On Mindfulness

by Rev. Aaron Payson

Photo credit to Uwe Bressem, Berlin, Germany

One day, the Buddha and a large following of monks and nuns were passing through a village. The Buddha chose a large shade tree to sit beneath so the group could rest awhile out of the heat. For a time, he sat in meditation going deep into himself as he sought to still and clear his mind. Slowly, he became more and more relaxed and his followers saw the change on his face. When he opened his eyes, he looked around and carefully took in the details around him: the fragrance of the blossoms on the tree, the breeze providing some relief from the heat of the sun, the faces of the many villagers who had heard about a visiting teacher and had gathered to hear him, the isolated trees and the simple dwellings of the villagers in the distance, and, finally, the mountains rising in the east beyond the fields where the villagers grew vegetables. Out of this mindfulness, the Buddha began to teach. As he spoke, the people became quiet, wanting to hear every word.

One surly young man stood to the side, watching, as the crowd grew larger and larger. To him, it seemed that there were too many people traveling from the city to his village, and each had something to sell or teach. Impatient with the bulging crowd of monks and villagers, he shouted at the Buddha, “Go away! You just want to take advantage of us! You teachers come here to say a few pretty words and then ask for food and money!”

But the Buddha was unruffled by these insults. He remained calm, exuding a feeling of loving-kindness. He politely requested that the man come forward. Then he asked, “Young sir, if you purchased a lovely gift for someone, but that person did not accept the gift, to whom does the gift then belong?”

The odd question took the young man by surprise. “I guess the gift would still be mine because I was the one who bought it.”

“Exactly so,” replied the Buddha. “Now, you have just cursed me and been angry with me. But if I do not accept your curses, if I do not get insulted and angry in return, these curses will fall back upon you—the same as the gift returning to its owner.”

The young man clasped his hands together and slowly bowed to the Buddha. It was an acknowledgement that a valuable lesson had been learned. And so the Buddha concluded for all to hear, “As a mirror reflects an object, as a still lake reflects the sky: take care that what you speak or act is for good. For goodness will always cast back goodness and harm will always cast back harm.” Because of this, practice mindfulness in all that you do so that your reflection is the one that you intend. (From, Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents collected and adapted by Sarah Conover)

One of the lasting impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic for me has been the time to pause before responding to (you name it): emails, phone calls, zoom meetings, meals, sleep, opening a book, surfing the net.  More often the moments before I turn to a virtual gathering I find myself closing my eyes and saying things to myself like “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be in service to the health, wholeness and healing of all.”

This practice began last year as gatherings online became the norm and I often found myself in the midst of conversations that rightly reflected the tenor and mood of the time which was for the most part anxious and also desirous of something, anything, that could be done to meet the experience of suffering, worry and concern that was mounting with every news broadcast and every daily briefing.

What was important for me was not to turn away from such anxious times, but with that moment of pause, to greet that anxiety (in others and in myself) differently.  So often we are provoked into our own fears and anxieties in these moments.  But I am mindful that below the surface of every fear and anxiety is a deep love.  It is the threat to that love, the idea that those that we cherish might be harmed; or the ways in which we have derived meaning and purpose in the world may be altered.  Deeper still, is the idea that our own being may be challenged or threatened. 

When I stop for a moment before entering the environments where such anxiety is substantial, what I remember is the source love from which that anxiety springs. Only then can I transcend my own fears.  Only then does the conversation turn for me from “What’s wrong?” to “What do you cherish?” 

So much has been surfaced by our common experience of dis-ease. Systemic violence, inequities and vulnerabilities that we might have recognized but could more often ignore in the days before the pandemic have challenged us to reconsider what our “normal” has been and could now be.  Being mindful of the experiences of suffering brought about by the pandemic has now become an opportunity to recreate our community and world.  Ironically, because of our experience of isolation, many have had more time to reflect on these experiences, and have found creative ways to respond to them as well.

We are on the cusp of returning to a sense of things as they once were, at least in part.  Let us be mindful, however, that there is no such thing as the normal that was, unless we completely forget what we’ve experienced individually and as a community.  The question that remains is, how will we carry these experiences into the future in order to become more of the people, community, nation and world we are capable of becoming?   Let us be mindful of the experiences we’ve had and the future we are on the cusp of creating.