How to Practice Sacred Mindfulness
I invite you to reflect with me on mindfulness – especially in our relationships. A lot of what we know about and think of as “mindfulness” comes from Buddhist thought and traditions. Yet, mindfulness is very compatible with Christian teaching and practice. In fact, Jesus was a very mindful guy. He was mindful about himself, his sacred calling, the social conditions of his time, and the joys, pain, and struggles of people he encountered. His mindful interactions with each of them expressed deep understanding, compassion, mercy, and love.
At its most basic level, mindfulness means living fully aware in each moment and practicing a heightened level of awareness, moment by moment. As Buddhist practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment. We also gain immediate access to our own powerful inner resources for insight, transformation, and healing.”
Mindfulness is, in part, about an acute awareness of what we see and perceive inside and about ourselves. The trouble with mindfulness is that we come face to face with our shame, our sin, our pain, our grief, our feelings of inadequacy, and so on. Therefore, wanting to avoid looking too deeply and clearly at ourselves, sometimes we do the opposite of being mindful. We use activities and substances to keep ourselves from being very mindful: food, TV, alcohol, drugs, sex, entertainment, and mobile phones! (among others). Our avoidance does not make us feel better.
Buddhists assert that mindfulness is crucial to self-awareness, self-love, self-acceptance, and healing. Yet, it is not enough to be aware of our own thoughts, words, and actions. We also need to be mindful of our surroundings and of how we are interacting with them. The Zen Buddhist teacher and writer, Thich Nhat Hahn uses the example of drinking tea to illustrate this aspect of mindfulness:
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”
We need mindfulness toward ourselves in order to be mindful of others. If we cannot deal with our own pain, loss, grief, shame, or sin, it will be hard to listen deeply and compassionately to others describe those things in themselves. So, I encourage you to look mindfully within yourself, have compassion and mercy for yourself, recognize that you are imperfect, but do not judge yourself harshly. Recognize that you, like every person needs love and healing. When we have gotten to the point of being able to love our imperfect selves, then, we are better able to love and have compassion for our neighbors and even our enemies.
I have been trying to practice mindfulness more intentionally lately. And it is not easy, at least for those of us who are still learning to live mindfully. I want to share two illustrations of with you of how mindfulness practice can happen in each moment. One incident happened in a relationship with someone I know fairly well and one with a stranger. The first occurred last Sunday morning before worship. I was sitting at the computer in my office making last minute changes to my sermon and Pastor Elyse knocked on the door and came in to ask me a question. I looked up, and as I always do, I felt joy at seeing her, but I did not notice it immediately. I enjoy talking and laughing with Pastor Elyse and I have great admiration for her. I value our relationship very highly. Yet, I did not get up from my computer when she walked in. I was not being mindful. But after a minute, I became aware of my joy, I noticed my inhospitality, and I got up and greeted my friend with a hug. Then, I put my hands together, bowed, and said, “namaste” (“I honor the beloved and holy in you”). Very quickly, I saw myself being “un-mindful,” I became mindful of my feelings and then of my desire to greet and honor Pastor Elyse and concluded that this was so much more important than editing my sermon. Then, I acted on that mindfulness.
The second incident in which mindfulness came into play this week was on Tuesday when I walked out of the 13th Street door of the church to get something to eat. A man in dress pants and shirt was sitting on the standpipe near the corner. At first, I thought he was just resting or waiting there, but then he bent forward and rested his head in his hands. My first impulse was to just walk on by, but I became mindful of his possible suffering and I asked if he was OK. He said he had not been feeling well since he got up that morning and that he had lost his balance, but would be alright in a minute. I asked his name – it was Steve. Then I asked if he would like to come into the church until he felt better. He said, “yes.” Then he got up and tried to walk, but stumbled over to the railing next to the subway stairs and his legs began to collapse under him. I said, “Hold on – I am going to get a chair for you.” I ran inside and emerged with a chair. Another person walking by stopped to help as we got him into the chair. After a few more minutes, he said, “I am beginning to worry that I might have had a stroke.” So, I went to the emergency center across the street and got them to send a nurse with a wheelchair and we got him over there to get checked out. As he was being wheeled away, he said, “Bless you and bless your ministry here.”
I have to be very intentional about being mindful. I need to practice slowing down, breathing deeply, being attentive to my feelings and needs and to those of the people around me. I strive to use loving speech, even when I have to convey a difficult truth, such as how I believe another person has hurt me or confess how I have hurt them. I need try to listen deeply in order to be able to hear another’s suffering.
These practices can be used even to help enemies learn to care for one another. You might think this sounds utopian, but Thich Naht Hanh has successfully taught loving, compassionate mindfulness to groups of Palestinians and Israelis, who were at first completely hostile and mistrustful of each other. Imagine the difference mindfulness could make in a community whose members are already open to each other and a have a pervasive, welcoming spirit.
I am convinced that each of us is beloved by God and that God instills belovedness in each of us that is our essential core and remains in spite of whatever we might think, say, or do. Because of this and because of the difficulty of forming loving human relationships, there is something sacred about a relationship between two human beings and something divine at work when a group of persons is able to grow into becoming a true community. These relationships and such communities have a sacred quality because the very possibility of their existence is rooted in the unconditional love of God toward us and in God’s astounding mindfulness of us. As Psalm 8 asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Yet, God does – and we know God does because we have experienced God’s mindfulness and loving care toward us. God desires that we be “fully awake in our lives” and “experience the exquisite vividness of each moment,” and perhaps especially those moments when we are in relationship with others. With strangers, neighbors, friends, lovers, or others, God calls us to sacred mindfulness. Let’s practice being a community infused with such sacred mindfulness.