The Mindful Life

3870006964_57d04d9c95_oLast week I taught a class about “The Mindful Life” at my college.  Mindfulness is rooted in the Buddhist philosophy that only the present moment exists.  The future does not yet exist.  The past no longer exists.  Therefore, we should focus our energy and attention on that which is real, the present moment.

Personally, I think Jesus would approve.  “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  (Matthew 6:34) Jesus was incredibly present to the people he loved and served.

I had a good turnout for my class.  Lots of people are interested in meditation these days as a way to help them cope with anxiety and stress.  But mindfulness meditation offers more than a sense of calm.  New research is coming out about how meditation actually changes the way your brain performs.

A recent study by Harvard University revealed that meditation rebuilds the brain’s gray matter in eight weeks.  An article on this new research states:

Previous studies found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.  Until now, that is.  The participants spent an average of 27 minutes per day practicing mindfulness exercises, and this is all it took to stimulate a major increase in gray matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.  Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. None of these changes were seen in the control group, indicating that they had not resulted merely from the passage of time.”

Did you catch all those benefits of meditation?  Let’s run through them again:

  • Better Attention
  • Emotional Integration
  • Self-Awareness
  • Compassion
  • Introspection
  • Reduced anxiety and stress

5691277643_ae020b36e2_oOf all these benefits, I most value the self-awareness I have gained from the time I have spent practicing mindfulness meditation.  I have learned a lot by sitting with myself in meditation.  I think of it as time spent observing, even honoring, the thoughts and emotions that pull me away from the present moment.  This new awareness, or self-knowledge, helps me control those thoughts and emotions better, rather than allowing them to control me.  Knowledge definitely is power.

At the end of my class I led the group in the following meditation.  I invite you to find a quiet spot and a comfortable place to sit and practice it yourself.    More books and meditation resources are listed at the bottom of this post.

Awareness Meditation

Sit comfortably.  Sit up straight with your shoulders back.  Open your chest area and heart space. Close your eyes.

Notice the sounds in the room.  What do you hear?

Notice the smells in the room?  What do you smell?

Feel the clothes on your body.  Feel the fabric stretching along your arms, back, chest, legs.  Feel the socks on your feet.  Feel the warmth your clothes hold close to your body.  Feel the way your clothes shelter you from the chill of the room.  Are your clothes comfortable?  Feel this comfort.  Do your clothes pinch?  Feel this discomfort.

Feel the weight of your body on the floor (or in your chair.) Feel yourself on the earth.  Feel the gravity pulling you down.  Feel your stability.   Feel grounded.

Notice your breathing.  Pay attention to your inhale and your exhale.  Notice how the air is cool on way in and warm on way out. Picture the air moving in and out of your lungs.

Focus your mind on your breathing for the next few minutes.  If you get distracted, that’s okay.  Just notice the distraction.  Smile at it in your mind.  Acknowledge it. Then return your mind’s focus to your breathing.

Conclude your meditation at any time.

More Good Resources on Meditation:

 Books:

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with your Mind by Pema Chodron

Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience by Sally Kempton

Online Resources:

Insight Timer Guided Meditations

The Freedom to Choose Something Different Online Class by Pema Chodron

Headspace by Andy Puddicombe

[Feature Images: Mitchell Joyce and Keoni Cabral]

Serious Business

I enjoy reading the Paris Review’s interviews of writers because they are often inspiring. I ran across their interview of Maya Angelou the other day and was particularly struck by this question and answer exchange:mayaangelouwriting

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

MAYA ANGELOU

For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

I love so many things about this quote. I love the vivid image of Maya Angelou writing poetry on a made-up bed surrounded by sherry, a dictionary, a thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. It sounds like a perfect hot mess of inspiration. I love that Ms. Angelou includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Zoroastrians, friends, lovers, and mothers in her statement about trying to be good. It’s the perfect inclusive nod to our human desire to be our best selves. Also, I love Ms. Angelou’s honesty and courage in naming that she is “trying” to be a Christian, but that she regularly blows it. I blow it too. So I appreciate her saying this. Because, of course, this means I’m not the only one.

Overall, though, I love that Ms. Angelou described her work at trying to be a Christian as “serious business.” I have all sorts of respect for someone who understands that a faith commitment is just that—a commitment. And that it can’t be done well, or at all, unless you take that commitment seriously.

When I spent a week on a Spring break trip with a few of our Muslim students and observed firsthand their ritual of praying five times a day, I noted how this worship ritual shaped their daily life and consistently called them back to God. I go to worship weekly and try to meditate daily for the same reason—to return myself to God and to my commitment to practicing my faith.

Faith is not a magic bullet, or a quick and easy pill we swallow upon our baptism (if we’re Christian). Faith is messy. Faith is doubt. Faith is challenge. Faith is comforting green pastures as well as craggy mountains to climb. To say faith is anything less is a misunderstanding or a misconstruing of faith itself. It is a day-by-day commitment to one’s self and one’s God. It is serious business.

 

about a daily spiritual practice

sprouting-seedWe can hardly get Christians today to observe a weekly spiritual practice, let alone daily. This was my response to the teacher of the meditation conference I was attending who claimed he had never visited a church that encouraged a daily spiritual practice.  My teacher was a writer whose writing flourished once he embraced Buddhism and a daily meditation practice.  His statement irked me – as a Christian, as a leader in the Church, as a pastor who immediately questioned herself.  Had I ever encouraged my parishioners to a daily spiritual practice?  I had.  Hadn’t I?  Of course I had.

Why was I so defensive?  How many churches had my Buddhist friend actually visited?  He’d never visited mine.  So why did I take his criticism so personally?

I just finished my sermon on Luke 10: 38-42 where Jesus tells Martha that she needs to spend time sitting and listening at his feet.  Working through this text I felt as if Jesus was speaking to me as well as Martha.  I do so much in my life.  I am constantly doing.  But everything I am doing is expected of me.  I can’t stop parenting my children, nurturing my marriage, or investing myself in my vocation as a college chaplain.  Jesus expects me to do these things.  I know he does.  He’s the one who, I believe, called me to marriage, parenthood, and ordained ministry.  But in the midst of all this doing he also wants me to have a daily sitting practice, a time of listening at the feet of Christ.

Throughout my life I’ve tried a variety of spiritual practices.  I’ve prayed the liturgical hours.  I’ve meditated, contemplated, walked the labyrinth, invested myself in centering prayer and lectio divina (sacred reading). I’ve gone on spiritual retreats, spent time with monks and nuns, and worshipped in a wide variety of communities. All of this spiritual practice has been wonderful and incredibly edifying.  But when I get busy, it all slips away.  The doing takes over the practicing and I become like Martha, envying all the Mary’s of the world.

There is something not right, though, about the guilt I feel as I fail in these daily spiritual practices.  My Christian faith is my life, a life incredibly full of meaningful work, healthy relationships, and amazing opportunities to serve and give.  Why, in the midst of all of this, must I feel like something is missing?

My husband, Dan, is one of my greatest inspirations.  Also a Presbyterian minister, Dan feels most at home in the academic world.  Prayer is not really his thing.  He can do it, of course.  And he is often called upon to pray.  But his preferred spiritual practice is cerebral.  He is awakened by reading the words of Thomas Merton, Bernard Meland, Paul Tillich and John Cobb.  I liken Dan’s theological reading to the deep contemplation Thomas Merton describes that leads to the gift of awareness, or “an awakening of the Real within all that is real.”[1]  Over the past twelve years of our marriage I have observed Dan’s daily practice of deep theological contemplation gift him with a wonderful awareness.  He is the most spiritually mature person I know.

I’ve come to realize that each of us, as children of God, is unique.  Therefore, our practices can be unique.  Practicing our faith together, in community, is tremendously important.  Faith that is only practiced alone is a self-centered, static faith.  We must gather together around some commonly held rituals and practices.  But it is just as important to have our own, unique, individual practices that open us up and awaken us to the divine.

At this point in my life, I’m awakening to the idea that writing is my spiritual practice.  Writing is what leads me to a deep place of contemplation.  It is my path to awareness.  Oftentimes, I don’t know what I know until I write it out.  I also don’t know what I believe.  Writing is the practice that brings spiritual seeds to the surface for me.  God plants these seeds as I walk through the world, noticing life.  Writing brings the seeds to bloom.  I can only know and appreciate their flowers if I am diligent in my practice.  When I am diligent, I feel the satisfaction and the peace that comes from, again in Merton’s words, awakening to the Real within all that is real.

How about you?  What is your unique daily practice?  What leads you to a deep place of contemplation?  What helps awaken you to the Real within all that is real? Whatever it is, do it daily.


[1] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, (New York: New Directions, 1961), p. 75.