help manage pain. I hope that with this article I am giving at least a few tools that can help people who are not dealing with more difficult situations, but could use some small aids to deepen their prayer life.
As I often repeat, although mindfulness is secular in nature and does not require an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ, that does not mean that it cannot be integrated into Christian Meditation. What makes Christian Meditation unique is not a particular technique or a set formula, but the personal and intimate exchange of the believer with the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is plenty of room in such a relationship for insights from mindfulness.