Green Tea

Green tea is known for its health benefits. An oncologist once told a client of mine to drink four cups of green tea as part of her post-chemo prescription for health.

A healthy lifestyle is one that we many of us strive toward.  We endeavor to eat less meat, choose to drink tea instead of sodas and promise to exercise regularly.  A mindful lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with such efforts as we recognize that the stuff we choose not to eat anymore are not as important to our happiness and wellbeing as we once thought.  As the scriptures say in Romans 12, for Christians, “we should offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God.”

Many of us have also tried to not just tackle our health but our living spaces. In fact, with the growing popularity of minimalism, many of us recognize that in order to have a more meaningful life, we must pare down materially.  That closet full of shirts we don’t like anymore? The gobs of time spent staring at smart phones? We want to purge ourselves and start anew.

Mindfulness can help us in our efforts but is not another add-on in our path towards a lifestyle of health but should be considered a holistic endeavor. The buddhist practitioners that I have met have said that every effort we make in mindfulness reverberates through the whole system–our bodies, to our loved ones and then to the world around us. They believe that our very thoughts are powerful enough to bring compassion peace, and ultimately, Nirvana, to the world.

As a Christian, I wonder what would happen if I was truly “transformed in the renewing of [my] mind”?  I have seen in little ways how mindfulness helps me to be more compassionate because God reminds me that He is a God of justice but also of great love, mercy and compassion.  My physical and material paring down and choosing a healthy lifestyle is simply an echo of the whole system that needs to be addressed. I can choose to drink tea instead of sodas (this part isn’t hard for me) but can I bring my thoughts more in alignment with compassion and mercy day-in and day-out? As I have shared before, the latter can be more difficult. The intention I have set for myself in my mindfulness practice is to have God help me be more compassionate, which is part of a healthier lifestyle for the mind.

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With the mug of green tea in my hand, echoes of God reverberate throughout the whole system, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hand…Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19: 1-4)

Tea Zen

Tea leaves are simple. Put them in a cup, and pour hot water over them. That’s it.

Zen, which is “Chan” in Chinese, is a school of thought in Buddhism that emphasizes that all aspects of life can awaken one to enlightenment. The mundane tasks and the divine are all fodder for spiritual access. You just need to be mindful to each moment and remain with an open heart and mind.  To the Chan buddhist, achieving Nirvana is simple and uncomplicated.

I drove to the store to re-stock our family’s fridge today. Mindful of the sunlight, the view of the hills, the blue sky, the visual notes of God’s creation attuned my thoughts from the errand ahead to a different key, “Thank you for reliable transportation, Lord. Thank you for the resources You provide us to be able to stock our fridge. Thank you for the endless variety of dried apricots my husband loves so much that I can access so easily.”

The prayers of gratitude for our family’s abundance is a reminder that we don’t need much.  One of my other favorite people in the bible, John the Baptist, left a small carbon print on this earth, ate simply but understood the divine intensely. (I’m not sure locusts would taste that great to me, but with a little tea & honey…maybe?). The song of life he sang was clear–he was making the path ready for the One who would come.

A simple reading of the newspaper in the morning, enveloped by sunlight and a warm mug of tea by my side. Sitting in the bunk-bed with my sons talking about minecraft servers. Chatting for hours beside my hubby tucked in bed.

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When I slow down I realize that the composition of life is full of God’s abundance. The access we have to the One is in the everyday. That’s it, pure zen.

Bitter Tea

Tea leaves need to be stored and steeped properly, otherwise tea can taste quite bitter.  Old leaves that are exposed to light, air and moisture usually result in bitter tea. Also, the tannins in tea can release with too much intensity, if the leaves are brewed improperly or the water is too hot.

Life can be like this. The circumstances and interactions we have with people can often leave a bitter taste in our mouths.

Perhaps someone said something hurtful, or that meeting took a turn for the worse, or that expectation of a nice dinner out turned into an argument, or you ended up verbally vomiting a bunch of things you really didn’t mean, (these could all be just me!).  A bitter taste is left in your mouth…

These are times when mindfulness and connecting with God is the hardest for me. I usually like to act first, think second, talk to my husband and friends to process, and pray last.  I pray only after I can’t figure out a good solution or I’m too exhausted emotionally.  My prayer usually goes something like this,”Okay Lord, I tried to do it without you. This is like the sixty-trillionth time I’m asking for your help to please restore the places where the locusts have eaten. Please please help me redeem the mess I have made.”

Really, what I am asking God is two-fold. First, I need God to clarify what I am feeling because all the steps I have tried only made my emotions a jumbled mess, making me feel generally worse about myself.  Second, I need God to clarify my next steps. I need His guidance about what to do, or not do, next. The tea I drank is cloudy with the residue of my thoughtless actions (or others’). I’m not wise enough on my own to figure out how to move forward.  “Lord, I need your wisdom to figure things out from here on out; please meet me where I’m at.”

The Buddhist teachings I have been studying say that all things on earth is a delusion, your pure buddha nature is full of compassion and your job is to reconnect to the pure state, then you will receive compassion and wisdom.

For me as a Christian, I sense that I and other humans have no pure nature and “the sin that so easily entangles” that Paul wrote about, is still leading me. I think to an end goal, but usually just to a cliff of further despair. The pure path is led by God’s compassion and wisdom and I need to take His path and not mine.

When the tea of life is bitter it is hard to sit in mindfulness. I think it’s because I have to look at myself and the thoughts that come up aren’t flattering and are usually full of coulda, shoulda, wouldas, or worse.

Gratefully, that mindful sitting eventually turns to freedom. Mindfulness can lead to letting go of negative thoughts, but also letting go of a cycle of unforgiveness in my life, which leads to nothing. I get to give it all up to God and know that my dependence on His grace and wisdom are really all that I need. He provides the proper storage for life.  All His answers come and bring sweet flavor to my otherwise bitter tea.

teastorage

Mindful Sipping

A short 10-minute mindfulness exercise today:

  • Begin with three deep breaths in and out.
  • Prepare a mug or cup of your favorite beverage. Tea is a great choice, of course!
  • Hold the cup in your hand. Feel its weight. Notice how your hands and fingers surround the cup.
  • Take a breath in and while still holding your cup, meditate on this scripture from John 4:14, “…but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life”
  • Next, drink the liquid and attend to the sensation of it going down your throat, filling your belly. Continue to breathe to help you stay mindful as you stay focused on this sensation.
  • Direct your mind back to the scripture while noticing your breath.
  • Contemplate and allow the scripture to sink in just as the liquid you have drunk is being absorbed by your body.

Aaaahhh….

5 Ways Mindfulness Leads to Happiness

Happiness: the state of being happy; an experience of happiness.

HsiLaiTemple

It is a feeling that is often too fleeting. When we have it we want to keep it and make it linger in our heart and minds.  Can it be cultivated and created? Yes, the ancient traditions say… Happiness can be achieved by a consistent mindfulness practice. Here’s why:

1. Mindfulness connects us to an ancient practice that is tried and true and successful in the art of happiness. Christian orders, buddhist sanghas and others have been practicing and teaching mindfulness for centuries. You can see the peace, tranquility and calm on the faces of these monastic believers.  The monastic’s simple lifestyle paints a picture of calm reflection of what is necessary for life and happiness, which are basic. The benefits of mindfulness practices is that it helps us tune out the noise where happiness results from a life of the mind that is not distracted and pulled by materialistic desires. I call it, “cognitive asceticism.”  Happiness ensues when we focus on the gifts of the moment, not the weight of the world.

2.  Mindfulness allows us to tune in to who we are and confront negativity in life, releasing us and others from unhappiness. This past week, I learned about the power of a lojong slogan about confronting resentments for Buddhist followers. Lojong comes from Tibetan Buddhism, of the Mahayana (“big vehicle”) tradition. Training one’s mind toward letting go of resentments is based on effort within because we have everything we need in order to be enlightened, according to this belief system. For a Christian, the central truth is that our God is one of forgiveness. In Matthew 18:22, Peter asks how many times we should forgive someone who has wronged us, “up to seven times?” Jesus responds, “…up to seventy-times seven.”  Happiness comes when we can sit in mindful meditation, working on forgiveness–asking for it and receiving it.

3. Mindfulness provides a brain pause: The practice is an instant retreat from the busy thoughts inside our heads.  There is nothing to do but to focus on connecting with God.  At the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights (Where these pictures come from) as I sit in quiet mindfulness meditation in a simple room, happiness bubbles up. I use the time to focus on breath, as instructed, and center my thoughts on the compassion of Jesus.  It is a true treat to just have one thing on my mind.  My only job for that hour was just to meditate and connect. For the buddhist, the mind connection is to the prakrtri, the true buddha nature that resides in everyone and everything. For the Christian, like me, we can connect to the person of Jesus– transforming into His nature while giving mental and spiritual space to the Holy Spirit to work within.

4. Mindfulness allows scripture to sink deep within: I’m learing more about the dharma, particularly how mindfulness leads to moral behavior and right thinking, which then creates a rippling effect on the world. Dharma and mindfulness practice go together and Master Hsing Yun states, “The biggest reason people do not gain much from their [mindfulness] practice…is they do not properly balance practice and learning [of the dharma]”. (For background, I am studying under Mahayana schools of thought, particularly the Humanistic Buddhist tradition and Tibetan Buddhism).

This rings true for us as Christians as well. Sometimes we focus on scripture, but read it half-heartedly or with half our minds. I have re-connected with the practice of Lectio Divina, Latin for “divine reading”, which focuses on reading scriptures slowly, out loud and in meditation. The slow art of meditating on God’s word has opened them back up, allowing them to sink deeper, drawing on them for support and happiness amidst troubles.

5. Mindfulness leads to transcendence, which are the fruitful seeds of happiness. While sitting in silence, our minds become trained in all of the aforementioned characteristics: simple life, forgiveness, retreating while connecting and scripture-focused. I count all these things as achieving transcendent moments planted in the presence of God. Whatever is going on today can be placed on hold for a moment to be reminded of what is good, what is true, what is noble… the fruits of each resulting in happiness. To experience transcendence, leading to happiness, we must heed the call from Psalmist who states, “taste and see that the Lord is good.”

HsiLaiTea

Reference: Yun, H. (2012). The core teachings: Essays in basic Buddhism. (4th ed.) Los Angeles, CA: Buddha’s Light Publishing.

Tea for Two

Tea is a lovely drink to share amongst friends. In the busy and hectic schedules of our lives, being intentional in friendship, taking the time to sip, to share, to spend time together is nourishment for my soul and personhood.

One of my closest friends is gone for a bit on a musical tour of England. A gifted musician, mom and friend, we happened upon each other in our sons’ school grounds one afternoon. A 5-minute conversation turned into two hours and our husbands and kids now know that if we mean to just “drop off” something at each other’s homes, it will likely take hours, not minutes.

Mindfulness practice can often take these detours for me as well. As I sit in quiet meditation, either at a retreat center, or in my home, I can easily get lost. What I had planned for a 5 or 10-minute mindfulness practice session can easily turn into much more.  Like tea time with my good friend (who I miss) talking about what is on our hearts and minds at the moment, my thoughts wander and I share those wanderings with her too. She follows somehow and makes the connections. It’s a true gift to have a friend to bring meaning to thoughts that were once meaningless.

Though mindfulness can be a personal and individual endeavor, especially in Buddhist thought, from a Christian perspective, mindfulness practice is rooted in relationship. My mindfulness practice turns from bringing attention to inner thoughts directly to a relational God, which spurs and activates my soul and personhood.

Olendzki (2011) describes the transformative power of mindfulness, which is not just to produce a heightened awareness, but “an attention to thoughts that are confident, benevolent, balanced and fundamentally wholesome” (p.64).  The process for the Buddhist individual to achieve this enhanced and positive state is in deliberate attention to breath, bringing attention to the problematic thought and then non-judgmentally observing and weighing the thought in our minds–consciously and subconsciously.

For me as a Christian, in aligning my thoughts, I need a bit more help. God’s Holy Spirit directs my attention to the things “not of this world” and helps me in the “renewing of my mind.” My meaningless thoughts become more meaningful in the process.

In this way, mindfulness practice is directed toward my relationship with God. I sip, I spend time intentionally–maybe it will take just 5 minutes, but the value of the practice can last for hours.

teafortwo

Reference: Olendzki, A. (2011). The construction of mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 56-70.

Diversitea

One of my favorite kinds of tea is jasmine tea. I often get it by the potful when I’m sitting around the big banquet table with my family members at the Chinese restaurant-of-the-moment. My mother usually keeps up with the best one around town. She is keenly aware of which chef went where, and who has the crab for $6.99 a pound. My mom makes the reservations and we all follow.

At the beginning of the meal, I usually pour a cup of tea for my grandmother, grandfather, and mother. I tell my own boys to wait patiently for their own cups to be filled. Our older family members–the wisest, smartest and most experienced in life–go first. As each cup is drunk up, I watch and wait; when the cup is almost empty, I pour another cup for them again.  It is a symbol of my love and care for them.

Today, I wish I could pour a cup for the brothers and sisters in South Carolina. Those that hate others based on the color of their skin and race–who show no value for the God of diversity–drink up thoughts of injustice and scald the world with their boiling and violent acts.

There is no jasmine tea here at the retreat center. I wish I had a cup of it, made up of fragrant and gentle, flowering petals. In 1 Cor. 13, Paul says to the Corinthians, “now these three remain: faith, hope and love”.  Paring down my view of the world to these three seems appropriate but I acknowledge that they remain fragile. Like the water that is too boiling hot, which can overtake and bruise the gentle jasmine petals, so is a life lived without mindful awareness of the image of God flowering in all of us…

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