The Way Within
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of FOCUS
“Do not go outward; return within yourself. In the inward man dwells truth.” – Augustine, Concerning True Religion
This edition of Focus is dedicated to the topic of resilience. One cannot get far into the literature of resilience before coming across the idea of mindfulness. The term mindfulness in English means attention, a translation in the 1800s from the Buddhist expression sati, meaning “memory of the present”. In the 1970s, the molecular biologist and practitioner of Zen Buddhism, Jon Kabat-Zinn, developed a secular version of the practice of sati which he named mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). The practice involves developing an awareness that comes from paying attention purposefully and non-judgementally in the present moment. The practice of MBSR has exploded in recent years, and MBSR is now taught in medical schools across the country. Clinical studies suggest benefits include decreased incidence of burnout and improved patient safety.
Christian responses to mindfulness-based practices are varied. Some believers recognize its benefits and are interested in an Augustinian “looting of the Egyptians”, while others reject the practice because of its Eastern undercurrents, despite the decidedly modern, western flavour of MBSR. For those Christians interested in mindfulness, it is often interpreted in Christian categories of meditation on scripture or contemplative prayer. These are excellent spiritual practices, but in engaging such a topic I believe that it is a mistake to translate mindfulness into Christian language too quickly. An investigation of mindfulness on its own terms will not only help us find points of contact with both Eastern and secular Western culture but will also clarify for us a distinct foundation for resilient living which is badly needed in today’s fragmented world. Further, when we climb this particular mountain of enlightenment, we will find that orthodox Christianity has been sitting there for more than a millennium.
Mindfulness is being aware of or present to myself, by turning my attention away from the concerns of the world, to focus instead on what is happening within my own consciousness. This could be awareness of my body, such as focusing on breathing, but it could also be paying attention to my thoughts and feelings as they emerge from unconscious depths. If I am overwhelmed by the demands and pressures of life, feeling anxious and unsettled, perhaps by turning within I can free myself from the cares of the world, and banish my desires to achieve a sense of tranquility. Yet tranquility is fleeting, and I realize that this is at best a temporary solution.
Instead of striving to banish my cares and concerns, what if I were to detach myself from them, and from a reflective distance seek to identify them, to weigh and evaluate them? Yet I remember that I am not to judge, and just be attentive. As I simply let myself be present to myself, I may then become aware of a deeper desire behind and beyond all the specific desires from which I am trying to escape. This desire is unlike all these other desires, as it does not seem to be associated with any particular fulfillment. Moreover, these other desires may come and go, yet this basic desire is persistently present with me, an overarching desire behind all my cares and concerns, a foundational commitment to seek that which is beyond myself, which can be described using the words beauty, meaning, truth, and goodness. What if I were to be attentive to this desire? By turning within, I contend that we can identify this basic intention, always present with us in our conscious performance. By heightening our consciousness, we will be able to identify and better understand this desire which is operative within us, which has significance for resilient living.
I would like to stop here and recognize that some reading this article may already be feeling uncomfortable – perhaps there is something a bit too “Eastern” about this radical reflexivity. Or perhaps some think that this is an unhealthy narcissism, for Christians are called to love God and love one another, not navel-gaze. I hope to address these concerns by first exploring their philosophical roots.
I’ve described mindfulness as being present to ourselves, which is simply another word for consciousness. Consciousness is a dual awareness, both of the object that we are focusing on, and of the self that does the focusing, which we name the subject. The problem of how consciousness arises from brain functions is considered to be one of the most challenging scientific conundrums of the 21st century, and physicists are now realizing that the question of how consciousness arises from the brain may be the wrong question, with untenable metaphysical assumptions. Putting aside the challenging problem of the explanation of consciousness, the experience of consciousness is not mysterious or elusive, and should be acknowledged as our presence to ourselves as we perform the operations of conscious thought. This should not feel foreign to our scientific western minds, yet I believe that because of mistakes inherited from western philosophy we are being forced to turn to Eastern sources to find what has been missing from our own tradition. Western philosophy both ancient and modern has not been kind to self-presence.
One philosophical approach to knowledge of the self starts with the experience of objects with which we are concerned, and then inferring mental operations based on conceptual contents. For example: sensible objects are present to us, so we perform acts of sensing; ideas are present to us, so we perform acts of reasoning. From the act is then inferred the faculty or power of the mind. This is a metaphysical approach to self-knowledge, popular in pre-modern philosophy. Yet this knowledge of self is not directly experienced “from within” but is a philosophical argument. When pre-modern metaphysics was subsequently questioned, a problem with self-knowledge resulted. Descartes’ response to this was to establish an argument for his existence based on an abstract deduction from the fact of the concrete experience of his thinking (the famous Cogito ergo sum). His turn to the subject was a first break away from the metaphysical approach of pre-modern philosophy, yet his apparently foundational solution to the problem of self-knowledge was not able to support the weight of skeptical scientism so prevalent today, which reduces both thinking and the soul to neurochemical processes or psychological behaviour.
Descartes’ deductive approach was still too abstract. David Hume attempted to find a concrete self in his own conscious experience, and his skepticism is representative of the view that says we cannot perform some sort of inner look to find the self: “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, never can observe anything but the perception. Immanuel Kant agreed with Hume that he could not find himself within his consciousness, and his solution was yet another argument. He didn’t try arguing his existence from his thinking, but from the fact that he was able to have unified experiences of the world at all. There must be a unified self, even though we can never have direct access to this mysterious noumenal presence.
The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga in his book Warrant and Proper Function, describes the failure of western philosophy to find any non-circular argument that can validate knowledge of the existence of the self. He quotes philosopher David Parfit, who pessimistically sums up the situation:
We could not tell, from the content of our experiences, whether we really are aware of the continued existence of a separately existing subject of experiences. The most that we have are states of mind. […] when we have had a series of thoughts, the most that we are aware of is the psychological continuity of our stream of consciousness. Some claim that we are aware of the continued existence of separate existing subjects of experiences. As Locke and Kant argued […] such awareness cannot in fact be distinguished from our awareness of mere psychological continuity. Our experiences give us no reason to believe in the existence of these entities. Unless we have other reasons to believe in their existence, we should reject the belief.
The Scottish realist Thomas Reid also denies a proof of the existence of a unified self, but his cranky affirmation of self-knowledge as a foundation for thought is rather refreshing in comparison:
I take it for granted that all the thoughts I am conscious of, or remember, are the thoughts of one and the same thinking principle, which I call myself or my mind. Every man has an immediate and irresistible conviction, not only of his present existence, but of his continued existence and identity as far back as he can remember. If any man should think fit to demand a proof that the thoughts he is successively conscious of, belong to one and the same thinking principle—if he should demand a proof that he is the same person today as he was yesterday or a year ago—I know no proof that can be given him: he must be left to himself, either as a man that is lunatic or as one who denies first principles, and is not to be reasoned with.
While Reid is surely right, there is a part of me that agrees with Hume when he says, “It is remarkable concerning the operations of the mind, that, though most intimately present to us, yet, whenever they become the object of reflection, they seem involved in obscurity.” The metaphor of turning inward to have a good look at ourselves is surely deficient – Western philosophy got that much right I believe. The looker is always “behind” the look, and so the self is ever elusive. Rather, mindfulness can be described as the beginning of self-knowledge, an attentiveness to our self-presence in our mental operations, rather than as another mental operation. We must be attentive to the subject as subject, not the subject as object. What is meant by attending to the subject as subject? Every experience that we have includes not just an experience of sense data, ‘out there’, the object which we focus on, but there is always a concomitant experience of the subject performing the operations ‘in here’ which we can become aware of and depend on as a foundation which is not an abstract deduction, but a concrete reality, a matter of fact.
One way that we can become aware of our presence to ourselves in our mental operations is by noticing when we have an insight. This happens routinely every day, yet we usually focus on the content of thought, rather than the operations themselves. Pay attention to what is going on in the inner life of your mind next time you have an “ah ha!” moment and make a diagnosis, solve a puzzle, or learn a new skill. This “data of consciousness” can be experienced. On the flip side, ignoring the reality of our concrete presence to ourselves in our mental life is one way that we are leaving ourselves open to skepticism and other mistaken philosophies. It has also caused people to seek out Eastern traditions that do not deny the importance of mindfulness. But is this a fair indictment? Is there no history of mindfulness within the Christian tradition?
In his influential book Sources of the Self, philosopher Charles Taylor traces the forces which led to the modern conception of the self. One chapter refers to the influence of Augustine’s “radical reflexivity”, which is a similar concept to what I have been describing as mindfulness:
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it was Augustine who introduced the inwardness of radical reflexivity and bequeathed it to the Western tradition of thought… Augustine’s turn to the self … is what made the language of inwardness irresistible. The inner light is the one which shines in our presence to ourselves; it is the one inseparable from our being creatures with a first person standpoint.
Further, Taylor describes Augustine’s argument for God’s existence as founded in this mindfulness:
Augustine shifts the focus from the field of objects known to the activity itself of knowing; God is to be found here…But our principle route to God is not through the object domain but `in’ ourselves. This is because God is not just the transcendent object or just the principle of order of the nearer objects, which we strain to see. God is also and for us primarily the basic support and underlying principle of our knowing activity…By going inward, I am drawn upward.
Being mindful without letting the mind continue on its path to seek beyond what is merely experienced is a mind incomplete, a mind less than human, a fragmented mind. We look beyond experience to understanding, then beyond understanding to judgement and decision. These different operations can be directly experienced as different ways or ‘levels’ of being conscious: sensing has a different quality than understanding, which has a different quality from judgement and decision. These levels can then themselves be understood and affirmed in relation to each other, with each level building on previous levels and yet moving beyond; in this way we can affirm ourselves as concrete knowing subjects. This directedness is the basic commitment present in our conscious operations directed towards beauty (in experience), meaning (in understanding), truth (in judgement) and the good (in decision). The cares of the world and the sin in our souls can conceal this commitment, but by examination of one’s own consciousness, one can at least partly uncover these hidden depths.
Our basic commitment is not first an idea, although it can be conceptualized and discussed as we’ve been doing. It is rather the source of ideas and is itself constitutive of our conscious selves. It is an anticipation of, or orientation towards these transcendent realities. Our intention to know meaning and truth is manifest in the desire to understand the data, to keep asking questions and not stop until we’ve uncovered the truth. Our desire for the good is felt in a clear or troubled conscience. Our desire for beauty is illuminated in the experience of ineffable joy described so well by Lewis:
As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? […] Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse… withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased… In a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else… The quality common to the three experiences… is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.
Further, if we try to deny these intentions of beauty, meaning, truth and goodness, we end up relying on them in order to deny them. As an oft-used example, how can we make a judgement that there is no such thing as a true judgement? We are cutting off the branch upon which we are sitting, but the fall can be more easily ignored in one who is not mindful. This is not a mere logical contradiction of propositions which can be explicitly adverted to and corrected by reason. It is an implicit contradiction of one’s own self, easily overlooked. The fact is, we find within ourselves not only the path to self-transcendence, but a denial of this path, manifest in disordered desires and intellectual bias: the reality of sin. The problem is not finitude but fallenness, and what is the solution to this existential concern?
When we are mindful we do not discover the god within, but the ‘new agers’ have got it partially right. As Augustine discovered, we do find a way to God, who is mindful of us, even when we are not mindful of Him. The basic fulfillment of our desire for beauty, meaning, truth and goodness is described in our Christian categories as God’s gift of his love poured out in our hearts by the power of the Spirit (Romans 5:5), although I would contend that this experience transcends the Church, for God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4). Mindfulness is one way we can unlock this awareness of God’s love discovered within consciousness. It is on the level of awareness, but is not yet understood, and there is always a surplus of meaning beyond our understanding. It is the experience of grace, the grace which not only redeems us but transforms us, the grace which is the ultimate source of our love for both God and neighbor: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26,27). We need to explore this primary religious experience, which can become a bridge for dialogue between Christianity and both practitioners of Eastern religions and mindful people in our secular age. Yet we have been given not only the Spirit in our hearts, but the Word of God has been revealed to us in history. Jesus is the Word incarnate, understood through the scriptures, giving form to the work of the Spirit and language to express God’s loving grace. Both Word and Spirit are vital to authentic and resilient living:
Without the visible mission of the Word, the gift of the Spirit is a being-in-love without a proper object; it remains simply an orientation to mystery that awaits its interpretation. Without the invisible mission of the Spirit, the Word enters into his own, but his own receive him not.
We have been exploring the notion of mindfulness in this issue devoted to the topic of resilience. We have seen that the way within can become the way beyond. Truly resilient living comes from a mind directed towards beauty, meaning, truth and goodness. Yet in our practice of mindfulness we also find that the desire beyond all our other desires is a desire for that which cannot be fulfilled by anything immanent in the world. It is directed beyond us towards a fulfillment which can only be found only in God, the ultimate source of beauty, meaning, truth, goodness, and finally, love.
 The idea behind this article comes from the approach to self-knowledge presented in the book Self-Possession by Mark Morelli, who is building on the cognitional theory developed by Bernard Lonergan, SJ.
 See Robert Spitzer’s book The Soul’s Upward Yearning for an interesting discussion of this.
 Cf. Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature.
 Plantinga is not bothered by this, as he relies on a different approach to self-knowledge involving proper functioning of cognitive faculties successfully aimed at truth. He shows how knowledge of the world, including self-knowledge, cannot be logically deduced from inner experience, yet our knowledge is nonetheless warranted.
 Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons.
 Thomas Reid, Inquiries and Essays.
 Hume, Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals.
 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self.
 Here I can only briefly touch on the important topic of cognitional theory. For readers interested in a further exploration, I would recommend the writings of Jesuit philosopher Bernard Lonergan, who has greatly influenced my thinking, especially his masterpiece Insight. For a basic introduction to Lonergan’s thought, I recommend What is Lonergan up to in Insight? By Terry Tikippe.
 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.
 Bernard Lonergan, Mission and the Spirit, A Third Collection.