Mindfulness as Practice for Purity

Published on Wednesday 6 April 2016

Don’t Get Discouraged: 

Pessimism in psychology means having a cognitive bias by which you turn shortcomings into permanent personality traits. All negative labels are pessimistic. You can learn to hear pessimism: “I can’t” statements are a definite giveaway. One mark of a pessimistic statement is that it won’t likely be different next week. If a 4th grader fails a math quiz and you ask him what happened, and he says, “I’m not good at math” – there’s pessimism, he’s attributed his failure to a permanent personality trait. Studies have shown that this kind of answer in a child that age is a strong predictor of depression in adulthood. But such a child is not doomed – he can learn the habit of optimism.

Optimism is the ability to reframe failures into matters of learning or practice. For the same 4th grader, an optimistic answer would be: I needed more practice with multiplication tables. Or even: I forgot to study. It’s optimistic because it leaves open the chance that things could be different next time.

When it comes to living purity, it is not that people are permanently, constitutively weak; rather, they have to learn how to overcome temptations; they need to see purity as a matter of practice. People fail to live according to their ideals because they have not prepared themselves with adequate practice – they are, in fact, practicing their mistakes. Instead, they need to learn from their failures. They also need to use well the many opportunities presented to practice the essential parts of temperance, which then are easily applied to purity – we can speak of this practice as a “remote preparation”, which is most of the cure.

Before getting into the wonders of remote preparation, a word about motivation. The study of motivation in psychology is the special focus of a form of CBT called “Motivational Interviewing,” – by “Interviewing” they mean “Therapy.” This form of therapy is designed to help people who are stalled in making changes. One motivational approach is to begin with asking a simple question: “How important is it for you to overcome this habit?” The second question is, “How confident are you that you can?”

If they say, “It’s vitally important,” and they’re sincere, then you can move on to focus on remote preparation. As a therapist, I would ask them to rate how important it is on a scale of 1-10. It needs to be a 10 before the next phase can begin. Many times the question makes people reflect for a moment, and realize something about their motivation, and say, “Well, I’m not really convinced;” then go no further; they need help first with seeing the importance of it.

To help get people to 10, there is a technique is called the 4-Square. Benefits and Costs of doing and not doing. Is it informed by faith? A clear indication of how well they are connected to their ideals.

Part Two: Remote Preparation

The next section of this talk will deal with how to help a person who is fully motivated, and yet frequently falls into impurity. This person admits that what he is doing needs to change, and is fully convinced of the need to change; and yet when his passions are triggered he gives in without reflection. One thing leads to another, and to another, automatically, until he gives in. He can feel trapped by his bad habits, and is in danger of losing hope. So where do we start?

Two important concepts

St. Thomas says that all the powers of the soul require energy to carry out their functions; and for the sensitive and rational powers, this energy comes from attention. At a fundamental level, self-control comes down to learning to have dominion over attention.

Another fundamental point is that all habitual sins involve a form of slavery; and that slavery is automation. Bad habits have an autopilot of their own; once the passion is triggered, an automated script starts playing. The prime driver of automation is the unwillingness to patiently endure the passion; the more unwilling one is, the more automatically they give in to stop it. Impatience feeds automation.

So there are two objects for our interest here: attention and automation. They are directly related: the more we are capable of recollecting our attention, the more we turn off automation. Automation involves a trap for attention which we can call “tunnel vision.” When a strong passion is triggered, the tunnel vision forms, focused on doing whatever it takes to relieve the passion. All the practices I will next describe are aimed at making the brain resilient to tunnel vision, so that the person can either prevent its formation, or undo it once it forms.

The key is to make the prefrontal cortex resilient to limbic storms. This is the neural correlate of the virtue of self-control or continence. A continent man keeps his frontal cortex in shape. This can be practiced abundantly throughout the day, forming the power of continence in matters that are far from sin. In psychology, the practice that best turns up the prefrontal cortex and breaks tunnel vision is mindfulness.

Mindfulness is recollection. We are being mindful when we slow down and do things deliberately, putting care into small details. We become mindful by letting ourselves be completely in the present moment. The senses are useful for this: when walking, you can become more mindful by slowing down and clearing your mind, and just take in and notice all the sounds around you. When your attention gets pulled back into your thoughts and imagination, gently refocus your attention outside yourself into the sounds.

Mindfulness means that you rest your attention on something, and when your mind wanders back inside itself, you gently refocus it back on that thing. The simplest form of mindfulness is mindfulness of the breath: since it is always changing, it is easier for it to hold your attention. The purpose of the exercise is the gentle refocusing: this is building up a muscle in the brain, an attention muscle. Mindfulness highly activates the frontal cortex, and makes all decisions more deliberate, less prone to becoming automated. The more people are caught in addictions or emotional disorders, the more they need training in mindfulness habits.

There are three large areas where you might fall into automation; without realizing it, the way we conduct ourselves in these three areas may be powerfully determining how easy it is to live purity. They are work, speech, and prayer. These are the three greatest areas where we commonly lose our self-possession and practice falling into autopilot.

Bring Order into Schedule: Work

Work is essential to mental health, and to virtue. The best treatment for depression is called behavioral activation, which consists entirely in bringing order into one’s schedule, gradually increasing intensity of tasks, and building stamina. In other words, behavioral activation involves order, intensity, constancy: the principle parts of the virtue of work. This approach works for depression of any severity, even the most severe. It also helps to confront challenges to purity.

People who habitually fall into impurity tend to work on autopilot, without a sense of self-possession. This generally takes the form of multitasking. Multitasking does direct harm to the exercise of attention. We should think of our attention as a pure, clear liquid; and the vessel into which we pour it is the task at hand. We destroy attention by deliberately pouring this liquid into several vessels at the same time: this is multitasking. Simultaneously, when we multitask we do things more and more on autopilot. Whenever the integrity of attention is harmed, automation fills in the gaps.

We must learn to maintain the integrity of our attention by putting it completely into the task at hand, one vessel only; and then when that is done, we pour it into the next. Distractions in work are a temptation to multitask; being distracted is having the liquid in several vessels; the opposite habit to practice is sequential unitasking. When people sequentially unitask, even interruptions are not distractions: one treats the interruption as a vessel, completely gives one’s attention to it, and then completely restores it to the task at hand.

Multitasking means training your brain to get derailed by impulses that arise while working, switching quickly from one task to another as impulses arise. Multitasking trains one in intemperance. Sequential unitasking is a remote preparation for living temperance in all areas; when we practice sequential unitasking, we can learn what wonders attention can do: we can work with singular focus and intensity and creativity; time slows down for the task at hand and speeds up for everything else; distractors bounce off us, and we have joy in working hard. Psychologists call this state “flow.” It is therapy for attention.

This state of singular, intense focus happens to all of us from time to time, when we love what we are studying. It can also be done voluntarily by preparing for it with three steps:

  1. Sequester yourself from external distractors, and externally signal that now is the time you want your brain to focus: clear off the desk, go to a more ideal location, etc.
  2. Address internal distractors by raising the limbic shield: calling forth an impulse in order to deny it. This strongly activates the prefrontal cortex, blocking all impulses from the lower cortex. This is simply mortification: a strong form of mindfulness.
  3. Set a goal: challenging task + time limit

The Silent Cure

Speech is the second great arena of practicing the building blocks of holy purity. The connection between speech and temperance comes directly from Scripture, St. James: If one does not offend in speech, he is a perfect man: for he is able to restrain the whole body. Taking care how we speak interrupts many processes of automation.

Temperate, mindful speech is a powerful form of self-possession, just as intense work is. Just as multitasking is a way of training oneself to give in to impulses without guidance from ideals; so mindless speech is a negative training that many give themselves repeatedly every day, throughout the day.

Mindful speech is considered before it is said; one learns to insert a brief pause, often accomplished by letting others finish their sentences. When training people in this kind of mindfulness, we typically use five questions: is it true?  Timely? Kind? Moderated? Encouraging?

And we also focus on the tone of speech, so that people become increasingly aware of the tone of their words.

Learning to think before we speak is part – a large part – of learning to think before we act. Idle words are words not uttered mindfully; they are mindless and impulsive. They are images of intemperance. Idle words and idle habits go together.

People struggling with purity need to learn how to notice an urge, accept that they have it, and not act on it; or even more, have an urge, become aware of it, and then act according to one’s highest ideals.

If a father were to constantly be yelling at his children, he would need to become aware of his anger and his urge to punish, allow those feelings to be there, and then act according to his ideals of how a father would act: with affection, wisdom, kindness, forbearance. This means that he needs to pray about how he should act as a father, and discuss it. The goal is not just that he not act on his anger; a dead man could do this, which means that it is not an impressive goal to achieve. The goal is that he use the occasion of his anger as a reminder to act according to his ideals: this is to put anger to its best use, as a motivation for the best actions.

The area of speech represents the most frequent area where one can practice this. One is tempted to make a belittling remark; one notices the urge, and then instead does the opposite; one is tempted to be sarcastic, and instead one says something sympathetic; or to disagree, and one agrees with what one can; or one simply feels urge to speak, and lets it go. As one saint summarized: The appropriate word you left unsaid; the joke you didn’t tell; the cheerful smile for those who bother you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your kind conversation with people you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in those who live with you…this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification. (St Josemaria Escriva, The Way, 173)

By tempering speech, one is able to become aware of impulses, feel and accept them, and then act according to ideals. This is direct and constant preparation for struggles in purity. What is the best use one can make of temptations? Undoubtedly, to grow in union with God through prayer: being present to God with trust, gratitude, love, humility. (Cf. Way of Trust and Love – these are listed as “fundamental inner attitudes that attract unfailingly God’s grace.)

Paying Attention: Prayer

The highest form of mindfulness is contemplation. Catechism: Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”… Contemplative prayer is hearing the Word of God… Contemplative prayer is silence, the “symbol of the world to come”12 or “silent love.”13 Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love

If we truly learned to contemplate in our mental prayer, we would be practicing a powerful form of paying attention, of mindfulness. But many times people who try doing mental prayer approach it on autopilot, doing the same things every time and getting caught in endless distractions and dryness. The first step in becoming more mindful in prayer is to turn your attention to the way that you pray, and sincerely assess how well it is bringing you towards contemplation.

Praying with our affections is a direct training in syncing the limbic cortex with the power of the upper cortex; and the same could be said with praying with our imagination, trying to enter into Gospel scenes, constructing them in our minds – this is a syncing of the two cortices.

The easiest way to teach people to be mindful in their prayer is to take a common mindfulness practice and make it prayerful: that is, teach them to pray as they breathe: use the inhale for an aspiration, and the exhale for another. Feeling the breath breathing itself already quiets the distractions; and then the breath is used as a timer for aspirations. They can then learn to make the aspirations silent, spoken with the affections of the heart, focused entirely on our Lord.

Another way of training the attention in prayer is to focus on imagery: entering with all five senses into the Gospel scenes. Aspirations and imagery can allow silence to begin: one doesn’t reason, one looks. One listens. One silently loves.

I have never encountered a person who regularly has affective prayer who also has problems with purity; people with problems of purity tend to have a rigid way of meditating that tends to only produce distractions and discouragement.

All day

To maintain mindfulness – and to turn off automation – all day long, we have to learn to mindfully transition from one task to another. We need to slow down a bit, and do things more deliberately. Practice opening and closing doors deliberately; practice walking more slowly; when doing menial tasks, put your whole attention into each small task: if you are folding clothes, let each item take your whole attention and put care into how you fold it.

When we do things deliberately, in a calm and recollected way, it is easy to put love into doing them. Our love for God is brought into every detail of every small action, and we do things well in order to be able to offer them to Him. When we live mindfully our life becomes a dialogue: not in words, but in actions offered with love. Living in a recollected way allows us to stay in God’s presence; it allows us to stay in the present moment, which is where we find Him.

This is contemplative life. It is the best remote preparation possible for living holy purity.

To face the challenges of purity today, it is not enough to teach people rules – although they do need to have clear ideals. Our manner of life can become profoundly Christianized, turned into recollected prayer. The more we take care of the three arenas – how we work, speak, and pray – the easier it is to live mindfully, deliberately, not automatically, throughout the course of the day. And this makes room for love, which is the real secret of perseverance: if we fall in love, and bring it into the smallest actions of our life, we will never leave Him.