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From Mindfulness to Watchfulness

From Mindfulness to Watchfulness

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By: Brian Harris

I usually enjoy excellent health but some months back succumbed to a minor ailment which required me to be on medication for 10 days.

The doctor informed me that as a likely side effect was sleepiness, I should take my daily tablet half an hour after I finished my evening meal. Came day four, and about thirty minutes after dinner I stopped and thought, “Have I taken my medicine?” Answer – I had no idea.

I had a vague recollection that I might have, but had been so busy doing one thing after another that I really wasn’t sure. I tried to recap my activities and to remember what I had done… sent 3 emails, replied to a text, exchanged a few quick sentences with family members, answered a phone call, and put some of my washing away. But had I also taken my medication? My mind was blank. In the end I came up with a brilliant solution. Given that I had ten tablets, and this was the fourth day, if I had, I would have six left. I carefully counted my supply. Six tablets – yes, I had taken it. I still don’t remember doing it, but I must have.

Welcome to my overbusy world, one which I suspect you share as well. With something always on the go, it is hard to fully take in all that is happening. And that’s the problem. In the flow of life so much is missed. The trouble is that God usually speaks softly. While we don’t intend to deafen our ears to God’s voice, the noise of our living has the effect of drowning out God’s gentle whispers. We are much poorer for it.

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Are You Quiet Enough to Listen?

If we are to hear from God and to be formed by the guidance received, we should review our expectations. Instead of believing that we will hear from God come what may, perhaps we should recite this mantra: “I hear from God when I become quiet enough to listen.”

I imagine you won’t disagree with the sentiment, but possibly are asking a despairing, “Yes, but how?”

One option is to work on our mindfulness. I have previously blogged on some helpful mindfulness practices, but here is a second take.

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. It is about being alert to the now, though alert at a range of levels. The term can mean different things depending on your starting point – a psychologist might mean one thing, a Buddhist priest another and a Christian monk yet another. There are many areas of overlap, but the focus is a little different.

Let me speak about mindfulness as a practice for Christians who want to use it as part of their spiritual formation.

Jesus taught that the present moment is important. He gently reprimanded those burdened with tomorrow’s concerns that the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air are not perpetually anxious about what tomorrow might or might not bring, but focused instead on the immediate tasks at hand. He urged us to trust God for our future, while opening ourselves to the challenges of the present. Above all, we are to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness.

At any one moment our attention is usually focused on either something from our past, something in the present, or something in our anticipated future.

Think About Your Thought Patterns

Reflect on your thought patterns over the last 24 hours. Have they primarily been about something that has happened in the past, and if so, has it been with gratitude, wistful nostalgia, regret, anger, sadness or indifference? You might have been largely concerned with the tasks of the present, with barely a backward look and with little thought as to what the future might be. Equally you might have gone through the motions of doing what must be done in the present, but the real driver for your activity are your goals and hopes for the future. You long for a day when… The dream might already be clearly drawn in your mind.

At the risk of over-generalizing, some people live largely in the past, others almost exclusively in the present, and yet others, in anticipation of the future. While there are always some areas of overlap, if forced to say which zone you most live in (past, present, future) which would it be?

The writer of Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that there is a time and place for everything. There is a place for memory and a place for dreams, but mindfulness reminds us of the importance of observing the present moment, and consciously living in it. Put slightly differently, the purpose of our journey does not have to be our arrival but could be the journey itself. Mindfulness helps us remain alert to what is happening along the way.

Practicing Mindfulness

Some exercises can help with this.

You could sit down quietly and listen to what your body is doing, or if you will, what your body is saying to you.

Sit in a comfortable and relaxed position and pay attention to your breathing. Is it rapid and shallow, or deep and slow? Note it. At this point don’t try to change it, but simply be observant of it. What does it tell you of your present state? You can scan through different parts of your body. Are they tense or relaxed? You could move from your head downwards, finishing with your toes. Become alert to each part.

You could instead choose to focus on the sounds and sensations of the present moment. Work systematically through your senses… what can you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch?  The exercise is about noticing what is. Pay close attention and enter deeply into the experience.

Earlier I suggested as a mantra: “I hear from God when I become quiet enough to listen.” A second is: “To live well, I must notice well.”

Noticing begins with being alert to what is going on inside of us, but it doesn’t stop there. Any practice that is purely about the self and self-awareness is ultimately sub-Christian, because the Christian faith invariably points us towards the other, and the needs of their world, while also pointing us to God, and the activity of God in each situation. When we become conscious of what is happening in our experience, this knowledge can help us to more empathetically observe what is happening in the world of the other. Expressed differently, I can move beyond mindfulness (where I am aware of what is going on in my own self) to watchfulness (where I become alert to the other, the wider world, and God’s activity).

When I am present with my own body, and not hijacked by unconscious fears and agendas, I am free to be truly present with others and with God.

Hearing From God Starts by Listening

Not that this happens automatically. I need to consciously enter into the world of others. It starts by listening, listening not just to the words that the other person is saying, but also to the way they are saying them. I need to pay attention to volume, pace and tone; the use of vocabulary and the things they keep repeating, and those they quickly gloss over. Ask what makes their voice suddenly sound angry, or happy, or sad? Notice also the words they do not say (why didn’t they mention that?). And then there are all the clues provided by body language. Spot the moment when they suddenly fold their arms (why have they become defensive?), or when they shift a little further from you, or avert your eyes. Why did the topic change when it did?  It’s a rich experience, and the more you notice, the more appropriate and helpful your response is likely to be. Often the best response is to keep listening.

Noticing is linked to curiosity. When we are genuinely interested in what is happening to another person we spot things that enable us to serve them as a neighbour. If we ask no questions about the other, or display no curiosity as to why they are as they are, we should challenge our claim that we care about them – for how can we care if we are disinterested?

So how about this as a journey for the week? A little more mindfulness (and I hear from God when I become quiet enough to listen), leading to a little more watchfulness (for to live well, I must notice well).


Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.

About the Author: Brian is a sought-after speaker, teacher, leader, writer and respected theologian who has authored 6 books. After 17 years as principal of Perth’s Vose Seminary, Brian is now founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.

Feature image: Photo by Clayton Webb on Unsplash