The “Unsuspected Power” of the Present Moment

(By Jacob Hess)

Among the many facets of mindfulness is one that is equally simple and  difficult: living in the present moment. As his “working definition of mindfulness,” Jon Kabat-Zinn, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, proposes “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, as if your life depended on it, non-judgmentally.”

As odd as that definition may sound, it is not that far removed from something members of the Church of Jesus Christ have been hearing recently, not from Buddhist neighbors, but from someone much closer to home:

* “This is the day of our opportunity. . . . There is no tomorrow to remember if we don’t do something today” (Monson, 2008a).
* “This is our one and only chance at mortal life—here and now. . . . Opportunities come, and then they are gone.”

President Monson concludes this second talk by quoting one of the characters in “Our Town” after she had gone back to relive her 12th birthday: “It is unbearably painful to realize how unaware she had been of the meaning and wonder of life . . . Emily laments, ‘Do … human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?'” (Monson, 2008b).

From scientists to Buddhists, to the Prophet himself, there seems to be plenty of talk about the “present moment” these days. So what’s the big deal, really?

Proponents of “mindfulness” have much to say about the positive implications that may potentially flow from cultivating deeper present moment awareness of life—ranging from a measurable decrease in chronic physical pain of different kinds (Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth & Burney,1985; Morone, Greco & Weiner, 2008) to a surprising freedom that can come from depression and anxiety (Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004; Williams, Teasdale, Segal & Kabat-Zinn, 2007), eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia (Baer, 2005) and symptoms of basic inattentiveness/ADHD (Evans, 2007). There is even growing evidence that the cultivation of mindfulness, combined with other healthy activities, can actually turn on and off genes (Ornish, 2008) and literally change brain pathways (Lutz, Brefczynski-Lewis, Johnstone & Davidson, 2008).

In spite of energy from eastern thinkers and scientists to document and examine these health implications of mindfulness, there is correspondingly little attention as to why exactly present-moment awareness matters so much and how precisely it can alleviate pain in some cases so dramatically. In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s recent book with leading cognitive psychologists, for instance, they do not say much about why mindfulness can impact depression so substantially. Instead, they state, somewhat mysteriously: “There is an unsuspected power in inhabiting the moment you’re living in right now with full awareness” (Williams, et al., 2007, p. 7).

It was in reading this quote that I realized Christians might have the explanation that seems to be eluding other proponents of mindfulness. In a final talk of his reign, the ancient King Benjamin first shared things we are accustomed to hearing from those who believe in God, reminding his people of Him “who has created you, and has kept and preserved you.” Then, however, Benjamin says something remarkable about divinity, suggesting to the people that He is “preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another” (Mosiah 2:21).

Among the many conceptions of divinity among religions is one of a God who is close to us, someone who is near. . . .very near. In describing Himself in our dispensation, the Lord says, “I am over all, and in all, and through all” (D&C 63:59). Joseph Smith later elaborates on this description:

He. . .descended below all things . . . that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth. . . . He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things. . . forever and ever (D&C 88: 6, 41).

Compared to the more typical notions of a God who is “in all things” in the sense of original creation only, there is something exciting and comforting to me about the intimacy and intensity of relationship expressed in these teachings.

If divinity is really this close, then where do we find or meet this God? Believers often speak of “meeting God” or “returning to His presence” as an event far off and distant—something distinctly separate from this life, something we look ahead to “one day” in the future.

While the literal face-to-face rendezvous with our Father is, indeed, something ahead of us, there is a stirring sense at the Mindfulness/Mormon interface of another kind of “meeting” that can perhaps take place much sooner.

A friend reminded me recently that the Lord calls Himself, among other things, the “Great I Am”—not the “I Was” or “I Will Be.” I have found in my own life that when my heart is longing for the future, or my mind is lost in the past, I am also (almost automatically) quite distant from God. However, when I re-center and connect again with the here and now, suddenly and surprisingly, I often find a renewed awareness of the God I worship. . . the Great I Am With You Always.

For Buddhists, in summary, I’m starting to see more clearly that the Christian message raises an intriguing possibility behind the “unsuspected power of the present moment.” And for Christians, the Buddhist message raises an equally intriguing possibility that a “return to His presence,” in a very real and practical and daily sense, could be sooner than anticipated . . . as soon as the next breath.

Citations

Baer, R. A. (Ed.) (2005). Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches: Clinician’s Guide to Evidence Base and Applications. Academic Press.
Evans, B.T. (2007). Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Dissertation. DAI-B 68/08, p. 5567.
Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S. & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35-43.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. & Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8(2), 163-190.
Lutz A., Brefczynski-Lewis J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R.J. (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE 3(3): e1897. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001897
Morone, N., Greco, C., & Weiner, D. (2008). Mindfulness meditation for the treatment of chronic low back pain in older adults: A randomized controlled pilot study. Pain, 134(3), 310-319
Monson, T. S. (2008b, April). Treasure of Eternal Value, Ensign, 4–9.
Monson, T. S. (2008b November). Finding Joy in the Journey, Ensign, 84–87.
Ornish, D., et al. (2008). Changes in prostate gene expression in men undergoing an intensive nutrition and lifestyle intervention.Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesWilliams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The mindful way through depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness. The Guilford Press: London.

2 responses

  1. Beautiful post. I just tried to register “mormonmindfulness” on wordpress and found this site – a bit abandoned but still great.

    Joining mindfulness with other aspects of worship as an LDS person has been a big part of my personal and professional life in the past year.

    As a therapist who has worked mostly with those who suffer with mental illness and now primarily with those who struggle with addictions, mindfulness has become one of the cornerstones of my practice.

    I first came to mindfulness through dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) which strives to help struggling individuals to balance change and acceptance in their life. In DBT, mindfulness is separated into several skills to be practiced regularly. The “what” skills include; observe, describe, and participate. The “how” skills include; non judgmental stance, one mindfully, and effectiveness. And then of course the heart of mindfulness (in DBT) is the idea of “wise mind” or balancing the truth of emotional mind and reasonable mind.

    You mention the mystery of how mindfulness works for pain management. In addictions it is less mysterious. Brain scans show that the limbic system (impulse, emotions, fight/flight, etc) of the addict is processing more than in the non addict, whose decision making is taking place in the pre-frontal cortex. Just the practice of observing (with non-judgmental stance) and describing one’s experience in the moment, helps to start the process of rewiring neural pathways that have diminished one’s ability to choose.

    Anyway – this blog is a great idea – and one that I can see being helpful to many others. Hopefully you get it going again.

    • Kent,

      I just resurrected the site this morning…at least by giving it a simpler domain name. I would love other contributors on here…you interested? Write (jzhess@gmail.com) or call me (801-712-1346).
      –Jacob

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