By Chelsea Odhner
I was driving in my car on the way home to relieve a babysitter, but I was cutting it close on time. The babysitter happened to be my sister, who had just gifted me and my husband with an overnight shift so that we could attend a wedding. Even though I felt grateful for that time away, I was also concerned about the toll that a twenty-four hour stint watching five children would have on my sister. I wanted to get home promptly to relieve her of at least three-fifths of that burdensome ratio, but I missed a turn. In the farmland of upstate New York, a missed turn can mean doubling the length of the trip. In our case, that meant adding thirty minutes of driving time. While this was not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things, my mistake triggered a tidal wave of self-blame within me.
Learning and practicing mindfulness meditation has been a recent focus of mine, and this surge of self-judgment was one of the more intense moments to which I’d had the opportunity to apply its techniques. As we go about our day, our thoughts and feelings tend to drive our mental states unchecked. Mindfulness, however, trains one to notice them as they arise and to pay kind attention to them. From a Swedenborgian perspective, this idea is quite significant, since “just as the organs of our outer or physical senses are attuned to material objects, the organic substances of our inner senses or our minds are receptive of spiritual objects” (Divine Providence §308:2). According to Swedenborg, “every thought arises from some feeling and is the form of its feeling” (Divine Providence §196). And since a feeling is a matter of love, every feeling we have has drive. It actually intends to carry something out and wants us to live a certain way. The associated thoughts serve the feeling’s goal. With mindfulness, we make an effort to pause at the moment of experiencing a feeling and its related thoughts. By doing so, we can begin to draw our awareness out of the self-concept that those thoughts and feelings are inspiring and give ourselves space to consider them in freedom.
In Swedenborgian terms, when we engage in this kind of self-reflection, we are beginning to open our spiritual mind. We have an earthly mind and a spiritual mind, and our spiritual mind enables us to witness the shifting states of our earthly mind. In the mindfulness tradition, this is described as witnessing our states from a place of loving awareness. Our spiritual mind actually functions as an access point to a loving, wise perspective inflowing from divine love and wisdom itself. But while our spiritual mind has this built-in connection to heaven and the Lord, our consciousness is rooted to our earthly mind—it’s the default level we operate from—so when feelings are flowing into our earthly mind from “the hells,” even if we can witness them from our spiritual mind, how do we keep ourselves safe from their negative effects? If our thoughts and feelings make up our everyday awareness, where can we go to find purchase enough to pause and make the space we need to see them for what they are? Both mindfulness and Swedenborgian theology describe our bodies as protective barriers that provide a neutral zone of sensation through which we can wake up and take notice.
Just as the natural world operates within the spiritual world, our mind encompasses our body. Swedenborg writes that “the life of the body does not belong to the body, but only appears to be the body’s, but it is the life of the spirit that is felt in the body” (Spiritual Experiences §2355). Since we feel the life of our spirit through our body, our body functions as an important interface on our spiritual journey. It serves as an anchor point that stabilizes all the shifting winds of our inner experience.
My daily meditation training had primed me to take stock of the rising sensations I was experiencing that day in the car. A corrosive feeling filled my body, especially my arms, heart, and head. Amidst this wash of feeling, I was able to be aware of what was arising and to name it for what it really was: self-hatred. Recognizing this didn’t do anything to stem the tide, but it did enable me to see it. With as curious and as kind an attention as I could muster, I asked, “What would happen if I were to let this self-hatred run its course in my mind?” At that moment, a torrent of the most condemning insults against me flooded my mind. It was as if a band of pent-up horses had been unleashed, but within moments, the torrent was over. I ached with the grief of housing such a hateful perspective. It took a couple of hours for the waves of emotion to calm within me, but even as I was present to the aching sadness, I wasn’t attached to the self-hatred, and it was not driving my actions and words. I was seeing and feeling it fully, but it wasn’t defining me.
Evil spirits are able to stir up feelings that we feel through our body. As you read Swedenborg, you’ll realize that he very often understands the influence of spirits based on where he feels their influence in his body. In the following, for example, he describes spirits pouring anxiety into his mind as a feeling that he senses in the area of his stomach.
[Certain] spirits have often been present with me, when I have experienced in the province of my stomach those who poured in feelings of anxiety—not that I knew where the feelings [ultimately] came from. Yet on every occasion I found out who they were, and then I heard them talking to one another about the kinds of things that were unacceptable to my affections. (Arcana Coelestia §6202)
We have this intuitive sense in us, too, but for many it remains largely untapped. Too often when we experience feelings we fail to pay attention to where we’re actually feeling them in our body, and this blind spot lets evil spirits get away with a lot of influence over us. Swedenborg says that “spirits and demons control a person’s reasoning power through feelings” (Spiritual Experiences §48). Without paying attention to our body and noticing how feelings manifest in it, we are driven by stirred-up emotions and are quick to believe the thoughts they inspire. He describes this influence as follows:
[Evil spirits] take our misconceptions and weaknesses and shape them into a fog of emotion, which they use to block and distort the light of truth; or else they torture us with anxiety. Another device they use is to train our thoughts on a single issue, with no letup. They fill it up with crazy notions and at the same time secretly tie our cravings into the insanity. They have countless other underhanded methods as well, which could never be described intelligibly. Little of this reaches our conscious awareness, and only in its most general outlines. (Secrets of Heaven §1820:4)
So the evil spirits’ devices don’t reach our everyday awareness naturally, but with intention, they can be made known to us. If we pause and sense whatever feelings we are experiencing strictly as sensations in our body, we are staving off the influence of evil spirits. The onslaught of self-hatred over which I had initially felt powerless was stripped of its negative characteristics down to the bare physical sensation of buzzing heat and sinking pressure in my arms and torso. It was a swirl of raw feeling within me, but it wasn’t determining my identity.
When we engage the body as a tool for our own protection, it is very important to also draw on God’s loving presence for support, as mentioned above. The love and wisdom in our minds is what gives us the mental capacity to see our feelings for what they are and relate to them in a loving way. Embodying loving attention toward ourselves as we are present to intense feelings and thoughts is what makes the practice healing. It can be helpful to visualize a warm light filling us and surrounding and infusing any contracted emotions that arise, as this is actually what is happening on the spiritual level: “the Lord as the [spiritual] sun is always flowing in with warmth and light, that is, with love and wisdom” (Heaven and Hell §158). This visual of a stream of light also depicts the activity of angels with us.
The angels work by exerting an imperceptible influence which, when presented in visual form, looks like a stream of light. The light consists of countless truths-within-goodness that encircle a single concept we possess, maintaining us in the truth and at the same time in the love that goes with it. So angels lift our minds out of falsity and protect us from evil. (Secrets of Heaven §5893:3)
As for the missed turn on our trip home that day, while it triggered self-hatred within me, pausing to sense the feeling in my body and hold it with kind attention served as a means to help free me from believing its message. Swedenborg makes the amazing claim that the Lord is capable of turning all evil into good within us (see Arcana Coelestia §§6574, 8626). So every wave of negative emotion that gets stirred up in us by evil spirits can actually further us in our spiritual healing. We can allow the wise, merciful inflow of heaven to counteract the condemning inflow of hell by our choosing to be present with awareness to whatever sensations are arising in our body. This is the power of loving awareness; and this breathing, buzzing body that acts in communion with our spirit provides the exact environment necessary for this transformation to occur.
Chelsea Rose Odhner is the production manager and a writer for the Swedenborg & Life show on the offTheLeftEye YouTube channel.
There are many resources available for learning mindfulness; I recommend Tara Brach’s talks and guided meditations, which are available as podcasts or at tarabrach.com.