There are a lot of conversations in the mental health world today about mindfulness. Attention to this issue is related to the hectic lifestyle lived by most of us and our deficits related to awareness of the present moment. It is more than just a “stop and smell the roses” sort of mindset. It is an awareness of what is taking place in us by way of feeling and thought. Often those important messages go unnoticed and can become the impetus for what we choose next leading our emotions – which can be unhelpful guides – to decide our next course of action.
Most people associate meditation and other spiritual disciplines with Buddhism. In fact, Buddha said our are like a tree full of jumping monkeys. It is this chaos of a busy mind from which people seek escape and find themselves distracted by the next thing or an activity to distract from disturbing thoughts. Buddha nails that down well. However, most people are unaware that the Christian worldview offers many tools to break through the the gnats clouding our minds with obsessive thinking, worry, and anxiety.
In Philippians 2:5 and following, Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself ” (Greek: kenosis), taking the form of a servant. Jesus’s many acts of service and healing did not come from a mind that was thinking and analyzing about what to do or say, but rather from a mind that had emptied itself into God. Jesus’s mind was emptied of self-reference and the force of merely personal preference. In his “emptiness,” God’s infinite love could shine through Jesus’s human form unencumbered. Through him, the invisible could become visible. In this way, the purified Christian mind is analogous to Tibetan Buddhist emptiness. This spiritual emptiness is not a rejection of ultimate meaning, but rather a deep focused detachment of mind and heart that has been shaped within a profound ethical context.
The medieval Dominican friar Meister Eckhart taught that detachment (emptying ourselves) from every self-centered affinity and fear is such an important spiritual practice that he, with tongue in cheek, put it above love. Even our ideas about God can lead us away from God, so we must walk lightly among them too. As he says,
We ought not to have or let ourselves be satisfied with the God we have thought of, for when the thought slips the mind, that god slips with it. [This discipline] requires effort and love, a careful cultivation of the spiritual life, and a watchful, honest, active oversight of all one’s mental attitudes toward things and people. It is not to be learned by world-flight, running away from things, turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, one must learn an inner solitude, wherever or with whomsoever he may be. (Raymond Bernard Blakney, tr. & ed. Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation. New York: Harper & Bros., 1941, p. 9.)
One shouldn’t forget that Eckhart was steeped in the Gospels and living in Christian community when he wrote this. He may not have been thinking about God, but he was continuously surrounded by and digesting the words, images and gestures of the Christian life. Still, he was convinced that God is greater than any picture or feeling about God. Trusting in God’s invisible presence one’s mind comes to a still point of presence he called Gelassenheit, a complete letting-be.
From the Desert Fathers and from the Greek philosophers before them, Eckhart inherited the insight that our eyes must be without any color in order to be able to register all colors. Dwelling in this detachment from our personal ideas about reality, we come to a consciousness that Paul described when he declared, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Jesus has colorless eyes. And when Paul said that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16) he meant all of us who follow the path into God’s Love. We are not Jesus, but we are like him. We too can have the “empty” or “detached” mind and heart of Christ that sees all colors and registers all suffering and joy. Eckhart describes the Christ-mind’s way of knowing as “daybreak knowledge” in which all things are perceived without distinction as coming forth from, and going to, the light of God.
Similarly, in the 16th century, John of the Cross counsels that after, and in the midst of, our liturgies, hymns and discursive prayers, we Christians must also occasionally enter a dark night of the senses and soul, emptying ourselves of our self-centered preferences and ideas about God and everything else. Jesus modeled this discipline of self-emptying love for us, but he did not do it instead of us. We ourselves need to clear our minds of self-centered and habitual thinking. We must become inwardly detached in an ambience of love that continuously connects us to others and to creation. Our contemplative tradition tells us that when we open ourselves to the Divine movement within, the Holy Spirit will help us do this work. We do the work of creating a space within us for God, and then trust that the Holy Spirit will do the work in us: as we flow out of ourselves, the Holy Spirit flows in.
Christian contemplatives hold up the possibility of unity with God in our minds and hearts. They tell us that we are coming close to this unity when we empty ourselves of all the labels we paste onto others and our own experience. John of the Cross tells us that this emptying is a kind of “darkening” whereby we become naked before God and with God. Paradoxically, it is a darkening that brings Light. In this dark night of the mind the invisible God of love transforms us, freeing us from our cocoons of fear, anxiety and blame. John’s contemporary, Ignatius of Loyola, called this Christian practice Indiferencia or “holy indifference”. In this view, one stops trying to control God. One trains one’s mind to seek God in all things evenly, to have no personal preference for where God will show up. This practice of emptying is quite radical for some like Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross. They even counsel us to let go of our “religious” and “spiritual” thoughts about God. So, Eckhart says, sometimes we must let go of God, for God’s sake.
What does that mean? I think we all struggle with a battle in our minds. Often we seek to avoid that battle altogether because we don’t want to sort through the disturbing thoughts and emotions that accompany them. Avoidance is a sort of god in that it becomes the way by which we deal with life concerns. Letting go of that god for God’s sake is a practice by which we observe the thoughts and feelings in our own minds not for the purpose of “fighting against them” but to surrender them to God and his healing. Paul puts it this way, “Take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).