The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Resting My Thinking

Resting My Thinking

Putting the mind (and other parts of me) to rest.

My mind has been trained to race. In the course of my work there are enormous amounts of information that I’ve had to train to manage, juggle, or at the very least swim in. In a live improvised music context, there are numerous inputs. From every band member, I listen to what they play and their disposition. I pay attention to the vibe of the audience and the feeling of the space. Internally, my own sense of preparedness – do I know the music? how’s my body feeling? – and the availability of my whole self to the moment, are constant considerations. I have learned to be conscious and responsive toward all these things. To be able to execute at that level of performance I have trained my mind to be attentive in ways that are heightened and continuous. It took me years before I understood that this was not a good thing all the time.

Additionally, I had never learned that I could turn this kind of attentiveness on and off, and that that was a good thing to know how to do. Instead, I was taught that if I wasn’t paying attention, I would miss something – a note, a step, a piece of knowledge, something important. I, of course, didn’t want to miss anything, so I stayed attentive.

This level of attentiveness and consistency of engagement worked wonders in my craft. My high level of availability to the improvised moment, breadth and depth of listening, and responsiveness, are all consequences of this attentiveness. However, the underside of the skill was a lack of rest. If I was awake, I was attentive. Rest really only came when I slept. If my sleep cycles were ever interrupted, it was a quick trip to exhaustion and even burnout. My waking moments were not, could not, be restful.

The proposition that Jesus offers when he simply says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” was jarring for me when I first began to really ponder it.

Rest from what?

For me it was rest from the idea that if I wasn’t attentive to the world around me in this heightened and consistent way, I would miss something. I would miss that special moment, person, or opportunity for example. I had landed in a place where my level of attentiveness, as a habit, had made me think that I was the only one responsible for my life. I had become solely dependent on my own perceptions of the world for my well-being. I had become self-reliant. To the degree I had achieved self-reliance – something I thought was good at the time – I could not rely on God. I didn’t even know how.

There are two areas of reliance, or we might say trust, that I’ve discovered were necessary for me to experience, in order that I might enter into the kind of rest Jesus proposes. First was trust in God. The second, more specifically was trust in my own journey of formation with God.

Trust in God

Trust in God can be an esoteric phrase that gets tossed around often with little consideration for the mechanics or meaning behind it. It is shorthand, and shorthands, particularly their meaning, can be taken for granted or diluted over time. I’ve come to enjoy the idea that trust in God looks like knowing that I am not the only one who thinks about my life. God does, too. By extension, if I stop working, speaking, or thinking – all things that I do to make sure my world is what I hope it to be – my world will not come crumbling down. Why not? Because God is the one who is concerned for and caring for my world. My life is entrusted to God.

This, it should be clearly stated, is not to say that I should not act. Rather, that my actions are within a context in which God is also acting. And that God’s action is the action with which I desire to be aligned. Why? Because God is love, and I, in a very personal sense am the subject of that love. This relational context has the power to change they way I act in all its processes.

This idea of trusting God can take some practice. Trust is ultimately a relational practice and grows with relational engagement. The more we practice considering God as trustworthy in a particular aspect of our lives – entrusting our questions, outcomes, even our lives to God – and living from a position of being with a trustworthy friend – the more our lives may change. Not just our lives, but our being. We too may become more like the friend we are with.

With any practice, starting with the smaller things, and working our way up to the bigger things is most beneficial. Spiritual disciplines, of course, can help on this journey. The disciplines of disengagement, like silence, solitude, fasting, and sabbath, have helped me position myself in a place that my entire being can begin to learn what trusting God looks like. If I stop talking, step away from my regular dynamic of relationships, interrupt habits of consumption, or stop working even for day, I can bear witness to who God is in that moment and what God continues to do, especially while I’m not active. I can more clearly reflect on who God is, and what he is doing – that God knows me and cares about me by name. Spiritual disciplines of engagement, particularly like study and prayer, have also helped me engage in this reality. Study helps me come to know (and remember) parts of God’s character through the ages by reading scripture or the writings of past followers of Jesus. I can see God’s care for them and their trust in Him. Prayer helps me come to know God, and His trustworthiness, through casual and regular communication.

All of this continues to shape the view of God that I have in my mind.

My Journey of Formation with God

One of the most powerful reasons I was told to stay attentive was in order for me to do the right thing. I had to stay attentive to be able to see clearly, make appropriate corrections, and essentially to be a good person. Again, while all those things are indeed good goals, my level of engagement slipped into a kind of control. That is, if I wasn’t attentive to the degree I was taught, I couldn’t trust myself to do the good and right thing. I was sure I’d be blindsided, and ultimately miss the mark. If I experienced missing the mark, I would blame myself, and would be overrun by the emotional burden of having failed.

There is an idea that exists that says, what flows out of a person is evidence of what is inside a person. More specifically, the words and actions that come out of a person naturally, even easily, are evidence of the thoughts and feelings, beliefs and desires, habits and practices, that are active inside that person.

The proposition of transformation that Jesus presents is not one based on self-control. It is one based on inner transformation such that self-control (against evil and toward good) is a consequence rather than the mechanism of transformation. Only good fruit can come from a good tree, and only evil fruit can come from an evil tree. If one begets the other, why not aim to become a good tree, instead of just focusing on making good fruit? Well, becoming a good tree, especially when we see that our tree (who we are) isn’t all good, is a radical proposition. This kind of transformation starts on the inside of our person, requires God, and continues such that more and more of what naturally comes out of the person is good and not evil – even to the degree of loving one’s enemies.

Inner transformation requires God, as God is the only one that has access and power to fundamentally transform the human will. We cannot, by the strength of our own will, change our own will. Here, again, we will find spiritual disciplines to be helpful, but they are not the solution. The disciplines are good things that we can do for our part in our spiritual journey. They are wisdom. The reality of God, and the propositions of Jesus, are the solution.

If we can learn to trust God with our own formation, that is who we are becoming, we can experience a different kind of journey. God becomes the guide, teacher, or coach, drawing us towards the good things we can do for the sake of our own formation. Instead of feeling the need, even the pressure, to control ourselves, we can live in partnership with God in our journey – and also in the journey of others. We can entrust God with the kind of transformation we desire, but are unable to achieve on our own. In turn, we can gladly be entrusted with the things we can do for our part in the journey – not buckling under the weight of the responsibility. We can use moments of our lives as opportunities to be with God as we are being formed – through successes, as they give opportunity for praise and humility towards God, and through challenges that produce patience; patience, character; and character, hope.

Finally, Rest

As both my reality and my journey are entrusted with God, my mind – by degrees of attentiveness and consistency – finds opportunities to rest. How? I rest in the fact that I will never see the world as clearly as God does, but that God has a personal interest in my life. I rest in the fact that I will never see my journey as clearly as God does, but that God has a personal interest in the person that I become. For my part, I have a desire to seek after God, and do what I can for the sake of my formation. Both, it turns out, are a lot easier than trying to be attentive to everything and everyone.

Do I want to know what is good and right? For sure. Do I want to do the good and right thing? I do. But I have learned the harder way that doing the good and right thing has more to do with being with God, than developing a list of what is good and right for every situation I may encounter in life. If I am the kind of person who has been formed in goodness and righteousness – particularly on account of a relationship – than given any situation, I will more likely do the good and right thing automatically. That is, without thinking. Imagine being able to trust yourself to do that?

It is possible. For our part, our attention must turn to the work of being with God. Lightly and easily, as Jesus proposes, on account of the desire to be with the One who is love, we will do what we can to be close to God throughout our day. Why? Because we want the experience of being with God always. We will grow towards the kind of trust that even if we don’t sense Him, we will know that God is there, and that His character remains steadfast. At every stage of growth there will be things to learn about who God is and what our relationship with Him looks like. At every stage of growth, we will have the opportunity to learn how much God really loves us, and how we are loving others. At every stage of growth, we will have the opportunity to relinquish degrees of control, worry, even concern as we come to know the Father, as we follow the Son, in life in God’s Kingdom. As we entrust our lives to God we will come to experience rest of our whole person – our mind, our bodies, our wills, and most importantly, our souls.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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