Advent is, above all else, a season of hope – a virtue that is all too rare in our world. To live as a person of hope is to behave in such a manner as to draw suspicion that we are behaving somewhat erratically as far as worldly norms go. This new type of behavior – what some may even call erratic behavior (the behavior that led people to conclude that the Apostles were “under the influence” on Pentecost) – is characterized by 9 attitudes. I call them 9 Advent Attitudes. Today, we look at Advent Attitude #9. (Drawn from my upcoming book, Under the Influence of Jesus: The Transforming Experience of Encountering Jesus.)
Advent Attitude #9: Practicing Mindfulness
Experts tell us that, when patients are recovering from an amputation (limb loss), they go through several steps: numbness, pining for what is lost, and disorganization (despair) before reaching what is called reorganization or a new way of thinking and living. (Parkes, CM: Psychosocial transition: Comparison between reactions to loss of limb and loss of a spouse; Psychiatry, 1975; 127:204) Before reaching reorganization, however, many amputees experience a phenomenon known as “phantom limb sensation” – the sensation that the lost limb is still active.
New habits require mindfulness because old habits are like lost limbs – even when they are “gone,” they continue to demand attention. And so, we arrive at our 9th and final Advent Attitude: Practicing Mindfulness. In their book, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life (HarperOne, 2011), Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung talk about the importance of mindfulness when developing new habits. They tell a classic Zen story of a man riding a horse that is galloping at a fast speed, giving the impression that they are on an important, urgent quest. However, when a bystander calls out, “where are you going?” the rider responds “I don’t know! Ask the horse!” In other words, a certain degree of mindfulness is required lest we continue to race along through life led unthinkingly by our habits. Advent calls us to a new mindfulness (St. Paul uses the phrase “set the mind”) so that we continually work at breaking the mindless old habits of sin (what Paul calls “life in the flesh”).
The birth of Jesus into our world and into our lives calls us to a “reorganization” in order to leave behind “life in the flesh” in much the same way that an amputee requires reorganization to overcome “phantom limb sensation.” “Life in the flesh” is life that is mindless – simply following patterns of behavior that our naturally self-centered brains dictate. “Life in the Spirit” requires a mindfulness that shifts the focus away from the self and onto others. This does not come naturally to us and requires work. It’s like learning to live with a prosthetic after an amputation: ongoing therapy is needed so that the individual can reach the point of thinking of him or herself as a “new me.” It is only through mindfulness that an idea can become a belief and that a belief can be manifested in action. Advent reminds us that we need constant “therapy” so that we can repent (in Hebrew, metanoia) which literally means to “go beyond the mind that you have.”
- Try writing with your “off hand” and note how awkward it feels. If forced to, however, you would eventually be able to master the skill through constant practice. Remind yourself of this as you begin each day, asking God for the grace you need to let go of bad habits in place of new, healthier, life-giving habits.
- Before beginning each task today or entering into each encounter, pause for 3 seconds and take a deep breath and ask for the grace to be mindful of the experience/encounter.
- As you find yourself doing anything mindlessly, just pause and ask, “do I really need to be doing this? Is this helpful? Healthy? Loving? If not, replace it with a more mindful activity.
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)