Disappointment and Triumph: how mindfulness can spur on the latter

2016 has been a year of triumphs and disappointments. The long political season and outcome of this year’s election has only heightened the anger, vitriol, and de-humanization that we experience in our online or offline communities. The division that is exposed in our shared humanity is the biggest disappointment. So is the violence and the lack of compassion for those who are fleeing violent regimes.

What to do when there is massive disappointment, disillusionment, or despair? Though there are no easy answers, I know deep down inside that the only sense of peace that is to come in 2017 needs to be something that I am actively a part to help create–to do my part in 2017.

Mindfulness, in all its benefits, should be a practice that ultimately leads to action for the sake of others, not just the self. Some criticize mindfulness practice as a self-centered, navel-gazing, and naive new age-y fad. This criticism is warranted as some of those who espouse mindfulness do so out of a sense of self-righteousness and shroud their own frailties under a veil of superior enlightenment.

As a Christian practicing mindfulness, the exact opposite should be true. The prophet Isaiah prophecies about the ONE who was to come, who ultimately came as a baby in a manger, whose family fled another violent regime to establish His kingdom on earth. The ONE came to proclaim the gospel for the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to set the captives free (Isaiah 61:1-3).

The goal for the Christian practicing mindfulness is to “taste and see” that the Lord is good and to find refuge in Him (Psalm 34:8). From Him do we draw our strength to do good and proclaim freedom for the captives.

In 2017, let’s not forget those who are in captivity to the darkness of the world, who have not tasted and seen that God is good, and to use our mindfulness practice as a source of strength for the work–to draw from the well of God’s almighty goodness and to step into unknown territory.

May we step out in faith on behalf of those who are captive to the violence and captivity that our world’s powers succumb to over and over again. For our struggle is not in flesh and blood, but against the rulers…against the spiritual forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:12). May we claim God’s Holy peace as followers in His triumph and His alone.

Let His triumph lead us in 2017 to good works that God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

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Tasty tea

There is always something about a good cup of tea. Sweet, smooth, a rich bitterness balancing the sweet. The different notes of the tea leaves, the roasting process, the temperature of the boiled water –all the small but significant steps all add up to a lot of tastiness.

In mindfulness, there are also small but significant steps that help make your practice tasty and good. As humans, we are often creatures of habit, the consistency of where you sit and when you sit in mindful meditation can help create a sweet, smooth and rich time. I like to sit in two places: on the carpeted floor by my bed and then on the small couch in my office.

On stressful days I take time to sit in each place. Like roasting tea leaves, the first thoughts that bubble up in my mind are exposed wafting up and then like vapor, disappearing. I sit some more, allowing the simmering process to do its work. Its amazing what happens.

There may be a word that I know is from the divine. “Quiet”, “Together”, “Thank you” are themes of these times. I know that as I sit and create space for God to move, I am more connected with God through the power of the Holy Spirit. This time is tasty, blissful, peaceful.

The time flies by. My 10 or 15 minutes is up. I can attend to the day ahead. With scripture etched in my heart and mind and soul, with me being attuned to the presence of God (I know He is always there, I just need to remember!) the day ahead or the day’s end is full of flavor. Tasty tea.

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Minding Stress Together (with mp3!)

Stress is bad for the heart and soul. For those of us who can’t seem to escape stress in our lives, we tend to choose three different ways to deal with stress: ignore it, push through it, or store it.

When we ignore stress, we ignore the healthy warning signals in our bodies. Those heart palpitations or kinks in our neck, that tightness in our chests and the rumblings of upset stomachs, together signal,”take care of me”, “time out! Relax! Rejuvenate!”, “pause! you’re going too fast, too strong”.

We also push through stress. We think that we, “just have to get over this one hump, and then relief will come. “If I just get through this project…” “Maybe if I just work really hard late tonight..” or, “I’m not sure this will end, but I don’t have a choice”.

We tend to store stress as well. In our bodies, like mentioned earlier, our muscles ache, we begin experiencing psychosomatic symptoms: headaches, stomachaches, heaviness in our chest, weight gain. During our yearly check-ups, we may find that those markers of health–blood sugar levels, blood pressure, cholesterol levels–together reflect the cumulative effects of stress in our lives.

Stress is something that is a natural part of life but it’s also important to recognize that we construct our own reality of what is stressful in our lives. Perhaps that reality is altogether off.

Leaning into God’s truth to assist us in truth-making by aligning our life goals to meaningful ones (to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves as well as our enemies) helps.  Inviting the power of His Spirit to assist us in addressing the objects of, or situations we are in, is often under-utilized. Seeking clarity in our relationship with Him by steeping in His presence–these are the tools of minding stress in our lives. We do it together with Him.

Stress comes and yes, stress can go. Those markers of our health tell us, remind us, urge us, to consider our limits. While it’s present, stress can help us realize that our whole system is in need of ways to deal. Realigning our thoughts, mindfully attending to our bodies, mind, spirit, become fruitful over time and with practice. Let’s tend to not let those three ways of dealing–ignore it, push through it, store it–be the actions we take. Let us, instead, deal with the objects and situations of our stress with intention, mindful of God’s presence as we seek realignment and as we seek understanding…together.

(I wanted to provide a practical element in this post to support you if you are considering, or are already making mindfulness a part of your journey.  The link here is a 30-minute module I have been working on, as part of my research on mindfulness framed in the Christian tradition (I do hope you may still find support in it even if you don’t identify as a Christian!). Please know that you will need to use Google Drive to open and then download the mp3 file in order to listen to it. Sorry about that! Tell me what you think about it if you try it and follow the instructions in the module and listen through the whole thing.)

The Mindful Working Mom

Each weekday has a set of challenges.

First, the busy mornings of rushing out the door requires that my kids and I are both dressed to face the world. Our bodies need to be fed with nutrient rich food (one of my continued commitments through this new year!) and our bags packed with appropriate tools. For mine: laptop, cellphone, good handcream, sunglasses. For the boys: books for in-class reading, pencils with lead and notebooks. The husband is lucky because he logs in, and instant work, voila…Like making a cup ‘o noodles–add hot water, eat up!

Second, after we have all gone our separate ways, emails are checked, social media is read for up-to-date national news and news of friends, of course. The mental checklist and to do’s are drafted either on paper (if I have a good pen and paper and a hot mug of tea beside me) or in my head. The day charges on–classes, student meetings, emails sent, pages written, laughter with colleagues, a meal…the afternoon comes on suddenly like that car that zooms past your blindspot when attempting a left turn.

In the afternoon I evaluate the day so far. What needs to be done before children need to be picked-up? Breathe in, connect with God and self to determine priorities here. I ask, “what are the last tasks, tweaks to the next week’s curriculum, ideas for the next day?” What are the corrections needed, plans that hold meaning ahead?” Mind clear, focus attuned, discernment hopefully reached…charge on, charge on, charge on.

Lastly, children are picked up, they are active on the playground burning off the energy that will allow them to focus on the homework ahead and the discipline needed for karate practice. Dinner is on, hubby is helping, eating together then soon the bedtimes and alone time with my life partner.

 

This is an ideal day, of course. But it’s also typical.  It’s hectic and busy, yes, but, it doesn’t have to feel this way. May I suggest…Breathe in. Ask for wisdom, read a meaningful passage, breathe out the worries of the day. Charge on…but WHY the charging on? For obvious reasons: the gift of life, the gratitude for another day together as a family, the health while I am still capable to accomplish these tasks, the opportunity for influence on younger folks who want to do good work for the kingdom.

 

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For more reasons: the deep value of lifelong partnership, the smiles on the faces of those still-chubby faces, priorities that go beyond myself (I hope!) the limits of time. Breathe in, settle into quiet and rest.  Receive the feelings and experiences of being nourished and nurtured in mind-body-spirit. THEN, can I charge on, charge on charge on.

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.

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