May 8, 2016 Paying Attention, the Inner Life

                                                                                                        By Art McDonald

I once had a conversation with the director of a social justice organization and she shared with me the following story: one of her organizers met with her to report as to her work over the past week as well as her plans for the upcoming week. As the director listened, she was struck by how wired the employee was, how much she had done and was planning on doing, using every minute to meet, phone call, plan, etc. The director was exhausted listening to the constant activity, the busyness of the employee, the somewhat scattered nature of her work, going in many direction, and wondered how she juggled all of this with family life, as the employee had given birth in the past year, so she decided to give her this feedback by asking a question: do you remember in the first few months of your child’s life how you shared with me how sometimes you and your husband would simply sit on the couch with the baby in your arms and stare at her? The employee got very excited and responded: yes, we would sit there for hours and just stare at her in amazement and awe and joy; we focused all our attention on her, alert to her every movement. The director smiled and, as also a mother some years earlier, explained that she, too, spent lots of time in the early months of her first child’s life staring, focusing all her attention, gazing wondrously on the child. Then the director said, your work and accomplishments are great, but I want you to take more time going forward to step back on occasion, be simply mindful of your life and person, be alert and awake to what is going on, how you are responding to people and your own actions, pay more attention to what you are doing and how you are interacting with people and the community.
What brilliant advice I thought; sign of a very wise leader, a leader who clearly understood the importance of stepping back from our busyness, our constant activity, our lack of awareness of ourselves, others, the world around us.

I’ve been thinking lately about my own life and work with the help of a book of a Buddhist practitioner named Jon Kabat-Zinn, who directs a stress reduction and mindfulness clinic at the U. of Mass Medical School; he has also taught medicine to doctors. Kabat-Zinn calls what he does mind-body medicine or, if you will, integrative medicine. And a key part of mind-body medicine, writes Zinn, is the importance of developing one’s inner life. There is enormous capacity in one’s inner life, he asserts, to heal, to transform, both ourselves and our world and we don’t know it or develop this capacity to our own detriment and the detriment of those around and, ultimately, the wider community.

Zinn focuses his practice on the central Buddhist concept, developed by the Buddha himself, called mindfulness. Just what is mindfulness, asks Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein: “The quality of being present in the moment, awake to what is happening.” “Pay attention,” writes KabatZinn. Pay attention – that simple or maybe not so simple directive. Growing up all of our teachers (or parents) would always say to us: PAY ATTENTION! ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION? Evidently we often weren’t and maybe most of us still aren’t, so believes Zinn. And the consequences can be very detrimental. And much like ancient and current Buddhism, Zinn suggests it is especially important to be aware, pay attention to the present moment – what is actually happening right
now! But we often don’t do it – we are often “out of touch,” he writes, “We are out of touch with our feelings and perceptions, with our impulses and emotions, with our thoughts, with what we are saying, and even with our bodies. This is mostly due to being perpetually preoccupied, lost in our minds, absorbed in our thoughts, obsessed with the past or the future, consumed with our plans and our desires, diverted by our need to be entertained, driven by our expectations, fears, or cravings of the moment, however unconscious and habitual all this may be. And therefore, we are amazingly out of touch in some way or other with the present moment … It is easy to eat without tasting, miss the fragrance of the moist earth after rain, even touch others without knowing the feelings we are transmitting.” – OUT of TOUCH!

Recently I’ve had some physical challenges; A week or so ago I woke up with a very sharp pain in my neck; I could barely move without significant discomfort. I immediately called our local chiropractic wizard, Dr. Jerry, who told me to come in and with the help of an x-ray the problem was diagnosed and the treatment began. 9 days later I’m on the mend. Meanwhile I’m reading Zinn’s book and he relates the following (I’m not making this up): in speaking of mindfulness, paying attention regarding health and well-being he goes on to demonstrate by example. Suppose you wake up with neck pain and you think it is mere stiffness or muscle tightness – then you ignore it and it becomes a bit chronic, but you get used to it. The pain is manageable, the cause probably poor sleep, tension at work, etc. Maybe it will go away, maybe not. Worst case scenario muscles and nerves “disconnect” and mal adjust, alter in some way, maybe inflammation sets in, then arthritis. Guess what folks, point by point he explained my situation. When Jerry
asked me how long has this bothered you – couple of months, I replied. Later I thought, maybe couple of years! Jerry said it usually takes 2-3 visits for the truth to come out, if it ever does.

Zinn explains that lack of connection, awareness of the mind-body begins with “dis-attention” leading to “dis-connection” then “disregulation” and “dis-order” and, finally, “dis-ease.” It all goes back to lack of mindfulness, paying attention, staying in the present moment, not learning from this ancient Buddhist wisdom. We are too often out of touch with ourselves, others, and the world around us. The consequences are disease in the body, our relationships with ourselves and those around, and the body politic! We have not developed our inner life, a key piece of all of the wisdom traditions, whether Buddhist or Hindu or Taoist or Jewish or Christian: the sacred is within us the Buddhists say; Christians and other theists call this God or the Divine. Most of us are out of touch too often. Despite my growing up in a prayerful tradition, spending 10 years with a semi-monastic religious community, and being in ministry for much of my adult life, I have not developed my inner life sufficiently, it’s apparent to me; the key component of any spiritual journey. Are any of you like me?! I cringe to think what I have done to my body, my relationships, the body politic because of this lack of developing my inner capacity. I have yet to learn mindfulness.

According to the Buddha: “Mind is the forerunner of all things. If one speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows, like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox. Mind is the forerunner of all things. If
one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows, like the shadow that never leaves.”

Along with our 5 senses, hearing, touching, seeing, smelling and tasting, writes Kabat-Zinn, the mind, consciousness, that which makes us most human, is our 6th sense. We develop it by staying awake, alert, paying attention to the present moment. What is going on now? Am I observing, listening, understanding and acting, responding in the best way? When we are unaware, un-alert, not paying attention, writes Zinn, there is disease and it leads to “illusion, delusion, greed, fear, cruelty, self-deception, and even destruction and death.” We don’t know who we are. Seems to me war is mostly because we are not paying attention, not self-aware, full of greed or fear.

There is a great Buddhist song about Mindfulness that goes like this:

Mindfulness is the root of Dharma (Truth, Way of Things) . Mindfulness is the body of practice. Mindfulness is the fortress of the mind. Mindfulness is the aid to the wisdom of innate wakefulness.

Lack of mindfulness will allow the negative forces to overcome you. Without mindfulness you will be swept away by laziness. Lack of mindfulness is the creator of evil deeds. Without mindfulness and presence of mind, nothing can be accomplished. Lack of mindfulness piles up like lots of poop (shit). Without mindfulness you sleep in an
ocean of pee (piss). Without mindfulness you are heartless zombie, a walking corpse. Dear Dharma friends, please be mindful. By the aspiration of the holy lamas, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and lineage masters, may all dharma friends attain stable mindfulness and ascend the throne of perfect AWAKENING!

Last week we had a wonderful congregational meeting; best turnout ever and, among other things, we shared great excitement at the possibility of expanding our space to accommodate a growing church, especially our children and youth program. We imagined together how the extension would serve the community and how it would look. And as one of us gazed out the window, she spotted two magnificent trees, both of whom, I’m sure, predated anyone in the current congregation. As she glanced and, I’m guessing, stared, Lois raised her hand and said she hoped that any building expansion would not injure or eliminate those magnificent trees. I was stunned. I thought what attention, what alertness, what connection, what mindfulness to the life and endurance of those living beings. I envied Lois’ inner life that could only to me explain her awareness. It made me think of this poem by David Wagoner:

“Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes behind you are not lost. Wherever you are is called HERE, and you must treat it as a powerful stranger, must ask permission to know it and be known. The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, I have made this place around you. If you leave it, you may come back again, saying HERE. No two trees are the same to the Raven. No two branches are the same to the wren. If what
a tree or bush does is lost to you, you are truly lost. Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.”

On this Mother’s Day, think of the times in your life when you just sat and stared at a baby, possibly your own, maybe someone else’s. If never, maybe ask Alex or Kim if you can stare at Oliver or, when Allison and Sean bring forth their child, ask if you can sit awhile and stare at their child. Sit still. Pay attention. Work on your inner life. Be fully present and promise to spend your life being mindful or and protecting children. Happy Mother’s Day to us all.