Back in early fall one of our dearly loved church members Ben Jerome, gifted me with a book entitled ‘Mindfulness’ by the world renown Buddhist Joseph Goldstein who co-founded the Insight Meditation Society–maybe some of you know it. There is one in Cambridge. This book is one of Ben’s go-to’s. He has even offered words from it for a chalice lighting. And I particularly love it’s super worn cover and markings on all the pages. Do any of you have books like this in your life? The kind of book where you can just open it up to any page and BAM, suddenly life makes sense? Wouldn’t it be nice to create a little library here so that we can share some of them with each other?
By the way, I share all of this with Ben’s permission–I didn’t want to embarrass him today.
I have to say, as a minister, one of the greatest blessings in serving a congregation like you, is coming to know the ways you cultivate meaning in your lives. You are so wise and have so much to gift this world with. You have gifted me with so much. I learn from you every day.
And this go-to book that Ben so generously gifted me is nothing short of spectacular. Buddhism has spoken to me for a long time. When I was in my late 20’s I began attending the Shambhala Meditation Center in Chicago–Shambhala is the Tibetan Buddhist tradition–and so loved the peace and beauty of that place. The first time I sat in meditation was with about 20 others, and the silence that befell the room felt so good. I’d never stilled myself like that before.
And…meditation is NOT for the faint of heart. It didn’t take long at the Shambhala Center all those years ago for a clamoring, cacophony of thoughts to rush in. Suddenly that room became the noisiest, most uncomfortable place on earth. Stilling oneself in this way is hard. We are unpracticed at this. The reward is great, but me-oh-my, you’ve got to work for it.
And despite me not identifying as Buddhist and having a real love-hate relationship with meditation to this day, one of the cornerstones of my lived faith is the title of the book Ben gave me: Mindfulness. There is an enormous amount of teaching and discourse that comes out of the Buddhist tradition about this–countless sacred texts that expound upon what mindfulness is and means. It’s various forms. How you get there. What keeps you from it. How you return to it. How you embody it in all matters of life. With all manners of people.
Joseph Goldstein calls Mindfulness “the gateway to wisdom,” and says that, “the most common understanding of mindfulness is that of present-moment awareness, presence of mind, wakefulness. This is the opposite of absentmindedness…” He tells this story: “After one of my public talks, a woman who had been on several retreats came up to me and said she had most recently been on a cruise, and in her room was a map of the ship with an arrow and caption saying, ‘you are here.’ She said that for the rest of the voyage, wherever she was and whatever she was doing , those words became the reminder to simply be present: ‘You are here.”
If I’d have landed on this reading before the Arbella went out and the order of service was printed, that for sure would have been the title of this sermon. You are here. I got close: To Be Present. But You are Here is just…better.
And friends, this to-be-present-ness, this you-are-here-ness, speaks to a universal truth that has been expressed by countless faith traditions and peoples across thousands of years and languages. Articulated and sung in sacred texts and poems and music: Be still. Breathe. Return to the home of your soul. Notice. You Are Here. We are here. I recognize the divine in you. I recognize the divine in me. The promised land is here. And it is beautiful. It is beautiful. It is only when we are away from ourselves, away from our fellows, away from the majesty and miracle that is the Earth, away from God whose names are countless–not present, not mindful–that the promised land eludes us. Peace eludes us. Beauty eludes us. Love eludes us.
And our reading today from Barbara Brown Taylor’s stunning book–this is one of my go-to, well worn books–An Altar in the World, is such a help in this quest for drawing our attention to where we are. She calls this “setting little altars in the world…stopping what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is…the world is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” I define altars, by the way, as marked places of awe and meaning.
And I know. Most of us are just muddling through life. I often am. Absent-minded. Just trying to get by and get through. But I do believe that it’s possible to practice the art of presence, and to grow stronger in it, to build a life marked by the mere effort to encounter the divine possibility that is this precious moment.
I sense this is why you are here. Right now. Trying to be present. Working to build a life and world that is Meaningful. Beautiful.
And for those of you who struggle to see the importance of a practice such as this given the state of the world, please hear me when I tell you this IS engagement with the world. This is doing justice in the world. The personal practice of present-moment awareness and attention helps me to be a better citizen in this world, it expands my ability to be compassionate and to notice my fellows’ suffering, to notice this Earth’s suffering, and not just walk right by it. This is called engaged Buddhism by the way and its emphasis on the power of mindfulness, presence with one’s self and our fellows, has been shown to transform movements dedicated to collective liberation.
Over the next weeks, maybe you will take up Barbara Brown Taylor’s exercise. Try it. Sit down somewhere for 20 minutes and pay attention. See what happens. If you are curious about meditation, you might begin with 2 minutes of simply noticing your breathing. Try it. See what happens. There are lots of ways to practice presence and mindfulness. I hope you will investigate some of them.
I want to offer you a closing poem–which found its way to me just yesterday and could not be more fitting.
Mindful by Mary Oliver
I see or hear something that more or less
kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle
in the haystack
It was what I was born for – to look, to listen,
to lose myself inside this soft world – to instruct myself over and over
and acclamation. Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant – but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations. Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself, how can you help
but grow wise with such teachings as these –
the untrimmable light
of the world,
the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?
Practicing presence might not always be easy or come naturally to you, but my message to you this morning is: you were born for this. We all were. We have just forgotten. Try it, nurture the beauty of it, and my God, forgive yourselves and one another when you falter. You can always return to the untrimmable light of the world, for it is here, waiting for us always.
I pray you know this. Amen.
Our closing hymn today is a praise hymn. Which happen to be my favorite kinds of hymns. Won’t you rise now in body or in spirit and sing out praise for the Earth Forever Turning! Hymn #163
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.