Present Moment Mindfulness, By David Hilfiker
A few years ago, my wife and I visited Plum Village, the Buddhist monastery founded by Thich Nhat Hanh. Th¼y, as he is called there, teaches a form of meditation he calls "mindfulness." The purpose of mindfulness is to become aware of "what is, here and now." And so the meditation practice is simply to become aware of the breath, allowing the breath to anchor us in the present. For me, it is mercifully simple.
Meditation had never done much for me before, perhaps because I misunderstood it. I'd always seen it as a discipline that one practiced and then, one day sort of like magic, there was this breakthrough into the experience of God. The "dark night of the soul" and then, gloriously, union with God. Well, I always got that "dark night" part but seemed to miss the "glorious union." After our time at Plum Village, I began to see meditation as something much more straightforward: practice at the simple, difficult task of living in the present.
We practiced sitting meditation for half an hour twice a day and a walking meditation another time during the day, but we were encouraged to see the formal meditations as practice periods with the goal of becoming continuously mindful of the present. There was much silence throughout the day, and we were encouraged to use that silence to become aware, whether we were eating our food, walking to our tents or cleaning the toilets. And with awareness of the present came an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, the way God has knit all things together, the way it is all bound up in love.
Take eating as a simple example. Before beginning to eat, we'd spend some minutes in silence, becoming conscious of the food before us, giving ourselves permission to do just that one thing: eat the food in mindfulness. Part of mindfulness is the awareness of how the entire universe has worked to bring us this food. In the food itself is the sun, the rain, the clouds, the earth that have all become part of the plants we're eating. The food has been planted and tended by workers under many different kinds of conditions, perhaps exploitive, perhaps not. Modern transportation has brought the food to us, so there is the work of all of those people, the inventiveness of those who built the machines as well as the pollution modern transportation causes. The grocer has sold the food, people in the kitchen have prepared it, and so on. In the food, present in each mouthful, is, ultimately, everything. And then the food becomes part of us. By being mindful of what is, we become more aware of the interconnectedness of everything.
As we continue to be mindful, to be aware of the here and the now, we ultimately reach an awareness of the love that binds this universe together. We come right up against God, who is in everything, binding us together in love.
Paul said that we're to pray unceasingly. One way of thinking about this is the practice of mindfulness, the practice of living constantly in the present. Brother Lawrence was present to the act of scrubbing pots and was aware of God's presence in his mundane work. One of the ways that Empire binds us is by keeping us out of the present: always anxious, always wanting more, always competing. The Empire doesn't want us to realize that we can be happy and richly alive simply by breathing deeply into the present.
Now we all know that "living in the present" has become something of a cliché trumpeted by everyone from New Age therapists to advertisements for running shoes. The assumption seems to be that once we decide to live in the present, we just go out and do it. But it's not so straightforward. When I returned home, I became aware of just how much the environment in which I've chosen to live conspires against mindfulness, against living in the present, against doing just one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is considered a virtue. And it's not that multi-tasking isn't sometimes appropriate, but when our entire life becomes multi-tasking, when our walk home is never just a walk home but is always filled with regrets about the past, anxiety about the future or desires for something more, then we're never truly present, and the Kingdom of God is always somewhere else.
While the practice of "living in the present" can be joyful and energizing, it's nevertheless a discipline requiring commitment and practice. Together in our communities, we need to think about how we can help one another live more deeply in the present. It may be a cliché, but it's nevertheless true that we enter the Kingdom of God only through the present.
Dr. David Hilfiker is the founder of Joseph's House, a supportive home for men and women living with terminal illnesses. He is a member of the Eighth Day Faith Community in Washington, D.C.