Stop Struggling

Are you trying too hard to be at peace? Fighting hard to practice mindfulness?

Stop struggling.

Calm down.

I feel I am striving too hard to abide in Jesus. Instead of opening the door for Him to enter, I am pounding on the other side of the door … straining to keep pure thoughts and to practice my daily round of spiritual practices. That isn’t necessary, productive or even helpful.

God is already here. Yet I behave as if it all depends on me. Yes, I need to quiet down and let God be present. I am grasping for someone who is all around me, yet my grasp comes up empty. It is only when I relax and submit that I feel God doing the work to allow me to abide in Him.

Is it just me? When I mentioned this in a gathering of Christian friends, I got a lot of blank looks.

Yet, one Christian friend responded with a new phrase I love: Try softer.

That’s the title of a book by therapist Aundi Kolber. She believes we don’t have to white-knuckle our way to God or to life, in general. Her book is a corrective for overfunctioning (one of my greatest issues) and anxiety.

Perhaps I have reached the “let God and let God” phase of my spiritual development. Yet again.

I found some tips on the Woman of Noble Character website that can make this effort to stop the struggle more concrete.

It’s not what I need to stop doing as much as it’s what I need to let God do. Stop struggling to achieve grace and:

  1. Look for a show of God’s power.
  2. Accept God’s comfort.
  3. Let God work things out for the good of those who love Him, including me.

Yes, I need to practice my daily round of spiritual practices. But I need to move forward in a more gentle, open manner, trusting God to do his part. Without God, I can do nothing.

Get Ready for a Calm Christmas

As we hide away from heat advisories in sweltering August, preparing for Christmas is a fun item on the to-do list. I picked up “Calm Christmas and a Happy New Year: A Little Book of Festive Joy” by Beth Kempton for this purpose.

I already consider myself a mindful Christmas practitioner. Yet Kempton took an approach that I found fascinating. She proposes that Christmas has five storylines:

  1. Faith: The celebration of the birth of Jesus and the Christmas story involving church-based traditions and rituals like Advent candles, the creche and traditional Christmas carols.
  2. Magic: The story of Santa Claus, his reindeer and the elves, plus magical Christmas movies and songs.
  3. Connection: Things that connect us to Christmases past, such as “The Christmas Carol,” Christmas trees and treasured ornaments, Christmas dinners, holiday events and Christmas movie traditions.
  4. Abundance: The joy of getting and giving presents.
  5. Heritage: The Christmas practices of your family of origin and your background.

As a Christian, my Christmas celebrations focus on faith. But I was surprised to realize that my family also finds Connection as very important. For one family member, doing the same things that we have done, as in Heritage, is deeply important.

Talk to your family to see what about your Christmas celebration is most important to them. You can create an intentional approach to the season that meets everyone’s needs and desires.

“Calm Christmas” also offers a variety of ideas for a mindful approach to the whole season. I especially liked the author’s idea of spending the time between Christmas Day and New Years Day’s as a “hush” season. This is, she writes: “A time of long walks, hot coffees, languid lounging with leftover chocolates, adding birthday dates to the new diary, telephone catch-ups … and everything on pause.”

Wow! Can I have that in August, too?

Christian Mindfulness in Exercise

Research shows that people who focus on the sensations of exercise and on their surroundings enjoy the experience more. Christian mindfulness can support our exercise program, and the exercise program can build our Christian mindfulness.

How can we do it?

  1. Pray before your exercise, offering thanks for the body you have been given.
  2. Unplug. Exercise without music or other input so you can focus on the experience.
  3. Pay attention to the changes you feel as you exercise: changes and strains in your muscles, your mood and emotions, your breathing and all else you experience.
  4. Notice pain and decide what to do about it. Be nice to yourself.
  5. Observe the surroundings, whether they are nature or the walls of a room.
  6. Listen to your thoughts. Are you in dread? Watching the clock? Feeling competitive with others around you?
  7. As you cool down, offer gratitude for your body, inside and out.

Exercise can be many things, ranging from an addiction to an experience to avoid as much as possible. Bringing Christian mindfulness into the activity can add some calm and clarity to it.

a passageway in a beautiful stone monastery

Prayerfulness as Christian Mindfulness

Christian mindfulness is a relatively new term for an ancient practice. One of my favorite spiritual teachers, Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, writes about it in “The Breath of the Soul.” She calls the practice “prayerfulness.”

Prayerfulness, on the other hand, is the capacity to walk in touch with God through everything in life. It is the internal awareness that God is with me — now, here, in this, always. It is an awareness of the continuing presence of God.

Sr. Joan Chittister, “The Breath of the Soul”

That definition absolutely aligns with mine for Christian mindfulness: living in the present moment with the presence of God.

Sr. Joan has been a huge influence on me since 1990, when I read “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.” At the time she wrote that book, she was prioress at the Benedictine Sisters of Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania. Now she is known internationally as an important spiritual writer, with dozens of books to her credit.

So I am not surprised that we arrived on the same path with different terminology.

Sr. Joan writes that prayerfulness is her inner dialogue with the living God who inhabits her spirit and mind. Not only does prayerfulness allow us to see and talk with God everywhere, it lets us to submit the present moment, with all its uncertainty and anxiety, to God.

As Sr. Joan puts it, “It trusts that no matter how malevolent the situation may be, I can walk through it unharmed because God is with me.”

Sr. Joan shares her spiritual practices through her website here. You can subscribe to her monthly newsletter, “The Monastic Way,” on the site. You also get free webinars and Zoom calls with Sr. Joan and her group, an online movement called Monasteries of the Heart.

Insects: A Mindfulness Exercise

Insects in the summer used to just bug people. Now, concern about reduced number of bees and other insects give us all a chance to practice mindfulness. And to be thankful for their place in God’s plan for Earth.

This idea first developed when I learned about a study in the journal Biological Conservation in April 2019. It said about 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction. Wow! It turns out that scientists have been concerned about the reduced number of insects for several years.

In its January 2021 issue, the science journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) put together a series of 12 separate studies from 56 scientists in several countries about insect populations. University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum equated the issue to the first studies on climate change 30 years ago. She said insects are critical to the natural food chain and pollinate human crops. On the other hand, many humans hate them.

These studies were released about the same time that I developed skeeter syndrome. Yes, that’s a real thing. It means that I am allergic to the saliva of mosquitos. Each bite swells up into a small mountain on my skin that itches and hurts for weeks.

Searching for prayers about insects also was informative. Almost all of them were prayers to make insects go away, rather than be fruitful and multiply. While I may want the mosquitos to stay away from me, I also want them to exist. Even if they are sometimes identified as the deadliest life form on Earth, God has a purpose for them.

Be thankful for insects

So how can we bring Christian mindfulness to insects? The easiest way is to notice them and pray for them. I have adapted two prayers that I found online. The first one, which I changed into modern English, is about bees:

Lord God, Almighty, you created heaven and earth, and all the animals that live in the air and on the earth for the use of man. You have directed that the ministers of Your holy Church should light candles made of beeswax when the holy sacrifice is offered in which the Sacred Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, Your Son, becomes present and is consumed. Send down Your blessing on these bees, that they may multiply, be fruitful and be preserved from all harm so that the product of their labor may be used to Your honor, and to the honor of Your Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the most blessed Virgin Mary. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

catholic.org

Another prayer I found online begins like this:

May compassion and love reign over all the earth for all the tiny beings who live in the soil, the trees, the water, and the air, creating harmony and balance with your songs, your pollinating of flowers, your graceful flight, your mysterious transformations, and your miraculous ability to literally create soil in which new plants can take root.

allcreatures.org blog

Five ways to help insects survive

A mindful approach to insects also could include helping them survive. Here are five ideas I found:

  1. Reduce the number of times you mow your grass.
  2. Plant native plants. Many insects need these to survive.
  3. Avoid pesticides and go organic in your yard and garden.
  4. Leave old trees, stumps and dead leaves alone. They are home to countless species.
  5. Support and volunteer in conservation organizations.

The Lord made insects as part of His plan for planet Earth. Let’s help Him keep them alive.

Create Your Own Childhood Summer

The happiness expert Gretchen Rubin has a great idea to “design your summer” by planning to add enjoyable activities to your schedule. While you are planning, be sure to re-create activities from your own childhood summers.

In elementary school, summers were wonderful and endless. I would create a tent out of a old blanket hanging off the backyard fence and use another old blanket for a floor. There I would spend hours outside (yet inside the tent) reading books from the library.

Mother, who was a housewife, carted us to the pool when she could get the car from Dad. Otherwise we had a baby pool to roll in when we got hot, sprinklers to jump through and a garden hose to drink from when we were thirsty. We played school and other games in neighborhood basements.

Box fans tried to cool the hot house. No one in the neighborhood had air conditioning. So we often sat outside and watched the lightning bugs. Or we’d pack up snacks to go to a drive-in movie.

In junior high, my sister and I rode our bikes uptown to the bakery for doughnuts and then to the library. The pool was a constant, and we enjoyed heading there on hot days from our non-air conditioned house.

Fast forward a number of decades. The community pool is down the street, and I haven’t been in years.

This summer join me by making sure you add at least one activity to your summer routine that reminds you of childhood.  I’m going to read outdoors. I’ll be on a comfortable outdoor sofa instead of a tent. But that’s okay.

When we’re enjoying that activity, let’s praise God for our good memories of summer.

boy listening to sea shell

Go Outside and Listen

Listen. One of the pandemic’s benefits has been an increase in the amount of time spent in nature. In fact, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development used the pandemic to study the benefits of time in the fresh air.

The results were even better than expected. Not only did spending time outdoors improve general well-being, but it also altered and improved brain structure. The areas of the brain impacted affect mood, concentration and working memory. Spending time in nature could not be a better idea.

Christian mindfulness practices are all easy to adapt to the outdoors. One of simplest is mindful listening to the quiet around you. Is silence ever really silent? Tuning into the sounds around you is a great way to stay in the present moment. And hearing those sounds offers opportunities for prayers of gratitude and worship for the world God made.

The practice is simple.

  • Go to a place outside where you can feel safe and relaxed.
  • Close your eyes, if you’d like, and listen to the sounds of your own breathing first.
  • Thank God for this opportunity to be in His creation.
  • Listen to the sounds as they occur. Hear them come and go.
  • If you identify a sound of something you love (a robin, for example), praise God for it.
  • Notice how this impacts your mood and your body.
  • Close with a time of worship by thinking about the creation around you.

It’s like your mother said: Go outside and play. It’s good for you.

Pray for Your Pastors

But I do more than thank. I ask – ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory – to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is He is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life He has for Christians. Oh, the utter extravagance of His work in us who trust Him – endless energy, boundless strength!

Ephesians 1: 17-19, The Message translation

Praying the same prayer for nine consecutive days is an old practice called a novena. We all need to do a good old-fashioned novena for our Christian leaders and pastors.

Dealing with all the issues surrounding pastoring in a pandemic has worn them out. Paul’s prayer from Ephesians 1 is a good one. (I’m going to pray it for myself and others working in lay positions at our church as well.)

A novena is not … and never has been … a “magic” formula. But concentrating on the same prayers … slowly and deliberately …. for nine days in a row can reveal the voice of God to us as well as send blessings to our pastors.

Resource: The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

“The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” by John Mark Comer speaks of Christian mindfulness without uttering the phrase. Comer, a pastor and podcaster from Portland, Oregon, is clearly writing to a congregation much younger than my Baby Boomer self. But his concepts are eternal.

In the book, Comer gives an excellent overview about how we all got so speeded up. Then he presents principles for winding ourselves down to human speed. His view is that we need to do three things in life:

  1. Be with Jesus.
  2. Be like Jesus.
  3. Do what Jesus did in his life in our own surroundings and circumstances.
This 30-minute video outlines his thoughts.

I first heard his ideas on “John Mark Comer Teachings Podcast,” a listen-worthy collection of his sermons. It can be found on most podcast apps. There’s real wisdom in his words, even if the language seems very Portland-ese.

He encourages us to “unhurry” our lives through four practices: silence and solitude, Sabbath, simplicity and slowing. He also encourages us to develop a rule of life, sharing 20 ideas from his own.

“The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” is really about living a modern contemplative life in family and church. I highly recommend it.

Other resources for Christian mindfulness can be found here on the Resource page.

Beat Burnout

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, burnout is everywhere. The American Psychological Association, in its 2021 Work and Well-Being Survey, found a frightening level of burnout that’s no surprise to most people.

The survey found that 79 percent of employees surveyed had work-related stress in the previous 30 days. The occupations reporting the highest levels of burnout were (again, no surprise here) health care and education. But the symptoms of burnout spread across most occupations. The level of negative impacts reported include:

  • 44% had physical fatigue (a 38% increase since 2019)
  • 36% had cognitive weariness
  • 32% reported emotional exhaustion
  • 26% felt lack of interest, motivation or energy
  • 19% reported lack of effort at work

So what is exactly is burnout? Back in 2019, the World Health Organization defined it as a syndrome resulting from workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It has three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

Is this you?

Three Christian mindfulness practices to fight burnout

Just One Thing: Pick one task a day to perform with Christian mindfulness. Pray before and after. Ask God to be present with you as you do the task. Focus your full attention on the work in the presence of God. You could change tasks each day.

Ask for Change: Starting a new job is generally exciting, if somewhat stressful, because there is so much to learn. Use prayer and reflection to think about what new thing you’d like to learn. Or what new responsibility you’d like to take on. Come up with a proposal about how to learn to do those things. Take it to your boss, who may be happy to help if just to get you to stay.

Add a Prayer Break: Adding a five or 10-minute prayer break to your day is fairly easy. Mark it on the schedule, using a code word if necessary. Then stop to pray for your work, upcoming meetings, your co-workers and your organization’s mission. You may feel more purpose and insight when you get back to your work.

Be sure to bring your burnout into the healing power of Christian mindfulness. It will help you decide if it’s time to join the Great Resignation or if you just need to make a change in your current job.