‘’I am in a calm so great that I fear nothing. What could I fear? I am with Him.”
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.”
The Power of Negative thinking
I recently came across a quote from the popular ‘spiritual guru’ Eckhart Tolle. Author of such best sellers as ‘The Power of Now’, Eckhart claims that 98% of our thoughts are ‘useless and repetitive’. I hope my thinking isn’t quite so comprehensively futile but his assertion did get me looking more closely at my own thought life.
The first thing I noticed was just how unthinkingly judgemental I was. In just a short walk or drive I would find myself criticising: all drivers of 4x4s, groups of rowdy teenagers, cyclists without lights and a host of other sections of the community for real or imaginary infractions or oddities.
I fared no better while listening to the radio. Anything proposed by someone who voted for Brexit couldn’t be taken seriously. I could barely resist switching off any interview with Nigel Farage. And all advocates of ‘fracking’ were obviously imbeciles.
It took very little time to realise that Eckhart might have a point! It was not something that I was even aware that I was doing. It had become so much part of my mental furniture that I had to concentrate very hard to see what was actually happening.
Addicted to our own thinking
Richard Rohr in his book ‘Falling Upwards’ speaks of the immaturity of thinking in what he calls dualistic terms. We perceive every person or idea or choice in terms of right or wrong, good or bad. Certain types of people, or religions, or politics or styles of clothing, art or music are right and others are wrong. We’re all addicted, claims Rohr, to our own way of seeing things and we go about our lives unconsciously making these judgements. We approach a person or idea with a preconceived ‘no’. This means that we close our hearts to any love, beauty, truth or goodness that may be present. Maturity therefore is moving beyond this ‘either-or’ mentality and finding a more holistic, loving and non-judgemental response to life and to others.
Rohr emphasises that this doesn’t mean we don’t need spiritual discernment. There are things like hatred, injustice and prejudice that we should never accommodate. But when we spend so much of our time projecting our unreflecting prejudices onto individuals or groups that simply don’t think like we do we will never mature into the loving and joyful individuals that God made us to be.
As I continued to look at my pattern of thoughts another thing was quickly apparent; an inability to be engaged fully with the present moment. C.S. Lewis says, ‘the present is the point at which time touches eternity’, yet I found that my mind was continually preoccupied with what had already happened or with what the future might hold. This was often closely connected, I noticed, to my need for security, worth and significance.
Sometimes I’d be drawn back into the past. After a conversation or meeting I would spend the next hour or so going back over things I’d said or not said. If someone had upset me I’d go through imaginary scenarios when I’d tell them what I really thought. I’d obsess over any remarks that made me look foolish and plan some clever riposte for next time.
The future, also, had a strong hold on my thinking. More often than I’d like to admit, I’d catch myself in some flight of fancy where I’d be impressing someone whose opinion I valued. In church, instead of focusing on what God was saying to me I could easily be imagining myself giving the same sermon and how I’d make it far more life changing than the present offering.
I’d frequently catch my thoughts roaming into the day or week ahead and trying to anticipate all possible anxiety-inducing circumstances; a talk to deliver, an awkward conversation with a colleague, looking after the kids for a whole day with no wife to rescue me. These would be invitations to worry rather than simply opportunities to plan. Instead of leaving the future in Gods capable hands I’d let fear of the ‘what ifs’ rob me of my peace.
So how can we recapture our thoughts from this inbuilt tendency to focus on the selfish, the fearful and the judgemental?
The sacrament of the present moment
Much has been written in recent years about the ancient practice of ‘mindfulness’. There are many books on the subject in the bestseller lists and it is used nowadays in various therapeutic programs and even in the business world for staff training. Mindfulness is defined in Wikipedia as ‘the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment’.
I would like to argue that the best kind of mindfulness is the ancient Christian discipline of ‘practising the presence’. This is, quite simply, the discipline of reminding yourself regularly that God is with you and that He loves you. This simple truth is the foundational fact of our existence, more fundamental even than the fact that we’re breathing or thinking or acting. As Julian of Norwich put it- ‘all things have their beginning by the love of God’
I doubt whether there is anything more life changing than being aware, moment-by-moment, of Gods love. The compulsive thought life, which is constantly trying to grab love or respect or significance, is immediately silenced and rendered impotent. In Gods unconditional acceptance, we become aware that we already have immeasurable worth and infinite significance.
The practise of the presence
Here’s what I’ve found helpful. At various points during the day I take a few minutes to sit in a quiet place or go for a walk. A degree of solitude and silence are the only things I need. To help me focus on the present I may become aware of my breathing. As I breathe in I receive his Spirit. As I breathe out I dispel anxieties or fears. I feel my weight on the chair or my feet on the ground and I imagine that I am supported by Gods faithfulness and love. His love is as solid as the earth beneath my feet, as close and real as the breath entering my body.
If I’m outside I like to feel his touch through the warmth of the sun or the breeze on my face. I might remind myself of a scripture celebrating his love and faithfulness. I picture him in my mind, holding me, leading me or just enjoying my company. I rise from my chair or end my walk sensing that I’m loved and am not alone.
And as I go through the day I try and remember. When I sense judgemental thoughts, anxieties, jealousy, fretting, annoyance or lust I immediately remind myself that God is with me, his love flowing over and through me. When I do this the effect is usually immediate. My flow of negative thinking is disrupted, my heart is engaged and I quickly feel lighter and freer. I can start to look at people through Gods lenses and see them coloured with his love for them.
Often the challenge is to remember- to develop the habit- to practise the presence. I am seldom disappointed when I do. The frustration comes when I have gone many hours without remembering once. However, I do not dwell on the failures- I quickly turn my mind back to the Father who patiently waits with arms outstretched.
In all things, God
God can become real and present, as the liturgy says, ‘at all times and in all places’. Most people tend to view him as distant and seated in ‘heaven’, wherever that may be. But the fact is, as the poet puts it,
‘Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every bush is afire with God’
So at any moment and in every situation we can, with attention, become aware of his presence. He is far closer than we imagine. Every blade of grass and gust of wind whispers his name. All beauty in nature or art or music or face is a reflection of his glory. Any encounter with love, truth, holiness or goodness is to see the likeness of his face. Any experience of awe or wonder is an invitation to worship and humility.
And, most intimate of all, he is constantly speaking to us in the human soul through dreams, the imagination and conscience. As our perception increases we find his thoughts filling our minds and his passions arousing our hearts. We receive, as the Apostle Paul puts it, ‘the mind of Christ’.
Our daily bread
Any real change in our ‘useless and repetitive’ thought patterns by focusing on God can only become a reality on a moment-by-moment basis. We don’t get a lifetimes supply of Gods love ‘up front’ when we make a commitment to Christ or have a religious experience. The choice faces us each moment to open ourselves to that love and allow it to change us.
The vows I made on my wedding day will be meaningless unless I make the choice in each present moment to love and cherish my wife. Likewise, I will only see my mind filled with Gods grace instead of the usual fears and follies if I turn my thoughts to him as a habit, a choice and a discipline.
I don’t think I can put it any better than CS Lewis: ‘It [the challenge] comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”
So how about it? Right now is where it all begins…