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How to use mindfulness to fight temptation

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Use it as a tool, along with your prayer, to improve your mental and spiritual health.

Catholics can be wary of “mindfulness,” which they many equate with new-agey Eastern-style meditation. While some kinds of meditation may be harmful to your faith, mindfulness isn’t meditation. Rather, it’s just a tool that can be used to improve your mental health and even benefit your faith.

In therapy I learned that mindfulness is a way of observing the thoughts and emotions that pass through your head — observing, but not judging. The goal is to be aware of the feelings and ideas that rush through your head, observe them, and let them go, instead of dwelling on them and succumbing to the harmful ones. Your thoughts and actions form a cycle: thoughts and feelings give rise to actions, and actions in turn cause feelings. By noticing our thoughts and feelings and preventing them from influencing our actions, we can step in and interrupt this cycle.

For example, if I’m paying attention to the thoughts in my head, I might notice feelings of shame and anger, or even fully-formed thoughts like “I can’t do this” or “I hate my life.” Before, I might have let these affect my mood. But when I am mindful of the causes of my mood, I can deliberately choose to ignore them. I will say to myself, “I feel angry right now. I feel angry at my life.” But I will refuse to let the anger take me over. This is easier said than done, of course; but recognizing the beginnings of your mood is a powerful first step.

Aside from recognizing and dismissing our thoughts and emotions, the practice of mindfulness also includes awareness without judgment. For example, if I feel resentment, and I think something like “my husband’s never here when I need him,” I don’t have to let this emotion turn into action. I don’t have to act on my resentment by yelling at my husband or acting spitefully toward him. I can just acknowledge the fact that I feel resentful, and do my best to speak up about it and/or to let it go without blame or guilt. This is enormously helpful for mental scruples: just because I have bad thoughts doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.

This distinction between feeling an emotion and dwelling on it or acting on it reminded me immediately of an old Catholic phrase: “entertaining” a temptation. Like a thought or an emotion, a temptation can come into our head unbidden. We’re not responsible for never having temptations; we’re only responsible for pushing them away when they come into our heads. If Jesus himself experienced temptation, it can’t be sinful to be tempted; it only becomes sinful when we “entertain” the temptation, invite it in and focus on it.

As a Catholic first and a practicer of mindfulness second, I was struck by the similarity between the two ideas. If I wanted to strengthen my defense against temptation, maybe mindfulness could be a helpful tactic.

Temptation often catches us unaware. By the time we notice that we’re being tempted, we’ve already given into the temptation and allowed sin to influence our thoughts and actions. Being in the habit of being aware of your thoughts, or at least taking time to slow down and observe yourself when you’re feeling emotional, can help you nip temptation in the bud. This isn’t limited to staying calm and letting the temptation float peacefully out of your head; a strong temptation can be countered strongly. I know people who yell at the devil and tell him to get out of their lives. My favorite technique is to remind myself, “I don’t have to be a slave to my emotions!” I don’t have to give in to spiritually dangerous feelings like hatred, envy, or lust, just as I don’t have to give in to psychologically dangerous feelings like self-hatred, despair, or anxiety.

The techniques I learned for slowing my mind down and focusing on my thoughts and feelings can also be applied to fighting temptation. When I need to stop the flurry of thoughts and tune into my mind, I sometimes try little games like “find everything blue in this room” or “describe everything your five senses are feeling right now” or “how many types of vegetables can you name?” Giving your mind something direct to focus on, and sweeping away all the intrusive thoughts that come barging in, helps you to regain control.

It’s the same way with sin. Distraction can go a long way in fighting temptation. If you can use mindfulness to slow down and be aware of what’s going on in your head, you can stop temptations and negative thoughts before they cause harmful actions. You can interrupt the vicious cycle and free your soul.

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