Mindfulness is a buzzword in conversations surrounding anxiety. Dr. Irene Kraegel, writer of The Mindful Christian defines mindfulness in an easy to understand way while explaining how mindfulness fits in with the Christian faith.
- What is mindfulness?
- How to practice mindfulness formally and informally
- Why you can’t go wrong when practicing mindfulness
- Contemplative streams in Christianity: Ignatian tradition, Lectio Divina, and Centering Prayer
Transcript of Episode 16
Welcome to Hope for Anxiety and OCD, episode 16. I’m your host Carrie Bock. Today on the podcast, we are talking about mindfulness with Dr. Irene Kraegel. She’s written a book on it and she leads people in how to develop a mindfulness practice. So I think you’re really going to get a lot out of this episode and I can’t wait for you to hear it.
So let’s dive right in.
Carrie: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
Dr. Kraegel: Thanks. My name is Irene Kraegel and I am the author of a book called The Mindful Christian. I teach mindfulness through a counseling center at Calvin University, which is where I also serve as a Director of the Student Counseling Center there at Calvin. I’m also a clinical psychologist by training. I’ve been a therapist for many years and I still do a bit of that on the side and also run some different kinds of clinical groups in the university.
Carrie: Sounds like you have a lot that keeps you busy.
Dr. Kraegel: Yes, there’s a lot of good work to do. I feel blessed by that.
Carrie:I also saw on your website that you do training’s on mindfulness sometimes for churches.
Dr. Kraegel: I do as part of my work connected to the book, then I often do speaking engagements or I have a workshop series that’s four weeks long, or sometimes people actually spread it out a little bit longer than that.
It’s really great for any kind of group setting such as a church or a Sunday school or a Bible study. I’ve done it in a retirement home before. That’s a great way for people to get introduced to mindfulness specifically from a Christian perspective if they’re interested in doing that kind of integration.
Carrie: That’s really interesting. Do you feel like the way that you grew up spiritually was very mindful or did that come later for you, like in terms of your spiritual practice?
Dr. Kraegel: I would say it came later. I think I was blessed to be in a few different traditions growing up that did acknowledge the need for silence as part of the spiritual journey. I learned early on that it was helpful to take long periods of time just to be present to God and to engage in different types of spiritual disciplines that you are more than just talking at God but also receiving from God. So I think all of that laid a really good foundation. I’m not sure that I knew exactly what to do with all of that silence.
So I knew that it was encouraged within the Christian tradition that I’d been exposed to, to practice silence, but I wasn’t really clear on how to use that well. I wasn’t really aware at the time of how cognitive my faith was and even in those times of silence, how much I was perhaps overly focused on thinking about God and developing words to say to God. Maybe even trying to hear words from God. I wasn’t really aware that that was even a framework that I was working out of. So I would say it was later after going through mindfulness training, really through a secular perspective that I recognize that there are other ways of relating to the world besides just thinking about it. And that became very relevant to my own faith journey as well, to realize that there were different ways of relating to God, besides just thinking about God or speaking to God. It’s really been my experience of mindfulness that has integrated with some of those early lessons I received in my own upbringing about silence.
It’s been that integration of the two that’s allowed me to feel more connected to God and maybe a little bit less conflicted. It’s about questions of faith and more just present to God in a more kind of communal way. So I’m very grateful for that.
Carrie: That’s so good because I think I grew up in a faith setting that was more scholastic and it was a lot about learning about God and who he is and thinking and emphasis on even changing your thoughts to make them more godly so to speak. This idea of practicing silence or silence being valued wasn’t something that I grew up around, even though now I would say that I definitely value that.
I’m curious how you got interested or involved in this kind of vein of mindfulness.
Dr. Kraegel: Initially, it was really a professional interest. As I mentioned I’m a psychologist by training and really the mental health field has become very focused on mindfulness over the last maybe 15 years or so and it’s become recognized as one of the main approaches to dealing with depression and anxiety and also some physical concerns, chronic pain, different things like that.
I had been hearing about it working in a university context. I was aware that I wanted to bring the latest and best tools to the students that I work with there. At the same time, it was a time in my own life where I was experiencing some personal suffering and feeling that as circumstances in my life had actually come together and some really great ways, my mood wasn’t catching up with that. And so some of the grief and loss and difficulty that I had experienced in the past wasn’t feeling healed. I sort of felt like I was longing for a deep practice like it helped me to heal in some important ways and learn to experience joy and so both professionally and then also personally, I really felt drawn to this practice of mindfulness, knowing that it involved silence, but not just in a way of sort of gritting your teeth and bearing it, but more bringing us into silence with a specific set of guidelines and techniques that helped us to work well with that silence.
At that point I signed up for a mindfulness space, stress reduction course, which is a standardized approach to teaching mindfulness and found that through the consistent practices of that course and just learning about the framework, that attitude that we bring when we’re practicing mindfulness. Some of the underlying beliefs that all jelled so naturally with what I already believe in terms of my Christian faith, and also what I knew about psychology as a clinical psychologist.
It was a very transformational experience for me to go through that kind of training. I’m not a person who has great habits over time in terms of disciplined practices every single day. I’m always really upfront about that. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be the person that’s on your mat 20 minutes every morning and every night to get benefit. I always say I would get more benefit in that way and being exposed especially early on consistently coming to those practices. Even over a couple of weeks of meditating each day and trying on these new attitudes and approaches that mindfulness offered, it was a very transformational experience for me.
So when I bring it now to clients and when I work with students around learning mindfulness, I really do it right from a personal passion as much as a professional understanding of the topic.
Carrie: People who are listening to this podcast probably have heard the word mindfulness or being mindful, and it’s somewhat of a buzzword right now. It has been studied and had good results in terms of what you were saying with anxiety and depression. What exactly is mindfulness?
Dr. Kraegel: The concept of mindfulness is actually fairly simple. A quick definition is that it’s bringing our attention to the present moment, doing that with intentionality, and doing it with an attitude of non-judgemental, open acceptance, or whatever it is that we find there. So it’s a simple definition. It’s not an easy practice. So we all know that our minds tend to wander very frequently outside of the present moment, we really spend a lot of our time in general, thinking about the past and rehashing what’s already happened. What’s been said, what our experiences were, and then we often spend a lot of time in the future as well, imagining how things will turn out and both when our minds go into the past and when they go into the future. There’s a tendency for us to be wandering around and sort of negative thoughts or negative emotional States, either remembering the worst or preparing for the worst.
And so that’s not great for our mental health. It’s not great for our levels of happiness and contentment and joy. Mindfulness is this idea of noticing that our minds are doing that. We don’t stay in some perfectly present state of awareness all the time. As you said, we don’t have to be perfect with this.
It is actually sometimes helpful to debrief what’s happened in the past or to plan for the future. Mindfulness allows us to notice when is that movement of our mind helpful and when is it not helpful. And to over and over bring our awareness, our attention back into the present moment with quite a bit of focus here on our physical effects.
So we learned to notice thoughts, emotions, and often what’s grounding us is an awareness of our physical sensations. There can be a tendency sometimes to live life kind of neck up, to be lost in thinking lost in sort of a swirling rumination and so mindfulness included this expansion of our awareness to include our whole bodies. So we’re noticing what’s happening maybe on the bottoms of our feet or the tips of our fingers maybe noticing temperature, noticing clothing on our skin, noticing services that were in contact with. All of those things can have a very grounding effect for us emotionally as well. So the simple definition is it’s paying attention. It’s learning to pay attention to the present moment and as we do that, we are coming to the present moment with that attitude of curiosity, openness, non-judgment, and also with kindness and compassion towards ourselves and towards whatever we find in the moment.
Carrie: Right. That non-judgemental stance piece is really important because sometimes we’re aware of what’s going on in the present, but we’re trying to dodge it and avoid it and hide from it and feeling states may be especially either feeling states or pain like “I don’t want to feel that it’s hard. it’s too much.” Mindfulness is a good way for people to increase their distress tolerance and in my line of work and working with a lot of people with trauma tends to prepare them for the deeper levels of trauma work.
Dr. Kraegel: Absolutely, there are so many ways that when we are experiencing pain emotionally or physically, there can be a very natural response of avoidance and it makes sense. We don’t want to hurt. So if we’re feeling pain, there’s a tendency to turn away from that to try to get away from it.
And one of the foundational philosophies of mindfulness is that resisting our experience as part of what creates added suffering in our lives. And so we can’t avoid experiencing pain that’s out of our control because every human being experiences pain. What we can learn to do is to notice ways that are our avoidance of that, and our resistance to that is actually increasing our suffering. So we talk about ways that our minds create their own suffering that goes beyond whatever is present in the moment and so just like you said, mindfulness is learning then to turn towards those experiences rather than avoiding them to be able to stay present to whatever’s there. That’s very difficult as you mentioned and in cases of trauma or other situations where we may be feel flooded by an emotion that’s associated with a memory, our bodies hold all kinds of experiences in them that sometimes can be triggered without our awareness, even. So when we learn mindfulness and learn to stay present to that, it can be very difficult. Mindfulness is not for the faint of heart. You mentioned it’s a bit of a buzzword these days and I think it has this implication that mindfulness equals calmness or that when we practice mindfulness, that feels good. That’s not necessarily the case. I compare it much more to exercise as someone who doesn’t love exercise myself.
Sometimes when we work out physically, it feels good, and sometimes that’s pretty miserable, either way, we get benefit from physical exercise and mindfulness as much the same way. There are times where we do practices of mindfulness that lead us to feel calm and joyful and content and grounded and happy. There are other times where it’s miserable. Now, we’re just noticing all the thoughts. We’re noticing those painful emotions coming to the surface that maybe we’ve been trying to avoid. We’re noticing restlessness or just kind of a desire to stop whatever that practice is and even then there’s benefit because it’s bringing awareness to that present moment that has a healing effect for us, even if it’s uncomfortable in the moment, right?
Carrie: There’s this level I think sometimes when people try to practice mindfulness, which is counter to a lot of things in our society, because typically we’re focused on about five things at once and we don’t take the time to pause, but I think there’s this tendency maybe to wonder, “am I doing this right?” Or like you said, to try to make something happen, like, “okay, I’ve got to be mindful now, what do I do? what do I focus on?”
Dr. Kraegel: Yeah, absolutely and one of the things I noticed students saying as they’re starting to learn this practice is it’s not working. So we’ll kind of debriefing a mindfulness meditation and someone will say it didn’t work or it wasn’t, or they’ll also sometimes evaluate the practice in terms of, “was I doing it right or wrong?” And student might say, “I don’t think I was doing that.”
The beautiful thing about mindfulness is that we’re learning to notice that pressure to do things a certain way to get things right and also that desire for things to be a particular way. So if we say a practice isn’t working, usually what we mean is I didn’t feel calm during it, or I noticed that there was unpleasant emotion there that I had a lot of thoughts. So fortunately mindfulness does not equal clearing the mind. It doesn’t equal being in some sort of perfect state of Nirvana somehow. Really it simply means being present. So you can’t mess it up whatever’s there, and we’re more learning to kind of give up that striving and that need to perform, or that need for things to be a certain way so that we can really practice being present to whatever is there. And for me, a lot of my passion has to do with incorporating mindfulness into the Christian journey. This is where I see this coming together so naturally is that I believe that when we are learning to let go of our grip on things, having to be a certain way, then we’re really creating space to start to notice what God is doing. So we’re creating this awareness of things as they are, where we can start to see God at work more clearly, but we have to get out of the way. First, we have to learn, give up that need to push and pull, and kind of force things to be a certain way. We have to give up some of that control so that we can see more clearly that divine work that’s at play in any given moment.
Carrie: Sometimes that just means slowing down long enough to examine where God is at work in our situation and our world or surrounding us.
Dr. Kraegel: Absolutely. For me, I think slowing down with an awareness that lets me receive things in a moment instead of just thinking about them, you kind of going back to that option to learn. There’s a different way of relating to the world, besides just thinking about it. So when I practice mindfulness, I’m recognizing that God is at work in this moment. It’s not about what I think about that, it’s more just, can I slow down and pause and have to open up my hands and receive whatever is there and so that physical groundedness of mindfulness helps here when I become present. For example, to the chair that I’m sitting on. This physical sensation of the chair and the floor that’s under my feet, that’s provision. I actually did not make this chair that I’m sitting on nor did I make this floor heater on right now. And so when I become aware of the solidness of that chair and that floor, when I connect with that and I become aware of my body is sitting upright in this place. These are all gifts that I’m normally not noticing unless I pause to bring my awareness into the present moment without judgment and then that becomes a spiritual practice. Different people may have different labels for that depending on their worldview. When I become aware of something like the chair on the floor, holding me up with so little work on my own part to make any of that happen, I then received that as a gift from God. This is a divine gift. That there were people in the world who made this house, who made this chair and I have this body right now that’s been given to me that I can hold up on this chair as I sit here. That’s a gift. I think that there’s extra power for me and recognizing that when we slow down and open up our awareness. There are gifts in every single moment for us to become aware of.
Carrie: In essence, it opens yourself up to gratefulness and thankfulness.
Dr. Kraegel: Absolutely, and it’s different than deciding to be grateful. I do know people that seem to have that ability to intentionally turn their mind towards gratitude and that doesn’t come very naturally to me, just to say I’m going to be grateful today because as soon as I start to think of things I’m grateful for, it’s very easy for me to think of all the things that are going wrong. So like, “okay, I have this, but I don’t have that” or “this good thing happened, but that bad thing happened.” And so it can become our circle in my own mind. Practicing mindfulness, it’s a bit different in that it just gets me in touch with what’s right here right now so that there’s no power struggle around it. I’m not trying to think a certain thing about it, that’s grateful. I’m simply receiving it and that really does then open up my heart to gratitude so that it’s not just a cognition, but it also becomes an emotional and even a physical experience to open up and receive that.
Carrie: I know that mindfulness really has its origins in eastern traditions like Buddhism. I think that has led some Christians to be kind of wary of it, or maybe they’ve been involved in a place where someone did a mindfulness exercise and it did have that Eastern Buddhist type bent to it.
How do you see mindfulness aligning with the Christian faith?
Dr. Kraegel: Yeah, I think there are a lot of different ways we can approach that. And the definition itself is so simple that I’m not sure we can attribute it just to one religion or cultural tradition. Certainly Buddhism as a tradition that has highlighted present moment awareness and has really built a whole set of spiritual practices around present moment awareness and provided some really beautiful ways to pursue that. And present moment awareness is present in every major world religion. So really wherever people are seeking God, they are going to need to learn to be present in the moment. That’s the only place we can meet that. And so certainly in the Christian tradition, we can see the role of silence and contemplation and present moment awareness throughout scripture, throughout a variety of different traditions within Christianity. Even in modern times, there are some sort of older practices that are coming back that are becoming more popular lately that have this present moment awareness, very deeply interwoven in. So I think of things like the Ignatian tradition. That has a lot of language in it that very much overlaps with mindfulness principles, things like TSA worship, which has a very contemplative present kind of approach. Lexio Divina, where we’re practicing entering into the experience of scripture being read in the moment. Centering prayer is very much a mindfulness type of practice with God really as the object of our attention during those practices. So those are just a few examples, but really I don’t think any one religious tradition can say they have the corner on present moment awareness, but certainly, in the last few decades here in the United States, the popularization of mindfulness principles have very much come through that Buddhist tradition and that can sometimes make it more uncomfortable for people that don’t align with those beliefs or those traditions. And so I often talk about this in terms of culture and needing to be interculturally competent, and also to understand it’s always important for us to be sorting out the differences between culture and theology.
Sometimes when people are reacting to mindfulness with some fear. Sometimes people are fearful. Is this a new-age practice? Is this a Buddhist practice? Is this opening me up spiritually to something that’s not safe?
Then I think it’s important to take a step back and just look theologically at the concept of present moment awareness. Is there anything about present moment awareness that is dangerous in and of itself? And really the answer is no. So becoming more aware is a good thing and for anybody that wants to pursue God to be more fully aware and present to what God is doing right there in the moment is key. It’s crucial. And then from that foundation, there are all kinds of ways that we can integrate these concepts together. I think for me, one of the most powerful things is just recognizing that God is always present. When I’m practicing mindfulness, I’m practicing, being present that is putting my attention where God already is.
I do love in the Christian tradition that we’re often inviting God, maybe at the beginning of a church service, we might invite God to join us or ask the Holy spirit to come. That is beautiful and at the same time, God is already there. God is everywhere all the time. When we’re inviting God all we’re doing is acknowledging something that’s already true, which is like, God is here.
And so mindfulness wakes us up to that and this is kind of the foundation of where this integration occurs, but when we practice being present then we are aware of God being part of the present moment, that can only enhance our spiritual connection than with God and increase our ability to hear and to feel, and to be connected to this divine being. But recognizing that it doesn’t have to be about a certain set of thoughts or that really when we’re present in the moment to God, that’s kind of like being present to somebody that we care about. My husband and I have been married for 20 years. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t and however I feel about him in a given moment, doesn’t change that. He’s my husband and he’s here and I think it’s kind of like that with God. So like sometimes I might be talking to God and we’re having a conversation and I’m feeling things or I’m thinking about things but whether or not that’s happening, God is still here. God is still God, I’m still me and so mindfulness just gives me a chance to notice, to look around and say, “Oh, God is actually right here already.”
Carrie: I want to make this really practical for people. So say someone’s listening to this podcast and they’re like, “yes, mindfulness sounds like it would be really helpful for me.”
Where do people start? How do they get started in developing that on a practical level in their day-to-day life?
Dr. Kraegel: There are really two different ways of approaching mindfulness that go hand in hand. And so the first piece is a whole set of formal practices that have become kind of traditional, at least in the more modern Western manifestation of mindfulness.
And so a lot of these come out of mindfulness-based stress reduction, which is MBSR for short. MBSR is a very secular approach to teaching mindfulness and for people who really want to have some thorough training that’s often a great place to start. And so a training course like that is going to guide somebody in a set of formal meditation practices that include things like a body scan, where we’re going through our body noticing what’s present my sitting practice, where we’re tuning into our breasts and our physical sensations and noticing thoughts and feelings on sounds things like movement practices. So it’s not uncommon to do mindful yoga as a way of noticing this interaction between our minds and our bodies, as we move things like a walking practice, which can be done with other types of movement as well for people that don’t walk. And so that can help us bring our awareness to different activities or movements we might normally do just without even thinking about them.
So that’s an example of some common mindfulness meditation practices. Those are really best done with a guide, and there are lots of free mindfulness meditation guides online. I’ve collected quite a few of them on my website at themindfulchristian.com. Just looking I’m always on the lookout for guides that I think can be especially helpful for Christians who are either looking for some Christian integration or at least want something that’s kind of secular in nature that they can then integrate with Christian faith as they would like. And so learning those formal practices is important then to be able to develop that other aspect of mindfulness, which is what we generally refer to as informal practice. So if the formal practice is a little bit more like setting aside a certain amount of time where you sit or lie down, or you’re engaged in some kind of intentional practice, usually with a guide, then the informal practice is more bringing your awareness throughout each and every day back to the present moment. Whenever you notice you have an opportunity to do that and so informally in the course of the day. For example, I might choose while I’m brushing my teeth to tune into those sensations and notice what is it actually like to be brushing my teeth right now. What are the direct sensations that I’m experiencing during this simple activity that I do every day? Where are my thoughts going? What kinds of emotions are coming up for me? Or maybe just informally in the course of a day, I noticed a moment where I’m feeling a little emotionally riled up, so mindfulness and that moment might look like, let me kind of turn towards myself right now and just check in what are my emotions?
What are the thoughts that are here? What are the urges or behaviors that I’m noticing in myself what’s happening in my body? That would be sort of an informal, mindful moment and maybe taking a few breaths and then continuing on with my day.
Now the informal application of mindfulness is much more challenging if we haven’t done some of the formal practices first. I know I had started with the informal practices when I was first learning about mindfulness and did not find them particularly helpful. But I wasn’t really aware of how I was triggering and re-triggering thought patterns in my own mind during those practices and it really took me coming back and learning formal practices before I was able to become more aware of my thought triggers which really opened me up to practice informally. Now, I already mentioned that I’m not like the world’s biggest rock star at the formal practices. That’s easy. So they’ll see those as crucial in getting me started and also I know when I need those, so it’s kind of like drinking water where I have to pay attention to like, am I thirsty? I shouldn’t take a drink. And now I can notice those times where I really need to reach for one of those formal practices to make sure I’m grounded. So everybody’s balance of those will look a little bit different. Some people are very heavily focused on the formal practices and others work that in less frequently. It really is just a matter for each person of what they need, but I would definitely recommend that for people who would like to pursue this more, they either look into an MBSR course, if they’re feeling ready for that, or certainly just starting to go through some of the guides that we can find online. Practicing, dipping, our toes into it a little bit can be a great place to start as well.
Carrie: And I will definitely put those links that you talked about in the show notes too. So if people want to look and dive into it a little bit more then they can. So towards the end of every podcast, I really like to ask the guests to share a story of hope, which is a time that you’ve received hope from God or another person.
Dr. Kraegel: Yeah, that’s really a beautiful question and I’ve given some thought to this because you did give me a heads up you would be asking me this and so as I’ve thought about hope for myself, I do think of particular stories from my life where things felt like all was lost and God came through. I’m thinking of all kinds of particulars like they were years for example where I had multiple pregnancy losses. I write about this in my book as well, too. Not really knowing how that would resolve. God brought us a child and we have this beautiful nine-year-old boy that we love. That’s something that brings me hope or to think about even just my own marriage as being something that’s a blessing to me after going through an experience in early childhood where my parent’s marriage didn’t work out. So to have a marriage now that feels solid brings me hope, but I say all that to say that I’m not sure that that’s what fuels my emotional hope.
I think what actually instills hope inside of my heart is these little tiny micro-moments of provision and the one that came to my mind when I thought what would be the story of hope that I would share is actually just something simple as my morning cup of coffee. I wish I could remember who said this, I know there’s a quote out there from somebody who talked about how his morning cup of coffee is what gave him hope for the world. I really think that there’s some truth in that, that when I bring a mindful awareness to the present moment around those things that bring me joy, something in the morning like a cup of coffee, smelling it, the warmth of the cup, recognizing all the people involved in bringing that coffee to me. All of the growers and the people who worked to process it and the people who packaged it and brought it around the world. The people who made the coffee pot. And I mean, you can kind of go on and on about all the people involved in something as simple as a cup of coffee, and then to be present to that experience that is what actually ignites hope in my heart. Those little things happen throughout the course of every day on those little moments of provision. Those moments of recognizing that no matter how lost things seem in the world, they will always seem broken in the world we live in, no matter how aware we are in any given moment or any given year of how challenging things are, there are still these small pieces of provision every single moment and that truly gives me hope. So that’s what kind of awakens my heart up to say, “Oh, I’m okay.” The world’s okay where I’m being given what I need right now. And I know that in every moment, moving forward, God will continue to give me what I need and that’s a hopeful thing for me.
Carrie: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that. I think it’s just very relevant to what we talked about today.
Dr. Kraegel: Certainly this particular season too as we’re kind of nearing the end of 2020 here, and it’s been a year where we recognized globally so many challenges in terms of health and mental wellbeing and injustice on so many different levels and so many layers of difficulty. It hasn’t been a year that we’ve been able to pretend that things are okay. So something like mindfulness, I think, has been crucial for me and recognizing that we’re not okay because we have it all figured out and we know what’s going to happen. We are okay because God is providing for us in each moment and so mindfulness really helps open me up to that awareness.
Carrie: That’s so good. I think that the show was very helpful and informative and practical for people and I hope that it sparks a desire and encouragement for them to start practicing mindfulness on their own if they haven’t or if they have started it to know you can’t mess it up.
I love things that you can’t mess up. How great is that?
Dr. Kraegel: Yeah, well, I hope it is helpful for people and I think, you know, for people who pursue mindfulness, oftentimes it’s just finding the right style, the right resource. It’s a very simple concept, but can be practiced in a lot of different ways. So I hope that those listening will give it a chance. So thank you so much for the chance to talk about it today. I really appreciate that.
Carrie: Yeah, thank you.
I hope that you all enjoy listening to this interview as much as I did getting to talk to Dr. Kraegel. it was really insightful in how we can meet God in this present moment as he is always with us. That’s so awesome and such a beautiful part of our faith experience.
Definitely check out the show notes on this episode If you’re looking for more information on mindfulness.
Would you like to give suggestions for future shows, hop on over to hopeforanxietyandocd.com and click on the contact page.
Thank you so much for listening. Hope for anxiety and OCD is a production of By The Well counseling in Smyrna, Tennessee. Our original music is by Brandon Mangrum and audio editing is completed by Benjamin Bynam.
Until next time. May you be comforted by God’s great love for you.