A few thoughts about mindfulness and breathing techniques | Mindfulness Monday

Recently I was involved in an online discussion about breath work and mindfulness. What follows is adapted and expanded from some of my comments to that discussion.

I like what Thich Nhat Hanh says about mindfulness:

“Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”

A lot of what is taught about mindfulness (especially in the workplace) is overly simplified. Too much of what’s going on today is jumping on a fad bandwagon, with people trying to teach something they don’t really understand. They seem to think it’s all about practicing set breathing patterns and sitting still.

Breath work is just one tool — a tool that doesn’t work for me in the way in which it is typically taught. When I tried it, I ended up either even more anxious or terribly distracted and annoyed. (What does work for me is learning how to breathe effectively when doing some physical activity.)

Even if you can sit and meditate and breathe “perfectly” for half an hour or more each day, you won’t necessarily know how to be mindful the rest of the day.

For awhile, I felt like I gave up on the whole mindfulness thing. I don’t think that was actually the case — I think I was aware and present enough to realize that the typical practices I was being taught simply did not work for me. It’s not just because I “wasn’t healed enough”, but because I’m wired differently. So, it turns out, are a lot of people.

Interestingly, I’ve learned more about mindfulness — indirectly — by becoming part of a liturgical church that engages all of me in a way I’ve never experienced in all my many years of church involvement. I’ve also been hanging out at a couple monasteries and learning about things like simplicity, solitude, contemplation, etc. and adapting those things to my life as much as practical and possible.

And I’ve learned the wisdom of taking baby steps, and of setting aside or modifying practices that don’t work for me.

One of my latest thing has been dealing with some particularly troubling unwanted thoughts. Someone advised me to adopt a certain breathing pattern, and focus on each breath. NO WAY. For me, that was worst advice ever. Instead, whenever the unwanted thought comes to mind, I try to focus on my surroundings and what I’m currently doing, and I think to myself something like, “I am walking down the street. It’s sunny and birds are singing. None of this has anything to do with Unwanted Thought.” This is just one of the aspects of mindfulness for me, but I’d never be able to practice it if I had to focus on breathing a certain rather artificial way!

I think it’s important to ask some basic questions in regards to mindfulness “training”:

1. How is mindfulness being defined?

2. What is the purpose of mindfulness?

The reason it’s important to define mindfulness is, in part, because too many people I’ve encountered are really wanting it to be some state of blissful peace wherein one remains detached and untroubled by the world. As tempting as that sounds, it’s not my goal. It sounds too much like the opposite of mindfulness to me. In fact, it sounds too much like dissociation.

Once I have a good definition, then I can ask myself, “Is this how I want to live my life?” If so, then I can analyze each potential practice to see if it’s suitable.

Back to the definition I quoted earlier:

“Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”

Sitting in a room and focusing on my breathing while breathing in a way I find both unnatural and uncomfortable distracts me from knowing what is happening in me and around me. In fact, I find it downright harmful because it stirs up anxiety, etc. So I reject it as a personal practice. It may work wonderfully for others but, at least at this point in my life, it doesn’t work for me.

More from Rachael Denhollander

Here is a larger excerpt from her powerful victim impact statement at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nasser:

You have become a man ruled by selfish and perverted desires, a man defined by his daily choices repeatedly to feed that selfishness and perversion. You chose to pursue your wickedness no matter what it cost others and the opposite of what you have done is for me to choose to love sacrificially, no matter what it costs me.

In our early hearings, you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

In the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me—though I extend that to you as well…

…In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.

Genuine repentance and the Gospel

Yesterday I watched some of the victim impact statements in the sentencing trial for Larry Nasser, who pled guilty to charges he faced as a result of decades of sexually abusing young women and children under the guise of medical treatment. Over a hundred of his victims confronted him in court. One was Rachael Denhollander, who gave one of the most powerful statements about repentance and the gospel that I’ve ever heard:

If you [Larry Nassar] have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way. 

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

That is my prayer for all who have abused me or my friends or loved ones in any way…that they would (or did before they died) experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so that they may experience true repentance and forgiveness from God.

This is not “cheap grace”. It is very costly indeed. Many who claim to have “repented” have little or no idea what that really entails. Genuine repentance isn’t feeling terrible about what you’ve done, or even making heartfelt promises never to do it again. As long as you are still clinging to one shred of justification for your actions, or minimizing them in any way, or blaming others (“Well, that’s not the way I remember it…how was I supposed to know?… I think she’s overreacting…besides, look at what they did!”) you have not yet faced the truth or experienced the “soul crushing weight of guilt” — what the Bible calls the “godly sorrow that leads to repentance”. One dictionary definition of genuine repentance is “to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life”. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s ongoing. The real repentance is not telling people how sorry you are; it’s the changed way in which you live for the rest of your life.

So if you find yourself tempted to tell the person you’ve sinned against, “I’ve already repented! What more do you want?” because they just can’t seem to let go of the past…maybe you need to get down on your knees and ask for more of that awful truth, more of that soul crushing grief, and more grace to truly repent. [Preaching to myself here…]


Edited to tweak things a bit, correct the spelling of Rachael Denhollander’s name, and add a few things, including the following…

Later in her impact statement, Rachael said some profoundly frightening words:

…In losing the ability to call evil what it is without mitigation, without minimization, you have lost the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness. You have fashioned for yourself a prison that is far, far worse than any I could ever put you in, and I pity you for that.

May God have mercy on all of us. I do not want to be one who minimizes evil, who excuses it, who tries to make it seem less than what it is, especially if it is evil that has touched me — and, even more so, if it is evil that I have perpetuated.

Evil is a strong word, and I am tempted to reserve it for only the most heinous of acts; in other words, the things other people do, not me. But evil is the opposite of good; it is any sin perpetuated against God or against others. My very tendency to make evil someone else’s problem costs me “the ability to define and enjoy love and goodness”. It is too high a price to pay. I would rather suffer the most painful godly sorrow in order that I might truly repent — and walk in the glorious freedom of forgiveness.

I included some more of the impact statement in a separate blog post.

The elephant in the room | Marriage Monday

Almost a year ago, I stumbled across a blog post dealing with the issue of marital rape, and whether a husband is in the wrong for insisting on sex even when it is painful to his wife. Frankly, the post along with a number of comments — and pretty much everything I read on the blog — is so problematic and disturbing that I don’t even want to link to it.

Even though other comments have been approved since then, mine is still awaiting moderation, about eleven months later:

This is what I see as the major issue — the elephant in the room that no one is fully addressing, although a few have hinted at it.

We cannot expect an unbelieving husband to want to love his wife as Christ loves the church. But the real elephant in the room? Most Christians have no idea what love means. They think it means leadership and a skewed, worldly view of authority. We gloss over the part where a husband is to lay down his life sacrificially for his wife, or we romanticize it by saying he should take a bullet for her should armed intruders ever enter their home.

Really? What husband in his right mind would do that if he is unwilling to forego sexual pleasure when his wife is in pain? But it’s nice to pretend he would, nice to pretend he would be a hero — because he knows the likelihood of that scenario is next to zero.

Our culture has made an idol of sexual pleasure, especially male sexual pleasure, and in order to avoid the appearance of bowing to the same idol, we have enshrined this as a need. We have bought into the lie that sex is mostly about meeting this all-consuming NEED on the part of the husband, rather than about unity, intimacy, and procreation.

Men no longer see sex as the physical expression of the sacrificial gift of themselves that they give to their wives in marriage. If they did, they would not avoid true intimacy (emotional and spiritual) in marriage, and they would abhor the very thought of asking the wife they love to give them a blow job while she is recovering from childbirth.

Sometimes the sacrifice men might be called to give to their wives is a foregoing of selfish sexual pleasure. But we don’t want to hear that.

The elephant in the room is that we have no idea what love means. We may sing songs about amazing grace and the love of Jesus, but our hearts remain hard, selfish and idolatrous. That is why our lack of compassion is so painfully obvious to everyone but us, why we can demand wives submit to demeaning and painful sex, and why we criticize women who suffer pain during intercourse for being selfish, childish, and refusing to go to doctors. (An aside: such statements betray woeful ignorance. Sciatica and chronic coccyx pain — just to name two potentially debilitating and devastatingly painful conditions off the top of my head — are not easily fixable.) We teach husbands that their compassion should be limited and fleeting, and should run out if their wives suffer ongoing pain. After all, the idol of sexual pleasure rules our hearts, not love.

May God have mercy.

Rape aftermath: why I didn’t report | Survivor Saturday

Disclaimer/warning to family and friends: I know that some of you read this blog now and then, and so I wanted to warn you that this particular post might be especially sad and painful. Please consider that carefully before you continue reading. And remember that I’m OK now…in fact, much more than OK.

There has been a lot of discussion swirling around the recent verdict in the Stanford rape case. This is written in response to some of that.

In the morning, the older of my two rapists didn’t want me to leave. He mockingly and cruelly pretended as if we had just spent a lovely night together; why wouldn’t I stay for breakfast? He wouldn’t tell me where he had put my clothes, and jokingly insisted that I hadn’t been wearing any when my friend and I had come over for dinner the evening before.

Somehow I managed to find my clothes, put them on, and walk over to my apartment. No one was there. It was my first day at a new job, so I knew I had to hold myself together.

One of the legacies of the bullying and sexual abuse in my past was learning how to dissociate, how to “go away” or “make myself small” in order to separate myself as much as possible from my body. That’s how I could refuse to feel anything as I took that shower that rape survivors know all too well. To this day, I have no idea of the extent of my injuries. I was vaguely aware of upper body bruising that I accidentally caught glimpse of in the mirror. The next day, I dissociated during the exam done by my sweet, gentle, caring doctor — I still get tears of gratitude in my eyes whenever remembering him. In the shower that morning, I recall scrubbing and scrubbing, refusing to look, refusing to know, refusing to feel.

Of course I couldn’t escape every feeling. The sense of shame and filthiness was overwhelming, as was the sense that they had stolen my body. There are no words to describe what that felt like.

Somehow, I made it to work, a shattered little shell of my former self. Looking back, I am in awe of my strength. How did I manage that?

After work, I came back home, and was immediately convinced that I could not live with the knowledge of what happened to me. I came as close to killing myself as possible, saved only by my precious Jesus who presented me with a theological quandary. (Ever carried on an internal debate of Calvinism versus Arminianism with a loaded and cocked .357 magnum in your mouth and your finger on the trigger? I have.) Unable to resolve the issue of eternal security to my satisfaction, I next contemplated murder. All of this was done, believe it or not, with the utmost calm, and without a single tear.

I recognized that I might not be in the best frame of mind to decide on a course of action that would change my life forever, so I went for a drive…for hours upon aimless hours.

There is much more to the story than that, of course, but fast forward about three decades. I had decided that EMDR might be a helpful course of treatment, and my therapist was on board with the idea, even though it was outside of his scope of practice. So I found another temporary therapist, supposedly the local EMDR expert. Unfortunately, within weeks, I began referring to her among some of my friends as Bad Therapist.

Apparently she thought Donny and I had spent the past three years playing tiddlywinks or staring mutely at each other, because she insisted that I was not ready, not strong enough, to tell my story. She also saw nothing wrong with a therapist touching a sexual trauma survivor without permission, and found it weird that I didn’t appreciate this boundary violation. Supposedly all her other clients loved having their knees and thighs touched suddenly and without warning.

Knowing nothing about my rape, she asked me if I had reported it to the police. What? Why not?! Then she took issue with my answer.

Far be it from me to discourage anyone from reporting, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for those who do. They are my heroes. Really and truly. But there has never been a moment in all the years since then that I have ever regretted not attempting to press charges against my rapists.

I was not strong enough.

Back then, I was only 23 years old, and it took more years than that until I was finally ready to tell my story, in as much torturous detail that I could manage, to my therapist. Donny believed me. This was not open court. He did not pick apart my account in an attempt to disprove my allegations, paint me as a liar, and try to convince a jury that I was the worst slut ever while my rapists were kind, upstanding citizens. Yet telling him what happened the night I was raped was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made myself do, even all those years later. He had to cancel his next appointment because I was in no shape to leave his office when I was done with the telling. After that, I drove home somehow and collapsed in bed for the rest of the day, only to be tortured with night after night of flashbacks and nightmares.

Some people, and not just Bad Therapist, take issue with any survivor who doesn’t immediately go to the police. “Oh, yeah? If you were really raped, if it was a legitimate rape, you would have reported and your rapists would be in jail!” “You must not have thought it was that bad if you didn’t want your rapists locked up so they couldn’t rape anyone else.” “Obviously you knew your story wouldn’t hold up in court. Why should we believe you when you claim you were raped?”

But, if your rapist was caught in the act, and the case goes to court, and your rapist gets a slap on the wrist, some people will cry that this promising youth has suffered enough for his “20 minutes of action”, that being a registered sex offender is almost too overwhelming a punishment for any man to bear, and that the poor lad deserves our sympathy for all the trauma he has had to endure and will endure for the rest of his life. Besides, if young women didn’t drink and hang out with participants in the hook-up culture, rapists would have to figure out another tactic, and some might become so discouraged by the effort involved that they might even rape a few less women. At least that seems to be the logic.

We expect a lot from rape survivors. From birth onward, they need to be above reproach, living virtuous and cautious lives, avoiding any possibility of danger. Without being paranoid or anything but kind and gracious, they must not let down their guard for a moment. They must neither date nor should they reject men wishing to date them — lest their rejcted suitors feel compelled to rape them — but they must not date the wrong man either. They must be mind readers and self-defense experts who can predict the future. They must be tough, fierce, and fearless, incapable of being intimidated by any threat or the brandishing of any weapon. If, through no fault of their own, they manage to get themselves raped anyway, they must conduct themselves perfectly afterwards, showing whatever it is that we believe to be the appropriate emotional response and actions. They must immediately demonstrate expert knowledge of proper post-rape behavior, along with such clarity of thinking, impeccable instincts, wisdom, and a perfect memory for details, that it is as if their mental abilities and quick reactions were not just untouched by trauma, but enhanced by it. They must never make what we consider as a single mistake, not before the rape, not during, and not after.

I was 23. It seems awfully young to me now, but I was old enough to have learned these cultural lessons well. And, much to my sorrow, they are driven home to me again…and again…and again…whenever a rape case is discussed and dissected in the public sphere.

We need to change. We need to be different.