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October 13, 2015, 10:30 AM

Childlike Mindfulness

On my sabbatical this summer, I began a 16-month course offered by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  The course, “Clergy Spiritual Life and Leadership: Going Deeper,” began with a week-long residency down in Maryland in July.  Before the culminating residency next summer, I’ve got a load of reading to do, and I am required to recruit and meet with a “Listening Group” once a month.  We had our first meeting as soon as I returned from sabbatical and we meet on a Monday morning once a month.  What we are “listening” for in our meetings is the leading of the Holy Spirit in our individual lives and in the life of this congregation.  We spend time in silent prayer and discussion.

This month, our focus was on experiences or places or activities that evoke in us a sense of God’s presence – a sense of awe, or delight, an unexpected calm in the midst of a storm, or a sudden sense that everything is going to be okay.  God is always with us, but where and how do we recognize the Presence?  And how do we cultivate our awareness and openness to the guiding of the Spirit?

We brought objects from our everyday life that symbolized a time or place where we have experienced a sense of the Sacred. (The photo on the right is the table with our objects.)  When all the stories had been shared and all the objects were together on the table, someone commented that all the experiences that had connected us to a sense of the sacred, or the holy; were things that children love to do and do regularly, while we adults seldom make time for them.

Do you suppose that is what Jesus meant about the Kingdom of God belonging to children?  Think about awe, delight, trust, creativity, appreciation for every leaf and bug in God’s creation, love of learning new stuff, joy in being alive, eagerness to get out of bed in the morning, openness and curiosity about new ideas and people who look and sound different.  All these attitudes sound more like children than they do most adults.  Yes? The Kingdom of God really does belong to children – at least until people around them succeed in teaching them “what’s really important in life” and convincing them that life is not supposed to be fun.

Jesus scolded his disciples for not showing hospitality to children and families.  The disciples considered the children a bother and a distraction from their important work.  But Jesus’ welcomed the children to show his disciples what the really important work is: showing hospitality to the Holy Spirt – being open – listening for the guidance of God in our lives.  If we can’t receive the present moment the way a child does; then we will never recognize the presence of God in our midst right here, right now, in this moment.

Most of the experiences that we shared were experiences that, sometimes unexpectedly, focused our attention powerfully on the present moment.  The task or the crisis or the beauty stopped our multitasking minds for a moment and that “still small voice”– that awe, joy, love, and peace – of the Spirit washed over us.

We can achieve that same present moment awareness on purpose.  Brother Lawrence, a French monk who lived in the seventeenth century, called it “Practicing the Presence of God.”  His little book by that title is a classic of Christian literature that is still available in many different translations today.   That same practice is called “mindfulness” by the Buddhists.  It can be practiced with our without a focus on God.  In worship recently, I taught a simple three-step mindfulness practice that can be practiced sitting with eyes closed or while doing some simple repetitive task like walking, running, swimming, washing dishes, or splitting wood.

Begin by bringing you attention to whatever is going on inside right now. What thoughts are running through your mind?  What emotions are present right now?  What physical sensations are happening in the body?  You can begin by scanning slowly from the tips of your toes up your legs, buttocks, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, neck, jaw, face, scalp…just noticing sensations and moving on.

Once you have noticed what is going on inwardly, move your attention to just the breath.  Where do you feel it in your body?  Is it the cool tingling in your nose as you inhale?  Is it the expansion of your chest or abdomen?  Focus your attention on that place for a few breaths or a few minutes and then:

Expand your awareness to the whole body while you maintain an awareness of the breath.  Feel you whole body participating in whatever you are doing while breathing.  If you are sitting with eyes closed, you can be aware of your body sitting and the posture you are in.

When thoughts come (and they will, incessantly) notice them.  You are back to step one.  Notice what emotions they evoke.  Notice where you feel them in your body, and then gently usher your mind back to focusing on just the breath, and then to an awareness of the whole body.

If there is a sensation – a tickle or a pain – that comes forward, treat it the same way.  Focus on it without judgement until you are able to gently usher the mind back to the breath.

In our faith tradition, the breath is associated with the Spirit.   Every time you bring your mind back to the breath, you can bring it back to an awareness of the constant presence of the Spirit of God with you in everything you do.  To be “in-spired” is to be breathed into by God.

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