Excuse the obscure title. hopefully, all will become clearer as this post unfolds.
So there have been a few themes that have been unfolding of late...
I have always been a bit of a die hard pacifist, but have never been able to really understand why it resonates so strongly with me or even had a good counter argument to the hypothetical situation that pacifism always seem to raise: that what about if your family was being attacked would you kill the attacker to save them.(?)..
I took some time to listen this excellent series, called 'inglorious pastors' (a groanworthy pun from those that get the reference) on pacifism, by a Canadian church called the Meeting house, who come from Mennonite roots. Well worth a listen in my opinion, especially if you're interested in pacifism. One of the key themes emerging from these talks is that of a 'third way': neither aggression or passivity, but of active non violent resistance.
Malcolm and I recently attended a talk on Ignatian spirituality, which engages your mind and imagination and emotions in scripture reading. From that talk we heard of a website that does little 12 min 'pray as you go' podcasts, Ignatian style. It's a non-verbal form of prayer, one which I had not really considered before. Dangerous thing to listen to before going to sleep, as you almost never hear the end...
As well as this, over the last year I have been reading Henri Nouwen, who talks a lot about silence, solitude and prayer, and is the author of a number of books that have been richly drawn upon in pastoral care. Martin Laird has written a gorgeous book that I'd like to read again called 'into the silent land'. I first heard of 'new monasticism' a few years ago, but this sense of drawing on the spiritual wisdom and practices of the christian mystics (like st john of the cross, who wrote 'the long dark night of the soul')and ancient monastic communities is very appealing in lots of ways.
I think this strand of Christian thought offers a slightly more holistic take on spirituality than perhaps the protestant/evangelical tradition that I have known so far. What I mean is it acknowledges the presence of God in the created world, and in humans (regardless of their faith). It seems as though it is based a little less on cerebral 'head' belief and more on the lived experience of faith and engaging with the presence of God. (These are generalisations, of course). It is interesting to see some of these practices and traditions emerging again in the contemporary christian church.
One of the key practices of mystics and monastics is contemplation- or meditation, something which in practice is very very similar to mindfulness meditation. When we arrived in Oxford I became involved in a massive university trial studying recurrent depression, as this is something I have struggled with for many years of my life. the trial is looking at thousand of people suffering recurrent depression and is looking at the effectiveness of various therapy based treatments for it. I was 'randomly selected' into a group who were taught mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. This therapy uses exercises of mediation and breathing to help people suffering depression, anxiety or pain learn to cope with their own emotional,mental and physical experiences. Much of it is about engaging with the present moment, not being mentally 'elsewhere' with worry abut the future or ruminating about the past. It is about recognising the way in which thoughts impact on your emotions and body, and becoming aware of your own thinking patterns.
I found it really challenging, my mind is so busy and I struggled to engage with the exercises. However, over the course of the group I learnt a lot about my own mind and well-being, recognising some of my own self-critical and negative habits, and tendency to drive myself to the point of unhappiness and exhaustion.
I was delighted to discover that there is an ancient stream of Christian tradition, of, essentially mindfulness practice, very similar in practice to the Buddhist based mindfulness but coming from an entirely different world-view, one that recognises the work of the Holy Spirit and the love and guidance of God in human lives. This tradition often uses a 'prayer word' or phrase that is repeated at the start of the contemplation/meditation, which certainly was a helpful practice for my busy mind to use in order to settle and enter into stillness.
I say 'randomly selected' for the mindfulness group in the trial but it has felt like the direction God has been leading me for some time. As my wise mum always said, we're human 'beings' not human 'doings'! I am finally learning how to 'be'.
I think that the milieu we live in is inherently destructive to human well-being. We live in a culture of upward comparisons, social climbing, consumerism and pressure to 'do' 'succeed' 'achieve' and 'produce' - while at the same time, old community links and networks are weaker, people are more transient, families more fractured, and the pace at which we live and absorb information seem to be accelerating rapidly. No wonder depression is rampant, as well as other mental health problems. Huge amounts of suffering are caused by mental illness all over the world.
My belief is that spirituality is a key way to create good mental health and healthier societies. Not all religion is 'good religion' for mental health - I'm thinking here of overly controlling religious groups, religious fundamentalism, and guilt or fear based religions. However, belief systems and practices that give you meaning, purpose, and a sense of inner understanding cannot help but benefit mental health.
For my own experience, recognising the unconditional love of God, a love not based on performance in any sense, but on the fact that I am a created child of God is essential. Having a different value system - one that upholds justice, relationships, peace and compassion is a good antidote to the destructive greed and materialism and subtle discontent that we can easily succumb to. I have so much to be thankful for, right here, and learning to 'be' in each present moment opens up my eyes to the goodness in life again and again. And from a basis of good mental health we are much more able to engage in the world in building community, justice and peace.
If you've made to the end of this post, well done! It's a little more heavy than my usual postings, but all stuff that has been really revolutionary for me. I hope you enjoyed reading it, and find some of the links and names helpful.
Here's some pics from a frosty morning in the botanic gardens...