It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.
This quotation from Wendell Berry sits at the very beginning of one of my favourite books on mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses.
I’ve explored meditation and mindfulness sporadically over the past 20 years.
Each time I come back to mindfulness practices, I am amazed at how much this action of bringing my full attention to the present moment has to offer. Going about my daily life, I am often in the past, or in the future, or some other form of fantasy.
My initial forays into meditation were motivated by curiosity, or perhaps an intuition that here was something that would be of use to me.
It wasn’t until I was deep in the middle of training for ministry that I started to see how mindfulness could change my life.
As a ministry student in a hospital chaplaincy training course, I was sometimes asked to write down, word-for-word, an account of a conversation as best as I could remember it. I would then bring this text to a seminar to share with the other students and the teacher, and we would walk through the conversation sentence by sentence. What was I feeling in this moment? What was I thinking about? Why did I say what I said right then?
I was amazed at how much of my life came into each moment, and how sometimes, I assumed I knew what the other person was saying, but really, there were other possible interpretations that my student-colleagues would pick up on, with their different life histories and different personalities.
Conversations that seemed simple exchanges suddenly opened up. I saw with new eyes some of the ways in which the mental chatter in my own mind influences how I hear what was being said.
Jon Kabat-Zinn tells a story from the time when he was pioneering a new stress reduction class in an important medical centre. In the middle of the class when everyone is lying on mats on the floor, suddenly the door opens and a group of doctors in lab coats bustle in, led by a senior surgeon. They have booked the room for an important meeting.
A couple of quick questions and the reality of the situation is clear to everyone. There are many ways that this conversation can go, some of them not very nice. There is a pause and the senior surgeon speaks. “Are these our patients?” he asks. Yes, they are, he learns, and he leads the doctors off to find another room.
The practice of mindfulness, of paying attention to the present moment without judgment, paradoxically allows me to be more myself, to bring my values and creativity into play in the present moment.
Years ago, I was given the gift of a book called Buddhism for Sheep (illustrations by Chris Riddell and text by Louise Howard). It’s filled with delightful cartoons of sheep encountering life events. The drawings are whimsical and the quotations below serious. There is insight in this combination of whimsy and wisdom: when I try to put my experiences of mindfulness into words, they sound serious, even heavy. But the practice is more like the pictures of the silly sheep – life is lighter, and more joyful, as a result.
John Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (New York: Hyperion, 2005).
Practice mindfulness with Jon Kabat-Zinn here: http://youtu.be/3nwwKbM_vJc