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Taking Captivity Captive: The Role of Mindfulness in Overcoming Mindless Compulsions

August 7, 2013

In our busy world we often perform routine tasks without giving them much thought.  We’ve performed them so often that after the rote tasks are completed we often wonder to ourselves, “I don’t remember doing that” or “I was so deep in thought about work or family that I don’t remember the drive to work this morning.”  This isn’t to say the work was done in a sloppy fashion or the drive to work was reckless.  It does tell us however that we didn’t have our focus on what we were doing at that particular time.   Most of the time there aren’t any adverse consequences in “spacing out”.  Yet, when we run a red light or miss a turn while driving, it’s often the result of a failure to be mindful of the task at hand.

300px-Anastasis_at_ChoraThis is most especially true in the person dealing with a compulsion such as compulsive buying.  There is a disconnect or what psychologists refer to as cognitive disassociation during which the buyer is so absorbed in the process of shopping that rational judgment is suspended, self-control is lost, and the shopper acts as if he is in a mental stupor. There is no mental room available for obvious questions such as do I need this or can I afford it, for the individual is operating on cognitive autopilot, programmed for behavior that will cause him obvious problems, but that he appears to be unable to resist.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son illustrates this scenario quite well.  The parable recounts the story of the younger son who asks his father for his share of the family inheritance.  The father gives it to him and the son proceeds to scatter all his resources living in a wasteful and profligate manner. In this state, the younger son neither remembered his father’s counsels, nor even his father’s face. He was completely consumed, mind and spirit, by the passions in a state that the fathers called captivity in which the soul is bound by the passion hand and foot. There seems to be much in common between the cognitive dissociation of the compulsive shopper and the state of being a captive of a passion.

It is only after the younger son had spent all of his inheritance that he comes to his senses and recognizes what he has done by indulging his passions. He is then able to step away from the situation he finds himself in, to step away from himself, to bring to the mind the image of his father’s house, and to use His God-given reason to make a choice. Unlike many who are caught in the throes of a compulsion, the son does not wallow in shame and self-loathing.   (If he had, he would have sought out alternative ways to indulge his passions in order to escape the pain of shame and humiliation.)  Rather, he picks himself up and humbly returns to his father, admits his problem, and throws himself at the mercy of his compassionate father.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is intended to demonstrate the compassion, mercy and love of the father so it concludes with the father welcoming the son’s return.  However, as we know from experience, the real work of change only begins at this point.  The son has come to his senses and has returned to his father’s house, but that discerning and fully aware movement that led him to freedom must become a new way of life if history is not to repeat itself. The same holds true for the compulsive shopper. Once the shopper comes to his senses, he must discard guilt and shame and strive to live a life of watchfulness. According to Saint Ephraim, “watchfulness takes captive those who are in captivity” (On the Imitation of the Proverbs, vol. 1, p. 226). In modern psychological parlance, mindfulness can keep one from descending into a dissociative state of absorption in which one acts without the mind’s active participation.  Mindfulness requires a focus on the present with rational judgment fully engaged so that the will is operative and choices are made freely and thoughtfully.  The practice of mindfulness demands a discipline over the thoughts and desires so that any mental straying will be recognized quickly and focus renewed on the task at hand.  This may prove difficult in the beginning as established patterns and impulses remain strong.  Perhaps it might prove helpful to practice mindfulness in those routine tasks such as driving to work or preparing dinner.  If our focus is grounded in the task at hand and we perform that task with an awareness that all we do we do for the glory of God, these tasks become part of our life of prayer. In the monastery, monks are assigned obediences or tasks that are often quite menial.  However, these are the perfect opportunity for the monk to focus all his attention on the task at hand, thus glorifying God in all that he does.  These simple, daily tasks are seen as the way in which the monk is to work out his salvation, cooperating with God’s grace. The same should be true for those living in the world. Then when we have to perform those tasks in which we are particularly vulnerable to our impulses and passions, we will be able to employ this practice of mindfulness and not give in to our compulsions so readily.

In order to cultivate this discipline of mindfulness, the Church provides us with the necessary tools of prayer and ascesis.  For instance, if we are prone to buy compulsively, we should pray before shopping and while shopping.  We should become familiar and regularly practice the ascetic disciplines of fasting.  In this instance, fasting should incorporate those aspects of our lives which are immaterial as well including our thoughts and fantasies.  If we catch ourselves, drifting off in our thought life about buying this item or purchasing that new gadget, we re-focus ourselves on the present task at hand by offering the simple prayer,  “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me a sinner.”  Another helpful practice might include making the sign of the cross before entering a department store or leaving the store if the compulsion to buy leads you to stray from your original intent of purchasing what you need rather than what you want at the moment.

Gradually over time, the compulsion dissipates if we practice the art of mindfulness, keeping our minds focused on the task at hand and imploring our Heavenly Father for help.  If we cooperate with God’s grace in a state of active watchfulness, we will not need to come to ourselves, we will be fully in ourselves and with our God. In such a state of beautiful and holy clarity, it is truly meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother, our own mind, was dead through captivity to the passions, and is alive again through watchfulness; and was lost through careless, and is found through attention to God and self.

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