Anxiety vs. Freedom
Everyone agrees the rampant disease in our Western culture is anxiety. The Atlantic has a recent video naming this condition even among the most successful young adults. One woman developed a facebook following beyond her dreams and yet she is left, not fulfilled, but anxious, dissatisfied, and burnt out.
One reason people come on retreat to Holy Hill is to relieve anxiety. To get away from the pressure of the pace and quantity of stimulation to the senses. Especially the on-line and noisy ones.
Fragmentation is another frequently noted feeling. Pope Francis says that once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires. We can lose focus. We can lose the plot. We say we want peace. Do we really mean we want freedom?
Paul Murray, O.P., reminds us that Catherine of Siena had a love affair with freedom. She considered it our best gift. She honours the gift of freedom given to intelligent men and women, telling God freedom is “the excellence of your creature.” The ability to choose our destiny. To say yes or no at each moment to freedom from the bondage of sin, and freedom for a new and open access to intimate union with God.
Anyone can create a self-image via facebook with photos and poses and descriptions that supposedly give one an identity. The problem is that a superficial facebook identity is probably the opposite of one’s true identity hidden in one’s depth, so unselfconscious that even you can’t see it. If you want to observe the ingredients of identity what about Elijah as described in 2Kings? We get a peek at the essence of his person as he both runs from God and listens to God. He is most truly himself when he declares before all the prophets of Baal, “Behold the living God in whose presence I stand.”
Anxiety or angst from the Greek means narrow space or constriction. And yet the Father’s message liberates us. No one is free unless he is free at the centre, says E. Stanley Jones. That means letting go of my plans, my schemes, letting time unfold. Waiting in hope without grasping ahead of time.
Because of this prevalence of angst, programs around mindfulness have become popular. Most would agree that slowing down, emptying out thoughts and worries, that focussing on the breath and breathing helps focus and unclutter the mind and heart. Does this mode of mindfulness lead to freedom? It’s a step, but there’s more. So much more. Do we have any sense of what we want freedom from? Or what we want freedom for? Do we acknowledge that we have a propensity for being enslaved and to escape this trap we need to really choose freedom? Catherine taught that the gates which guard the city of the soul are memory, understanding and will.
May I propose that all three help us in a brand of mindfulness that I recommend, namely what I call recollection. To re-collect oneself. To remember one’s philosophy of life. One’s fundamental orientation which unifies our existence. One’s plan for getting to our goal. And this can be done ever so simply if one remembers in whose presence I stand– the living God. “Be still and know that I am God.” Not just for 20 minutes, but as often as possible throughout the day. To re-collect memories is to remember the specific inspiration that has been laid before me today as the result of my morning prayer or meditation. It is to remember or keep in mind the dignity I have been given, the role I’ve been assigned, the values I cherish.
The understanding we possess can help us enormously with the recollection that leads to freedom. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches seeing and equanimity via a Sanskrit word, upeksha that means nonattachment, even-mindedness, or letting go. To look over the whole situation as if from above. Often what disturbs our peace and creates anxiety is a situation that involves someone who is disturbing us. If we can get some distance, to see from God’s point of view, if possible, to stand under or under-stand, we would be more disposed to forgive and overlook.
Lastly, we recollect ourselves and stay recollected through acts of the will, this most powerful and precious gift. Do we even believe that we have the immense power of will? Or do we simply slide into decisions and let things happen to us? “It is up to us to use the freedom we have been given to choose life or death,” says Catherine. “Bind yourself to the humble Lamb.”It takes practice to develop this habit. Be free of half-heartedness and sentimentality.
So, if you want to practice mindfulness, why not go all the way and fill your mind with the just right things? And guard your mind from disturbing thoughts that fuel disturbing emotions.