I always look for resources that I think will help the scrupulous. Recently I have been recommending to people who suffer with scrupulosity that they develop a spiritual practice known as mindfulness. You may have seen it referenced in other resources. Mindfulness is an old and orthodox contemplative practice that, in the Catholic context, may be more generally known as “living in the present moment.”
Mindfulness is the discipline of focusing your attention on the present moment. It sounds easy, but it is difficult. Troublesome, obsessive thoughts of the past and future get in the way of a person’s mindfulness of the present. Scrupulous people are especially susceptible to intrusive and unwelcomed thoughts of the past and unnecessary worries about what is to come. Such rumination is a symptom of the disorder and is challenging to overcome.
Scrupulous people often become laser-focused on an unwanted or intrusive thought that takes their mind into the past or propels the mind into the future. If their primary realm is the past, they fret about unconfessed sin, the details of a particular action, the intensity of their emotions, and other experiences. If future worries engulf them, anxiety produces irrational thoughts of eternal punishment, the ramifications of ruinous attempts at paying imagined restitution, or other “catastrophes” that may or may not come to pass but which produce untold suffering. The present moment thus is absorbed, wasted, or—at best—endured.
A deliberate choice to practice mindfulness changes the trajectory of the suffering that scrupulosity causes and enables a realistic opportunity to learn to manage the disorder in a manner that fosters healthy and positive spiritual living. The deliberate practice of mindfulness releases a person from the emotions and anxiety generated by the panic about the future and the cluttered memories of the past. Since it is a spiritual practice, it is an effective channel of the grace of God and the manifestation of the Spirit of God.
To begin the practice of mindfulness, your essential tool is something you experience every moment: every breath you take. You begin the practice by paying attention to each breath, becoming aware of the beating of your heart, and noticing the pulsating energy that results from the integrated reflex action that keeps you alive. This intentional focus on your breath enables you to slowly let go of any other distraction. Letting go does not happen all at once or right away on the first try. As with any spiritual practice, it takes time and effort. But slowly you will feel the difference your focused attention makes.
As you become aware of your breath, begin to identify each breath with a particular grace, a helpful focus that sharpens your attention. For example, as you breathe in, say, “I am breathing in the grace of the Spirit of God.” On your exhale, say, “I am letting go of fear and anxiety.” With each breath you inhale and exhale, identify the breath with a good feeling, an example of God’s grace at work in your life. The list of the graces you identify will be unique to you but will generally include letting go of fear, anxiety, worry, the obsessive thought, a desire to flee, and so on. With the inhaled breath, thoughts might include calmness, peace, the security of God, the openness to wonder and mystery, and the acknowledgment that we are ultimately not in charge or in control of our lives, rather that each moment is a gift from God.
Each breath does not require you to identify with a particular grace or manifestation of freedom. It is enough that you become aware of the breath itself. Let your breathing be the focus of the moment, the present experience. Release all negative thoughts. Remember, God is always present.
After a few moments of untimed, focused attention on your breathing, rest in the quiet and calm you may experience. This calm, induced by your focused concentration on the work of the Holy Spirit, does not necessarily mean you will be free of distractions or thoughts. They may return, but that’s all right. Even though the distracting thoughts may not disappear immediately, be patient with your practice. Refocus on your breathing.
When you feel the practice concluding for the moment, you might complete it with a simple prayer. Here is one suggested by the Five Contemplations from the Buddhist tradition:
My life is a precious gift of God, the whole universe, the earth, and the generosity and selflessness of countless others.
May I live this day, this moment, in a manner that is worthy of the gifts that I have received.
May my restless mind become transformed from an unsettled state into the peace and calm of the precious gift of life that I have received
May I accept this gift of life, this gift of the moment, for the deepening realization that
I am loved and accepted this day, this moment, this eternal NOW.
There is no one way to manage scrupulosity. No “one size fits all.” The disorder affects each person differently. Some experiences, fears, and anxieties are common to all, but each person’s disorder is unique. Still, there are ways to manage your scrupulosity that have been used successfully by others over the years. The spiritual practice of mindfulness is one such management option. It has been proven to help many people, and you may find this spiritual discipline effective. If you are searching for useful guidance, mindfulness may well be a step in the right direction.
Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR