Spanish Edition The Mindful Catholic (Hardcover)
In the Beginning
Let us come forth and treasure the fleeting moment which alone is ours. Let us not waste time, from one moment to another, because the latter is not yet ours.
There was a particularly difficult exam in graduate school that I felt extremely stressed about. After a long night of tossing and turning, imagining how difficult the test was going to be, I woke up feeling exhausted. I stumbled out of bed, made my way to the coffeepot, and turned it on. At that moment I remembered that I also needed to bring in a signed form for a supervisor concerning a patient I was working with. My mind raced as I tried to figure out how best to organize my time getting to school, getting in a few minutes of last-minute studying, and getting the form to my supervisor’s office before the test. As my plan was coming together, it hit me that my gas tank was almost empty. Would I have enough gas to get to school? The stop at the gas station was going to cost me an extra fifteen precious minutes! I was rushing around to get ready while the coffee was brewing. There was no time for breakfast, so I started to throw together a smoothie instead. At this point I was frantically hurrying around the kitchen, pulling on socks and throwing fruit into the blender. I went to grab the keys and add an apple to the smoothie when I threw the keys into the blender instead!
After I lost another five minutes cleaning the car keys, I made it to the gas station and then rushed to school. I met a classmate at the door, and she noticed I was quite disheveled. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yeah I’m fine,” I replied. “But I am not ready for this test!” She looked at me, confused. “You mean tomorrow’s test?”
That was not one of my finer moments. Little did I know I would use it someday to illustrate an aspect of our minds.
The Sympathetic Nervous Response
The body has a very primitive and basic survival instinct built in called the sympathetic nervous response (SNR). This is the group of physiological reactions set off by the brain that occur in the face of danger. It is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response, but it is actually more appropriately called the fight-flight-or-freeze response, because freezing up is also one of the survival mechanisms that can be stimulated by this brain response.
The effects of the sympathetic nervous response have to do with the release of epinephrine after a series of reactions that begin in the part of the brain called the amygdala. Cortisol is then released, triggering a number of physiological reactions you feel in your body. Heart rate acceleration, flushed skin, digestion inhibition, dilation or constriction of blood vessels, muscle tightness, and even shaking are all effects of this response. Some or all of these symptoms are commonly associated with stress, frustration, anger, or depression, exhaustion, and despair. You have felt this at times with sweaty palms, tightness in the chest, or feeling hot in the face. A cognitive effect is a narrowing of our field of mental focus. Whatever triggers the response takes center stage in our mental awareness. We become hyperfocused on whatever threat or danger we’ve perceived.
This last point about cognition is critical in understanding why mindfulness has such an impact on people’s lives. If we spend most of our day perceiving danger or problems to react to, we focus on them and lose our perception of other things happening. Since mindfulness ultimately turns down our SNR, it helps us to be aware of more that is happening around or inside us. When my SNR was activated in the middle of the night before my exam, I lost perception of what day it was. This spiraled into the morning, and I kept moving forward without that perception. The cortisol produced by my adrenal glands because of the threat I perceived in the test narrowed my ability to think about what day it was (or where I was putting my keys).
As a result of the sympathetic nervous response, we can sense a threat to our life and have a much better chance of either escaping it or fighting it off. God made us with this bodily phenomenon for a very specific purpose: so we can preserve our life. Thank God! The problem enters when we allow the SNR to be triggered when we aren’t actually in danger. This response is primitive because it does not have a complex way of sorting out the differences between real and perceived danger. Perceived danger is actually at the root of most psychological disorders. Some conceptualizations of psychological disease ultimately pin all anxiety-related disorders on the fight-or-flight response, and depressed or mood-related disease on the freeze response. Our systems either speed up or slow down depending on the sympathetic nervous response and its reaction to a perceived threat.
Doing and Being
The easiest way to understand how the SNR works is this: When our brains perceive a problem, a threat, or some kind of danger, they operate as if we are at point A and need to get to point B. Point A represents our current position, the one where this is some problem or danger; point B represents the place where we will be safe, or have a solution to our problem. It takes energy to move from point A to point B, and so the SNR triggers chemical reactions in the brain that move the person between them. We can understand the mind-set in which we need to get from point A to point B as the doing mode of mind. When a problem is judged to exist, the brain responds to that judgment in order to move you from the problem of point A to the solution of point B. Again, the brain is not very sophisticated in its judgment of what kind of difficulty point A is. It could be the sound of someone breaking in at night, it could be getting lost on your way to a friend’s house, or it could be getting your taxes sorted out. The way we think about the problem is what triggers the brain to perceive a problem, which then triggers the sympathetic nervous response.
The opposite of this brain state happens when we perceive that there is no problem. We decide that point A is OK; there is no need to figure out a point B. This is considered the being mode of mind. Being mode is when we are totally safe and there is no problem to solve. We are actually born with a strong tendency to stay in this state, as we are born with a natural inclination toward mindful awareness. Babies haven’t yet built up a store of experiences that teach them to fear perceived threats, and so as infants we had a greater ability to experience the world as it was, one moment at a time. You can see what the being mode looks like if you watch a baby discover new things such as his hand or foot. He looks with wonder and explores things with a gentle curiosity.
Curiosity is a fundamentally important concept to understand for mindfulness. You can’t be curious and unhappy or stressed at the same time. If you consider your emotional state when you are upset, you will notice that having a sense of curiosity at the same time seems to be out of the question. If you think about times you were curious about something, it is hard to imagine being unhappy at the same time. It seems as though curiosity and unhappiness are antithetical brain states. That’s because true, open curiosity points to awareness of what is happening at the moment. When you are aware of the present moment, you are presenting that moment to the brain. It is very rare that at any given time your bodily safety is being threatened. Therefore, if you are curiously aware of whatever is happening at the moment, chances are it is not going to trigger your SNR. Curiosity is a quality of the being mode, in which there is no problem at point A, and point A is OK.
Curiosity, then, is the disposition of mind that we are seeking to cultivate when we practice mindfulness. We want to remain open to experiencing things as they truly are, and not through the filter of our perceptions of danger to flee from or problems to solve. We want to learn how to stay in the being mode of mind, resting in the present moment with the assurance of being safe there.
I was stuck in the doing mode when I woke up stressed over my exam. I immediately perceived a problem that needed to be solved, and so my brain fired off the sympathetic nervous response and got to work solving my problem, or trying to move me from point A, where I was in danger of not doing well on the exam, to point B, where I would do well. My mind hyperfocused on solving the problem, so I didn’t notice my keys when I put them in the blender, I didn’t notice I needed gas until I was already pressed for time, and most importantly, I didn’t notice the day on the calendar and when the exam actually was. Being in the SNR limited my mental capacity. You will learn later how this is also a significant limitation to our capacity for creativity.
Our Brains on Autopilot
My exam story also shows what the mind does on autopilot. We have an amazing tendency to operate at times almost completely by habit. These habits we develop over time are an advantage because of limits in what is called working memory. Because my mental capacity was so limited by hyperfocusing on a problem, I was running on habits that had been built into my autopilot. My working memory was totally focused on thoughts running away with themselves about the exam.
Have you ever been working through some mundane task and realized halfway through that you were doing it wrong? Another time in college I was putting laundry into the washing machine. A friend started talking to me, and even though I had already decided to wash whites, had put in the bleach, and had started adding white clothes, I also ended up putting my jeans, colored shirts, and dark socks into the washer. I didn’t realize what had happened until my spotted clothes came out.
You might have been driving and ended up taking a turn to a friend’s house when you meant to go to the store. You might have gone online to look something up and found yourself going to your email instead. When your email page popped up you thought to yourself, “I just checked email five minutes ago! What was I doing again?” These are all examples of the autopilot mind.
Working memory describes the part of our brain that can handle conscious tasks that we are holding in the forefront of our mind. There is a very small amount of information that we can actually hold in this part of our memory.
Since we can hold only a limited number of things at once in our working memory, we tend to get very frustrated when the memory banks fill up. The more we are expected to accomplish at once, the slower our processing speed gets. It’s like opening multiple windows on the computer. If you start too many programs without shutting others down, the computer slows down. If you open too many more, it can even freeze up. Our minds are very similar. We carry out extremely complex operations every moment of the day. Everything our bodies do requires the coordination of thoughts, movements, muscle coordination, and sense coordination. Have you ever watched toddlers learn how to walk? They have to look where to place their feet and figure out what to do with their hands, and they need to consciously work out how to shift their weight. Those first days are a great display of walking via working memory. If all we had was the working memory to get us through the day, there wouldn’t be much that we could actually get done because it is so limited.
Little by little, however, the more we accomplish certain tasks, the more these operations move from working memory to autopilot. Autopilot describes the way our minds can accomplish tasks unconsciously. We don’t walk like toddlers anymore.
Another example of the autopilot is driving a car with a manual transmission. When people first learn how to drive a stick shift, it can be very awkward. Both feet and both hands are required in a very different way than in driving an automatic transmission. At first, full concentration is required to shift, brake, and accelerate with two feet, and to know when to take one hand off the wheel to move the gearshift. Perfect timing is required to engage the clutch at the correct time. If you’ve ever learned how to drive a stick shift, you know it’s hard to even listen to someone talking while you figure out all this timing and movement.
Slowly over time, you become habituated to these movements, and you need to concentrate less on what you are doing. The way you shift and move your feet feels more comfortable, and before long, you are driving without giving it much thought at all. Whereas before you could hardly tolerate someone talking to you, now you can hold a burger in one hand and a cup in the other, and somehow still manage to steer and shift while carrying on a full conversation with the person next to you. This is because the movements required to drive the stick shift become a part of your autopilot.
The autopilot is a kind of built-in “life hack.” It’s a way our brains try to save time and energy by grouping together patterns of movement, processes, and even more complex things such as social norms, daily routines, and how to understand other people. If you had to approach each person you met in your day as if it was the first person you’d ever seen in this world, without some understanding of what is meant by tone of voice, the movement of a hand toward you for a handshake, and the meaning behind a certain look, you would spend an hour trying to check out at the grocery store or pump gas.
The autopilot skill we develop throughout our life is a tremendous benefit of being human. We learn as we grow, and certain tasks, jobs, and relationships become easier over time. This tendency, however, can quickly become a deficit if you are unaware of its existence. We build up expectations and move experiences into our autopilots even when they are negative. The habits you develop trigger thoughts, and those thoughts trigger feelings. You may have had a number of bad experiences with customer service people on the phone. After spending countless hours of your life on hold, you developed an expectation that calling anyone for anything is a tedious task. When you see a mistake on a bill you receive, the last thing you want to do is call someone to talk about it. You start to dread the task, and wonder if you can’t just let the overcharge go. Maybe it will be worth the $11.43 to not have to waste time on hold again. You anticipate an argument with the person who will answer the phone, and having to then wait to speak to a manager. All the while your thoughts are triggering a stress response in your brain, which increases your heart rate and puts you into a state of anxiety.
You might then realize that you are making a bigger deal out of this than is necessary. You start to feel bad about yourself for getting so worked up. You wonder if there’s something wrong with you, but then you remember that it’s the bill that is wrong, not you! But then you remember all the other times you made a big deal out of something small, and you beat yourself up some more. You try to think your way out of these feelings but it seems to only make it worse.
Thinking your way out of these kinds of situations is like trying to open another computer program to solve the problem of too many programs being open. Instead of engaging with these thoughts and trying to argue your way out of them, it is better to learn how to start closing programs down.
This is the basic beginning to understanding what mindfulness is. Instead of letting your autopilot dictate what you do with your mind, you step outside the process and observe it, then make a choice as to the best way to handle it. You can release yourself from the habits of expectations you have built up over the years and decide what kinds of behaviors to keep in autopilot, such as deciphering the meaning of a handshake, and what kinds of behaviors to try to see differently, like someone rushing past you and nudging you out of the way on the sidewalk. You might be tempted to think that person is acting rude, but it also might be that she just received a call that her loved one is in the hospital.
St. Thérèse wrote, “We should judge our neighbor favorably in every circumstance and make it become a habit of ours to overlook his faults. Just as we—almost spontaneously—give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, let us also make this an integral factor of our relations with those about us.” She understood well that (a) we have a tendency to judge the actions of others around us negatively, and (b) this is based on habits that can be changed.
The first step to overriding this autopilot tendency in the places where it works against your goals is to become aware of its existence. In order to become aware of it, start paying more attention to the assumptions your mind makes about ordinary circumstances.
The autopilot is another way to understand the doing mode, and intentional awareness is a way to understand the being mode. Besides the autopilot vs. intentional awareness paradigm, here is a summary of six different ways of understanding the doing mode and the being mode as conceptualized by Mark Williams and Danny Penman in their book, Mindfulness.1 These are all concepts that will continue to be unpacked.
1. Analyzing vs. Sensing: Our mind can think, and it can sense. We get so used to living in the world only through the thinking mind, and we tend to believe the stories that we can make sense of. We’ve already begun to see how the thinking mind can actually get derailed, and so it is not always the best guide. We have a whole different capacity for sensing, being aware, and simply being open to the things we touch, taste, see, hear, and smell as if for the first time, or the spiritual and emotional movements within us. Living through the sensing mind allows us to rediscover the curiosity that opens us up to our reality in a brand-new way. God made both parts of our mind, and it is essential that we learn how to tap into them. When it comes to discerning the movements of God within us, we need to be able to use both thinking and sensing capacities.
2. Striving vs. Accepting: In the doing mode we constantly compare what we perceive in our reality with what we want reality to be. This contrasts with an open perception of reality, in which we allow what we perceive to simply be as it is. When we compare ourselves to what we don’t have, we end up miserable. When we take account of what we do have, we find happiness. This is also at the root of gratitude, another concept that is integral to Christian faith and human flourishing.
3. Thoughts Are Real vs. Mental Events: When in doing mode, we place implicit trust in the reality of our thoughts. As our frantic minds move through different ruminations, they don’t stop to really see the thoughts as they are; instead, they passively and automatically accept that they must be true or valuable because they occurred in our minds. When in being mode, we see thoughts as mental events that occur in the mind, which either may or may not be true. The being mode suspends judgment of whether the thoughts are true and simply observes what they are, like clouds floating by in the sky as we sit grounded in the present moment.
4. Avoidance vs. Approaching: While in doing mode, the mind is trying to avoid a problem. This problem sets up the A → B dynamic, which means you need to stimulate the energy (anxiety) to get from A to B. This is the opposite of the being mode, in which the mind has a sense of curiosity about everything going on in this moment, and it doesn’t need to move to a place of safety or solution. Approaching is similar to curiosity. We approach our reality in being mode.
5. Mental Time Travel vs. Present Moment: Our thoughts change when we are stressed, upset, sad, depressed, angry, or even just feeling a bit behind. Our moods drastically affect the way our minds work. It’s as if we are wearing colored dark glasses and everything we look at is tainted by the color. When we remember difficulties from the past, we typically remember things with a negative bias, and when we think of the future, we anticipate things with the same bias. In this kind of mood, we don’t at first realize that we are even feeling or thinking this way. We relive the feelings we experienced at those times, or we pre-live the feelings we expect we are going to experience when something negatively slanted happens. This occurs when the doing mode is active and we process those memories or thoughts of the future on autopilot. Being mode does not mean the absence of thought, or the absence of memories or planning for the future. It means you have part of your mind tuned in to the fact that at this present moment you are remembering something from the past or planning something in the future. You don’t get lost in those thoughts and detached from being grounded in the present moment, but instead experience memories or anticipation as they really are.
6. Depleting vs. Nourishing Activities: When we are in doing mode, it is because there is some goal we are striving for. The brain is not complex in its planning of how to reach goals. It simply executes a way to fix whatever is in its immediate view. It takes a rational person to step in and decide what goals are worth striving for and—this is what this book will help develop—to decide the best way to actually reach those goals. When we are frantically in doing mode, we don’t typically think the best thing to do is to pause, take a break, and do something that replenishes us at the deepest level. When we feel frantic because the house is a mess, we think, “If I clean the house, the problem will be solved.” Actually, that is not true. If we are racing around on autopilot trying to clean the house, we don’t do as good a job as when we do it mindfully aware of what we are actually doing. Taking a few minutes to collect ourselves and then returning to the work at hand will make our work better, and therefore we will accomplish it more efficiently. In this case taking a break is more effective for getting the house cleaned. Most people feel they don’t have time for what this book proposes. You should give yourself a lot of credit for getting started here and taking care of yourself in this way.
You will learn that no matter how frantic life seems, taking time out to nourish yourself and make yourself better is the only way to relieve that burden.
You will come to learn that mindfulness does not mean turning off the thoughts in your mind, but using them as a door to greater awareness of yourself. This is actually one of the essential differences between Catholic mindfulness and Eastern-based forms of meditation. Many meditative practices seek to empty the mind of thought. Hopefully you understand at this point that emptying our minds of anything is not our goal. The very name of this practice is mindfulness. We want to fill our minds with reality. The problems we face in our day are exponentially amplified by allowing ourselves to be dragged into the fantasies created by our imagination. The thoughts that our minds produce are not by nature grounded in truth. We can just as easily have the thought “The sky is green” float through our minds as we can “The sky is blue.” Just reading the words puts the thought itself in your mind. There is no gatekeeper that blocks untrue thoughts from passing across the mind-scape. Yet we allow ourselves, without realizing it, to react to each and every thought as if it was true. Mindfulness is not about emptying the mind of thoughts, but it is about seeing thoughts for what they really are.
The most important thing about mindfulness is that you practice it. There is only so far that reading about it will go toward changing the patterns of neuro-behavior in your brain and the way your mind works. The purpose of this book and the classes I teach is to introduce you to the ideas and help you gain greater insight into what is actually happening while you practice. The real core of what will transform your mind, though, is in the practice.
It is possible to change the habits you’ve unconsciously developed related to your emotions as well. This book teaches you the practical ways you can change the habits of rumination, worry, stress, irritability, anger, judgmentalism, and many other weaknesses that start in the mind. Virtue takes practice, and these exercises will strengthen virtue in the mind and heart.
One student, Theresa, shared her experience as she began to practice mindfulness. She said that in the beginning she was able to practice the exercise twice a day, and had a great mix of feelings about it. At first she was proud of herself for getting started, but as soon as she began her practice, a flood of ideas came to her about all the things she had to get done. “I really have no time for this right now—what was I thinking?” Then she convinced herself to buckle down and stick to the commitment she’d made to herself. A few moments later, she remembered she’d promised she would call her mom. “I forgot about this all day. If I don’t do it now, I’ll forget again. She’s going to be mad at me; she always makes me feel guilty for not calling her. Why can’t she realize I have a life? She acts like I don’t love her because of a missed phone call.” In the midst of this thought stream she realized she hadn’t heard the last three minutes of the exercise. Then she wondered if she should start over, or just keep going. She turned away from those thoughts and back to the exercise. Then she thought, “I can’t wait until this teaches me how to be free of all these thoughts.”
She shared that she felt emptying the mind was the goal at first, despite hearing and reading that wasn’t the case. As she progressed, she came to see any of the thoughts that crossed her mind as mental objects. They were simply clouds passing by in the mind-scape, and she could sit like a solid mountain, unmovable no matter what kinds of clouds they were. Some thoughts were like thunderclouds, some with lightning that seemed to threaten her safety. She learned more and more, though, that she could remain like a mountain, unmoved by whatever passed by in the sky. Other days there would be softer, more comfortable clouds floating through, and still she was the solid mountain. We are tempted also to follow pleasant thoughts, to come off our grounding to follow where they go. We must turn away from pleasant or positive thoughts as well. “This is great; I feel so relaxed. Why didn’t I do this before?” can quickly turn into “How long will it last?” or “What can I do to make this last?” and then finally, “There’s no way this will last. It’s only a matter of time before this brief passing relief is gone, and then I’ll feel worse because I know what I was missing.”
In the beginning especially, the practice of mindfulness is all about learning how to turn our attention where we choose, and for now we choose to turn it away from thoughts. We can acknowledge them, even label them, but then turn away from them, back to the guided practice at hand.
During this time of redirection, it is essential that you are gentle with yourself. It is very easy to be judgmental or critical toward yourself when your thoughts pull you away from the practice. “There I go again.” “I’ll never get this.” “This is no use.” Gently escorting our focus back to the practice at hand is far more beneficial to training that focus muscle and helping us attain our bigger goal than beating ourselves up. Pay attention, though, to how you react in those moments of distraction. How you treat yourself during mindfulness practice is a good indication of the deeper feelings and beliefs you carry around about yourself. As we progress, you will come to see that your deeply held beliefs about yourself play a huge role in your ability to know God, to receive his love for you, and to live that love out in your life.
This gentle disposition of self-acceptance is helpful especially during times of prayer. Of the mind in recollection before the presence of God, Br. Lawrence wrote, “If it sometimes wanders and withdraws itself from Him, do not let it upset you; confusion serves rather to distract the mind than to recollect it; the will must bring it back calmly; if you persevere in this way, God will have pity on you.”2 Furthermore, this peaceful acceptance will not only help us in prayer; it is part of the goal of prayer. It is a facet of interior peace that facilitates a deep awareness of the presence of God at all times. In fact, Fr. Jacques Philippe says:
[O]ne of the most common strategies of the devil in his efforts to distance us from God and to slow our spiritual progress is to attempt to cause the loss of our interior peace. . . . It would be well to keep this in mind, because, quite often in the daily unfolding of our Christian life it happens that we fight the wrong battle, because we orient our efforts in the wrong direction. . . . This is one of the greatest secrets of spiritual combat—to avoid fighting the wrong battle.3
We cannot win the battle if it requires perfect recollection and focus, or the perfect avoidance of every fault and imperfection. The battle we can win is the one for interior peace that rests on acceptance. This is the peace that God invites you to.
Mindfulness of Body and Breath
This is a basic exercise to introduce you to some of the principal elements of a mindfulness exercise. Your breath is an anchor that will be revisited often throughout the coming weeks. While there is some spiritual meaning to the breath (Holy Spirit, creation of the world, etc.), the most important thing about the breath for a mindfulness exercise is that it is always with you, and it is always fluctuating. It is generally easier to pay focused attention to things that are moving because they hold your interest a bit more than things that are static. You will develop the ability to focus on static points, but you will always be able to return to the breath.
Pick a consistent time twice a day that generally works for you. It is especially helpful to practice before times of prayer. You can also pray the novena included at the end of the book after one of your practices each day.
- Start off either standing or sitting, allowing your eyes to close. Take a moment to get comfortable, then draw your attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale.
- Call to mind the presence of God and ask him to be here with you now.
- Begin by bringing your awareness to your body, taking in the sensations coming from the points of contact between your body and what is supporting it, whether it’s something you are sitting on or standing on. Take a minute now to open to what sensations are present.
- As thoughts come into your mind, let them come. Acknowledge them. Then gently move your focus back to your body and the sensations that are present.
- Try to maintain a disposition of curiosity toward your body, and be open to the sensations that are present. Return your attention to exploring these sensations with curiosity every time you find your mind wandering away to some thought.
- Next, begin to move through the body with your awareness. As you slowly do so, spend about five seconds on each of the following body parts, starting with a narrow focus on the part, then expanding to the whole: your foot (first right, then left), lower leg (right, then left), entire leg (right, then left), then both legs. Move your attention through the chest, back, shoulders, neck, head, and now the whole body.
- Then take a minute to sit with expanded awareness of your whole body at once.
- Bring your awareness to the center of your body; pay attention to the sensations of your breath moving in and out of your body. Stay here for a minute.
- There is no need to control your breath. Just observe and be with your breath as it is. Simply pay attention to what is happening.
- Thoughts may come. This is OK. Be aware of these thoughts as they arise. Then simply, gently escort your focus back to your breath.
- Follow the breath. Pay attention to any and all sensations that may arise from it coming in and out.
- As the exercise comes to an end, call to mind the presence of God once again. He is here with you now. Take a moment and rest with him now.
Habit Disrupter: Changing Your Seat
Think of a place you sit every day that never changes. This could be at home or work, where you sit for a short time or a long time. Change where you sit for a week and see the world from a different perspective. Try this at least once a day.
- Mark Williams and Danny Penman, Mindfulness: An Eight- Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Emmaus, Penn.: Rodale, 2012), pp. 37–43.
- Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God (New York: Doubleday, 1977), p. 64.
- Fr. Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace (New York: Society of Saint Paul, 2002), p. 11.