Thoughts on Mindfulness

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One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may. (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:499)

This is the first part of what may become a short series of posts related to Mormonism and mindfulness – a concept which has increasingly captured my interest and through which I recently came to connect different spheres of my intellectual and spiritual life. I believe for faith and spirituality to have any benefit, we have to take it seriously and truly integrate it into our daily life, which in reality may look vastly different for each person. Hence, I’m excited when I can connect the dots between glimpses of truth in different areas of life and open up a larger overreaching perspective.

Mindfulness and its benefits
I’m part of a profession with an extremely high and rising incidence of burnout. In fact, at least mild to moderate burnout in my profession is all but universal and quite predictable, although still considered somewhat taboo to discuss among colleagues. I have been aware of and interested in this privately for some time. Yet, the true prevalence and impact of the issue struck me more fully during a recent professional conference I attended. The topic of burnout was one of the top 2 issues addressed in the individual sessions. Although discussed from slightly different angles, such as burnout, occupational stress, compassion fatigue, or vicarious trauma, the overreaching issue is the same, and the message was clear: my profession has a serious widespread problem and we need to start talking about it.

Among the preventive strategies against burnout, one of the strategies consistently discussed by the various speakers of the burnout-related sessions was mindfulness. What is mindfulness? Admittedly, even though I had some interest in the concept prior to this conference, I now realized I had a limited understanding of it. We often may hear the term in the context of Eastern traditions like Buddhism and meditation practices. Yet, there is also a quite Western approach to mindfulness – with or without meditation. And there is a significant body of research to support its far reaching benefits.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is considered one of the fathers of mindfulness in the Western world who developed a meditation-based stress reduction program that is widely used today. He summarized mindfulness with the following 7 principles (Kabat-Zinn, 2004):
– nonjudging
– patience
– beginner’s mind
– trust
– non-striving
– acceptance
– letting go

“The mother of mindfulness,” Harvard professor Dr. Ellen Langer, takes a non-meditation-based approach to mindfulness and described it as being open to new information and noticing new things (for an introduction to her work see the recent episode on Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being at http://www.onbeing.org).

The established benefits of mindfulness are many and include, but are not limited to, the following (Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School: Benefits of Mindfulness):
– stress reduction
– chronic pain relief
– improved sleep
– improved relationships
– lower anxiety and depression
– increased life satisfaction

Why do we need a body?
During the same professional conference, I was working on preparing a Sunday School lesson on the postmortal spirit world. According to Mormon doctrine, during physical death, our spirit separates from our body and we enter the spirit world where we remain until we are reunited with our bodies during the resurrection. In the process of trying to find a way to present this rather abstract and speculative material in a way that might be relevant to the class, I had been pondering the relationship of body and spirit in Mormonism.

The church teaches that the spirit world is here on earth, that as spirits we will still walk, communicate with one another, make choices, and hope fully progress in the gospel. Those who did not yet receive the gospel or who rejected it remain in spirit prison where they are being taught by the spirits who accepted the gospel. The righteous spirits and those who have accepted the gospel enter a state of rest in paradise.

Why, then, do we still need a resurrection? Why do we still need to be reunited with our bodies to “receive a fullness of joy” (D&C 93:34)? Why are physical bodies considered so essential to exaltation? Why the – to other faith traditions often perceived as strange – emphasis as God as having a body of flesh and bones?

Connecting the dots
During one of the evenings of the conference, while reading and thinking more about the concept of mindfulness in my hotel room, I connected the dots in my mind: in this life, the fullest sense of happiness, satisfaction, and peace requires us to live mindfully, to be present physically and mentally, to experience and connect to the world around us with our entire being, which includes our body. In the light of the well established benefits of mindful living, it then seems very reasonable that even the spirits in paradise would still long to be reunited with their perfected bodies to experience a higher degree of glory. While thoughts about the spirit world and postmortal life ultimately always must remain speculative in nature, the doctrinal ideas can be the starting points for useful insights and implications for our life on earth. Since this life on earth is what we all are currently dealing with, my main interest in theological questions and answers is their relevance and applicability to our mortal journey.

Although mindfulness in not a term typically heard during church meetings or in discussions of Mormon theology (a nice exception is the blog Mindfully Mormon at http://www.mindfullymormon.org), upon some consideration I’m finding Mormonism quite compatible with the concept of mindfulness. Mormonism proclaims to seek after all truth, and I plan to explore more aspects of Mormonism and mindfulness in the future.

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