Over the past year or more, I have taken on a new discipline. I have begun to learn the practice of mindfulness meditation. Dr. Mark W. Muesse, professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College, has been one of my guides in the process, through a wonderful video course, “Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation.” Dr. Muesse observes that mindfulness meditation does not belong to any particular religious tradition, and variants of mindfulness can be found in almost every faith, though “historical evidence suggests that mindfulness was first widely taught 2,500 years ago by the individual known today as the Buddha.”
My own interest in the practice increased last January when the Presbyterian Seminary Presidents and Board Chairs read together Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy’s book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (2012). A chapter in that book, “The Resilient Mind,” convinced me that I should explore the mindfulness discipline more deeply.
The practice of mindfulness meditation helps people reorient themselves toward their own emotions, understanding that feelings are not just things that happen to us. Even more critically, however, mindfulness meditation allows us to attend more fully to that which is before us. It helps ensure that we not miss life while distracted by anxieties, worries, speculations, and the unrolling of all those tapes we seem to keep scrolling through in our brains. The practice can even help us learn to focus our attention and to cultivate a capacity to step back from highly-charged emotional situations so that we can make better decisions. Those who value being self-differentiated and non-anxious as leaders will especially appreciate the value of this discipline. It is possible to learn how to be (not just appear) well-differentiated and non-anxious.
I have found it helpful to turn to a variety of different resources and various media in beginning to learn this practice. One of the best books I have found is Zen Keys: A Guide to Zen Practice (New York, 1974) by Thich Nhat Hanh, whom many of you will remember from his association with Father Thomas Merton. My wife, Debbie, recently asked me to summarize what I thought the practice of mindfulness meditation was about. I turned to him for a summary, paraphrasing an ancient sage who said something like this: Those who practice mindfulness breathe, walk, eat and drink. This doesn’t sound any different from what anyone else does. But when they breathe; they attend to breathing. When they walk; they are attentive to walking. When they eat; they attend to eating. When they drink; they attend to drinking. Whatever they do, they are attentive to that act. When their minds wander, they gently call them to return to that to which they need to attend. Through this practice, we train our minds to attend to that which we wish our minds to attend, rather than to live distracted lives. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, the aim “is a clear vision of reality, seeing things as they are.”
After patiently listening to me, Debbie, very perceptively, asked: “So, can you practice mindfulness and multi-task?”
That is when it hit me. No. You can’t. And probably we shouldn’t anyway.
Multi-tasking is the cultivation of distraction. Mindfulness is the cultivation of attentiveness to that which is at hand.
That’s when something else hit me, something intimately related to the Christian faith. There’s a wonderful resonance between the practice of mindfulness and one particular story of Jesus, the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Henri Nouwen draws on this story in his book, Making All Things New (New York, 1981), when he says that the Christian answer to living our tumultuous, busy lives is not to remove ourselves from life, but to cultivate attentiveness to that which truly matters. Nouwen says that Jesus “asks us to shift the point of gravity, to relocate the center of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to move from the ‘many things’ to the ‘one necessary thing.’”
What mindfulness meditation does is provide the mental, emotional, even spiritual exercises or tools so we are better equipped to focus our hearts and minds appropriately. Which brings us to the issue of multi-tasking, or the cultivation of distraction.
Would Jesus multi-task? It is not an idle speculation. Jesus seemed to possess a rare capacity to attend to that which was at hand. He exercised a life that moved from prayer in solitude to being in community and back to solitude again and again. He calls us to lives that banish anxiety. He calls us to lives that rest in trustfulness. Again, as Nouwen says: “One way to express the spiritual crisis of our time is to say that most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions…. ‘All these other things’ keep demanding our attention. They lead us so far from home that we eventually forget our true address, that is, the place where we can be addressed.”
Recently my pastor, Steve Jester, and I were talking about the Christian spiritual life and the potential intersection with mindfulness meditation. Steve noted the language of our prayers for illumination in worship: “silence in us any voice except your own,” we often pray. There are doubtless many ways to silence those voices so we can attend to the Word of God.
More important than the method, however, is the end: that we may attend to each moment God places before us, and that we may attend with appropriate respect, even reverence. What a shame if one day we look up from our multitude of distracting devices and desires to realize that life has passed us by!