In her March Wellness Tip, Laurie Ehlers wrote about stress and shared a number of ways that Lawrence offers to help manage and reduce stress. I am grateful that she included the Center for Spiritual and Religious Life at Sabin House as a resource. As we stand on the edge of the completion of this round of finals and a slight breathing space for some – before plunging into the next term, I wanted to take a moment to explore the idea of “mindfulness” which is often connected with stress reduction.
The word mindfulness appeared more than any other in early conversations and hopes that people shared with me. When I hear the word, I sometimes return to the cult film, Princess Bride and Montoya who says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” While he was referring to the word, inconceivable, I think that we can also use his comment today, in reference to the word mindfulness.
In an April 2015 article entitled, The Muddied meaning for Mindfulness, Virginia Heffernan traces some cultural history and raises a series of cautions around the idea and its ability to sell. In closing, she writes,
“No one word, however shiny, however intriguingly Eastern, however bolstered by science, can ever fix the human condition. And that’s what commercial mindfulness may have lost from the most rigorous Buddhist tenets it replaced: the implication that suffering cannot be escaped but must be faced. Of that shift in meaning — in the Westernization of sati — we should be especially mindful.”
Earlier this term, Lawrence hosted Dr. Andrew Solomon as our convocation speaker. His impressive body of work in the field of psychology, was born out of his own suffering and that of many others. Dr. Solomon is compellingly articulate about the relationship between our capacity to face suffering and our capacity for deep love. It seems to me that there are twin longings: for gentle attention to the present (mindfulness) and deep capacity to love and be loved. Both require the disciplined practice of facing suffering through the Buddhist worldview of ontological interbeing.
In his book, Keeping the Peace: Mindfulness and Public Service, Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the simple action of mindfully eating bread. His example of deep awareness of the present is not oriented toward stress-reduction or focused production – rather it asks the practitioner to pay quiet attention to the relationship that is present in the material act of holding bread. His movement into gratitude is not escapist, scapegoating, defensive, derogatory, or a release of obligation.
“When I hold a piece of bread, I look at it, and sometimes I smile at it. The piece of bread is an ambassador of the cosmos offering nourishment and support. Looking deeply into the piece of bread, I see the sunshine, the clouds, the great earth. Without the sunshine, no wheat can grow. Without the clouds, there is no rain for the wheat to grow. Without the great earth, nothing can grow. That is why the piece of bread that I hold in my hand is a wonder of life. It is there for all of us. We have to be there for it.”
And, lest this teacher’s approach seem a bit airy fairy for those of us who fancy ourselves taking up the practice of mindfulness to better engage the battles required to right a myriad of social injustices, we must remember that his perspective is born out of the suffering of the Vietnamese people and the atrocities of the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and 70’s. From the Christian tradition, a perhaps more challenging version of mindfulness is shared in the work and writing of Dom Hélder Câmara. Bishop Câmara is engaged in attention to the poorest of the poor in his community. In attending to the face before him, he settles in to look beyond appearances to a place of reverence and love. He asks
Does this puffy,
stained with sweat,
bruised by falls
belong to some beggar or drunkard?
Or are we perhaps on Cavalry
Gazing at the holy face
Of the Son of God. . .?
I find myself drawn to the deep and transformative possibilities that arise from the hard work and practice of mindfulness as these two religious practitioners live it. A question that occurs to me is, “How much of our stress is related to the fact that there is not enough deep observation or gratitude in our daily lives – either on our own part or that of those who engage with us?”