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Waking to the Light: Mindfulness and Kindness

“… remain here, and stay awake with me.” Jesus, Matthew 26: 38

One night of our dog’s life lasted for just a few minutes.

Our yellow Labrador, Kai, was playing in our front yard on a sunny afternoon, years ago. He was a frisky puppy, curious about everything, willing to try anything. He found an empty plastic container with a wide opening at the top. It fit perfectly around his head, he discovered, as he nuzzled himself inside the container. For a moment he stood with the jug over his head all the way down his neck. He didn’t move as he considered the implications of this new situation. Then he calmly laid down on the ground and curled up. He had concluded that night had fallen and it was time to sleep. I came along and pulled the jug off his head. Good morning, Kai! He stood up, wagged his tail, and started playing like it was a new day.

I’ve spent a certain amount of my life with my head stuck in a jug, convinced that the whole world is dark. For me, mindfulness meditation practice has been the means by which the jug gets pulled off and I’m able to wake to the light.

My mindfulness practice began in 1976. When I arrived at San Francisco Theological Seminary in Marin County, CA, I was assigned a roommate by the name of Ken Meece. I think the seminary administration perceived correctly that neither of us were conventional students, and paired us on this basis. Ken had spent a long time in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. He told his lama that he wanted to become an official Buddhist, but the lama told him to go home to his native country and practice the religion of his origin, and become the most enlightened Christian possible. Ken followed this order and arrived at the seminary with a shaved head and a habit of doing yogic handstands in our dorm room in the middle of the night. Once I stumbled into the apartment, and, groping for what I thought was the floor lamp, screamed when I found it was covered with hair!

I asked Ken to teach me everything he’d learned from the Buddhists. So, at 6 am every morning, we’d climb the hill to the Presbyterian chapel and sit on the floor, bathed in light stained by the windows, and practice mindfulness meditation. Then we’d take a six-mile run through the forest on the flanks of Mount Tamalpais.

Ken died a few years ago, after an impressive career of very innovative hospital and prison chaplaincy in northern California. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and wove the insights of mindfulness practice into everything he did. His life richly fulfilled the intentions of Lama Yeshe, his spiritual teacher.

Mindfulness is a particular kind of meditation focused on being aware and accepting of all forms of experience,in the moment, without judgment, and with an attitude of compassion. It’s doing for ourselves what we do best when we spend time with our friends and family, being present without giving advice, trying to change things, or giving value-judgments. Wherever I have gone in my career, I’ve started mindfulness practice groups. I have done so both out of altruism and because of my need for a group of other people to join in maintaining the discipline. I started such a group at the University of Southern California, for students and staff. I also teach a course in basic mindfulness practice at our medical school for students and staff. These programs are part of a new campus-wide initiative my boss, Varun Soni, and I started this academic year: Mindful USC – Mindfulness at the University of Southern California . It’s been gratifying to watch this initiative take hold with great enthusiasm from faculty, staff, and students. We are not so much leading it as tending it!

Besides meditating with the group on campus, I practice mindfulness on my daily walk after work. To get started, I chant to myself, one word per step, “What – is – here” – inside and out? What is here in my inner world of emotions, urges, sensations, thoughts, memories, plans, scenario re-enactments? What is here in the outer world I experience: birds, telephone poles, vistas, mountains, clouds, trash cans? I strive to walk with an awareness of what is present, without judgment, without being “sucked into” any particular experience and lose the perspective of the compassionate observer. I find walking meditation to be much harder than sitting meditation, because there are so many inviting distractions. But I find it hard to do sitting meditation on my own, without being in a group.

Looking back, I am grateful for the benefits of this practice. It has helped me be present, moment by moment. It has slowed time down for me, lengthening my life substantially by enabling me to savor more of the here and the now. It has trained me to smell the flowers, notice patterns, savor beauty, listen more deeply to others, see and feel so much more. But by far the greatest benefit has been in improving my relationships with other people. I have further to go in being a good listener, letting go of judgments toward others. But I am certain that the degree to which I have been a caring and supportive presence has had everything to do with my mindfulness practice.

Just before being arrested by the Romans and executed for rabble-rousing against the Empire, Jesus sat in the garden of Gethsemane. He asked one thing of his disciples: remain with me, and stay awake with me. Be with me, simply present, quietly listening, carefully appreciating. Be here now, because now is all we ever had, and will ever have. But they couldn’t do it. So they missed out on the eternal life in the eternal now that they could have had with their beloved teacher in his final moments. The season of Lent, which we now enter, is the time on the Christian calendar for practicing what Jesus asked of his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. If we find that our heads are stuck in jugs, we should take consolation, knowing that this consciousness was as hard for Jesus’ disciples to maintain as it is for us. It’s just another occasion for patient loving-kindness.

I’m nearly 40 years into this mindfulness discipline. But every time I return to it, day after day, I’m a beginner. Every time I do the practice, I start like Kai, with my head stuck in a jug. Slowly, as I meditate, the jug is gently lifted off my head, and I wake to the light of a heightened awareness once more.

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