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Presence and Mindfulness

Presence and mindfulness garner much attention in the world of contemporary psychology and self-help. But they are rather important for Christian discipleship as well! The very virtues of faith, hope, and love are impossible without being present and mindful. They require receptivity, openness, vulnerability, and a sense of wonder and awe at the mystery of the other person, creation, and the living God.

I have had a tendency to sacrifice those childlike qualities at the altar of various false gods: efficiency, accomplishment, image, perfectionism, others’ expectations, my own expectations, shame, or fear. Then I become driven, pushing hard and moving fast. I don’t have time for that! becomes a repeated mantra. The wonder-filled and playful little boy inside languishes, and resentment starts swirling in the recesses of my heart. As I push hard through the drudgery, if I notice someone with childlike playfulness, I am likely to feel jealousy or judgment or contempt. Must be nice! I think inside. As I walk fast and work fast and drive fast, if someone or something gets in my way, I’ll feel irritation, tension, frustration, or more resentment. If I stay in this mode of operating, it’s only a matter of time before I start seizing lesser pleasures, which I devour in a disembodied state of isolation. Those substitute forms of connection soothe the anger or shame or fear of the moment. They are predictable and therefore feel safe. There is no risk of rejection or abandonment. But they leave me empty. Meanwhile, I have missed out on many moments of genuine encounter.

Have you had those moments when you notice something or someone who has always been there in front of you, but you begin seeing for the first time? Huh. I never noticed that before. I wonder why…? I am at my best when I am present and mindful, receiving the gift of the person or of the moment with curiosity and kindness. It is then that I begin discovering with delight what God is doing, this God who is always full of surprises. It is then that I become more open to the gift of communion with God and communion with others, loving and being loved. If I remember correctly, Jesus told us that is what it is all about!

The latest insights of neuroscience have helped me appreciate how my “drivenness” has been a trauma response. I effectively learned how to hack my nervous system: running on high alert over 90% of the time, and then crashing safely down through soothing or numbing behaviors. Healthy human behavior allows an ebb and flow of rest and excitement – feeling safe and connected in both states. That was rarely an option for me.

For many years of childhood, I needed to be on high alert for threats, almost all the time. Without a moment’s notice, I had to be ready to react. Most of the time, that required a subtle fawning and fitting in – not in a relaxed and joyful mode of connection, but in a hypervigilant way of complying: quickly reading the way my stepdad or others wanted me to be. Any felt misstep would bring a jolt of dread and shame. In time, I discovered how to achieve and perform. If others thought I was great, it gave me a certain amount of privilege and safety (and kept their gaze far away from my felt sense of worthlessness). Occasionally, I needed ways to numb out and give my sympathetic nervous system a break. Comfort food or long hours video games served well. I could still be “on” whenever I needed to, and a robust amount of physical activity (at least during my teen years) made the indulging in food a non-issue for the time being.

This alternation between drivenness / numbing out served me well for a long time, especially in those moments or seasons in which I felt more overwhelmed or threatened. It eventually wrecked me, and even still I can find myself pulled back into its orbit.

Little by little, I’ve been rediscovering the joy of being present and mindful, noticing and being aware, rekindling the wonder and curiosity that burned in me as a child, and allowing myself to be surprised. But there are reasons why I often avoided it! Being present and mindful also includes welcoming experiences I’d rather not : grief, heartache, loss, loneliness, rage, fear, or shame. These are all real pieces of me that Jesus is helping me integrate, so that I can make a free and wholehearted gift of myself. If I hold contempt for those experiences in others or myself, there isn’t room to receive and grow.

Some of you may have a discomfort, disdain, or suspicion of this language of “presence and mindfulness.” But nothing could be more truly “traditional” in the sense of being a recurring theme throughout twenty centuries of living Tradition in the Church. Throughout the centuries, monks, mystics, and missionaries alike have emphasized the importance of being present and mindful.

Perhaps they have used other words, such as “meditation” or “recollection” or “discernment” or even “mercy.” Today’s saint, Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) emphasizes the importance of slowing down and being more present in a meditative state:

Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself. You have to be mindful of your people without becoming unmindful of yourself.

He proceeds to invite his brother bishops and priests into an ongoing practice of meditation: “Nothing is more necessary than meditation. We must meditate before, during and after everything we do … In this way, all that you do becomes a work of love.” Without the presence and mindfulness involved in ongoing meditation, the growth and fruitfulness of love is choked off by the thorns of our striving and self-reliance.

Our Catholic Tradition has a robust history of meditative prayer, which engages our imagination, our five senses, our thoughts, and our emotions. You see it in the writings of the apostle Paul and in the life and preaching of Jesus. You see it in desert Fathers like Anthony of Egypt or Dorotheus of Gaza. You see it in medieval theologians like Bonaventure or Thomas Aquinas. You see it in mystics like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or Ignatius of Loyola. You see it in the liturgy itself, which invites our bodies, our five senses, our imagination, our desire, and our emotions into wholehearted worship!

The very words “present” and “mindful” reflect the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. We who are priests stand in the presence of the heavenly altar, participating in the self-offering of Jesus, the High Priest. After calling down the Holy Spirit on the offerings of the gathered assembly, we declare with Jesus “this is my Body” and welcome divine presence under the appearances of bread and wine. Our prayer proceeds with the anamnesis – a very special kind of “remembering” that allows those saving events to be truly present here and now. The Greek anamnesis is more literally translated as “mindfulness.” Our human capacity to be mindful is a reflection of the divine and eternal mindfulness. For God, there is no past or future, but all is an eternal now. We as humans sojourn through time. But in the Eucharistic liturgy, priest and people alike are invited to present all of the fragments of our life and allow them to be gathered together and transformed by the divine presence of Jesus. All the “once-and-for-all” events of his life become truly present, and we are invited to be mindful. Meanwhile, in this marvelous exchange, he invites us to present all of ourselves (including the very messy parts) and be touched and transformed by God, in his eternal mindfulness of his scattered children.

The Eucharist is the beating heart of the Church. The presence and mindfulness that is woven into the Mass is then meant to be echoed in our daily living. At Mass, we receive and are received into the much larger reality of the Body of Christ. We become again and again what we one day will be. As we continue through the work, the rest, the play, and the conversations of any given day, we are invited to continue abiding in that presence and mindfulness – to be open and receptive to the ongoing movements of the Holy Spirt and surprises of the living God. The experience of Communion in the Eucharist opens up the lived reality of Communion in our daily lives.

Categories: Affective Maturity Developmental Trauma Facing Heartache in Our Story Neuroscience and Trauma Research Polyvagal Theory Theology

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Fr. Derek Sakowski

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