A couple of years ago, a publication from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) featured an article decrying the teaching of Mindfulness in public schools. Although Debbie and I support the work of SPLC, I was very disappointed in the article because it completely grabbed the wrong end of the stick when it came to Mindfulness.
From the perspective of the article, to teach children to become Mindful is to teach them to become compliant with and passive toward whatever is going on around them in society. Nothing could be further from the truth.
To become Mindful is to become more fully awake, training one’s mind to notice the triggers of our own reactivity that breed irrational actions (such as anger and prejudice, hatred and violence), and to replace such reactions with thoughtful responses. If there’s anything the SPLC should get behind, in my view, it is the teaching of Mindfulness in schools and anywhere else there might be an opportunity.
Of course, there’s a long-time prejudice against meditation, contemplation, and prayer among many people and many organizations devoted to justice. Thomas Merton was once famously scolded by a well-known Christian theologian and ethicist who felt that devoting his life to prayer, meditation, contemplation and writing was equivalent to retreating from the world into a quietistic cocoon. He was, she reasoned, wasting his influence. Ironically, fifty years after the letter was written accusing him of wasting his life, I would dare say that a far greater number of persons have been influenced by Merton to work for justice than were influenced by the person who told him that he should abandon the monastery for the picket line.
There’s an ancient story of three deeply devoted Christian friends in the early Church. One devoted his life to fighting injustice, the second to caring for the sick, and the third to a life of contemplation. I think we would all agree that all three of these people were called to noble vocations. Indeed, the first two initially looked down upon their friend who has chosen a life of austere prayer in the desert.
Several years after commencing their vocations, however, the first visited the second, and confessed that he was worn down by his endless fight against injustice. From morning till night, he fought every form of injustice he could find, and, although he knew he had accomplished so much, his soul never found rest because injustice never slept.
His friend, sitting among the beds of a multitude racked by the plague, confessed that while he knew he was doing a great deal to alleviate illness, suffering crowded out every other thought. He could think of nothing else but the countless men, women and children who were ill and dying, and the many more yet to come. Sickness never slept.
The two old friends decided to visit their colleague to see if he had any wisdom, so they ventured into the desert to find him.
When they came to his cell, they confessed to him the disquiet of their souls, the bone-wearying fatigue they felt, their emptiness and confusion, while their contemplative friend sat listening in silence. After a while their friend rose, took a small jar and walked down to the brook that ran nearby. He returned and placed the jar of water before them.
The water was so cloudy you couldn’t see the bottom of the little jar. All the things that get stirred up in a brook swirled in the water, silt, and sand, and the decomposing debris of vegetation that falls into a stream. Silently they sat, at their friend’s direction, watching the water. Gradually, the water began to clear. The silt and other debris began to settle. The water became clear. When the three could see the bottom, their host handed them the jar so each could gently take a drink of clear cool water.
The problem, they realized, was not the vocations to which they were called, as a worker for justice nor a healer, but their disconnection from the source of their calling. They simply were so busy they did not pay attention anymore to the source of their life and spirit.
There’s another ancient story, this one from India instead of the deserts of Egypt. The Buddha became famous in his own lifetime for his teachings. He lived to a ripe old age.
One day a traveler came to him and asked him, “What are you?”
The question reminds me of the question our Lord Jesus responded to in one of the most well-known stories about him in the gospels. I suppose the Buddha’s visitor had all sorts of theories about what the Buddha was, just as the disciples had their theories about who Jesus was.
“What are you?” asked the traveler.
Replied the Buddha, “I am awake.”
Mindfulness training requires the cultivation of habits of meditation and contemplation. It does require quiet. It requires the cultivation of disciplines such as awareness of ourselves, our emotions, and our thoughts. That requires commitment. It requires a kind of readiness to create inside of us a space, an openness, between an external action and our response, so that we don’t just react automatically on the basis of assumptions, prejudices, or unquestioned beliefs.
Each aspect of this training takes time, and requires a willingness to sit quietly, conscious of the most basic thing, our breath, as our brains play their non-stop movies and recordings of thoughts and feelings all trying to hook us and provoke a reaction. Quietly aware, we watch all of these thoughts and emotions go by without judgment so that we can learn not to believe everything we think, not to react to everything we feel, and not to allow ourselves to get hooked into unskillful reactions to everything that occurs externally.
There is no better discipline in the world than Mindfulness training for those of us who care deeply about what happens in this world around us, no better discipline for those devoted to justice, or peace, or healing. To become as fully awake as possible, yet to be able to resist having our emotional strings pulled and our buttons pushed, so that we can craft responses worthy of our faith, this seems to me both sane and faithful.
Both sanity and faithfulness are woefully needed in this world today.