Thursday, May 5, 2011

Selves and Souls

It's taken me a couple of weeks to recover from Holy Week. I don't know if there's such a thing as too much preaching, but if there is, Holy Week is it. At the same time, I talked a lot about souls in my sermons, which got me thinking.... (That's always dangerous, I know.)

One ideal to which the classic practice of mindfulness drives us is the realization of no-self. No-self can be a difficult concept. For many it can seem self-abnegating. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, handles the idea with a grace and richness--that I frankly have come to expect from him. He explains that the "self" that mindfulness confronts is the self that's possessed with itself--that is both in love with itself (this is the concept of manas that I've talked about elsewhere) and that sees itself as an independent, self-sufficient being. The self as an island, if you will, and an island that must be better than all of the other islands around it.

The goal of mindfulness practice, in this context, is to get us to see the deep interrelation of our selves with the world that surrounds us. That we have no self apart from the intricate web of relationships in which we live and move and have our being. Our selves are born of many non-self elements--of the many people in our lives, or our experiences, of the quality of our environment. (It really does shape you differently to grow up in the moist warmth of New Orleans as opposed to the dry heat of Arizona.) For Thich Nhat Hanh, we realize no-self when we recognize that we inter-are--that our lives are bound up with the world in which we live.

So does no-self imply no-soul? Not at least the way I understand the idea of soul--an idea that I've learned from Christian mystics, especially Julian of Norwich. Our soul is precisely our capacity for relationship---or not just the capacity but the reality of the relationships which our lives are grounded. To be more precise, from a Christian perspective our soul is that place where we stand in an intimate and original (or originating) relationship with God. It's not just that our souls are married to God, but that the marriage is the content of our soul. (Notice, this isn't to say that our souls are God---but that they are bound up with the life of God.)

For me, the God dimension of this doesn't negate the Thich Nhat Hanh's deep sense of our interbeing with the world that surrounds us. If the truth at the heart of each of us is this original relationship with God, then in and through this relationship, our lives/souls must be bound up with one another--with the whole of the creation as well. For me, the God dimension of this adds depth and mystery to Thich Nhat Hanh's sense of interbeing---and our truth is precisely in this depth and mystery.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


I've written before about our bondage to our habits, but habits can be freeing as well. They free us in simple ways. I have a habit of wearing the same outfits each day of the week--green pants/black shirt for Monday, sweats for Tuesday (yoga day), blue pin-striped shirt/khaki pants for Wednesday, etc.... It's not profound, but it saves energy when I don't have to plan my wardrobe.

Habits can free us in more profound ways, though. I've talked about living mindfully, attending to the present moment, opening ourselves to the grace at hand. If we have to constantly remind ourselves to live mindfully--if mindfulness is a repeated conscious act--then we're not really being mindful. We're attending to mindfulness, and not the present moment. Our minds are having to constantly recall our need to be mindful, and soon this too will exhaust us. We are truly mindful, we have opened ourselves to grace, only as we have made a habit of this. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this reprogramming ourselves for the habit of happiness.

Diligence is a key component of this reprogramming. It's the intentional farming of our attention, weeding out those things that distract us from the grace of the moment and nurturing what opens us to that grace---weeding out an overriding concern for how much we have or how successful we are, for example, while we nurture simple awareness. Thich Nhat Hanh offers a couple of thoughts I find helpful on this. ("Buddha Mind, Buddha Body")

First, he urges us to organize our lives in ways that don't encourage the distractions. We need to be serious about nurturing a habit of happiness, and we do this by taking seriously what gets in the way and avoiding it. Too many days, I wake up, come out, and turn on my computer. Then I'm surprised that I spend more time than I want in front of it, neglecting deeper, richer things. Maybe if I just didn't turn it on for a few hours....

Second, he reminds us of a practice called "changing the peg." It's carpenter's practice of driving out a rotted peg in a structure by driving in a new peg. So too, one way to drive away distractions is to not merely shoo them off, but to replace them with what's rewarding. I don't just turn off my computer, but I turn and ask my son to work a puzzle....

I want to spend more time thinking about how to nurture a habit of happiness--of simple awareness.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Showing Up

Evidently Woody Allen is the one who said that "90% of success is just showing up." I was looking for the author of the quote on-line, and I found it on a blog that was highly critical of the idea in its turn. "That's not what we need to teach our children." was the response. "We need to expect far more of them than just showing up." I understand the respondent's frustration, but I don't know that he understands how hard it is to "just show up." If any of us could show up--and I mean really show up--on a consistent basis, our lives would be so much richer. What we'd have to offer the world would be so much deeper.

In many ways, that's what the spirituality of mindfulness is about. It's about showing up. Thu Nguyen, a mindfulness teacher here in Fairfax County, once taught a small group of us at my church how to hug one another mindfully. (It's a practice he learned from Thich Nhat Hahn.) His point was that so often when we hug, we don't actually manage to show up for our hugs. It's a motion that we go through, but we aren't really there for the other in the hug. We aren't there ourselves, so we certainly can't be attentive to them whatever they are bringing to the hug. A mindful hug is  hug where you actually pause in the midst of your life to show up for the hug. You see the other person and ask them to see you. You take them thoughtfully, so that you can hold them for as long as they would like to hold you. Again, you're present to them. Present to the hug. That's the point of the hug anyway, isn't it? Really, with the hug, 100% of success is showing up.

I come back again to the question of spirituality and mindfulness, and the spirituality of teaching mindfulness in a secular setting. I realize that this idea of "just showing up" is essential both to the practice and the spirituality intrinsic within it. We want to teach our children how to be mindful so that they can be present--so that they can show up for their lives and for the world. Mindfulness is the practice of being there, and not somewhere else in your head distant from the moment before you. Too often we think that we need to do more than show up, and so we're off looking for that more, absenting ourselves from the present. We communicate that to our children, and they too struggle for the more, forgetting to just show up for life there and then.

I don't know how to put a percentage on the importance of showing up, but I know there's nothing more that I want from myself, from my children, and from anyone with whom I'm in relationship. Just show up. If only it were that easy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spirituality and Mindfulness II

I had a lovely weekend thinking together with folks  about how we can enrich the lives of our children and youth by opening them to mindful living. Nothing radical, but perhaps revolutionary. The goal is to make space for intentional quiet and self-awareness in the classroom---the kind of quiet and self-awareness that forms our brain in healthy ways and open our hearts to the world.

I came to the conference with the questions of my last post in mind. The issue of spirituality is acute when thinking about mindfulness in education. It's imperative if you want to bring the basic healthy practice of mindfulness into a classroom that be a secular practice--that it be about stress reduction, about creating mental space for clear decision-making and richer awareness of self and other. The fundamentals of mindfulness practice are so rich, and they can be appropriated in any context.

At the same time, not only was it clear implicitly that a deep spirituality was at work in almost everyone speaking at the conference, but when I explicitly asked about it in one small group, the response was quite warm. Everyone present acknowledged the need for a "secular" approach to mindfulness in a school setting---but everyone also avowed that the practice of mindfulness for them was deeply spiritual. The basics of this spirituality are humility, compassion, and an awareness of the deep connectedness of life.

Susan Kaiser Greenland got at one of the most essential truths of this when she reminded folks of the need to be mindfully rooted oneself if you're going to offer the practice of mindfulness to others. It's not simply a collection of techniques--like typing--that you can teach simply by running through the mechanics. Mindfulness is a way of being--of being peace, being open, being connected, being compassionate--and it's a way of being that's infectious. You can offer others mindful practices, but these will best lead them into mindful being if you, the teacher, embody the reality into which you are inviting them.

I was grateful for the weekend, and for Richard Brady, who organized it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spirituality and Mindfulness

I'm going to a two day conference on Mindfulness in Education over the weekend. Susan Kaiser Greenland is the keynote speaker, and I'm looking forward to hearing her. Much of my work with children I've learned from her wonderful book, The Mindful Child.

The conference, though, has me thinking about the connection between mindfulness and spirituality. SKG works out of the tradition of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction that was born out of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, among others. This tradition defines itself explicitly as a secular science so that it might find a home in medical science and in public schools. It attends to the very real physical, measurable effects of mindfulness training, especially the capacity of mindfulness training to reduce stress in our lives. Mindfulness training is directed in almost all traditions first to taming the "monkey mind" that will literally wear us out if we let it.

My practice of mindfulness began, in some sense, with this secular approach. I was simply trying to keep my mind from spinning in a dark time. (See my first post, Getting Started) But I quickly discovered the links between mindfulness training and my own practice of prayer, and as my practice of prayer deepened into contemplative prayer, so did my mindfulness practice deepen. Only when I discovered the practice of mindfulness in the Buddhist spiritual tradition through the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, however, was I able to put a name on the practice of mindfulness and bring it into more explicit connection with my understanding of the spiritual life.

There is a difference between secular practices of mindfulness and those that overtly acknowledge the spiritual reality to which this practice opens us. I don't know how to name this difference, except to say that the spiritual traditions around the practice of mindfulness are always pushing us to open ourselves to something more through the practice. The model from Kabat-Zinn emphasizes stress reduction in the title, and that certainly is a product of mindfulness training, but its only a preliminary stage for spiritual traditions of mindfulness. In the spiritual practice of mindfulness, we try to free ourselves from the stress of life not as an end in itself, but as a means to opening ourselves to something more--to our relationship with creation and, more significantly, to our relationship with the Life in which creation "lives and moves and has its being."

A last thought. However much there is a difference between the spiritual and secular practices of mindfulness, I would also want to emphasize their continuity. Reading through the work of anyone writing about MBSR, you find constant reference to the something more. That's the power of opening yourself to life--you can't help but to be touched by the something more that fills it. For me, this continuity is important for understanding my spirituality. It helps me grasp that the life of the spirit isn't something separate from my embodied life. I'm not delving into the magical or supernatural when I immerse myself in the spiritual. Rather, I'm simply engaging life in its depth dimension. God's creation is one, and the spiritual life exists in a unity with the physical and psychological life. That's so much of the beauty and the mystery of creation.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Many cultures have a tradition that suggests that naming someone or something gives you power over them. It's an idea embodied in the Rumplestiltskin story. Having named my five-year old, let me just say, "Hah!" I have no power over him, and he would mock me if I suggested that I did. Knowing his name--that doesn't even give me any definitive knowledge of him. He is a mystery to me in so many ways, and I know that this mystery will only deepen as he ages. But knowing his name, what I do have is a relationship with him. He, likewise, relates to me in so many ways through my name--Daddy--though he was also excited to discover that I was named "Stephen" as well.

The second chapter of Genesis offers the story of God's creation of the Adam and all living things, and in the story the many creatures pass before Adam and Adam names them. Too often we've thought this story permits our domination of creation--a "name = power" kind of thing. But even if we don't make that mistake, we are wont to think that knowing a name, we are able to define something. We can put it in a box. This is a cat, and so it's not a dog, and this is what it means to be a cat.... I love all that we've learned through scientific inquiry, but too often it's only encouraged this trust in our ability to define. Now I can know my cat or my son at a genetic level. But does that really allow me to know them?

There's a deep belief in the mystery of all creation embedded in almost all spiritual traditions. Nothing is an island to itself---we and the world around us have no clean definition. Our life is bound up with our fellow creatures, and it is more profoundly bound up with our creator. So to know the name of anyone or anything--it can't offer us a definition since no definition exists. Instead, it offers a relationship. That's what Adam gained in Genesis. A relationship with all of creation. That relationship allows us to explore the mystery of another, to explore the life that we share.

There is a deep power to names, but it takes wisdom to understand that power and then to live into it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Habitual Love

Our freedom consists of two things, really. The lesser freedom that we talk about most frequently is what we call freedom of choice. It's a freedom from--from bondage, from compulsion, from enforced conformity. At its most mundane, it's the freedom to choose carrots or peas as you move through the cafeteria line or, if you're my son Andrew, to reject them both and choose a cookie instead. Freedom from is an important freedom. It's freedom from slavery in the many senses of that term, and I don't mean to diminish it by calling it a lesser freedom. It's the freedom that I wrote about in my last post about habits and our freedom from their domination.

But there is a second freedom. It is the freedom for something, or as monastic thinkers would put it, the freedom to love whole-heartedly. Freedom for implies freedom from. I can't be free to love one thing if I'm bound by my love of another. Whole-hearted loving is grounded in the ability to choose what or who we love, but it also goes beyond this choice. A simple example: I love my wife, and I find my love is able to deepen to the degree that the freedom of this love shifts from being the freedom of choice--the freedom to survey an array of women each day and choose which one I should love--to a freedom simply for her, so that my energy is not exhausted by a daily choosing, but can devote itself to knowing her and loving her more fully. I don't choose each day to love Cyndi. I simply love her, and the question for me is how I might move more into that love. (Not that I always give that question the attention that I should, or that my other habits don't crowd it out all too often.)

To say that I simply love Cyndi is to say that I've formed a habit of loving her--and I realize that can sound dangerous. Love that is mere habit sounds dull and repetitive--almost an afterthought. It sounds that way, but if you've moved to such a non-considered relationship, then you really aren't loving at all. Loving,..., true loving implies mindfulness. It implies paying attention. It implies a heart that is engaged. The true habit of love is whole-hearted, and so it can never be an afterthought.

To be mindful, then, is a two-step. It's to attend to our habits so that we might free ourselves from the habits that bind us. But we do this so that we can form new habits--habits of love or, more particularly, habits of loving what is life-giving. Mindfulness both brings to our attention what gives life, and then it allows us to give ourselves (in freedom) to the habit of loving what gives life.

The Gospel passage read in the lectionary this coming Sunday reminds us that we can't love God and mammon. The suggestion is that we free ourselves from the possession of material things---that we loose the bonds of that habit--so that we can give ourselves fully to the habit of loving God. A first step in the deepening of the spiritual life is to move from an obliviousness to God to a place where we ask ourselves if we will love God. A second step is when we stop asking ourselves if we'll love God because we are now asking ourselves how we will love God. That's the habit of love, and it is truly a gift.