This sermon is more than nine years old, but it hasn’t aged, and there is much more interest today in mindfulness. The sermon began with a ringing of the bell of mindfulness and a meditation. (Thich Nhat Hanh, by the way, is currently in San Francisco recovering from a stroke 10 month ago. He has almost no ability to speak, but he is able to enjoy the present moment.)
My principal Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, says that in the Vietnam of his youth, every village had a Buddhist temple, and at random times throughout the day one of the monks would ring the bell of mindfulness at the temple, and the sound would resonate out into the fields. At the sound of the bell, all business would stop. The villagers would stop farming or cooking or teaching or whatever they were doing, and they’d breathe and smile and listen to the bell, as we just did. What a nice practice!
The first time I heard Thich Nhat Hanh speak, in the mid 1980s, he spoke about the bell of mindfulness and how seldom in our modern western society we simply stop what we’re doing and take a moment out. And he made some suggestions about how we could practice stopping, breathing and smiling.
“I don’t have a phone in my cottage,” he said, “but when I visit my friends I notice that people get tense when the phone rings. What if we started using the ringing of the phone as a bell of mindfulness? So on the first ring, we might say: ‘Breathing in, I know I’m alive. Breathing out, I smile to life.’ On the second ring we might say: ‘Breathing in I’m glad I’m alive. Breathing out, I smile to life.’ On the third ring, we might say: ‘Breathing in, I’m so glad you’re alive. Breathing out, I value our friendship.’ And then we might answer the phone.”
Thich Nhat Hanh understood that at first the person on the other end of the phone would be annoyed that it was taking so long for you to answer, but then he suggested what would happen as the person got used to it. On the first ring, your friend would say to himself: “Now he saying…” And your caller would smile and understand.
Nhat Hanh suggested other things, like using the red traffic light as a bell of mindfulness, and at one time you could download a program from the Washington Mindfulness Community website that would ring a virtual bell of mindfulness at random times on your computer – perfect for office workers. When I was consulting at Mobil, I started using the Lotus Notes incoming mail chime as my bell of mindfulness.
I hope you got a taste of how easy and pleasant that can be. And it’s not hard to imagine how we could transform some of life’s minor annoyances into the bell of mindfulness and accept with a smile the ringing of the phone, the red traffic light, the incoming email.
Buddhism teaches acceptance. That doesn’t mean that we give up any desire to change things for the better. We can always decide to go live in a monastery in the woods to get away from phones, red lights and email, but those things are a reality for most of us. If we don’t accept them, we make our own lives more stressful.
In meditating, many people find the sound of a barking dog or a crying baby or the screech of brakes to be an annoyance – an interruption. There’s a Zen story about a monk finding the noise from a waterfall to be a distraction until he realizes that the Buddha is in those rushing waters. The same can be said for phones, babies, computers and car brakes.
When I led a weekly Buddhist meditation group at the Reston UU church, I would sometimes do a noise mediation. I’d use unpleasant as well as pleasant noisemakers to help people incorporate all sorts of sounds into their meditation. Embracing them rather than struggling against them.
Buddhism says we are disappointed by the world because of faulty expectations. It is faulty to think that babies will never cry and dogs will never bark and brakes will never screech, so why let those things throw us off? The Buddha is even in hateful thoughts and violent crime.
In the last few months we’ve had instances of celebrities in fits of anger saying outrageously racist and anti-Semitic things that, if we take them at their word, surprised even them. I don’t know those people and what I’m saying now is total supposition, but I’d like to suggest that, yes, maybe those things surprised the people who said them. And maybe they had spent year after year saying to themselves: “What me? I’m not prejudiced. I know all people are born equal. I’m color-blind and free of prejudice against any ethnic group.”
I’d suggest that you can’t overcome your bias until you accept it in yourself. Those celebrities instead might have been saying to themselves: “I have my biases and I accept them. I’m probably not going to totally exorcise my prejudice, but I want to learn how to overcome it.” They might not then have exploded the way they did.
It’s hard, of course, to accept the unacceptable – to accept it in ourselves or others. I saw that in my family when my cousin Barry, a paranoid schizophrenic, shot his parents to death – my uncle and aunt, my mother’s brother and sister-in-law. I was at the crime scene the day after the bodies were discovered, and the police answered my questions, so I knew that the only reasonable conclusion was that Barry had done it, and I tried to prepare my mother for that outcome. But Barry remained with us for four more days before he was arrested and confessed, and my mother simply didn’t hear what I was trying to tell her.
Even after the arrest and confession, my mother and other relatives would try to make any other explanation work. Barry had an Indian guru who was trying to help him overcome alcohol and drug abuse, so many in my family wove conspiracy theories involving the guru – anything but simply accept that Barry was so sick that he had killed his parents.
It seems to be in our nature, when faced with the unthinkable, to build conspiracy theories involving clandestine evil-doers rather than accepting that sick or confused individuals acted on their own.
So what happened on September 11, 2001? Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda sent some religious zealots here to create a disaster. That’s one perspective. Another is that our current president ignored warnings and put us at risk because of his connections to Arab oil money. Another is that our former president was busy seducing interns and guarding himself against legal actions and didn’t pay enough attention to al-Qaeda.
There may be some truth to one or more of those descriptions, but how about this as a perspective? Nineteen young men all decided to die on the same day at approximately the same time and to take thousands of Americans with them. It’s hard to get your mind around that, isn’t it?
That perspective leads to a different set of questions. What could cause nineteen young men to take their own lives and those of thousands more? Our former consulting minister, John Morehouse, told a story about a group of Imams from Muslim countries who visited the U.S. after 9/11. They met with clergy members in Frederick, MD, and one of the ministers asked what could cause a young man to do such a thing. There was a short silence during which the American clergy members expected a denunciation. But instead the senior Imam said just three words: “Consider the desperation.”
I wonder where we would be as a nation if we were able to truly consider the desperation.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine