Practicing Mindfulness This Passion Week

Practicing Mindfulness This Passion Week March 21, 2016
(This was the sermon I preached on Palm Sunday at First Congregational Church, Long Beach CA.)

Today we take a donkey ride into Jerusalem with Jesus.  We’re bumping along the rocky road into Passion Week, with a rabble roused by Rabbi Jesus cheering us on.  Life’s going to deal with death, and death is going to deal with Life, between now and next Sunday.

There was a lot going on in Jerusalem that week, two millennia ago.  There is a lot going on here, now.  Have you noticed?  Primary elections.  Roused-up rabbles.  A cacophony of inchoate quotations from the Constitution.  Here’s one for you:  A guy was walking down the street, minding his own business. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, another guy ran up to him with a copy of the US Constitution and threw it at his chest.  But thank God, the guy he attacked had a Constitution in his pocket.  It saved his life!  That’s why I carry one right here in my pocket.  It’s called concealed carry.  The way things are going, maybe I should carry extras.


Recent events have revealed unequivocally what should have been obvious all along.  Many if not most of those Constitution-wavers really don’t know or care what the document says.  They wave it to cast a ceremonial blessing on their opinions.  It’s Constitutionolatry, a word I just made up, which means the worship or idolatry of the Constitution, without being mindful of its contents.   It’s a kissin’ cousin to pistolatry, the worship of guns.  Things have gotten to a point in this country where the main reason people own guns is to protect their guns, which they got in the first place not for any practical purpose, but rather to prove to themselves that they have exercised their supposed Constitutional right to own guns.

But of course if you are a Constitutional originalist, you would have to affirm that the only guns that are Constitutionally protected are the ones that existed in 1789, which were inaccurate, slow-to-load muzzle-loaders.  It’s hard to commit a crime of passion with a muzzle-loading weapon!  Pistolatry and Constitutionolatry are kissin’ cousins to bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible without being mindful of the cultural or historical contexts in which its books were composed.  Recent events in this country have outed the bibliolatrists as being more concerned with retrograde politics than with religion, more concerned with putting up walls to keep out dark-skinned immigrants than with the Prince of Peace who rode a donkey into Jerusalem to tear down the walls that keep people from loving and taking care of each other.

This week, just before being arrested by the Romans and executed for stirring up sentiments against the Empire, Jesus will sit in prayer in the garden of Gethsemane.  He will ask one thing of his disciples:  remain with me, stay awake with me.  Be with me, simply present to the present situation, quietly listening, carefully appreciating.  Be mindful, here and now, because now is all we ever had, and now is all we ever will have.  But they won’t be able to do it.  They’ll fall asleep.  So they will miss out on the eternal life in the eternal now that they could have with their beloved teacher in his final moments.

How about you? How about me?  Will we stay mindful this week?  Will we look at what is, in the here and in the now?  Will we stay awake to the eternal life we can enjoy right now?  Or will we fall asleep?

My boss and I started a thing called last year.  It’s grown into a big deal on campus, with 800 students and staff taking 5-week classes in mindfulness practice each academic year.  I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation for almost 40 years, and teaching it in churches and other settings all this time.  But now I’m deeper into it than ever because of our new campus-wide program.  And this has led me to explore the way that mindfulness has always been part of the Christian mystical spiritual tradition.

Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This is a secular definition given by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  If we associate this practice with religion, usually it is with Buddhism in mind.  But it has been embedded in Christianity since Jesus.

It could have been at the mouth of one of the shallow caves carved by Nature out of the limestone cliffs of Mount Quarantania, facing Jericho on the Jordan River and the Dead Sea to the southeast, that Jesus sat to gaze at forty dawns in the wilderness before he began his ministry.  This 40-day season of Lent invites us to join Jesus in practicing mindfulness as he did in the desert.

Sometime this week, go to a quiet place – a metaphorical desert, if not a physical one – and get into a physical position in which your body will be comfortable but you’ll be unlikely to fall asleep. In silence, observe whatever arises to take your attention. The object of your observation can be anything at all. A thought. An idea. A sensation – something your body feels, something you hear. A memory. A scheme for the future. It can be an urge – a desire – a sense of needing or wanting to do something. Just watch the urge. Let it be. Watch all that arises and passes, observing with non-judgmental, caring attention. Be a quiet presence, like a friend who stays close in silence with a loving attitude toward you. Do this for twenty minutes.

In the silence, sitting in the desert with Jesus, who are you?  The observer, or the personality and body consisting of the experiences that are observed?  In my mindfulness practice, I reach a point where I identify my true self as this inner observer, rather than the features of my personality or body that I observe.

Meister Eckhart, a mystical German Catholic Christian priest of the 14th century, preached that “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.”

Teresa of Avila, the Spanish mystic of the 16th century, advised her fellow nuns: “mire que le mira” – “see that you are seen”.

Mindful Christianity begins with this experience of spiritual union with the Divine, seeing that we are seen with the same eye.  The observer within you, when you are deep in mindful prayer, is God.  This divine seer showers loving attentiveness toward your every sensation, urge, and thought.  God is compassionate awareness of all that manifests within you.

So who am I?  I am God experiencing Jim Burklo’s particular, unique life on a particular planet in a particular time.  Who are you?  You are God experiencing your particular, unique life on a particular planet in a particular time.  God is far more than you or I.  We cannot know God completely.  But through mindfulness practice we can experience God directly and personally.

Religion itself needs the healing that mindfulness offers.  Part of the reason that mindfulness needed to have a secularized manifestation is that for many people, religion has become more of a curse than a blessing, so anything that smacks of it is suspect.  Religion needs reformation so that its rich traditions can once again be of service to souls.

And when Christianity becomes more mindful, it can serve society in a new way.  It can be a means for creating a wider culture of mindfulness.

To be mindful is to do what Jesus asked his disciples to do at the Garden of Gethsemane:  wake up.  First to what is, and only then to what ought to be.  It’s about getting a clear view of the world within and around us.  For those of us who are Christians, this leads to a clearer view of our religion as a living spiritual tradition, continually created and shaped by human beings.  Our religion is meant to change progressively with the development of science and society, and, alongside other faiths, to contribute to the betterment of humankind.

A mindful society is one in which we collectively look at what is, as it is.  In this election season there is a lot of idealism – looking not at what is, but at what is fantasized.  In politics, we have people looking not at the beautiful rainbow of ethnicities and races and sexual orientations and religious preferences of our country, but rather at an hallucination of a white, Protestant Christian, male-dominated America that never was, nor ever shall be.   We have politicians who do not see the US economy as it really is – with expanding income inequality and a shrinking middle class – but instead are asleep, dreaming of a fantasy world where trickle-down economics makes the poor richer when the rich get richer. Mindful politics is about seeing things as they really are, showing genuine curiosity and compassionate concern about how things really work or don’t work, and letting go of judgments and opinions in the form of any kind of rigid ideology that gets in the way of taking positive action for progress.

Mindful Christian practice is simple.  But it’s not easy.  It’s easy to think and feel habitually.  It’s difficult to stand back in meditative prayer and observe those habits.  When we see that we are seen, we realize that some habits serve neither ourselves nor others very well.  Mindful prayer shines a loving, accepting light on the murkiest realms of our inner and outer worlds.  This can be unnerving.  It can be disturbing to see things we’d rather not notice.  But if we keep looking with the eye we share with God, we’ll see not only our problems, but ways to solve them – personally and socially and even politically.

“I am a mirror to you who know me,” sang Jesus in the early Christian text, The Round Dance of the Cross: “…this human passion which I am about to suffer is your own.”  Passion Week polishes the mirror of Christian scripture and tradition so that we can see our own passions in it, become mindful of them, and then act compassionately on what we find.

Passion Week erases the distinction between the contemplative life and the socially engaged life.  It’s one life.  Let us practice a mindful Christianity that helps ourselves and others see what is, so we can begin to imagine and work for the redemption of our society, on the other side of the cross.  Amen!

Jim Burklo is an author and the Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California.

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