Sarah and I went to San Francisco yesterday for a class on Mindfulness-Based Childbirth & Parenting at UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.  Our instructor was a nurse midwife who has adapted some of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work on mindfulness to help prepare expecting parents.  The class provided an introduction to the philosophy of mindfulness and invited couples to practice specific techniques designed to foster mindful awareness.

We joined eight or nine other couples in a circle for most of the day.  Part of the morning focused on the physiology of labor.  We learned that contractions typically last a maximum of one minute.  While the time between contractions decreases during labor, women have a minimum of 1-2 minutes between even the most intense contractions.  This means the experiences of pain in labor are paralleled by “down” times.  The trouble is that most of us rarely live in the present moment.  We’re constantly rehashing what just happened or we’re preparing ourselves for what is about to happen.  Thus, instead of being present in the “down” times of labor, women are either remembering the intense pain that just subsided or preparing for the pain ahead.

This is where mindfulness comes in.  Mindfulness encourages paying close attention to whatever you’re feeling mentally and physically in the present moment, without trying to change those feelings.  Mindfulness doesn’t take away the feeling of pain during contractions, it simply invites awareness of both the painful contractions and the “down” times.  It invites awareness to what is and allows a deeper sense of presence in the present.

note to selfIn this way, mindfulness is about far more than childbirth.  It is a way of life.  How much time do I spend worrying about what just happened?  How often do I feel anxiety about what I think might happen?  Mindfulness simply draws our attention from those feelings back to the present moment through the noticing of our own breathing.  The next time you find yourself living in the past or the future, try it:  without placing judgment on yourself for experiencing those very natural thoughts and feelings, return to your own breathing.

Our instructor was careful to frame mindfulness in medical and philosophical terms.  We weren’t praying, we were breathing.  Mindfulness is a philosophy, not a theology.

Yet, I find deep parallels between the breathing techniques we learned and the ancient disciplines of prayer in the Christian tradition.  When the “Desert Fathers and Mothers” moved from urban centers to the Egyptian desert, they developed disciplined ways of life centered on contemplative prayer.  Their departure was a protest against the “worldliness” of the church.  They longed to be more present, more aware, of God’s incarnation and Christ’s ultimate reality.  They practiced receptive stillness before God through simple breathing prayers.  Eventually, their breath prayers became known as the “Jesus Prayer” and was expanded to become, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Amidst the rush of daily life, won’t we inevitably be more open to the reality of God’s unfolding presence  as we’re more intentionally aware of the present.