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Non-judgmental self-observation for Christians16 min read

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One of the weaknesses of modern Christianity is a lack of disciplines for self-observation, self-knowledge, and self-mastery. This is partly due to Christianity’s outward focus on a God who saves and heals rather than an inward focus on self-knowledge, as well as an aversion to even its own mystical tradition, a bias towards intellectualism, and an unbiblical aversion to the idea of healthy self love as part of good stewardship of what we’ve been given.

Non-judgmental self-observation, also known as awareness meditation (AM), is a meditation technique that is the spiritual equivalent of brainstorming – of putting the critic outside temporarily so that we may access without judgment the deeper realities of our self. As we practice observing and listening to our busy minds, and our often pained bodies, we are not excusing what goes on there, but waiting kindly for the more superficial thoughts to give way to our deeper selves, longings, hurts, and desires. By practicing this compassion, we make ourselves safe to deal with the tender inner person. And not surprisingly, when we do so, we learn to practice that type of kind listening with others.

Link these two important ideas in your mind, silent listening and kindness, and then we will explore how practicing suspending judgment on ourselves builds the muscles of love and wisdom in seeing the deeper person and its hurts.

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[h] No other commandment is greater than these. (Mark 12:30-31)

Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10a)

In returning and rest you shall be saved; In quietness and confidence shall be your strength. (Isaiah 30:15)

A. Concerns about Meditation

Many Christians are rightly concerned about dabbling in eastern practices such as meditation, yoga, martial arts, or astrology, but not all self-help or tools for self-knowledge are inroads for demons or self-deception.

I argue that AM, like simple stretching, martial arts, or Christian psychology may be considered generic tools that can be benefited from like other forms of general wisdom.

1. Meditation is not putting yourself into an altered state

Some forms of meditation or physical and emotional practices are meant to get us into an extreme physical state, either extraordinarily slow or fast. We’ve all seen documentaries about monks who can slow their heartrate, or sit out in the extreme cold, or hold their breaths for long periods of time. Their minds often shift into generating alpha waves, and show very little activity. But this type of extreme physical state, and the associated mental state are not what awareness meditation is about.

Neither is it whipping ourselves into an extreme state of delirium like whirling dervishes (a Sufi Islamic sect) and even some Christian sects are known for.

2. It’s Not Emptying the Mind

Many Christians are so familiar with meditating upon a verse of scripture or idea that they can conceive of no other way to benefit from silence. And even though silence is a common practice in some forms of monastic or Christian practices, the question of what to do with your mind in that silence is important.

The purpose of being quiet is not merely emptying the mind, but to hear something else. But in this case, what are we listening to? The answer is, our own inner selves (for a change) as well as our own bodies which may be showing signs of our unrecognized mental anxieties. While we may fear taking this inward journey, such a journey does not open us up to demons, except our own, which is the whole purpose here – of knowing (and loving) the depths of our own, often wounded soul.

3. It’s Not Talking with other spirits

Again, in the quiet we may actually hear God’s “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12), and certainly, many of the great saints of old have testified to the power of being silent before God:

We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls. (Mother Theresa)

But many Christians fear silence because they think that such quieting of the mind might make them more susceptible to the voices in their head, which they suspect may be demonic. And while it is normal to fear our inner turmoil, we will typically not find demons there, nor will we be any more susceptible to crazy or demonic voices.

And again, unlike some new-age practices, we are not searching for spirit guides or angels, nor even the voice of God (though he may speak to us in our silence). Rather we are listening to our own bodies and souls through a gentle inward focus rather than an outward one.

B. Why we fear listening to our own body and soul

Many of us are ignoring the signs that our body or soul are giving us. We have physical pains, but out of fear or bad habit, ignore what our body is trying to tell us. Even worse, our souls are also in pain, and these deep emotions and hurts may be causing us physical sicknesses as well.

Additionally, our unknown or suppressed created self may be trying to speak to us through dreams that we are not paying attention to. Awareness meditation is taking time to deeply listen to our own selves.

Besides the fear of the unknown, of practices from non-Christian traditions, and of being selfish, we often fail to take the inward journey for a few other reasons.

1. We Don’t Know How Much Pain We Will Experience

The first is that we don’t know how much pain we will experience if we go inward. We know we’re wounded, but like not going to the doctor for fear of a bad diagnosis, we allow our inner illnesses to keep messing up our lives and potentially get worse instead of addressing them. Sometimes, until the pain of staying where we are is unbearable, we won’t endure the pain of trying to get better.

2. We Don’t have the Tools and Techniques

How do we take the journey if we don’t have a vehicle to get us there? There’s no use going on this scary journey if we feel unprepared, and don’t have a plan for how to face whatever it is we will experience. And this is where awareness meditation comes in. As a technique, it helps us navigate the inner territory of our hearts.

3. We Don’t Know What to Expect

If we are about to take a dangerous journey, we like to know what to expect. Unknowns are more scary than known dangers because we can be mentally and practically prepared if we know what is typical on such a journey. What if I find suppressed memories of sexual abuse, or such sorrow that I will lose my mind? Certainly, as we get close to previous wounds, we can feel literally at the edge of insanity. We need to know what we can expect to happen, how bad it might be, and what to do to be safe in those experiences.

4. We Don’t Know if We Will Come out the Other Side

We don’t want to pursue this journey if it doesn’t have an end. We don’t want to endure scary feelings and discoveries if we will be just as unhappy on the other side, or worse! We need to know that our tools work, and that others have made it to the other side and are actually better for it. If we have that confidence, then the inward venture becomes doable.

C. Can we answer those fears?

Yes. First, taking the inward journey into our pain is less painful than doing nothing. We don’t increase our pain by going inward, we merely increase our awareness of the pain that we are experiencing already. But the good news is, when those things come up into the light as adults (as opposed to the children we were when many of those emotional traumas happened), they lose their power. They may make us cry or finally enter into the grieving process, but that process is the one that actually heals the pain.

Second, the tool of awareness meditation, though it does not prepare us for the emotions that may surface, allows us to be in control. We are not helpless victims, but adults taking a painful journey. However, we may also benefit from learning some other processes, like engaging in some inner child work (book listed below), getting professional counseling, learning about the stages of grief or joining a 12-step program.

D. What will the journey be like?

While each of us has our own inner world, the shared human experience will typically bring up emotions and experiences, almost all from childhood, including:

  • Hatred for parents who failed us
  • Sexual abuse or other trauma from childhood
  • Poor self-concept due to social ridicule as children

Awareness meditation won’t heal all of these, but it will help us discover these things and begin the process of grieving the loss of our childhoods and the good things of life we may never have (don’t worry, no one actually has the perfect life). And again, just the act of bringing these things to the light without judgment seems to diffuse their power and helps us to let them flow downstream and out of our lives.

E. Will we make it? Yes. How long will it take?

One rule of thumb comes from the observation that the loss of a spouse or loved one takes at least a couple of years to grieve. If we’ve spent our whole lives being screwed up, you can bet that we’ll spend a good couple of years entering into the forest of the heart and finding our way back out. and grieving the loss of some of the things we can never have. But when we process these problems properly, we’ll become so much freer and at peace.

F. What is Awareness Meditation (AM) like?

1. Brainstorming

Are you familiar with brainstorming? Brainstorming is a helpful method of gathering ideas to solve problems without being overly critical in the beginning. We temporarily put the critic outside, and consider every possible, even crazy ideas. Then we bring the critical attitude back in and evaluate.

For example, let’s say we are trying to solve the problem of our long commute. The first step is to consider every possible solution before we evaluate them. If we are too critical too soon, we may miss a good idea. So we might suggest hitchhiking, carpooling, working from home, but we may also consider getting a motorcycle, a train, or taking a plane or a hot air balloon.

If the critic was in the room, they might immediately shut down some of these suggestions before giving them a chance. Someone might say “we don’t even have a train, that’s a dumb idea,” and then that suggestion never makes it to our final list. But on second inspection, perhaps the town halfway to work does have a train stop, and we could drive there and take the train the rest of the way?

2. A conversation with a non-judgmental listener

Have you ever had a new acquaintance, and as you get to know them, you can share more personal information with them? What happens if you share something and you see they seem to judge you, or don’t like it? Your personal sharing stops at that level, or you step back.

When we judge ourselves like that, the deeper issues of our heart do not get a chance to surface. And the whole goal of AM is not to judge or fix, but to compassionately allow our deeper, sometimes hurt selves, to the surface.

G. The Practice of Awareness Meditation

If I haven’t scared you off yet, good! You are probably ready to take the journey. So here’s my beginner’s guide.

1. Go in your room and close the door

This is not nature therapy or merely getting into a peaceful natural setting, In fact, you want to reduce outside noises and sights. Put on some comfortable clothes and sit down on the floor quietly with your back up against a wall or bed. You can use a chair too, but sitting on the floor, or a small pillow (or a zafu!) is better. I recommend that you put a pad and paper next to you, because often, we start remembering things we need or want to do, and this is a good chance to write them down, then gently return to meditation.

2. Focus on the air coming in and out of your nostrils

This has two purposes. First, it gives you something to focus on other than an idea – you are focusing on feeling and listening to your body. As you do this, you will become aware of how your mind starts clamoring for attention – they call this “monkey mind,” because often your mind at this point is like a monkey screaming for attention. However, keep gently returning your focus to your breath.

3. Mentally observe your thoughts

While aware of the feeling of the breath coming in and out, begin to step back from yourself and observe your mind, but don’t engage. Your mind will continue to try to communicate with you. Don’t judge what you hear, nor try to fix anything. Let it come up like water from a spring. Observe it, and just like you might listen to someone without interrupting them, do the same here. As the thoughts play out, let them go downstream, and wait to observe the next.

If your attention strays from your breath and you find yourself following the thoughts rather than observeing them, just gently return to your position as observer. This is a practice, nobody does it well, especially in the beginning.

H. What to Expect

You might experience the hindrance of wanting to be critical or judgmental about your thoughts. Don’t do that. The critic in you may tell you that you are excusing your faults. You are not, you are taking the time and care to expose them by creating a safe environment. The 24×7 critic can come back in when you’re done, 30-60 minutes of not being critical is not going to turn you into a monster.

You might also start to become aware of pains in your body. Those often are linked. not only to physical illness, but to pent up emotions. You may also become aware of deeper thought patterns like self-depreciating words you tell yourself, or rehearsing a specific event deep down that keeps you angry. As these become conscious, you can address them. But don’t forget, the mere process of allowing them into the light will make them less powerful, so even just seeing them is healing.

What is your experience?