Surviving and thriving-Part II
I wrote a few weeks ago about the spiritual discipline and practice of prayer. Prayer is common to all religions. It is the fundamental way that we enter into some kind of communion with God. We direct our thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears to God, by words, and sometimes by thoughts. We may use prayers that others have written for us, or we may use our own words to express ourselves to God. For our prayer to have any kind of meaning or effect, then our prayer must be authentic. To put it another way, if our hearts and souls are not in our efforts, then it is unlikely that much will come from our time in prayer.
Prayer is an act of will. We pray by engaging our thoughts and energies towards God, as we perceive God to be. We are using our minds. And it is this aspect that I wish to talk with you about in this piece of writing. Our minds are our own, or they should be. The health and welfare of all of us is utterly dependent upon what is bobbling around in our heads. If we have settled minds, and have nurtured a sense of contentment and peace, then in general, life will go well for us. If on the other hand, we have a constant sense of distraction, or despair, and our minds are unable to settle on any one particular task at a time, then we are in trouble. It doesn’t matter how well off we are; or how healthy we are physically (and if our minds are disturbed, it won’t be long before our physical health suffers): if our minds are constantly troubling us, then we cannot attain peace, rest or contentment.
Before we go any further, I must make something clear. If you are in distress, talk to someone about it. Do not suffer in silence. This is a rapidly changing world, and it is no longer the case that asking for help from trained and qualified healthcare staff in relation to emotional or psychological problems is seen as weakness or inadequacy. If you approach your doctor, a counselor, a nurse or a member of the clergy, you will be listened to. If you feel you have to talk to someone anonymously, call the Samaritans, or Mind, or one of the many organisations which offers telephone support. Distress in this sense, is about being unable to sleep properly, not deriving any enjoyment from life, or having thoughts about self-harm. There are many other signs or symptoms of distress, but if you are worried or unhappy and it isn’t getting better for you, please get help.
So, some of you will already be ahead of me. You will have perceived that I have shifted from talking about prayer, to thinking about the contents of our minds. Our prayers reflect what is going on in our heads, and if our minds are out of kilter, then this will show up in our inability to pray constructively, but more particularly, the pattern of our lives will be disturbed. It is this aspect of our lives, and of our spiritual growth and development that I want to reflect upon today. I am not setting out to tell you what to think about in any particular or general sense. I am hoping that after reading this, you will have a sense of how to exercise some kind of control upon your mind, so that you have a settled and balanced approach to life. That will guide you, (as Luke says at the end of the Benedictus), ‘in the way of peace’.
As I hinted above, the little matter of who our minds belong to is rather key to all of this. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, there is a line towards the end, where he states,
‘Do not model your behaviour on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and mature’ (Romans 12:2, New Jerusalem Bible)
Reading the letter of Paul to the Romans is not an easy task- it is one of his most convoluted and messy pieces of writing, and although there are many inspiring passages, Paul is sometimes at his most obtuse in trying to explain the basis of the Christian faith in a way which allows us to understand the point of the crucifixion, the origins within the Jewish Faith, and the meaning of living within the Spirit. However, we do get glimpses of how our faith can bring us to maturity and a peaceful and settled state of mind. What we actually do with our thinking, and how we allow our thoughts to develop and then direct us, is key to finding peace and harmony in our relationships, our place in the world, and ultimately, with ourselves.
For some of us, this might seem impossible. Those who direct and train others in the discipline of prayer, will often refer to ‘monkey brain’. If you haven’t heard of the expression before, you should get the idea of what it is referring to by the name. Those of us who suffer from monkey brain, find that without knowing it, our thoughts and thinking can go off in all kinds of directions which we might not have originally intended. It can happen regardless of what we are doing or how he may have intended to start thinking. I might intend to sit down to read for a while about something, which is enlightening and illuminating. But soon afterwards, I find myself in the kitchen, the kettle on, and wondering what might be on the radio. And as for the times set aside for what Father Ted referred to as having a ‘bit of a pray, you know” (when he was in really big trouble), well, that can be very dispiriting. It really can only be a few minutes before I have started ruminating on the next episode of whatever box set we may be working our way through, or whether the latest book ordered will come today. There are times when any of us can find distractions all too easy to follow, instead of getting on with the things we should be doing or dealing with.
And yet, what has daydreaming got to do with finding peace? After all, as some psychologists point out, fantasy and mind-wandering can be quite a healthy thing to do, so why worry about our minds going off on tangents? Isn’t it just part and parcel of everyday life? Well, yes, but… it isn’t just idle fantasising which is the problem. It’s about our minds going off in directions which can be destructive, and in the worst cases, devastating. I referred earlier to Paul’s letter to the Romans, and Paul talks about revenge. He says that revenge should always be left to God. Revenge, and the thoughts that lead to revenge, (resentment) are very dangerous areas for any of us to think about. And yet, without resentment, our society would become very unstable and dangerous. Resentment is a key aspect of restraint within society. When we perceive or know of someone breaking the rules, our initial reaction is one of resentment. Resentment, is important in maintaining stability and cohesion within communities. However, when resentment takes hold, we can be led to some nasty and destructive ways of thinking. And in some cases, violence or relationship breakdowns can result. This is just one example of how thought control and discipline are key to our mental, spiritual and emotional health and well-being.
Exercising control over our thinking can pay big dividends in establishing and maintaining a peaceful and contented mind. And it is interesting that Paul simply states that renewal of our minds is part of Christian life and discipline. We are not told of any specific ways to rid ourselves of destructive or harmful thinking patterns or behaviours. We are urged to follow ‘good’ behaviours and reject bad ways of behaving, and we are taught to be thankful, and generous. It is only recently that mindfulness and other techniques of thought control and discipline have been described and taught. This suggests, seemingly, that thought discipline was prevalent two thousand years ago. We certainly know that Buddhism, which focuses on ways of establishing healthy ways of thinking, had been established for several hundred years before Christ, and we do glimpse strands of Buddhist thought in some of the New Testament writings. The Greek philosophy of Stoicism taught that the best way to deal with the vicissitudes of life, is to develop and nurture a belief, that even though much of life is less than perfect, or even good, we should be accepting of this difficulty. Buddhism teaches that suffering is part of life, and that by accepting this with equanimity we are able to enter into a direction of life development, which brings peace and contentment.
However, states of mind which just accept injustice, cruelty, or even worse, are also not healthy or desirable. Some of the great Christian reformers recognized injustice and rose up against it (for example, Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery). Wisdom, is about our knowing when we should reflect deeply upon injustice, someone’s bad behaviour, or whatever it is that might have upset us. Wisdom, in the Old Testament, is so highly prized, that some commentators suggest that Wisdom is what we read about in the New Testament as being the Holy Spirit (the Advocate, or Counsellor). And then there are the times when we should just forgive, and forget, and move on. These things are not easy. It takes discipline and sometimes courage to confront ourselves, and change or block destructive thinking. And sometimes, we need to take advice about whether we should be upset, or if there are times when we should just ‘move on’.
Philosophers spent literally hundreds of years trying to work out the best foundation for goodness. And yet in most situations where we are confronted by difficult situations or bad behaviour, we have virtually no time at all in which we can reflect about what is the right thing to do. The good news, is that if we have nurtured a mind which reflects with gratitude and generosity upon what we have, then we will in all likelihood react with caution and carefulness when confronted with something bad. Conversely, if we are constantly ruminating on how badly we are treated, and how unjust life is to us, then on provocation, we are more inclined to react defensively, or even aggressively, exacerbating the situation we find ourselves in.
Paul, in his epistles (letters), refers to the fruits of the Spirit. Gentleness, kindness, generosity, and other behaviours, which nurture kind, supportive communities, and households. As he acknowledges, there are no laws about this way of life. But by being selfless, we bring out the best in others, and that takes considerable self-control. The good news, is that by developing these propensities, we often find ourselves happier, and more content. We have a greater sense of participating in a wider and more generous world. And the quality of reciprocity is infectious. We become more settled and more likely to find peace with each other, as well as with ourselves.
At the time of writing, many of us are tired and longing to find a way out of the current restrictions placed upon us (May 17th, 2020). In such situations, we can be grumpy and resentful. Now is the time for us to be on guard. We need to be careful about what we think, and about how we view the world and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. By looking upwards and outwards, and finding delight in the places and the world in which we find ourselves, our minds will filter out the bad, the corrupting and the disruptive, and we will ponder on the majesty, glory and sanctuary of the countryside around us in which we find ourselves. May God bless you, and may you find peace in whatever circumstances you find yourselves in.
Martin Quayle, May 2020
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