This week I’ve been learning about Spiritual Reflection at a one week intensive course at Lipscomb University. We talked about a study done by two Harvard researchers who wanted to track the connection between where your attention was focused, and how happy you were. So they developed an iPhone app that contacted 2,250 volunteers at random intervals during a day to ask how happy they were, what they were currently doing, and whether they were thinking about their current activity or about something else that was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant.
Subjects could choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television.
On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 47 percent of the time. Even when actively engaged in a task their minds were on other things no less than 30 percent of the time. We are a very distracted people, that’s not a surprise, but what I find interesting is that the researchers report that people are happiest when they are fully present in what they are doing, regardless of what that happens to be. The researchers found that when people are making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation they were most happy, and also, most mentally present. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.
Most of us wouldn’t expect resting or using a computer to be an unhappy experience, but that’s what the researchers found. One wrote, “mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness, in fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”
People who are well practiced in Christian contemplation have been telling us this for years (hundreds of years actually), that one of the best things you can do to improve your mental state is to be fully present in what you are currently doing. In Luke 6 and 7 and 8 Jesus left the crowds in order to spend some time in reflection and prayer. Maybe there is something to this quiet reflection stuff.
I am by no means an expert in this practice but out of this week I would share two pieces of free advice:
- Being present takes practice. People are not naturally good at remaining present. It takes intentional effort and years of practice to get good at it. I would suggest that you start with the practice of centering prayer: Find a relatively quiet place and spend some time centered on a short phrase or even a word that can ground you in your present reality. When you first start there will be lots of thoughts bouncing around in your head – my professor calls them “the monkeys in your head.” The key response is not to address them with your mind. You are centered on your prayer phrase or word. The monkeys will come – let them go. Addressing them will only continue the distraction. Spend a little time every day “ignoring the monkeys” in your head and focusing on a word or phrase and you will find yourself a little bit more present.
- Actively resist distraction. Ironically you are likely reading this from a “distraction device” like a cell phone or IPad. These devices are a great blessing to us at time but they can also be a tyrant for our attention. Being present means ignoring or resisting the distractions in your life. It could be you need boundaries in your life to make being mindful more likely. Maybe you need to put your phone in a drawer when you get home and not even look at it for the rest of the day. Maybe you need to schedule some “screen free” time in your life. If this research is to be believed, if you are feeling down or frazzled log out of facebook and take a walk. You might even need to take a break from facebook. If the last five facebook posts have been about how overwhelmed you are, you need a fresh perspective. Mindfulness will make your experiences better, good or bad. Take some time to meet God in the quiet. God is waiting to bless you through the silence you can find in your life.