Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
All of us have experienced at some point in our lives how automatic some bad habits and troubling emotions can be. It is almost like they occur without our thinking about them. Many 'mindlessly' reach for a cigarette, a piece of candy or something else that can endanger us. Many without being watchful react almost reflexively with anger when someone intrude on us, or respond with impulsive anxiety if we suddenly feel threatened.
The behavioral research literature has found support for a clinical tool called mindfulness which can be used to break bad habits and troubling emotions. One psychologist Kabat-Zinn (2003) defined mindfulness as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmental to the unfolding of experience moment by moment." The 'patient' can focus on the sensory and physical aspects of the present moment, recognize thought patterns, feelings and physical sensations that are occurring and learn to tell the difference between sensation, thoughts and feelings. The 'patient' then practices making decisions based on the choices they really want and feel right.
Not immediately recognized is the early fathers of the Eastern Christian Church talked about nepsis which is vigilance and watchfulness of the mind and heart. This is similar to the cognitive therapy technique employed by psychologists in helping patients to be mindful and thus learn to control their thoughts and feelings. These early Christian spiritual teachers taught their disciples to develop nepsis that is to be wakeful and attentive, (from the Greek verb nepho (to be vigilant, mindful.) to that which was inside and around them. Thus, we have to be completely "present" to our thoughts and surroundings. This is not dissimilar to a military scout at the head of a column, or a busy parent "attending" to their newborn infant (Morelli, 2009).
The goal of these early Christian teachers was to bring about Godly inclinations, thoughts, feelings and behavior among their students. This can be seen in the words of St John Cassian (Philokalia I) who wrote about St. Antony the Great's understanding of Jesus' Gospel teaching: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" (Mt 6: 22-23). St. Anthony said: " and this is just what we find; for the power of discrimination, scrutinizing all the thoughts and actions of a man, distinguishes and set aside everything that is base and not pleasing to God, and keeps him free from delusion." This is still a righteous goal for all and the purpose in life for all Christians.
This advice, however, can be applied to all bad habits and feelings. Once we detect a habit that we have that is harmful or an emotional reaction we have which is damaging to ourselves or others we can take the step to place ourselves at the head of the column, be mindful, watchful vigilant and prepare a counteraction: a alternative competing response, an different interpretation of the events around us and a different feeling about the whole incident. This would be applying the words of St. Peter in his first epistle (5:8) "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour." This is would be applying mindfulness.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based Interventions In Context: Past, Present And Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.
Morelli, G. (2009 January 09). Suicide: Christ His Church and Modern Medicine. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Morelli-Suicide-Christ-His-Church-And-Modern-Medicine.php
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth (Vol 1) . London: Faber and Faber.