Mindfulness, being fully present in the moment, sounds simple. Simple is different than easy. There are a few approaches that may help us get closer to mindfulness. We explore together where we are, when we are, and how we are.
Interim Minister Rev. Lyn Cox
When I was about eleven years old, a pair of kittens came to join our family. They careened around our small house like rubber super balls and discovered places to hide that we didn’t know existed. They found ways to scale the summits of the refrigerator and the bookcase, no matter how we tried to remove footholds for climbing.
These kittens were escape artists. If they got into a room where they weren’t supposed to go, it was extremely difficult to chase them down and retrieve them. If they were hiding, the three of us kids would thunder all over the house looking for them, reaching our arms as far as they would go behind furniture and under cabinets. We tried calling their names to get them to come to us. We tried meowing loudly. Neither speed, nor force, nor noises were effective at redirecting the kittens.
What seemed to work, at least sometimes, was doing nothing. If one person sat calmly and alone in the center of the room where we suspected they were, the cats might emerge. It had to be the sort of situation where they would saunter out and just happen to discover the quiet person along the path where they were going to go anyway.
Mindfulness is like gathering kittens in some ways, especially if we imagine that that the kittens represent wandering parts of ourselves. Practices like meditation give us a chance to be fully present, to notice the movements of our mind and heart without trying to chase or entrap each stray part. When we are fully present, we can be gentle and compassionate with ourselves, including those parts of ourselves that fear discovery. Most of us are as adept as kittens at running in circles and hiding from the realities that we don’t want to face.
I know I am. Most of the time, I wander around with a whole pride of kittens tangling balls of yarn together in my head. I don’t mind admitting this because I suspect a lot of us are in the same boat (or cat tree). Mindfulness is challenging. Increasing mindfulness is possible. None of us can be fully present all the time, yet we can return to our center every so often with the invitation to be here now.
Be here now. It sounds simple, but simple is different than easy. We’re all muddling into the present together. There are a few ideas and practices that I think can help us. Let’s cultivate awareness about the time, the space, and the existence on our minds. This morning, we’re going to notice when we are, where we are, and how we are. Be here now. Be here. Be.
Now: De-centering Worries and Fears
Let’s begin with now. The present moment is a difficult place to dwell. Worries tug our thoughts into the future or the past. Anticipating obstacles can help us overcome them, but there is a space between being totally unprepared and spending our days perseverating on potential disasters. It all comes down to the role of fear: fear of illness, fear of suffering, fear of embarrassment, fear of losing loved ones, fear of death. Fear often has a kernel of wisdom, but it needs a proportional reality check to be useful, and we need to have the ability to sit with discomfort for awhile as we do that reality check.
In her book, When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chödrön writes that learning to pause for a moment, to consider the current experience before acting on an impulsive reaction to fear, disrupts the “chain reaction” that turns small issues into big ones. I think part of what makes that chain reaction work is our human gift of making inferences. We need inferences. We need to be able to make educated guesses about what might happen based on our observations. If a car is approaching the intersection and not slowing down, I’m going to form a hypothesis that the car will blow through the stop sign and I should stay on the sidewalk.
The trouble is, sometimes we guess wrong. And the longer we operate on a mistaken assumption, the harder it is to uproot. Those incorrect hypotheses can keep us running around in circles, afraid of risks that are either less likely or not as damaging as we predicted. When our minds are a messy knot of worries twisted together by anxious brain-kittens, one of the ways we can untangle the mess is to carefully separate the observation threads from the inference threads.
Stop and take an inventory of what you can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. What are you observing? Identifying leaps of inference can make room for doubting fears and worries. Once we’re centered in the now moment, we can respond rather than react, even if we’re still afraid. We can feel fear without giving it control.
Buddhist literature is full of stories about meditation masters facing dangers like aggressive dogs, poisonous snakes, and hungry tigers, maintaining their equanimity thanks to long years of practicing mindfulness. I don’t know that most of us will get to that point, but we can begin by practicing sitting with others and confronting something together that is deeply uncomfortable, vital that we address, but not likely to actually harm us by exploring.
The Racial Justice Task Force is organizing Study Circles. In this program, facilitators will create a safe space for participants from diverse backgrounds to have uncomfortable conversations about race, inequity, and white supremacy issues that have impacted Unitarian Universalism as a whole, and this congregation in its own way. See the insert in your Order of Service for details. Talking about race is a fabulous way to practice mindfulness. White supremacy culture is designed to defend itself with distractions and anxieties that prevent us from being fully present, aware of our thoughts and attitudes, and open to experiencing what is actually happening. I’m grateful to the Racial Justice Task Force for presenting this opportunity for spiritual practice rooted in our UU values.
Mindfulness—and the honesty it requires—might bring us face-to-face with the possibility of career failure, personal failings, unpopular beliefs, or an inconvenient calling to justice. We can let fears about those things dominate our thoughts, or we can bring ourselves back to this very moment, make our observations, and respond with integrity. Be here now.
Here: Refraining from Harmful Escapes
Being here is another challenge, especially if we’re hoping to “get somewhere” in life, or to “move on” from something unpleasant. Being here now also carries the risk of experiencing emotions that we’re not done processing. We humans are capable of feeling intense anger, despair, grief, and regret. Even feelings of joy can be too overwhelming to handle all at once. It is OK to accept those feelings as they come, and to let them go when they go. Grief does not get brushed out of us, never to grow back. Anger might retract its claws for a time, but the sharpness is still there. Complex emotional experiences take time and attention. They follow their own rules and their own timeline. We do the best we can to balance putting energy into coping with putting energy into our functional, feed-the-family lives.
Sometimes we have to compartmentalize. Put the despair in a basket and carry it along while running errands. Let the joy curl up around our feet while looking completely serious for the web camera during a video meeting. Ignore the anger twitching its tail as we write a very polite note. The key is to come back and reconnect with the experience of living— messy emotions and all.
Returning to coping is hard. Feelings are exhausting and untidy. We might fear that, once in the grasp of an intense emotion, we will never be able to rise again. Perhaps we are ashamed of feeling the way we do. So we do something else to fill the space or transport us elsewhere rather than making ourselves vulnerable to the sensory and emotional experience right here. This is where “retail therapy” comes in, or escapist entertainment, or alcohol abuse, or risky behavior. Lots of activities that are harmless or even beneficial in most circumstances can become escapes from living in the here and now. That’s when we start to miss the signs that our choices have negative consequences.
When I’m tempted to be anywhere but here, one kind of practice that helps me return to my center is paying attention to my senses during routine activities. A blessing or a song or a breath as I unlock my door or prepare my tea is a moment to say, “This is where I am and what I am doing right now. This life is a blessing.”
Thich Nhat Hanh writes (in The Miracle of Mindfulness) about a set of practices in Vietnamese Buddhism. Meditative phrases he learned as a novice included things like, “Washing my hands, I hope that every person will have pure hands to receive reality.”
Mindfulness rituals give the signal to be here now. These reminders invite us to take a break from our escape strategies, which might be causing harm to us or to our loved ones unintentionally. This very moment, right here and right now, has its perils. There is so much beauty, rage, and overwhelming life. Avoidance is understandable. On days when we’re able, refraining from that avoidance is a blessing. Be here.
Be: Loving Kindness and Acceptance of the Self
Pema Chödrön writes that she gets many letters from people who lack self-compassion. Actually, how she put it is, “I get many letters from ‘the worst person in the world.’ … The people who give themselves such a hard time come in all ages, shapes, and colors. The thing they have in common is that they have no loving-kindness for themselves.”
She goes on to say that self-awareness, knowing ourselves and our patterns in the context of unconditional friendship and acceptance is a form of maitri, a Sanskrit word that often gets translated as loving-kindness. Maitri entails non-harming in thinking, speech, and actions. In Buddhism, maitri applies to all beings, others and the self (to the extent that such a division exists), but compassion for the self is the hard part for many people.
Pema Chödrön points out that internal maitri is essential if we’re going to be honest with ourselves and survive. Mindfulness clarifies the truth, and the truth is that we are all flawed. Comfort with our flaws makes mindfulness bearable. Furthermore, we can’t give away what we don’t have. Compassion for others is tied to acceptance of the tangled up truth within.
We don’t have to be perfect. In fact, trying to be perfect might lead to the shortcut of trying to appear to be perfect and hoping the reality catches up. Maintaining that illusion takes so much energy, a person could miss out on the beauty of this world and the sweetness of friendship.
This is starting to sound like Universalism. In our tradition, the Spirit of Life does not ask us to pass a test before we are accepted, loved, and treasured as part of this sparkling, interdependent web of life. A Universalist experiences that unconditional love and responds by returning it to the world through justice and compassion. Our mission is an expression of gratitude. We don’t have to earn our merit. We can simply be, and know that we dwell in the heart of the Spirit of Life.
As Unitarian Universalists, we do look for ways to grow into the people we are becoming. The people we are right now are also beloved creatures of worth. Our lives right now have value. We can be witnesses for love without delay. Waiting for or imitating perfection would keep us from being here now, fully alive and engaged in this shifting, miraculous, messed up, and glorious world.
As we practice returning to mindfulness, again and again, let us be gentle with ourselves and with each other. Let us sit quietly and lovingly with the mind kittens and their tangled yarns of emotions, sensations, inferences, and reactions. Let us respect our fears without giving them control. Let us attend to the here and now when we can. Let us remember that we are beautifully imperfect. Be here now. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.