First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Compassion Series: Mindfulness and Compassion

March 11, 2012
Rev. Sandra Fees

The weather has been so incredibly beautiful lately – lots of sunshine and some warm spring-like temperatures. I was drawn out into my yard the other day by the beauty of the sky and sun. Once I got into the yard and was walking around, I started thinking that soon I’m going to have to start cutting the grass, and that my butterfly bushes need trimming or they’ll quickly be overgrown. I noticed a few patches that need some work. I started writing my mental to-do list of things I don’t have time to do right now. Walking back to the house, I had almost lost my enthusiasm for what had first drawn my attention. Then, I noticed the daffodils nearest the house beginning to bloom. And there wasn’t anything I needed to do at that moment, but notice the shades of glorious yellow in the blooms and the little trumpet-y part of the flower. And the world came back to life again. This is what it means to live in the present moment, to be mindful.

Mindfulness practice has ancient roots in Buddhism. Mindfulness is what brought Buddha to enlightenment. It can also be found in Taoism, yoga, and other eastern philosophies as well as in Native American wisdom. It is evident in the writing of poets, including the work of Emerson, Thoreau, and others. While it has its roots in ancient eastern religious practices, it can be practiced by individuals of any religion. Many Unitarian Universalists are seeking ways to incorporate mindfulness practices into their daily lives.

Increasingly it’s being incorporated into the workplace and utilized by medical professionals. In the workplace it is seen as a boost to productivity and general job satisfaction. Inside and outside the workplace, mindfulness reduces stress, which we know contributes to stroke, heart disease, and a whole array of other health threats. It is used in cognitive therapy for depression, anxiety disorders, sleep problems, and eating disorders. It is also used to enrich parenting and relationship skills, and to improve overall well-being. It’s an elixir for much that ails the modern mind, body, and spirit.

The goal of mindfulness is to foster clear thinking and openheartedness. It is sometimes simply referred to as present moment awareness. Mindfulness frees an individual from old patterns. It has to do with conscious living, offering a practical way to notice thoughts, physical sensations, sights, sounds, smells – anything we might not normally notice, and not to become too attached to what we notice. We become more attentive to what is happening in us and around us without becoming caught up in ruminations, old thought patterns, and judgments.

This skill is incredibly simple. And also different from how our minds are accustomed to functioning. There’s a lot of chatter and busyness that goes on in our minds all the time. Mindfulness helps us see how our own minds behave and to practice a different way of being aware of the world around us and in us. When we’re not mindful, we’re not able to fully experience the world around us. We’re not going to notice the beauty, the small moments, the people around us and what they are experiencing, the brightness of the night sky right recently and the amazing Jupiter and Venus conjunction, the subtle and significant changes happening as earth awakes again here in the northeast, and what’s happening in our own bodies – whether we have minor aches, tension, or are experiencing desire or joy.

The other night when I was leaving church I was absorbed in thinking about the group I’d just been with and also what I needed to do when I got home and the following day. I was so absorbed in the past and the future that I didn’t realize my headlights weren’t on. I didn’t realize it until I got onto Route 422. Talk about operating on auto pilot! I was lucky. I didn’t get into any trouble on the road. I didn’t hit anyone or anything, and I didn’t get pulled over and ticketed. But lack of mindfulness can be dangerous.

In fact, we easily and carelessly injure ourselves and other people by our lack of present moment awareness. Just think of all the times we’re annoyed with the person ahead of us in line for taking so long because we are in a hurry to be somewhere else. Or when we roll our eyes because someone says something we think is stupid. Or even when we’re talking with someone on the phone and we’re also working on the computer. It’s hard to feel that we’re being listened to when we hear that clickety click in the background, isn’t it. I’ve been guilty of doing this, and I know I don’t like it when someone else does it to me. We hate it when we are treated that way. Wouldn’t it be better if we simply said, “I’m really busy right now. I have a deadline to meet. Can I call you in a day or two?” It takes presence of mind to be able to name what’s going on in that way. Just as we know how easily distraction can cause injury, we also know how much it means to us when someone extends a small act of kindness. When the person with a full cart lets us go ahead with our three items or when someone asks us what we meant rather than assuming our opinion is worthless, we feel valued. When another person takes a moment to listen to us, we feel appreciated and cared for.

Here’s the thing, if I’m not mindful of others, if I’m not listening to the world around me, then it’s going to be hard to practice compassion – toward myself or others. How will I know if you are hurting if I’m worrying about the next thing I need to do rather than noticing the tears in your eyes? How will I be able to share in some important accomplishment in your life if I am rushing past you? If I come into a room completely consumed by my own busy mind, I’m not going to notice something really important going on around me. If I’m rushing around filled with thoughts and beliefs, how will I be able to look inward and observe my own inner voice? How will I even be able to treat myself with compassion?

According to Karen Armstrong, mindfulness leads to compassion. In her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she identifies mindfulness as one of the twelve steps. She says, “mindfulness should be something that becomes habitual, but it is not an end in itself. It should segue naturally into action….” Jon Kabat-Zinn says mindfulness is,

an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted. … The habit of ignoring our present moments in favor of others yet to come leads directly to a pervasive lack of awareness of the web of life in which we are embedded. … It severely limits our perspective on what it means to be a person and how we are connected to each other and to the world around us. (Wherever You Go There You Are)

Kabat-Zinn founded The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in 1995. He is one of the foremost leaders in the area of mindfulness and stress reduction.

Here’s one way I have experienced the convergence of present moment awareness and compassion in my own life. I’m a fast walker. I don’t think about it, but I am. It’s my natural pace. This is interesting when I walk with my father or someone else who is a bit less mobile or who is using a walker. We’ll be walking along and then suddenly I find I’m walking alone out ahead somewhere. I look back and a few feet behind me is someone struggling to keep up. That’s a moment of enlightenment for me. It’s the moment when I stop. I attune myself to the pace of the person I’m with. I begin to walk mindfully. I notice how they are walking. I begin to notice what it means to be forced to slow down, to have to worry about the possibility of falling, to be in a position of giving up some independence. At those times, I experience present moment awareness and compassion. I become conscious of how to be with another person in a different way than I am used to. It’s very profound really. It brings me into a connection, an intimate relationship, with myself and the other person.

Mindfulness allows us to embody who we already are and be connected with others. Albert Einstein described our sense of being separate from the larger universe as a delusion, a delusion that is a prison. When we free ourselves from that prison through mindfulness, we can widen our circle of compassion. We can improve our compassion with those closest to us and broaden it to others outside our kinship circle. He described it this way:

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. [A person] experiences himself [or herself], his [or her] thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest... a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us …. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

If being compassionate – if widening the circle of compassion – seems challenging and even a bit overwhelming, you’re not alone. And I have some good news. The data shows that compassion is a universal human capacity. This means we’ve already got it in us. If we’ve got it in us, that means we don’t need to acquire it so much as we need to uncover what already exists in us – and in others. How do we make compassion real in ourselves? How do we uncover it? By simply being present to our lives. (Zinn, Compassion and Mindfulness, UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center,

Mindfulness practices can help us do that. Meditation on the breath, devotional chanting, yoga, mindful eating, journaling, practicing gratitude, sacred art, prayer, lighting a chalice at mealtime – these can all deepen our consciousness of the present moment. They can help make it real. When they are practiced regularly with intention, they can help us uncover our human capacity for compassion. As Karen Armstrong says, “We will find that we are happier when we are peaceful than when we are angry or restless, and that, like the Buddha, we can make the effort to cultivate these positive emotions, noticing, for example, that when we perform an act of kindness we ourselves feel better.”

In the end mindfulness helps us uncover our own ability to be loving and loving leads us to be more mindful. May we each find ways to bring mindfulness and compassion more fully into our daily lives.

Amen. Blessed be.