The Christian faith is rich with tools for emotional healing. Over the years I have gained great relief from my struggles with worry and anxiety through the use of techniques that I now define as acts of ‘Present Contemplation’. There is something uniquely powerful about the perspective change that contemplation offers. It is this particular benefit that Rob and I have been writing about in greater depth within The Worry Book.
Contemplation has been used by Christians for centuries. In fact it was the preserve of the Desert fathers who spent a lot of time ‘contemplating’ Christ in caves and even on top of wooden poles! Fortunately the techniques we encourage don’t require those for it to work!
The roots of contemplation are not just with the Desert Fathers, in fact they stem from the Bible itself. ‘Watchfulness’ is a biblical style of thinking that seems to encourage a focused awareness of Kingdom priorities whilst living a ‘fully present’ life. Luke 12:35-48 is a parable describing watchfulness within which we are encouraged to be aware and prepared of ‘the masters’ return.
Colossians 4:2 describes watchfulness as a form of prayer: “Devote yourselves to prayer being watchful and thankful”. This form of prayer is not so much a considered stream of conscious requests but a way of ‘waiting’ on God. We can focus our attention on God without needing to necessarily think about things to say to God.
You might be wondering what help present contemplation can offer us when it comes to dealing with worrying thoughts. The principle benefit is that contemplation changes the relationship we have with the thoughts themselves. Such a change means that we can be fully attentive and focused on the thoughts whilst not entering into a catastrophic stream of narrative about those thoughts.
I imagine ‘worrying thoughts’ are a bit like an Angler Fish. They bury themselves on the sea floor and have a stalk on their head that dangles a small fish-like piece of skin in the current. To passing predators this looks like an appetising meal. Little do they know they are about to be a meal themselves!
When a worry thought appears in the mind, we very often look at it, are engaged by it and are very quickly ‘consumed’ by all that it might mean or represent. Most CBT tools help us to find freedom from within this tumultuous position, but imagine never actually falling into the worry trap at all?
Present Contemplation is a way focusing your awareness on your thoughts, being ‘watchful’ but not being over-involved by the thoughts themselves. It would be like swimming over the Angler Fish and saying, “Oh, that looks like a small meal, but actually I can see the outline of a much bigger fish, I can see its fins, teeth and eyes. I am observing it, but from a safe distance!”
In order to use Present Contemplation successfully we have to accept the truth, that we are not the sum of our thoughts. We will have tens of thousands of nonsense thoughts each day, very few of these have any bearing on what sort of person we are. Jesus was tempted ‘in every way’ yet was without sin, his tempting thoughts did not define him!
Once we have accepted this for ourselves we can begin to train our attention to view our worrying thoughts objectively without diving into them. We can ‘sit’ with them for as long as they remain in our field of consciousness, without running away or hurrying them along. Over time repeated use of present contemplation can change the way we approach worry all together and dampen previously intrusive and frightening thoughts. This change in relationship is truly liberating and I recommend it to you.