Mindfulness

Throughout the month of July, we are turning out attention to the topic of spiritual growth. Last Sunday, I talked about how fraught the subject of ‘spirituality’ can be – with all of us having our own associations with spiritual and spirituality. At the same time, we agreed that we need some word to serve as a label for this part of our lives – a dimension I described as being the process and practises that help us to become increasingly compassionate, grateful, mindful, and faithful. 

That definition is broad enough to include all manner of practices and perspectives. It is also narrow enough to insist that spirituality is not simply that which makes us feel good. Having a great massage is wonderful and relaxing, but it is not necessarily something that helps us grow spiritually.

Today, we will focus on one of the four qualities I described as the fruits of spiritual growth: mindfulness. Whilst compassion, gratitude, and faith are relatively simple to recognise, mindfulness feels like it’s in a bit of a different class. We might notice that we feel strong compassion in the face of suffering. We might proclaim how grateful we are when some beautiful surprise comes our way. When we have faith, it appears in us and others as a determination that persists despite obstacles. Our faith leads us to persist in our efforts to overcome oppression and adversity – to keep on even when the odds are stacked mightily against us.

Mindfulness is a bit more enigmatic. So, let’s talk about mindfulness. But keep in mind that talking about it alone would like talking about driving a car, but never having the chance to get behind the wheel – interesting but only in a cerebral kind of way.

So, we won’t just talk about mindfulness today – we will also practice it.

Most of us will think of mindfulness as closely associated with Buddhism and with meditation. Meditation hit the west like a tidal wave in the 1960s. As it did - as it got out of its native context, it began to change and shift. In Hinduism and Buddhism, meditation is understood as a tool for attaining enlightenment – for making a leap in understanding the world that brings one ultimately to the goal of release from an endless cycle or death and rebirth – Moksha in Hinduism or Nirvana in Buddhism.

In the West though, meditation has become popular for reasons that are less connected to the Eastern religious understandings. In particular, meditation has become understood as a tool to develop mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has been one of the pioneers in the secular applications of mindfulness. He defines mindfulness as “moment to moment non-
judgmental awareness,” a short simple phrase that truly captures the essence of mindfulness.

When we are mindful, we are fully in the present moment – not mentally off somewhere else planning or worrying or anything else. We are in the right-here and right-now and we are fully aware of what is going on – both within and around us. The other key word in Kabat-Zinn’s definition is “non-judgmental.” Mindfulness is accepting – it is inclusive – it is a state where we say “this is” rather than “this is good or bad.” I may recognize “I am angry” but not “I am angry and must get rid of that feeling – bad Andy!” No. We recognize what is and we let it be.

I’d like to invite you into just a few minutes of meditation now. [Five minutes of focusing on the breath, non-judgment, mind will wander...]

As we return from that time of meditation, you may have had a variety of experiences. You may feel frustrated that you could not keep your attention fixed for very long. Meditation is not, in fact, simply a pleasant experience. It is a discipline. When we meditated, we are working mental muscles of single-pointed focus that we do not usually use in our highly distracting world of multimedia and multitasking.

We may feel just slightly calmer despite that frustration. With practice, we will increasingly develop the ability to focus more closely and to calm that chattering that so often goes on in our minds and this ability affects not just our meditation, but our whole lives.

Mindfulness has turned out to be valuable in some very practical ways. It has been used to promote healing, in the treatment of depression and anxiety, for pain management, and more. 

But the reason we want to focus on mindfulness here – the reason we include it among the four essential fruits of spiritual growth – is something less dispassionate. It is something we can hear in William Stafford’s words:

What can anyone give you greater than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

We live here, in this moment. Our lives are made up only of moments like this one. When we are not fully present for those moments, we allow life to pass by unlived and unexplored. We plan for some future moment, only to spend that moment planning for yet another moment. When will we live if not now?

Here are words from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk about whom the poem of our second reading was written:

Thich Nhat Hanh: “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child - our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Mindfulness is the ability to experience the miracles around us – to be present in the moments that constitute our lives.

Let’s once again practice meditation as a way of cultivating mindfulness. [Five minutes of focusing on anything happening – sensations, sounds, the arising and vanishing of thoughts. Stay non-judgmental, mind will wander...]

Consider what you noticed. Consider all of the things we usually ignore. Our lives are lived like this too – so often oblivious to what is around us.

Helen Luke offered this in her poem entitled “Important.”

"We hurry through the so-called boring things in order to attend to that which we deem more important, interesting.
Perhaps the final freedom will be a recognition that everything in every moment is "essential" and that nothing at all is "important."

The essential things for which we fail to pause include the beauty that could make our hearts sing. They include the people with whom our
missed connection means missed chances to grow more compassionate and more human. They include the opportunities to receive and give
love and to grow more loving – and isn’t this why we are here?

I invite you to join in one final meditation. I will ask you to begin by wishing happiness and love and wellness to yourself. You may want to use some
of the words from the song we sang earlier: “May I be filled with loving kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease.” I will prompt you one by
one to move from yourself as the recipient of your wishes to others in your life. [Five minutes]