Have you ever wondered what constitutes a life? That is, how we interpret existence itself – both our own and that of other people? It seems to me that, from a western perspective at least, life is viewed in a linear fashion. There is a definite beginning and end with a series of events in between that somehow form the timeline of our lives. And it's through our ability to make sense of these events that our own fragile identities are constantly being formed and reformed.
But what happens if something interrupts our ability to maintain a linear interpretation of our own lives? Are there other ways of being that are just as relevant? Or perhaps even more so?
Being fully alive
These are some of the questions I was asking myself on a recent visit with my mother. Mum has diagnoses of Alzheimer's Disease and vascular dementia and it seems to me that with each passing week another little piece of her personality has been stripped away. Another piece of her identity jigsaw puzzle gone. The mother I have always known is gradually vanishing. If it is heart breaking for me, it must be terrifying for her.
So as we sat and had coffee together and the same conversations were repeated every couple of minutes I had something of an epiphany. I can't even remember what we were talking about – I know we had just been looking at some old photos – but I suddenly found myself completely immersed in the moment. And I realised that Mum was too. We were both fully present.
That's when I got it. An accurate recollection of past events or the ability to reliably lay down new memories are not prerequisites to being fully alive in the moment. Not for Mum. She was completely engaged. And not for me either. If I had been thinking about the mother I was missing from the past or entertaining concerns about potential future scenarios I would have missed the moment. And that's all any of us really have, isn't it? This moment in time.
The Lost Mariner
In his fabulous book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Dr Oliver Sacks tells the story of Jimmie G, a man who had an anterograde amnesia caused by Korsakov's Syndrome. Jimmie had a complete inability to form new long term memories and, as a consequence, lived in a present that expired within seconds. For him it was permanently 1945 and he was a 20 year old sailor with his whole life before him.
But Jimmie didn't feel alive. Personal identity within a linear experience of lived time didn't work for him. The only time Jimmie felt truly alive was when engaged in transcendent activities such as prayer or gardening. His sense of continuity and, therefore, identity needed to come from something outside of time. Dr Sacks noted that, “If he was held in emotional and spiritual attention – in the contemplation of nature or art, in listening to music, in taking part in the Mass in chapel … there would be in him a pensiveness and peace.”
Dr Sacks had wondered if Jimmie was condemned to a “meaningless flutter on the surface of life.” But he ultimately concluded that a purely scientific approach “takes no account of the soul, no account of what constitutes and determines personal being” and that no matter what the degree of organic damage “there remains the undiminished possibility of reintegration by art, by communion, by touching the human spirit: and this can be preserved in what seems at first a hopeless state of neurological devastation.”
So what we're really talking about here – with Jimmie, Mum and me – is the practice of mindfulness. That is, a deliberate contemplative state in which the present moment is fully embraced and all extraneous thoughts and feelings are simply allowed to be. If someone with severe neurological impairment can draw meaningful existence from being fully present in moments of quiet contemplation, what does that mean for the rest of us? What are the possibilities?
I don't know about you, but I find it so easy to be lost in my own thoughts – either rehashing the past or analysing a myriad of futures that haven't even occurred – that I can so easily miss what's happening right in front of me. This may seem obvious, but when our minds are constantly living in the past or the future then we are not actually present. We are not fully alive. We are completely missing out on what Richard Rohr refers to as “the naked now” – a joyful present that is fully accepted, included and devoid of all judgment. A present that simply is.
Can you imagine the emotional and physical energy that is freed up when you are fully alive to the present moment and not torturing yourself about things beyond your control? No wonder mindfulness training has become such a helpful resource within psychological practice.
Fear of the unknown
Yet for many Christians, mindfulness is associated with eastern thought and is, therefore, perceived as wrong. Maybe even evil. But here's the thing; if something is true then it is true, regardless of who espouses it. It is a universal truth. Some might think of mindfulness as a Buddhist practice, but in essence it is simply a human practice. We benefit from healthy thinking just as we benefit from healthy eating.
In the sermon on the mount Jesus spoke considerably about not worrying about things beyond our control. He finished with the statement: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34). Indeed, observe the whole lifestyle of Jesus. Although people were always pressing in on him, he was never hurried nor flustered. He simply engaged fully with the issues that each moment presented.
The bigger picture
Although still a novice, I'm finding that silent contemplation allows me to expand into the mind of Christ because it doesn't involve language, which is always value-laden. Words are so limiting, but a heart to heart encounter with the divine allows me to leapfrog my own selfish desires and prejudices into the larger heart of God. And it's there that I find my true self. My larger self that fully embraces all humanity, rather than the flimsy little thing called the ego that mistakenly thinks it's me.
What I'm finding is that I desperately need to know my true identity apart from the linear story I tell about myself. I need the bigger picture of who I really am. I suspect we all do. And in the stillness of mindful contemplation I rediscover daily that my true identity was wrapped up in God all along.
**Beach photo above taken by Mark Darling. Mooloolaba Beach sunset - Queensland Australia.
Mark has a background in psychology and applied neuroscience. He is currently exploring the high country of grace and finding many delightful places of rest for the soul. Mark enjoys surfing, bush walking, making music, good food and laughter in the company of friends. He resides on Queensland's Sunshine Coast and has two grown children.
See all previous articles by Mark Darling