This past year I’ve been stumbling upon some books that I had read over twenty years ago. I was stunned to discover great wisdom in these books that I had only recently, over the past few years, absorbed. I wondered how I had missed what was on those pages. It amazes me how we see, understand, and retain information based upon our own lens. I saw what I wanted to see.
The Joy of listening to God, by Joyce Hugget, was one of those books. I believe I was reading it around the time I was going to Undergrad. The book was written by an Anglican Christian who was becoming influenced by the charismatic movement and by Christian mysticism. She discovered a whole avenue of listening to and being in God’s presence. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was discovering mindfulness/neurobiological principles that are essential for encountering God.
I wanted to take some time to talk a little about her suggestions and how they relate to what I have been writing about. I think the main reason that I missed some of what she was saying twenty years ago was that I needed to hear it in another “language.” As cultures change, we often need to find different pathways or different ways to communicate very old ideas. I am convinced that on some level the ancient cultures were embedded with mindfulness. I think their brains looked different. And what came naturally then must be fought for now.
I do not think that acknowledging and recognizing the biology of spirituality takes away from God or negates faith. For me it enhances my faith and takes away some of the magic and elitism that comes from purely mystical experiences. God created us and it makes sense that our ability to grow and connect with him would be part of our wiring. For me, I needed a new language to substitute the one that was riddled with legalism, magical thinking, and performance, but beyond that I needed to find a way on to a path that came naturally to a people of another time and culture.
Understanding how we are wired for sanctification became a vehicle for me. I think back to some of the physical problems I had with my back and knees. I went to various chiropractors and physical therapists to no avail. I later discovered that I was doing things mechanically wrong but was unaware. I didn’t understand the instructions I was given and I didn’t have the body awareness to realize and correct the problem. I was given instructions on doing an exercise but failed to really implement it the way I was supposed to. While doing certain exercises my knees would buckle slightly toward each other. I was told to keep my feet in line with my knees but I was thinking front back not side to side.
There are aspects of spirituality that require an engagement that does not come naturally to me and has been contaminated with performance and magic. I couldn’t reliably grow in these areas as the person I was with the language I was given. Discovering how God designed us, has enhanced my life considerably.
One of the most successful Mindfulness protocols that I have encountered emphasizes not just the structured formal exercises, but the integration of mindfulness throughout our lives and days. This makes complete sense from my experience as a therapist- watching people grow, my own growth, and most importantly my psychological and biological understanding of how the brain changes. If we put in our “reps” of prayer and bible study in the morning, figuring we’ve done our spiritual “work,” we won’t see much in the way of actual growth. In fact, much of that statement is plain faulty, including the emphasis on formal prayer and bible reading.
Hugget was fortunate enough to find a language she understood and teachers that she could learn from. That is not the case for all of us. I think her time and location was more amenable to the stillness of God than today’s American culture particularly on the east coast. She describes one of her initial experiences of sitting with God:
“The hush of the prayer-saturated chapel seeped into me. Within seconds, I had fallen to my knees, aware of my surroundings, the smell of the fresh furniture polish, the sound of the monks shuffling into the choir stalls, the wind howling round the building, yet intensely aware of a love which drew me to itself, the love of God.”
What strikes me about her description is that she intuitively, or by God’s grace, managed to embrace a key anchor to stay present- the senses. The five senses are considered anchors to the present and practicing the art of turning our awareness to those senses is a mindfulness practice that strengthens and engages our ability to stay to present.
Listening to God is predicated upon the ability to sit, quiet the mind, and allow for the “aha” moment. This is not a discipline but a collection of neurological capacities that often need to be trained. Telling someone to sit and listen to God and keep practicing until they get it may be akin to throwing someone in the deep end of a pool and tell them to continue to flail until they get it—its not likely to happen if work isn’t done in advance. I think this is true now more than ever, given our culture of “hurried sickness.”