Mindfulness is a comprehensive term that refers to many things: what you do during the day, how you do it, your attitude while you are doing it, as well as your feelings, emotions, speech, and action. Without the discipline of mindfulness, we remain disordered. The spiritual life has an intrinsic, organic order that cannot be imposed from outside, but comes from within.
This month we will look at the three stages or levels of mindfulness: ordering one’s life; active effort toward divine love; and mystical awareness of the interdependence of life.
Stage 1: Ordering Your Life
Mindfulness implies seriousness and care in ordering your life according to spiritual principles; and a realization that it is a full-time occupation, not a part-time project that is squeezed into everything else. Rather, spiritual awareness is your work, or vocation: a state of being that occupies the center of your life. This full-time occupation of spiritual growth and mindfulness stabilizes your soul and allows all disparate needs and longings to fall into place more easily, because your life now is focused on the one thing necessary. Order has been established, and the rest of your life can fall into place. When your life lacks inner order, it is easy to be overwhelmed by a panorama of possibilities, all of which compete for attention and time, and none of which achieve the desired peace.
In this first state of mindfulness, attention to emotions, desires, and needs is central. We learn to become attentive to our emotional tone, and to avoid anger and undue passions. We also become aware of how heedless and careless we often are in daily life. We are inattentive with our prayers. We are careless with the way we treat people. We rush around. We do not put proper attention on what we are doing.
Some of the obstacles to developing mindfulness include:
Reluctance: There is nothing more damaging to spiritual growth than the reluctant pilgrim. Mindfulness thrives on attentiveness and concern; it is disturbed by ineptitude, laziness, and apathy. You may experience a kind of internalized inertia or sloppy disregard for what is important to your soul. How often do we say: “I want to meditate today, but I have to go shopping and I have to call this person, and oh gee now it’s midnight and I didn’t have time to do that all day.” When we are reluctant to find the time to be mindful, we are in effect saying that the spiritual practices and personal relationships that give life meaning are unimportant.
Murmuring: In the Rule of Life, St. Benedict discusses how destructive the distraction of constant complaining or “murmuring” is, chiding the monks to dispense with constant gossip. Legitimate complaints, which are a necessary and healthy part of community life, are different than destructive murmuring, which is underhanded and designed to become the underside of a community or of one’s heart. Murmuring is directed toward a perceived or real authority, which can take many guises, from unexamined family dynamics, religious alienation, personal wounding, social injustice and so forth. To honestly address these issues is vital to health, and essential to true mindfulness, which is very practical.
Disturbances: A serious spiritual commitment cannot be completely distracted by every little thing—by people who gossip, are angry, or avoid compassion. This does not mean that we remove ourselves in a superior or arrogant manner. Rather, we apply mindfulness to our relations and we ask ourselves whether this relation is, in itself, healthy. The same is true with respect to removing ourselves from distractions. Distractions can be anything—television, movies, phone calls. There is not a right or wrong distraction, only what is a distraction for you. You have to find out what de-centers you or what fragments your inner peace. That is your distraction. That is your disturbance. It is different for each of us. Find out what that is.
Forgetfulness: mindfulness makes us aware of how we forget. So we are not just mindful of what we should be doing, we are also mindful of how we are forgetting what we should be doing. This is important because through study of our forgetfulness, we learn things about ourselves. Again, what kind of camouflages do we use to forget? What kind of rationalizations do we proffer? What kind of ego struggle is taking place when we are forgetting?
False Self or Ego: We all need healthy egos to survive, but the unhealthy or false self is an obstacle to mindful living because it is concerned with looking out for itself. In other words, the ego can be a mask that conceals our inner fears and damages, conceals how afraid we are to know ourselves and to love, and conceals the brutal honesty of the mind at rest. Somehow and someway mindfulness guides you through those aspects of personality that you did not know you had and will be shocked to discover, and yet will become the source of liberation.
Does your life lack inner order? Are you easily overwhelmed by a panorama of possibilities? Which obstacles are preventing you from ordering your life to center around the one thing necessary? Take some time this week to contemplate whether mindfulness is your full-time occupation or whether it has just become another project to complete.