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Mindfulness, therapy and the Church

2012124132breath_1I sent out a tweet last week asking to interview someone who’d found mindfulness useful for coping with depression. Mary got in touch and told me her story, which was fascinating. I thought I’d share it for this week’s newsletter.

Mary is a 25-year-old ordinand-vicar, who uses mindfulness to cope with the Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder that developed after a car crash last year.

She tells me she had a sense of a vocation to be a vicar from the age of 19. ‘But I really didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t on my agenda.’ Instead, she studied physics at St Andrews and then trained to be a teacher at Cambridge. The priest of her college insisted she think about her vocation, and gave her a book by Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today. ‘There wasn’t any mention of women priests in it.’

Finally, after three years of wrestling with her soul, she decided to give her life to God. ‘I was scared of doing it. I was giving up a good job and decent salary. My parents are still getting used to it. They think I’m a bit mad. It’s making a big statement. It’s not what most people do. It’s hard these days to be and do what you believe in – there’s always someone to knock you and mock you. Is it acceptable to be a Christian these days, to give your life to God?’

She went through the ‘discernment process’ by which the Church of England decides if you’re suitable to be a priest. This involved a 48-hour ‘residential interview’ (‘a bit like the Big Brother house’) in which you are interviewed by three different people, observed as you interact with your fellow wannabe-priests, and asked to fill in a ‘personal inventory’ with questions like ‘what would you have on your headstone?’

She passed the process, and won a place at a seminary college at Oxford for her priest-training. One week before she was due to begin the training, the car crash happened.

Angry at God

She was driving down an A-road into Harrowgate, when she had a head-on collision with another car. Her car was then hit again, and spent spinning across the A-road. She was rushed to hospital for surgery.

She says: ‘I thought I was going to die. And I wasn’t scared, I was annoyed. I was annoyed at all I had been through to commit myself to God, and now it was all going to be over before I had even begun.’

She was operated on for a perforated bowel and intestine. She spent the first two weeks of her ordination course recovering in hospital. ‘I wanted to be dead for quite a long time, in a way I felt rejected by God because He clearly didn’t want me in Heaven with Him!  It felt like I was being tested, in fact the whole year feels a bit like a test, a bit like Job.’

She says: ‘When I was in hospital I went to chapel, which was empty, and I shouted at Him and questioned what on earth was going on.  I then broke down in tears and could feel His presence and I knew I had to stay close, because He was all I had to get through the next phase. Initially, and I suppose for a few months I could not really engage with worship services, which was awful, because they and the Eucharist were what had sustained me through previous difficulties.  God felt rather far away, so I had to stay close and wait, regardless of how I felt.’

Then, in her first term, the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder emerged, like a bruise swelling. ‘I’d get flashbacks of the impact. I was very anxious, nervous a lot of the time. Any loud noise, I got palpitations. It led to me having very low self-esteem. I couldn’t really see beyond each day. My short-term memory was damaged – people would tell me their name and I’d forget it straight away. I felt hugely guilty, but couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I thought it would take less time to get better. My self-talk was like ‘come on, pull yourself together, you shouldn’t feel like this.’ It was like I had a noisy devil on one shoulder and a very quiet angel on the other. It seemed like an on-going torture.’

Mindfulness for depression

In January this year, she went to see a university counsellor, Dr Ruth Collins, who prescribed her anti-depressants, and also suggested she try mindfulness-CBT. She gave her a copy of The Mindful Way Through Depression, co-written by Mark Williams, the founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

0Williams, a psychiatrist and Anglican priest, is one of the developers of mindfulness-CBT, and has done more than anyone to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of British society – another of his books, Mindfulness, has been in the top 20 of Amazon for the last three years, selling thousands of copies a week.

His Oxford Mindfulness Centre has brought mindfulness into the heart of psychotherapy and healthcare, and also into public policy (there’s now an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness), business, schools and higher education – in fact, Ruth Collins spoke at a conference on mindfulness in HE this week, arguing that university students should be offered free introductory courses.

Oxford already provides such free courses, and Mary went along to one earlier this year. ‘I was the only person there who said they had depression, so I wondered if it would work. But I found it interesting. We started with a counting exercise – you sit and count to ten breaths. Some could only get to 2 or 3 and they’d get distracted, but I could go further.’

She developed a daily practice, meditating for 10-30 minutes each day, sometimes counting the breath, sometimes doing a ‘body-scan’. She says: ‘It’s been very helpful with the depression. For one thing, I realized how important the body is to the mind. I realized how much tenseness was inside me, and I try to breathe through it. I’m now more aware of the signals from the body to the head. When things get stressful and I feel like I’m teetering on the edge of feeling bad, I try to go back into myself and keep saying ‘breathe, here and now’, and accept what I’m feeling, and try to deal with it or just support myself.’

She thinks this will ultimately make her a better priest: ‘I’m very good at looking after others, not so good at looking after myself. I now try to be kind to myself and say that it’s OK to be where I am. Mindfulness is something in the tool-box to support myself when I stop taking the anti-depressants in a few weeks.’

Mindfulness and the Christian way

How does she reconcile a Buddhist practice with her Christian vocation? ‘I’m quite flexible, I believe in using and learning from other traditions. I enjoy reading the Tao Te Ching, for example. I don’t see any conflict between mindfulness and Christianity – it also has the idea of the connection between the soul and breath [they’re the same word in Greek – pneuma].’

‘And of course there is a long contemplative tradition in Christianity – Jesus did go off to the mountains on his own, then the Desert Fathers developed forms of meditation, and St Ignatius and the Jesuits created a strong contemplative practice.’

19 DORE JESUS VISITS MARTHA AND MARY DETAILThere’s also the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus visits their house, and Martha busies herself with the preparations, while complaining that her sister sits at Jesus’ feet, absorbed in adoration. Jesus replies: ‘You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’ This verse has been taken by Christian contemplatives as a justification for the contemplative life versus the active life of ‘good works’. Still, it’s only one verse – not much of a foundation for a contemplative tradition.

Jesus has many more mystical sayings in the Gospel of St Thomas but, alas, that was excluded from the New Testament canon. Since then, the idea of bringing your mind and heart into union with God was often seen as heretically Gnostic or Platonic – and still is by some Christians.

I put it to Mary that contemplatives, monks and mystics always seem on the periphery of Christianity, suspected, cast out, and sometimes killed – much like the Sufis in Islam. There’s more of a mainstream contemplative tradition in the Orthodox Church, but even there it’s been controversial – witness the bitter fight in the 14th-century Byzantine church over whether the ‘hesychast prayer’ technique was heretical or not.  And the Protestant church seems particularly lacking in contemplative traditions and practices, beyond poets like George Herbert, William Blake and Emily Dickinson, forging their lonely furrow.

‘Yes, perhaps it’s not mainstream. The Church of Scotland is more Protestant than the C of E, and I’ve never witnessed any sort of meditation there. But perhaps it’s becoming more mainstream. Lucy Winkett [vicar of St James Piccadilly] is a big one for contemplative prayer, for example – she did a month-long Jesuit silent retreat. Even the Queen spoke of contemplative prayer in her Christmas message this year.’

Would Mary go on a mindfulness retreat? ‘I’d love to – there’s one in Snowdonia I want to go to.’ Would she say a prayer to the Buddha? ‘Well, no, I’d say a prayer to God. Like St Paul said, it’s what’s in your heart that counts, not the outer rituals.’

In two years, she finishes the ordination and becomes a curate in a church in her diocese. She says: ‘What am I most looking forward to about being a priest? Being able to try and reach out to people, to live the Gospel through my actions and allow God to work through me in ways I won’t understand. Also, being there for people at some of their most difficult times, and the most joyous.  I would hope to promote a greater sense of the need for spirituality of some sort (preferably Christian…!) What am I dreading?  Paper work, red tape and bureaucracy!  They will be the things that will prevent me from my ministry I fear…so I will just have to work hard to limit the impact.’

Good luck Mary! We think you will be a brilliant priest.

What’s the point in life?

iStock_000007789001LargeDear Jules,

I have been going through a really rough time lately and it is quite similar to your experience. I was quite a happy go lucky person through life until I had a bad terrifying trip on weed (my first time trying) I took way too much and freaked out and that traumatised me – having very anxious scary thoughts like what if I harm my self, what if I harm others – what is the meaning of life and whats the point of it all.

Like you I thought I ruined my brain chemistry forever. I still have the strange belief that everything in life is so insignificant and now I’m applying this to my daily routine – why bother getting dressed, why bother looking well in-front of people…strange thoughts like that and even when I give myself a sensible answer to this I boil down to WHAT’S THE POINT IN LIFE?

It’s like being told Santa isn’t real again.. Only I’m an adult and I want to be the happy-go-lucky one who got joy out of things instead of having this thought that puts a dampener on them (it is probably the worst thought I have, it makes my heart sink). Anyway I just want to know if you think I can be happy and live a life where I don’t feel like someone is poking me telling me life isn’t worthwhile.

Rachel

Dear Rachel,

Thanks for your email, and I’m sorry you’re having a rough time of it at the moment.

Some basic initial steps. Firstly, if you’re feeling depressed and frightened, it’s worth telling your parents – including telling them about smoking weed. They may react with anger and fear in the short-term, but that’s because they care about you. I didn’t tell my parents – or anyone – for years about my bad trips, and I think this made a difficult situation a lot worse.

Secondly, you might find it helpful to talk to a therapist. I’m not a trained therapist, but these days you can get free therapy on the NHS – find your local IAPT centre (it stands for Improving Access for Psychological Therapies, it’s an NHS talking therapies programme) or ask your GP. I can’t promise the therapist will be helpful, but it’s worth a shot.

The therapist will probably tell you that how you feel isn’t necessarily how things are. Sometimes our emotions become habits – we get habituated to taking a dark view of things, and are sure this view of things is true. So be wary of immediately believing your feelings to be true judgements of reality.

They will also tell you that sometimes we have irrational beliefs that cause us suffering, which we can learn to question and challenge. For example, I used to find it difficult to go to the theatre because I was very worried I would shout something out and everyone in the theatre would look at me. No shit! I honestly was so worried about this I’d put my hand over my mouth throughout the whole play. Then gradually I learned I wasn’t going to shout out, it was an irrational fear and I could call its bluff. Now I can sit through plays without my hand over my mouth. Progress!

Although I’m not a therapist, it doesn’t sound like you have schizophrenia to me, it sounds like you’re having what’s called an existential or spiritual crisis.

This happens when our consciousness sees through some of the constructs and conventions that ordinary life is made up of. We no longer believe in the things we used to believe in, and this makes us unhappy, because we’re not sure there’s anything worth believing in.

There’s a story-line that many of us follow in life. It goes like this.

In the beginning I was a happy-go-lucky innocent, without a care in the world or a distressing thought in my head. I lived in a Happy Valley of childhood. Then something went wrong. Something bad happened to me, and now I’m exiled from Paradise, and I’m stuck in a world where everything seems grey and miserable and somehow lacking in warmth and colour and joy and purpose. And I can’t get back to the Happy Valley. I can’t find my way back home.

Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering
Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha) wakes up to death and suffering

This is exactly what I felt like when I was in late adolescence and early adulthood. And I think it’s a classic psychological journey. It’s the Fall of Genesis. It’s also what happened to the Buddha – happy teenager, then a sudden shock to his world-view, then a period of depression and searching. A lot of us go through the Fall when we’re in our late teens or early 20s. It’s a nasty surprise, not something our parents or teachers told us about, although it’s described in many books.

The Fall is really an awakening. It’s our consciousness realizing that some of the things we believed in are actually a bit of a charade.

When I was 17 or so, I went through one of these awakenings – suddenly, the world seemed a rather sordid and selfish place. Everyone else seemed a bit of an egotistical phony, chasing after their shallow and pointless goals. Getting a career, getting a nice house with a nice lawn and a nice wife, getting a thousand followers on Twitter…what’s the point!

People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.

And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!

So, you’ve rumbled us. You’ve rumbled adults. You grew up thinking we knew what was going on. We don’t know what’s going on. No one knows why we’re here and we’re all basically winging it and passing the time trying to impress each other before we die.

What's the point?
What’s the point?

When I realized this, it made me feel quite melancholy – although maybe there was a certain pride in my melancholy too (I, the Deep One, have seen through the phoniness. I am the Awakened Greyhound).

I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening – maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation – suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’

This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.

So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?

People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more.  Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.

There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.

Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy – ‘be happy-go-lucky’ –  doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.

I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.

Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.

The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.

On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows – sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience – and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward.

Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: 'If you're going through hell, keep going'
Winston Churchill, who suffered from depression, once said: ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going’

But what is the point? That question hangs over us like a cloud when we’re starting out on the journey, just as we find ourselves outside the Happy Valley. Why bother going on, when everything looks so dark and gloomy?

You won’t find an answer right now. It’s not like there is a Fortune Cookie slogan I can give you, which tells you The Point. First you need to practice taking care of yourself. Epictetus said: ‘practice, for heaven’s sake, in the little things, and then proceed to greater’.

Practice taking care of yourself. Practice taking care in the little things. Practice not letting your negative thoughts beat you up and cause you suffering. Why be so mean to yourself? Would you let someone be that mean to your sister, or your boyfriend, or your dog? So why be so mean to yourself?

Practice taking care of your body. The health of your consciousness is connected to your physical health – when you’re tired or hungover, you’re more susceptible to the automatic negative thoughts. Practice taking exercise, going for walks or jogs or swims or yoga, practice getting out into parks or the countryside. Feed your body with good things, feed your soul with good things.

Practice being appreciative of little things – a cup of tea, a good book, a beautiful song, a funny film. Practice being appreciative of other people – little moments where people are kind to each other, despite all the hurt and confusion in the world. Practice loving other people. See them in all their beauty and vulnerability, and how much they want to love and be loved.  (I am rubbish at this, I’m usually an utter misanthrope – I need to practice being kinder and softer-hearted.)

I think this practice is easier if you find other people to practice with. That might be a self-help group, or a humanist group, or a Buddhist, Jewish, Christian or Muslim group, or it might be a group of friends that you can be genuinely honest and vulnerable with. Some of these groups might be dodgy, and we always have to be wary of ‘gurus’….but in general I think it helps to practice with other people.

All this practice slowly gets you into good habits. It’s like Mr Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid and getting him into good habits. Wax on, wax off!

And then, one day, perhaps months or years after you started the journey, you realize you’re in a different place, and that your world is full of joy, and colour, and meaning.

What is that place? It’s our inner nature, beneath the flaky conventions and constructions we’ve pasted onto it.

To get a bit mystical, I believe our nature is full of light, and when we practice well, when we get into good habits and out of bad habits, we let that light shine out, and we see the light in others too.And that’s the point. It’s not a sentence or a slogan. It’s an experience of consciousness enjoying itself, and helping other people’s consciousness shine out too.

I no longer feel as lost and scared and confused as I did when I was 21. I never became the happy-go-lucky child again. I never regained the innocence of childhood. I pressed on, and after a while I found something else, a kind of happiness regained, occasionally. I still have days of darkness, confusion, fear and ignorance – and I’m sure I have some bigger challenges ahead of me when I will write to someone and say ‘help!’ But I enjoy life, I’m grateful for it.

This is basically me, just so you know.
This is basically me, just so you know.

It’s difficult to talk about spiritual matters without sounding a pompous git spouting cliches. I’m 36, single, fitfully employed, writing this in my dressing gown. I’m a lazy, boozy, self-satisfied, egotistical idiot, caught up in the charade and wondering how many times his article has been re-tweeted. Just so you know who you asked for help.

Here’s a passage from The Catcher in the Rye which I’ve found helpful over the years:

Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many people have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement.

What that means is, when you find a way through the particular forest you’re in at the moment, remember the way, and pass it on.

Jules