I invite you to join me in an experience of mindful Christianity.
Let us begin with a time of silence with eyes closed. In the quiet, observe whatever arises to take your attention. Just watch it, letting it be. Don’t try to change it or fix it. But if you have the urge to change or fix it, observe that desire! The object of your observation can be anything at all. A thought. An idea. A sensation – something your body feels, something you hear. It can be an urge – a desire – a sense of needing to do something. Just watch the urge. Let it be. Observe and watch with loving, non-judgmental, caring attention. Be a quiet presence, like a friend who stays close in silence with a loving attitude, toward your own inner experience. (5 minutes)
Who are you? The observer, or the one whom the observer observed? Or both? In my own experience of mindfulness practice, I get to a point where I identify myself more with the observer than with the observed.
Meister Eckhart, a mystical German Catholic Christian priest of the 14th century, said that “the eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me.”
Mindful Christianity is mysticism: the experience of a human being in spiritual union with the divine, seeing each other with the same eye. The observer within you, when you are deep in mindfulness meditation, is God. God is lovingly attentive toward your every experience, every feeling, urge, and thought. In mindfulness practice, God notices all of that is going on inside of you, with deep compassion and without judgment.
So who are you? Who am I? I am God experiencing Jim Burklo’s particular, unique life on a particular planet in a particular time and place in space. You are God experiencing your particular, unique life on a particular planet in a particular time and place in space. God is more than you or I, of course. But through this practice we can know God directly and personally.
To be mindful is to be: Awake - to know what is happening right now in the changing flow of experience. Open - allowing what is happening right now to be – “letting go”. Kind - to respond with self-compassion to whatever arises. This is the definition that we are using for our Mindful USC initiative here on our campus. It’s a definition that is being used by non-religious and religious people alike. You don’t have to be a Christian or religious in any other way in order to be mindful, or to maintain a practice of mindfulness. It’s a very specific state of being that can be reached and maintained by secular and religious disciplines alike. But Christianity is a very special container for this state, offering enrichment and enhancement of it, giving it a context in a wider, deeper spiritual tradition. At its best, Christian spirituality is “mindfulness plus”!
Tonight we are exploring the ways that this state of mindfulness has been reached through Christian spiritual disciplines, from the time of Jesus until today. In the mind of the public, mindfulness and meditation are associated with Eastern religion, if with any religion at all. Few people associate it with Christianity. If you go to Asia, you’ll discover that most Buddhists practice a religion that is full of rituals, superstitions, deities, and theologies. If you look for Buddhism in America, you tend to find people who aren’t into all that religiosity, but instead are focused almost entirely on Buddhist experiential practices of meditation. They don’t know about the bathwater that surrounds the baby Buddha in Asia, because only the baby made it to America! Same with Indian versus American Hinduism. In the West, many people have embraced the refined spiritual practices of the East. Meanwhile, the same refined spiritual practices that are obscured by religious traditions in the East are completely present in Christianity. It’s just that here, the baby Jesus is surrounded by the bathwater of obscuring doctrine and dogma. Now I don’t want to disparage all that elaborate edifice of tradition entirely – not by any means. Much of it has enduring value. It’s just that this enduring value is hard to appreciate without having had the mystical spiritual experience that is at its heart.
I had the privilege of getting to know Father Thomas Hand, an American Jesuit priest who spent 29 years in Japan practicing Zen Buddhism alongside his duties in his order. He came back to America and became the confessor at a monastery of nuns in the Bay Area. A very progressive bunch of nuns, clearly, because he opened a room at their monastery and tricked it out as a Zendo. One of the best places to learn and practice Zen Buddhism was in this room, under the tutelage of Father Hand – or as he was known in Japan, Han-do. Father Hand once said that the Catholic Church had it backwards on the education of its lay people. “We teach them doctrine and dogma for years, and then, maybe, possibly, if we get around to it, we teach them how to experience God. What we need to do is teach them to experience God first, and then that will make sense or nonsense of the doctrine and dogma.” For him, Zen practice was a way to experience God. For him, Buddhism and Christianity were completely compatible. But again, he was looking at the refined essences of both faiths.
Father Hand’s analysis resonated with my own experience, growing up in the “mainline” liberal Protestant Christian tradition. We memorized scripture, we learned about church history, we read Bible stories. But experiencing God directly? Not once from birth through my teenage and young adult years did I ever get any introduction to spiritual practice or mysticism in church. I knew very little of contemplative prayer until I got to Presbyterian seminary and was assigned to share a room with a student who had just spent a year and a half in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. “Teach me everything!” I begged him, and he did! There we were, doing Vipassana mindfulness meditation in the lotus position on the floor of the chapel at the Christian seminary. There I learned to know God instead of just know about God. This led me to explore the connections between this practice and those found in the history of spirituality in Christianity.
So let us begin that history with Jesus. He practiced mindfulness. He started his career as an itinerant rabbi only after a 40-day fasting retreat by himself in the desert. The gospels describe this retreat as his temptation by Satan. Satan was a different character at the time than he is now. Now we think of him as a sort of anti-god. The god who fights against God. But the Jews of antiquity saw Satan as something more like “the devil’s advocate”. In the book of Job, Satan is a member of God’s court whose job it is to ask the tough questions. For Jesus, it appears Satan was likewise the personification of the process of self-examination. The gospel story portrays Satan as tempting Jesus to think of himself as a sort of superman who could turn stones into bread or leap off the top of the temple in a single bound and land safely on the ground. Satan was in effect asking Jesus the question, who are you? Really? Satan tells Jesus he can rule the world if only he will worship Satan. But Jesus rejected that, saying he will worship God alone. This is a dramatization of my own experience in mindfulness meditation and prayer - which, by the way, are one and the same thing for me. When I’m lovingly observing my thoughts, feelings, and urges, God is at my center – not the thoughts, feelings, and urges that, all too often, I allow to define me. All too often I worship my own desires and ideas. In mindfulness practice, the Loving Observer takes over. I interpret the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert in this way. I speculate that he spent 40 days lovingly and attentively examining his own inner world, drifting away from that attentiveness now and again as we all do. When I do mindfulness practice, I think of situations in my life that I feel the urge to resolve, and I drift off into overdrive to come up with a solution. In my mind, I’m superman – cleverly responding to insults on the spot, brilliantly solving problems for myself and others in ways that never work out so neatly in real life. Not unlike imagining that I can turn stones into bread! Then I return to the divine Self who observes with loving attention, and become conscious of this process – which makes the temptation evaporate.
Saint Paul described this experience well when he wrote “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20 NRSV) The Christ is the human experience of God within us. This is the essence of Christian mysticism. In those moments of mindful attention, it is no longer my small-s self who lives at the center of my being, but the capital-S divine self. Psalm 46 says “Be still and know that I am God.” Let’s try it, right now. “Be still and know that I am.” “Be still and know.” “Be still.” “Be.” The phrase “I am” refers to God’s answer to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked whom it was he had encountered, and God’s answer was “I am that I am.” In the gospel of John, that most mystical of the gospels, Jesus keeps repeating the phrase “I am”, and keeps asking the question “Who do you say that I am?” “I am the door” – “I am the way” – “I am the truth” – “I am the light of the world” – “I am the life”, he says. “Before Abraham was, I am,” he once said, enraging his enemies with what seemed to them the most outrageous blasphemy. But what did he mean by this? The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh put it beautifully: “But we must distinguish between the “I” spoken by Jesus and the “I” that people usually think of. The “I” in His statement is life itself, His life, which is the way. If you do not really look at His life, you cannot see the way. If you only satisfy yourself with praising a name, even the name of Jesus, it is not practicing the life of Jesus. We must practice living deeply, loving, and acting with charity if we wish to truly honor Jesus.” (Living Buddha, Living Christ – Riverhead Books, 1995 – p 55-56) When Jesus said he was the door, he didn’t mean he had hinges. The “I am” to which he referred is being itself – the ground of being of the whole universe – God who manifests within us as the loving observer in mindfulness practice. The historical personality of Jesus is a door into that “I am” experience.
Jesus, the mystic, was accused of blasphemy for saying that the “I am” was his true Self with a capital S. And the mystics who followed Jesus often have been accused of the same thing. Meister Eckhart had the good sense to die of natural causes before he was taken to trial for heresy. Others weren’t so lucky. But in fact they were misunderstood, just as people missed Jesus’ real point. Christian mystics know from their own experience that experiencing your true self as God is very different than expecting other people to worship you as God. “He is your being, but you are not his,” wrote the anonymous 14th century English author of the Cloud of Unknowing, one of the great classics of Christian spirituality. We experience God as the ultimate reality of our being, but this experience reveals to us that there is infinitely more to God than what we can experience. So the experience of God within ourselves leads us, paradoxically, to a very profound humility.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught mindfulness. He said “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” This takes a bit of context to understand. First of all, in ancient times all the way until the Renaissance, people – including Jesus – believed that the eye was indeed a lamp. You saw by casting light out of your eye and letting it interact with the light in the world around you. You know that little glimmer in your eye, which we now understand as a reflection? They thought it was a light from within. They believed that the source of this light was the highest celestial realm of God himself. God’s light was in human beings, and if you lost this light you were not only blind to the world but also blind to your own mind, your own inner realm.
Meister Eckhart used the image of sparks in an outdoor fire that yearn to return to their source in God’s highest heaven. The sparks are so intent on returning that they extinguish themselves on the way up. So we must release attachment to our egos in order to reach the true divine Self. The Sermon on the Mount was all about casting one’s inner light into one’s inner world. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs will be the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus said in opening the sermon. In his book, A New Earth (Plume Books, 2005), the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle interprets “poor in spirit” to mean “no inner baggage, no identifications”. Look within to see what’s burdening you, and just by looking, that baggage will fall away, so that you can enter and enjoy the presence of God. Examine the fact that you worry today about tomorrow, when today’s troubles are sufficient for today’s. The birds don’t store in barns, so why do you worry about tomorrow, when God will feed you just as he feeds them? Pray in secret – it’s not a thing you do to show off your religiosity, said Jesus. God knows your thoughts: so in prayer, know your thoughts with him. Examine your motives and emotions, says Jesus. The inner experience of lust is just as problematic as outwardly acting upon that lust. The inner experience of anger is just as problematic as outwardly acting upon it. Wake up! See the light that is within you! Cast this divine light on your thoughts and feelings and urges, and the mere act of looking at them will sort them out.
Mysticism is the direct experience of the divine. It’s getting past talking about God, and actually knowing God. It’s discovering the burning bush ablaze inside of each of our hearts. A flame that burns on, illuminating our inner experience, without consuming us. If we lose sight of the light, if we get sucked unconsciously into our thoughts and feelings without being able to stand back and observe them, then these thoughts will consume us. Mindfulness practice is like the burning bush that warms and illuminates but leaves us whole.
In the Cloud of Unknowing, whose author purposely kept his work anonymous out of humility, we get a taste of Christian mysticism as it manifested for most of the history of the faith. Two hundred years later, St John of the Cross, a Spanish mystical priest, used very many of the same phrases and illustrations found in the Cloud in his works. There are two clouds, according to the Cloud of Unknowing. The cloud of forgetting, and the cloud of unknowing. In meditative prayer, the seeker uses the apophatic method, also known as the via negativa, to let go of all that gets in the way of the experience of God. All that gets in the way drops down into the cloud of forgetting. Then, one aims upward, so to speak: “Let your longing relentlessly beat upon the cloud of unknowing that lies between you and your God. Pierce that cloud with the keen shaft of your love….”
Here’s another admonition from the Cloud of Unknowing: “If you want to gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. A one-syllable word such as “God” or “love” is best. But choose one that is meaningful for you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. This word will be your defense in conflict and in peace. Use it to beat upon the cloud of darkness above you and subdue all distractions consigning them to the cloud of forgetting beneath you. Should some thought go on annoying you, demanding to know what you are doing, answer with this one word alone. If your mind begins to intellectualize over the meaning and connotations of this little word, remind yourself that its value lies in its simplicity. Do this and I assure you these thoughts will vanish. Why? Because you have refused to develop them with arguing.”
Here we have an insight that is universal in mindfulness practice: non-judgment. Watch your thoughts and feelings, but gently refuse to “develop them with arguing”. Without engagement or resistance, these thoughts and urges and feelings will vanish of their own accord in their own time. They will return into the aether from which they issued forth.
More from the Cloud: “My purpose is to impress on you the importance of weighing your thoughts and desires as they arise, for you must learn to reject the least of them that might lead you to sin. I warn you that a person who fails in vigilance and control of his thoughts, even though they are not sinful in their first moments, will eventually grow careless about small sins.” It is important to understand the context of mindfulness in traditional orthodox Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant. It fits into the tradition of confession of sin. The great mystics served as “confessors” to those who practiced mystical prayer. This might seem to contradict one of the fundamental principles of mindfulness practice, which is non-judgment toward one’s thoughts and feelings. And in many contexts of Christianity this is indeed the case even today. A lot of Christians are taught to feel guilty almost all the time for thinking evil thoughts or having sinful feelings. It’s an unfortunate part of traditional Christian culture, and I believe it to be a misapprehension of the heart of the faith. The mystics of the church have a different attitude toward confession. It is the clear-eyed awareness of one’s sin and one’s redemption in the same instant. Here’s another passage from the Cloud: “There is another strategy you are welcome to try also. When you feel utterly exhausted from fighting your thoughts, say to yourself: “It is futile to contend with them any longer,” and then fall down before them like a captive or coward. For in doing this you commend yourself to God in the midst of your enemies and admit the radical impotence of your nature…. in employing it you make yourself completely supple in God’s hands.”
The Cloud includes advice that could come straight from a textbook on secular mindfulness practice today: “Simply sit relaxed and quiet.” “The will needs only a brief fraction of a moment to move toward the object of its desire.” “Be careful in this work and never strain your mind or imagination, for truly you will not succeed in this way. Leave these faculties at peace.” “No sooner has a person turned toward God in love than through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care. But no matter. No harm done; for such a person quickly returns to deep recollection.”
Far from a wallow in guilt, the mark of the mystic, after mindfully making a full accounting of his or her inner reality in confession, is bliss. More from the Cloud: “Look up joyfully, then, and say to your Lord, in words or desires: ‘That which I am, I offer to you, O Lord, for you are it entirely.” And from the great 16th century Spanish mystic and nun, Teresa of Avila: “While writing this, I’m thinking about what’s going on in my head with the great noise there that I mentioned in the beginning. … It seems as if there are in my head many rushing rivers and these waters are hurtling downward, and many little birds and whistling sounds, not in the ears but in the upper part of the head… For all this turmoil in my head doesn’t hinder prayer or what I am saying, but the soul is completely taken up in its quiet, love, desires, and clear knowledge.” (from Interior Castle, 4.1.10, in Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings compiled by Tessa Bielecki, p 143, Crossroad Press 1994)
Much of Christian mysticism for the past 2,000 years is more similar to Zen Buddhism than it is to Vipassana or “insight” Buddhism. Zen is about getting past thought in order to have direct experience of the pure reality that lies beyond it. The Christian mystics, including the author of the Cloud, likewise emphasized recognition of thoughts and feelings with the intention of getting past them, dropping them, in order to experience union with God. For many Christian mystics, thoughts and feelings were unwanted distractions. As in Buddhist and Hindu spirituality, the Christian mystics often used mantras – repeated words or phrases - to drown out thoughts and feelings in order to induce ecstatic embrace with the divine. The modern Centering Prayer movement in Catholic Christianity, started by the Benedictine monk, Thomas Keating, uses this approach. In contrast, Vipassana Buddhist practice is about watching thoughts and experiences without judgment and without the intention of getting past them – in order to get past them. Ultimately, if I dare say it, Zen and Vipassana converge at the same point of absorption into Ultimate Reality. Vipassana practitioners strongly dominate the conversation about mindfulness practice in the West. The mindfulness program we do at USC has its origins in this tradition – it’s the same basic practice stripped entirely of references to Buddhism.
But the thread of non-judgmental mindfulness has been woven into Christian spirituality all along. Meister Eckhart said “[This discipline] requires effort and love, a careful cultivation of the spiritual life, and a watchful, honest, active oversight of all one's mental attitudes toward things and people. It is not to be learned by world-flight, running away from things, turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, one must learn an inner solitude, wherever or with whomsoever he may be. (Raymond Bernard Blakney, tr. & ed. Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation. New York: Harper & Bros., 1941, p. 9.)
What I offer here hardly plumbs the depths of mindfulness in Christian spirituality. I’ve made no mention of the Desert Fathers of the early centuries of the church. Nor of the other Rhineland mystics of medieval Christianity. Nor of the Quakers nor of the Swedenborgians. And the list goes on, into our time.
Mindfulness practice is not just something we do to make life better for ourselves alone. It is practice that builds up our spiritual muscles so we can be compassionate to others. Christian spirituality serves the world. In the 1960’s, Abhishiktananda wrote a spiritual classic: Prayer (1967). He was a French Catholic Christian monk who went to India and practiced Christian spirituality Hindu-style. Seamlessly he wove the two traditions together in his writing and teaching. Here’s what he wrote about how Christian spiritual practice can serve the world in a time of global cultural upheaval:
“All at once everything became secular, profane; but at the very same moment the sacredness of everything was rediscovered – no longer the symbolic sacredness attributed by men to things, but the essential sacredness which is the universal radiance of the divine mystery, as it is manifested in the world and history. Only this experience of the depths of man and of God is able in these days to provide the world and the Church with the intuitions, which are needed in order to complete the dangerous transition, already underway, from the world of symbolic sacredness to that of the sacredness of the Real. The solution of the present crisis will only be found in the deepening of contemplative life at the heart of the Church.”
It is my prayerful hope that Christians will embrace the current cultural fascination with mindfulness practice, and lift up the ways that the Church has always encouraged this practice and given it a deeper and broader context in spirituality…. for the sake of amplifying kindness and compassion among all humankind.