September 23, 2020

Damaris Zehner: At the Mercy of an Undisciplined Mind

Distracted, Photo by P Bibler

Distracted, Photo by P Bibler

At the Mercy of an Undisciplined Mind
By Damaris Zehner

Have you ever sat in church with your mind a hundred miles away?  You look out the window and think about what you need to do in the yard when you go home.  You stare at the outrageous hairdo of the woman in the pew in front of you and wonder how and why she does it.  If a word of the scripture readings or preaching gets through to you, it’s just the springboard for a self-serving fantasy about your own imaginary achievements.  When it’s time to sing, you compare your voice with voices around you and barely restrain yourself from turning around to see who is droning or warbling or honking.

Maybe this doesn’t describe you, but it certainly describes me.

There have been brief periods in my life – I think there have; I could be remembering only selectively – when I communed with God in church and out, when I felt his presence and was excited to learn about him and serve him.  My patron saints in those days would have been St. Teresa in ecstasy, St. Francis lost in songs of praise, or Mary of Bethany concentrating on the one thing needful.

Nowadays I still commune with God in the sacramental sense, and I still try to serve him.  I go to church and work at paying attention to something other than the crazed TV station inside my skull.  But my patron saint these days is the Gadarene with the unclean spirit.  You remember the story:  he lived among the tombs, too violent to be restrained or to live among people, naked, often screaming and harming himself in his frenzy.  As far as I can tell from the story, the man himself didn’t recognize Jesus or ask him for help, although the demons did.  Jesus of his own accord dispelled the demons and freed the man.  The townsfolk found him clothed and in his right mind.  Although he wanted to go with Jesus, Jesus told him to stay and tell people how he had been cured.

I’m not out of my mind in any way, but there’s no question that I’m not entirely in control of my thoughts and impulses.  Day by day and minute by minute I fail at taking every thought captive for Christ, as St. Paul exhorts me.  But the story of the Gadarene gives me hope.  It assures me that God can break through a disordered mind, even when that mind is not able to focus enough to ask for help.  Surely God can heal distraction and dullness of spirit as easily as he can heal mental illness.  In his own time, of course:  who knows how long that man had wandered among the tombs, cutting himself with rocks, before Jesus came by.  And there were countless others in that age and every age who were never healed; I might be one of them.  But I don’t need to despair, because whether it’s in this life or the next, I know that God can heal us of the infirmities that separate us from him, even when we can’t muster up the strength or clarity to ask him.  Yes, we are called to strive, to work, to discipline ourselves, but far more important is the mercy of God, the call from outside ourselves that sets us free.  I don’t know that man’s name, but I hope he prays for all of us who like him are at the mercy of an undisciplined mind.

• • •

Photo by P Bibler at Flickr. Creative Commons License


  1. Very much, yes.

    …also like Niggle from Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle,” who couldn’t even manage to get enough of a grip to amuse himself with his time, and whose head wasn’t “screwed on right.”

    I think a wandering mind is natural for many of us (Jungian extroverted intuition) — like any natural tendency or trait, it can often be ill in this life, and we can sin when we accommodate our own natures, but ultimately it’s a part of our individual uniqueness that also allows us to stand in wonder of grace. Not being able to experience God in church may simply be due to the fact that for many of us, we simply aren’t very mentally present in the actual moment for anything. We’ll contemplate the mystery later, when our wandering imagination has time to catch up.

    • In my younger years, I was somewhat A.D.H.D., in my later years, the “Hyper” part is mostly gone but the attention issues have not ceased. So my mind wanders but God’s grace is sufficient.

    • Probably true. Despite several years of trying to discipline my mind using Zen Buddhist techniques when I was in my twenties, I never succeeded. I know that I would have no more success today, twenty years later.

      • Make that thirty years later…

      • Flesh cannot crucify flesh. I don’t think mind can subdue mind.

        The money riff in Damaris’ post is here: far more important is the mercy of God, the call from outside ourselves that sets us free.

        I just say my prayers and keep calling my attention back from Middle-Earth, or Mid-world, or the girl on the billboard, or this trash-fire of an election. The icons help, but only marginally. My hope is not in them but in whom they make present.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Flesh cannot crucify flesh. I don’t think mind can subdue mind.

          The distinction between flesh and mind is rubbish; these cannot be disentangled – this is why one of the most effective ways to address anxiety is exercise.

        • I couldn’t agree more, Burro.

        • Good to hear from you, Asine.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Yet just like Introverts in a church built around gladhanding, backslapping, LOUD used-car salesmanship, we whose minds are constantly thrashing among a hundred tracks can expect nothing but Jesus Juke putdowns from those whose one-track minds can lock into solid unbroken hours of devotions, prayer, worship, and Bible Study.

      • I am beginning to believe those ‘one track minds’ either do not exist or are pretty rare.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          +1 But then I am also ever more skeptical this introvert/extrovert meme is worth much.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          My father had one of them.

          I suspect it’s what’s now called “hyperfocus”, except maintained as a default mode.

          I used to be able to hyperfocus when I was a kid, but I lost that ability in early adulthood. (The one Low-end Aspie trait I actually NEED and I can’t do it any more.)

  2. The mind is a monkey. — traditional Buddhist aphorism

  3. To connect yesterday’s post with today’s: The Zen roshis used to tell us, “If you discipline your mind, your tongue will take care of itself.”

    • So very true, Robert, and so very difficult. Especially as I age, I find the brain to mouth filter wearing thin and sometimes realize things are coming out of my mouth even as my brain is saying, “Nope! Not a good idea!”

    • Big if. For a smaller one: If you drink enough, it will remove all obstacles between you mind and your tongue.

  4. meditative cat
    sits in a sunlit window —
    absolute stillness

  5. “My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.”

  6. Thanks Damaris. This really resonates with me.

  7. Odd, but the moments in my life I’ve felt closest to God…were at my most undisciplined and mentally wandering. Letting go of being so disciplined has opened me up to wonder and majesty. And as my depression lifts, I’m naturally more ADD about things, lol; it’s like depression was a focuser.

    I accept being the odd exception to almost everything in life.

  8. Last night at Friends meeting I couldn’t overcome my monkey mind the whole time. My practice of contemplative meditation has fallen off over the past month and a half, and my self-discipline has been running on fumes the past ten days. Possible factors include:
    1) Battle fatigue, or as we like to say today, PTSD.
    2) Grief; marriage #3 just ended officially after prolonged stress. Relief, but it still sucks.
    3) Acedia, the noon time demon. Always a factor, but why intensifying now?
    4) Ego, realizing I am serious and stepping up desperate survival tactics.
    5) Science fiction or Revelation scenarios including major distraction and suppression of spiritual consciousness.
    6) Natural cycles including weather and progression of seasons.
    7) Innate laziness and tendency toward self-indulgence.

    I dunno. My answer at this point is to have ordered some CD’s from people I trust which, using controlled sound, guide the brain thru a deep meditative session, which I don’t seem to be able to do on my own right now. Not something I would recommend most people try, but I’ve been living on the edge for a long time now and have a picture of me taken around age twelve sitting on the back of a ten foot alligator. In my mind, about all I have to offer the Universe at this point is to help raise my spiritual consciousness as much as possible in whatever time I have left. Lately I’ve been feeling like a soldier who survived the D-Day landing and looked around and thought, “I’ve never been in France before. I think I’ll hop on down to the Mediterranean and hang out for awhile.” We’ll see.

    Damaris, I had to go back and read the accounts after your remark that it was Legion who recognized Jesus and not the man himself. You appear to be right. It doesn’t say so, but I would guess it was no accident that Jesus landed the boat right where all the locals knew was the last place anyone should pick. You’ll notice I didn’t include Legion in my list of possible personal factors above, and I hope I’m right. Acedia is bad enough. If not, I hope Jesus shows up in his boat soon, sort of a mini D-Day..

  9. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks so much for this, Damaris. I cou.ld have written this too.

    I find myself increasingly grateful that God is “outside” of me, and that God’s presence is not based on my abilitity to pay attention to Him. Increasingly, I imagine my relationship with God to be like the relationship of someone in a coma with a visitor. I’m the one in the coma, by the way. Occasionally, I rise to some sort of consciousness and am aware of God sitting next to my bed, paying attention to me. I then, of course, sink back again into unconsciousness. Yet, conscious or unconscious, attentive or inattentive, God is there, sitting by my bed, paying attention to me, despite wherever my mind has floated off to. That is very comforting.

    • Yes, I sometimes can accept this description of my relationship to God, and it’s the most liberating thing I could imagine, if only for a while.

    • Great image, Randy. That’s exactly what I wanted to convey.

  10. Chatter. Blather. Pratlle, bluster, gibber and jabber. Parse and decipher, you’re now a lifer, incessant sentience now your sentence. Even the bon mot bears malfeasance. Oh, good God, for two minutes of silence.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      What “two minutes of silence” when there are dozens of trains of thought SCREAMING in my head at full volume, each one thrashing with all the others at full speed, even when I sleep?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Wesley Crusher and Doogie Houser are the FANTASY of the Kid Genius.

      THIS is the REALITY.

  11. No offense, Damaris, but this is an incredibly Lutheran type of sentiment, minus the last sentence. All your missing for an exemplary demonstration of “Law and Gospel” is to find a way to bring out more directly how the death and resurrection of Christ ties into it all. But you apply the law to highlight our brokenness and shortcomings, and steer clear of pointing us to our own efforts as the ultimate solution, drawing our hope rather to the mercy of Jesus, who delights to heal and forgive.

    Well written. I will not read this Gospel story the same again. And I will be less inclined to flagellate myself mentally for suffering the same struggle. Draw us to the healing Christ, hanging on the tree, to give us a hope that will not fail. Especially important is your line about “whether in this life or the next.” It is essential to have this kind of honesty that relentlessly refuses to promise the happy endings we crave in this life. We must hope in Christ if we suffer and perish, or as Job says, though he slay me Himself. This hope is rooted in realism, not terminal optimism or fear-mongering pessimism. It is not a hope that is “low hanging fruit” for the skeptic to caricature.