The film Gravity is a spiritual tour de force. Sandra Bullock plays the part of “Dr. Ryan Stone,” a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission to space. The commander of her shuttle crew is “Matt Kowalski,” played by George Clooney. While on a space walk, debris from an exploding, Russian satellite destroys the shuttle. Dr. Stone and Commander Kowalski are the sole survivors of their shuttle crew. They are completely alone in space. They are tethered to nothing but each other, spiraling in the darkness of space.
I believe that Commander Kowalski is a Christ figure in the film. He is curious, calm, centered and collected under pressure. The veteran astronaut appreciates the beauty of the cosmos as though he were seeing it for the first time. In the end, like Christ, he accepts his death with equanimity, trusting that he would die into something bigger than himself.
Dr. Stone, all alone, tries to get to the International Space Center and from there to the Chinese Space Center. Facing one crisis after another, in a most poignant scene in the film, in a fetal position Dr. Stone cries, “No one taught me to pray! I wish someone had taught me how to pray.”
Amid all the technological wizardry, Dr. Stone’s spontaneous burst of human emotion reveals that the human heart has needs that the head will never understand. Her cry is an indictment against a whole generation of parents who have taken a laissez-faire approach to their children’s spiritual development, not intentionally inculcating in their children spiritual traditions. Many Christian parents have not even taught their children the Lord’s Prayer.
Dr. Stone’s cry indicts the church in the West, which has not taught people how to pray in a way that is enriching, in a way that would give them a sense of gravitas in the world, especially as they face life’s endemic pain. Churches have been more concerned with institutional matters that keep them solvent and growing numerically. They have been more obsessed with what to believe than how to live. Christianity has long been a theologically-laden religion. It is for this reason that it comes off as arcane and inaccessible in our postmodern world.
The preponderance of theology and right thinking has gotten in the way of living mindfully in the present with a sense of joy and satisfaction that every moment brings. Christianity too often looks back at the fall of Adam and Eve and ahead to the end of the world, when everything will have been made right. Too often we have forgotten about the dash between the beginning and the end. That dash between the beginning and the end matters because God became a man in Christ Jesus. That dash is validated by the incarnation of the Son of God. How we live matters. Jesus is not only Cristus victor over sin, death and the devil. He is also Cristus victor over life. He shows us how to live.
Can we emulate how Jesus lived?
I have recently come across a counseling method that has enriched my pastoral counseling and affirmed my long-held thought that everyone’s psyche yearns for healing and wholeness. Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, combines the therapeutic model of family systems theory with the view that the mind, rather than being a single entity, is instead made up of various parts with their own viewpoints and ways of expressing themselves. IFS therapy tries to understand how the various parts are organized to protect the psychic system from pain.
In the IFS model, there are three main parts that most people have. First, there are the exiles. These parts are informed by lingering pain, shame or hurt from childhood. Second, there are the managers. Managers are protective parts that keep the pain of the exiles from coming to the forefront of consciousness, so we can manage our daily lives and get through them with a semblance of order. And, third, there are the firefighters. Firefighters avoid the pain of the exiles through compulsive acting out.
Both manager and firefighter parts are protective in nature. Firefighters cause a variety of rash behaviors from drinking binges to inappropriate sexual behavior, or any other compulsion that tries to extinguish the pain of the exiles. In my case, when I feel pain surging in my psyche, my firefighter impels me eat a carton of ice cream. Firefighters try to keep the pain and shame of the exile parts from coming to consciousness.
Everyone’s mind is configured in such a way to avoid pain and trauma; however, there cannot be any meaningful and authentic spiritual growth without facing the pain that is endemic to being human in this chaotic world. To engage your own pain is what it means to pick up your cross and follow Christ, and in the IFS model, that is where the “Self” comes into play.
In the IFS model, Dr. Schwartz identifies the spiritual center as the “Self.” The therapist’s job is to get people to unblend from their protective parts in order to allow the pain of the exile to come into contact with the healing compassion of the Self. Our parts with their various agendas are a source of so much mindlessness. Rather than responding mindfully to a given situation, too often we are instead reacting in one of our parts. To the extent that we do, we are limited, not living fully from our true, authentic Self.
What does the Self look like? It looks like a person who has been long engaged in mystical and spiritual practices. It looks grounded and wise. It has a definite personality, a modus operandi. The true self can be characterized by what Schwatz calls the “Spiritual C’s”: calm, curiosity, compassion, confidence, clarity, courage, creativity, connectedness, centeredness, capacity for choice and communion. The Spiritual C’s are the product of a regular, disciplined spiritual practice that is authentic. They produce a mindful person, fully available in the moment to oneself and others. The Spiritual C’s are what mindful people look like; it is how they live.
“Matt Kowalsky” in Gravity was the epitome of a person informed by the Spiritual C’s. He was a most compelling figure as are all contemplative types. Did Jesus look and live like a person informed by the Spiritual C’s? Of course. The Gospel of John reveals that Jesus had these qualities. Granted, you will not find a spiritual practice in the Gospel of John that would foster mindfulness, but you will certainly find the Mindful Christ with whom you are invited to come into communion and be conformed through the energy of his Spirit in the sacramental life of the church.
Jesus certainly faced threats to himself and his ministry with calm. Unlike Moses and other prophets in the Old Testament, he did not get rattled. He interviewed Nicodemus and calmly answered his questions. He did the same with the woman of Samaria. Ultimately, Jesus faced his own death with calm and equanimity.
Jesus approached the world with curiosity, which is fundamental to learning and an essential openness to the world that facilitates learning and gaining wisdom. The precocious child Jesus was in the temple questioning the religious leaders and the experts of Torah. He was curious about the things of his heavenly Father.
Jesus was the epitome of compassion, which is what he demonstrated to the thief on the cross who was crucified together with him. While on the cross, he shows compassion to his beloved mother when he commended her to John’s care. He especially showed compassion as a better Moses in John chapter 8 when he refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery. In the Old Testament, the law was written in stone by the finger of God demonstrating its unyielding inflexibility. In obvious contrast, Jesus writes his new covenant, the Gospel, in the sand of the ground.
As a mindful person, Jesus was confident. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus demonstrates confidence in his Father to give him what he needs in any given moment. He was satisfied and could live confidently in every moment.
As the true light coming into the world, Jesus taught and acted with clarity. People were amazed that he did not teach like other religious experts. He had clarity of thought and motives. He demonstrated clarity when he spoke about the relationship between sin, illness and misfortune. Life’s setbacks can be occasions to experience the glory of God.
Jesus was courageous. He never wavered from the consequences of where his commitment to his Father would take him. Inevitably, his teaching of God as loving Spirit would ram him into conflict with the status quo.
Jesus’ teaching demonstrated his creativity. He taught with parables; he used art to illustrate and communicate spiritual truths that would have otherwise been lost in linear, univocal language.
Jesus had connectedness to his Father and to others. His teaching on the Trinity reveals God as an essential connectivity of the three persons to each other and to the world. Jesus could speak profoundly of such a spiritual truth and, yet, in a down-to-earth manner enjoy the presence of people in whatever occasion brought them together.
Jesus had a center to which he was connected. His centeredness was informed by his relationship with his Father. He was fully grounded in his God and Father.
Being so centered, Jesus had the capacity for choice. Having a centeredness through Self actually frees one up to choose without the flailing of the arms in high anxiety.
Finally, Jesus sought communion. He gathered around himself 12 men to mentor and with whom to have a constant communion. He had other connections with people that afforded him profound communion, namely Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
In the Gospel of John, Christians are invited to come into communion with the Mindful Christ. There are no standard practices leading to an increase of mindfulness and focus in life. The assumption is that together with the Mindful Christ and his Holy Spirit, you will develop practices that would enhance mindfulness in your life, so that over time you will reflect the Spiritual C’s. At the center of all such practices is the incarnation. God becoming human means that this world matters; your body is important.
Everything that supports your body is a gift from God. All the extensions and connections of the body prove that you live in an interdependent world, at the center of which is God. To be mindful means to be aware of yourself in your body, in the space and time in which you find yourself.
I believe that contemplation is most necessary for the development of mindfulness. Mindfulness is one of the fruits of contemplation. Over time, a regular practice and discipline in contemplation make you adept at ignoring thoughts and not running off on mental and emotional wild goose chases. Granted, given the way that our brains are wired to produce thoughts, we cannot ever stop them. But, we can ignore them, making them as objective to us as the noise of the street traffic in the background as you read this. We need to objectify our thoughts so that we do not identify with them. This is what Paul means in 2 Corinthians 10 when he encourages us to take every thought captive. Your true self in Christ has power over all such thoughts. A disciplined approach to contemplation empowers you to discipline your mind. You do not let it drift and split in a multitude of directions. Anxiety comes on the heels of such splitting and cascading to worst-case scenarios.
Through contemplation you become adept at bringing your mind back from the far country of anxiety and grounding it in the moment in which you are living, to let thoughts and feelings flow through you, not clinging to or resisting thoughts or emotions. The fruit of contemplation is a more mindful life, more focused and engaged. Contemplation can so discipline your mind that when you are ready to deal with a thought or an emotion, you do so at your choosing, on your terms; you do it thoroughly so that you can be done with it.
Too often we are “in our heads.” Being in our heads, life rolls by unnoticed. It is a most liberating feeling to achieve the awareness that you are not your thoughts. The Gospel of John invites us to become one with the Mindful Christ, to be born from above through water and Spirit. Living with the Mindful Christ opens up possibilities to live the way that he lived, to live the abundant life of the Spirit.
There is no reason to carry heavy emotional baggage through life. That abundant life looks like the Spiritual C’s of Internal Family Systems.
The final denouement of the film Gravity finds Dr. Ryan aboard a space capsule she boards at Chinese Space Station. Her return to the earth’s atmosphere is risky. Her life is hanging precariously in the balance. Dr. Ryan’s re-entry plunges her into a vast lake with a shoreline nearby. She emerges from the space capsule, swims to the shore and crawls onto the ground in elation. Now the ground and gravity have become holy things for her. She beholds the mud in her hands; she kisses it.
She has gained a new appreciation for the mud even though it cannot compare to the beauty she had seen in space. Unlike Commander Kowalski and before her experience, she could never have seen and beheld the beauty of space. Eventhough she was one of the few privileged to gaze upon such beauty, she was not mindful; she was not a contemplative; she could not see it. She was focused more on how her knowledge could exploit the cosmos. After her figurative death and transfiguration, she would no longer ignore life and the grace that each moment brings. The barriers removed, she could now be mindful.
Why does it take a crisis to wake us to a mindful existence? Often, God wakes us spiritually through a great love or a great tragedy. The Mindful Christ is both a great tragedy and a great love. He teaches us how to die as he accepts his imminent death with equanimity. He especially teaches us how to live, being open to what God the Father gives us in every moment as a gift at which to wonder.
Living with the Mindful Christ, we become mindful in life and death, more aware of every moment as a gift of grace and an occasion to experience peace, love and joy.
Resource: Internal Family Systems: The Center for Self-Leadership: http://www.selfleadership.org