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August 8, 2017

The Uncanny Similarities between Mindfulness and Christianity.

Coping.

We’ve all done it more than we would like. Whether we lost a loved one or a wallet, we’ve been forced to deal with difficult situations of varying degrees.

Some of us are really good at it. We can smile and feel grateful, even with a heavy heart. The rest of us let the weight of our troubles hold us down, keep us in bed, and prevent us from pursuing our dreams.

Why is that? What makes some people so much better at coping, at regulating their emotions, than others? I know, I know, there are so many potential answers: genetics, exercise, environment, relationships.

But I’m going to explore the two I think are the most powerful. These two coping strategies (and philosophies) appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum and carry the ability to polarize people, but they also both hold the amazing power to help us heal: mindfulness and religion.

I’ve had more than my fair share of trying situations lately. Many nights have been spent lying awake, mind racing, tears streaming. The weight of it all pushing down on my chest.

I’ve watched my four-day-old son get catheterized, injected, and prodded in the N.I.C.U. I held my four-year-old son’s hand before he was wheeled off to a risky surgery that could have paralyzed his face. And I have been enduring what feels like a never-ending legal battle in my professional life.

My sister, too, has coped, more than most. Four years ago, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 bladder cancer. After chemo, countless procedures, infections, and hospital stays, she underwent a life-changing, radical surgery, and now, at 41, has to live with a urostomy bag for the rest of her life.

We had very different ways of coping with the pain, the anxiety, the overwhelming sense of losing all control in our lives.

At least that’s what I thought.

I turned to mindfulness and meditation to help me cope. I enrolled in a six-week course called “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” I hired a life coach. I began a practice of gratitude and positivity and aimed to journal daily. I read studies that showed that mindfulness can make you less reactive, more at peace, and most importantly for me, cure insomnia.

My sister, on the other hand, is a devout Christian, and she leaned on her faith in God—even when the doctors gave her weeks to live, even when she was forced to abort her much-wanted pregnancy to start chemotherapy, and even when the pain of severe kidney infections left her almost unconscious.

It was her unyielding faith, her devotion to God, and her trust in him to protect her. Because of her devotion, even in the face of the unthinkable, she never lost hope, never lost sight of the light in the distance. Her faith saved her life; I have no doubt.

People who are highly religious, who believe God has a plan for them, and who trust him unconditionally, are exceptionally skilled at coping. So are people who practice mindfulness, as they are able to find peace in the present moment, feel gratitude for their place in the world, and trust the universe to guide them in the right direction.

My sister, obviously, is the former. I tried pretty hard to be the latter.

These two groups of people are often at odds with each other—different political ideals, family values, social norms. Some Christians, for example, believe that only Jesus gives the peace that can exist in all circumstances (John:14:27; John 14:6), while some who practice mindfulness intentionally strip their practice of all spiritual components, even though it is rooted in Buddhism.

There were times, many times, that I discounted my sister’s methods, her faith. Times when I wished she would snap out of it, do some research on alternative therapies, join a support group, do something tangible to increase her chances of survival.

But she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t even say the word “cancer,” because she didn’t believe it was part of her, or part of God’s plan for her.

I believed that my coping strategies were more powerful, more logical, more science-based than her unwavering belief in what I considered to be the unknown, and it was frustrating for me to watch her continue in blind faith.

You see, we had grown up in a Italian-Catholic family on Long Island—a childhood full of red sauce and plastic-covered couches. My mother dragged my sister and me to mass with her every Sunday, and it was the bane of my weekend. I’d sometimes run into classmates or meet a cute boy in black Doc Martin boots, but beyond that, I had no interest in church.

I was above it.

Somehow, I was smarter than all these people who believed some mythical guy in the sky would solve their problems for them. I’d roll my eyes and snicker at the churchgoers who passionately sung the hymns and waited in line to be fed a stale cracker disguised as the body of Christ.

I see it so clearly now. It was me I didn’t believe in. I didn’t let myself believe in God’s powers, because I was afraid of other people judging me. The people I wanted to be friends with didn’t pray or trust in God. They scoffed at the religious with cynical sneers.

I didn’t appreciate the authentic confidence of people who are devout, people who have no doubts. I carried this until adulthood, and let it cloud my perspective as I tried to comfort my sister through her arduous journey.

I would often call her on the verge of tears. Afraid for my son, afraid for my future, crazed from days of crippling insomnia. She always knew what to say. Her life-threatening situation was far worse than my comparatively petty complaints, but she was the one comforting me—telling me to pray, asking me to put my trust in God because he had a plan for me, I just needed to open myself up to it.

There was a day last month that I was particularly emotional and overwhelmed. I was letting hatred, anger, resentment, crush my spirit. It was turning me into someone I didn’t recognize anymore.

As usual, my sister talked me down. She said, “I am 100 percent sure you can handle this challenge. You’ve had harder ones than this before. Don’t let words of defeat come out of your mouth. There is always a good in the bad, and a learning experience you would not have had otherwise.”

And, she continued, “Things will happen at the right time. Worry helps not one thing at all. You can’t see behind the scenes, you don’t know what may happen at any moment. Give your trust to God. He wants you. He’s knocking, but you’re not answering.”

Then she laughed. And maybe due to the intensity of the pain-killers, she said something crazy like, “Oh man, I’m in the mood for a boloney and butter sandwich right now!”

My life coach, on the other hand, has been helping me become more mindful and more able to handle stressful situations. But I’ll admit that at first, I didn’t wholeheartedly believe in this practice, either. I’d close my eyes as he instructed me to, and would try to describe my anger to him: where in my body I felt it most, what color it was, what temperature it was.

I’d tell him, but I felt like I was faking it, simply conjuring up what I thought he wanted to hear.

He’d guide me through a meditation, and my mind would race around frantically, darting from a conversation with my lawyer to my dwindling bank account to what I need to buy for lunch for my boys. But he’d also remind me of my bright future, my loving family, my strength, my integrity.

His message was eerily similar to my sister’s.

My sister is one of those coping experts. So is my life coach. Her faith, her devotion, her practice, helped her not only survive, but thrive in the face of uncertainty. My coach endured his own hardships, and created a beautiful life for himself despite incredible loss and sickness.

Neither is wrong in their beliefs or methods. Both have found a genuine, sincere way of coping with life’s obstacles.

The Uncanny Similarities between Mindfulness and Christianity

Through my conversations with my sister, my coach, my mindful friends, and my religious family, I’ve discovered the many similarities between these two coping strategies. They both have the power to be life-changing, to give us strength and fortitude when we need it most.

The key is our willingness to be open up to their power, and to take the time to challenge our ways of thinking.

Daily Devotion

About a year ago, I signed up for “Notes from the Universe.” These are daily emails, written by “The Universe” (played by author Mike Dooley), personalized with my name and designed, as Dooley says, to remind me that I have been given dominion over all things.

The notes are inspirational, uplifting, and they feel like they were written specifically to help me realize my dreams. I love starting my day knowing the universe has my back.

Many Christians start their day the same way, but the notes come from Jesus. Books like Jesus Calling by Sarah Young provide daily affirmations and encouragement. Cementing their belief that God has plans, plans that will lead them into prosperity and away from harm. The notes remind them to bring their thoughts back to His presence, and away from the troubles of the day.

The messages are often the same: different in who is talking and who the reader is leaning on, but overall, the same.

My sister would often read me the passage of the day from Jesus is Calling. Or she’d remind me, after a particularly hard day, to read it myself, to lean on its words.

And every time I heeded her advice, I’d get the feeling that I read this before. That I learned this lesson somewhere. And it would hit me—the Universe was leading me in the same direction as Jesus.

Meditation and Prayer

Meditation is the backbone of a mindfulness practice.

Sitting in a quiet room, away from distractions. Closing your eyes, feeling the weight of your feet pushing against the earth. Focusing on your breath, or the words of your guide. Letting your thoughts pass through your mind, without judgment or guilt.

As millions of people all over the world have discovered, meditation can ease anxiety, insomnia, depression, and help you focus on the present.

Prayer, similarly, is the backbone of Christianity and most other religions. Taking time to sit quietly, to talk to God, to focus on your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Devout Christians pray at least once a day, often more.

It’s no wonder studies show people who are religious are “happier” than nonbelievers. They are experts at meditating. They know how to be present, how to let negative thoughts saunter by. They leave their worries with God, and are left feeling calm and comforted, knowing he is listening.

Be Genuine and Consistent

A mindfulness practice, and a religious practice, are both just that—a practice.

You can’t one day decide to be mindful, sit for a 20-minute meditation, and expect to be free of worry. I’ve learned the hard way. You can’t decide to be grateful or accepting or peaceful and expect a calm to overtake you overnight.

If you’re persistent and dedicate time every day to your devotion, you’ll feel it. You’ll know it, as life will seem to open doors you thought were only walls.

Author Kamal Ravikant hits on this in his book, Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It. He started a meditation practice after hitting rock bottom. He meditated for 10 minutes a day, and focused on truly, deeply, loving himself. He talks about the importance of believing it with your entire soul, with everything you have. He talks about how it changed his life, and about what happened when he became complacent and started skipping his sessions.

I’ve tried Ravikant’s method of meditation. I stuck with it for a few weeks, but I never felt it as truth. I just couldn’t bring myself to love myself as deeply and honestly as he advises. He admits it takes time, and I probably gave up too soon at first.

It’s funny how difficult it is to truly love yourself, the one person you have complete control over, who’s with you every hour of every day.

A religious practice is similar. You can’t wake up one morning and decide to put all your faith and trust in God. You can’t make yourself believe with the gusto that’s necessary for real change. Having that complete love and trust, like all relationships, needs time to develop and grow. You have to be willing to trust God like your life depended on it, leaving all doubt behind.

I’m still practicing—learning to have trust, learning how to love myself, learning how to quiet my mind through meditation. I’m learning that being mindful and spiritual aren’t mutually exclusive.

Be persistent. Resilient. Open. Grow into your practice, whichever one you choose, or whether you choose to practice more than one. That’s how you cope. That’s how you keep going, keep loving, keep chasing your dreams—despite everything life throws your way.

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Relephant:

Introduction to Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

The Spiritual Bypass: Why Avoidance Doesn’t Work.

Buddhism is not a Religion—It’s Something Much Better.

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Author: Allison Arevalo
Image: Carly Rae Hobbins/Unsplash
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Taia Butler

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Ismene Tsaconakos Aug 9, 2017 4:53pm

Loved this! Thanks for sharing your perspective Allison. I feel the same way. I was raised going to a Greek Orthodox church every Sunday, and like you, i did not appreciate it and would have much rather slept in and spent time with the friends I wanted to fit in with. As an adult, as I have turned to mindfulness and spirituality, I often feel like I am practicing Christianity by a different name, and with fewer man-made rules. I am sure there are many more us us that share your perspective!

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Allison Arevalo

Allison Arevalo is an entrepreneur, chef, freelance writer, and trail runner. She’s the co-founder of Homeroom Restaurant and co-author of the best-selling Mac and Cheese Cookbook. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband, Alejandro, and their two boys, Nico and Luca. She spends her days running through the redwoods and writing about her adventures on her blog. Catch up with Allison on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.