In a talk given at the Religious Education Congress in LA, Father Ron Rohlheiser reminded the audience, “There’s an old saying that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. That’s why G. K. Chesterton wrote, ‘Our perennial [enduring] spiritual and psychological task is to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again’”.
There have always been those times in our lives where we become stuck in the malaise of boredom. Our common experiences in life seem to run together, and we become resentful of our situations as a result.
We get tired of doing the same routine. We get up, go to work, come home, cook, eat, help the kids with homework, get the kids ready for bed, pay the bills or attend to the functions of life, crash and burn and repeat the next day.
This is why vacations are important. They take us out of ourselves and help us to see something different to break up the monotony. This change of scenery jars us into a new reality. But not everyone can afford a vacation, and it’s hard to see that we can attend to business of life with a new perspective if you haven’t had a vacation in years. Besides, once you’ve done the vacation, it’s over. There’s no more excitement than before and you’re back to the same old cycle of familiarity and the grind of casual acceptance.
How do we look at the familiar with unfamiliar eyes? How do we do this without the vacation? How do we find the spark that distinguishes a day from any other day, or a moment from any other moment, for that matter?
We can take a vacation in the imagination for a minute. The vacation takes place in the act of mindfulness.
Mindfulness, or “practicing the presence”, opens the imagination to the moment where possibility begins. It enables the individual to glimpse something extraordinary in the ordinary. It stimulates something in the mind where we can see a glint of wonder.
Mindfulness in the ordinary action brings poetry to the action. Doing a simple act with your mind on God brings with it the unfamiliar and a resonant gift of calling forth the sacred moment. That’s why Mother Teresa said, “sweep out a room and dedicate it to God”.
MLK talked about doing a humble act with the mindfulness of an artist eliciting the likes of Michelangelo. He said, “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” King understood the power of glorifying an action through mindfulness and allowing the sacred to permeate the experience. It also brings a sense of pride and dignity in the act of work.
Mindfulness opens our hearts to the possibility of being more present to the experience of life while we’re here. Grounding ourselves in the presence of life is grounding ourselves in a deeper realization of the soul. Through the experience of the pains of the soul, we come to have a greater realization for the joy that is life. The darkness informs the light and vise versa.
The Buddhists have a tremendous sense of this but it can also be found in the Christian tradition.
St. John of the Cross addresses this aspect of darkness and how the depths of suffering can inform us in understanding God in a more profound way. St. Terese of Lisieux calls upon followers of Christ to be present to doing things for God and “Doing small things for God with a lot of love”.
It’s hard to be living in the moment all the time. Even the act of creating the presence of a string of sacred moments becomes an act of futility because the moments become familiar like regular time. Everyone has had that experience of joy at one point in their lives where they wish a moment could live forever.
Although we can’t make a moment live, we can practice the presence to the point where every moment becomes more precious. We can acknowledge the gift of a second. The dying know it. They learn to live in the precious gift of a moment when faced with mortality. “I won’t be brushing my teeth forever. I won’t be making a bed or cleaning dishes, so I must enjoy the act of being present now”.
I found myself being mindful during the act of shaving and brushing my teeth. It was an interesting exercise. I discovered that one expression of truth in a minute is more powerful than the darkness of fifty-nine minutes. The sacred is there for the taking, we just need to be open to seeing it and take note of it.
Attunement to the sacred is always the goal. It enriches the life. The extraordinary is bubbling within the deep recesses of psychology and that’s where the presence of mind begins. Obeying the intuition of the sacred in everything.
- Take a mundane act and slow down to see how it manifests.When washing the dishes, examine the act of cleaning. Observe the simplicity of the action. Take note of the flow of water, the residue and the suds of soap on the plate. Consider how the plate was made. Consider what you did when making the plate dirty as well as clean.
- Take a grape and sit with it.Look at the texture of the grape, the smoothness. Consider the process that made it a grape. The farmer plants the seed in the soil. He waters it and cultivates it until it becomes a vine… The vine grows and the grapes start to flourish. Consider the sun against the grape enabling it to grow… Consider the act of watering it. Consider the farmer picking the grape and boxing it. Consider the act of shipping the grape to the store and the grocer attending to it. Look at the process that went into all the elements of earth coming together to form this material object. Place it in your mouth and don’t bite right away. Feel the texture of the grape, and then mindfully eat the grape – tasting the juices and feeling the textures as you eat it.
- Before attending to sleep, attend to cleaning the day off your skin and mind.Say a moment of prayer and still your mind by focusing on your breath. Walk softly and mindfully as you enter the bathroom being present to each step.
Brush your teeth and wash your face with the knowledge that cleanliness is next to Godliness. Be as present as possible to the action. Feel the brush against your teeth, the toothpaste as a cleanser. Note the stimulation of the gums. Take note of the act of paying attention to the action.
- Watch your breath.Be present to the tip of your nose in the inhalation and exhalation of breath. Focus on the breath for a few minutes. When you are ready to come back to the world, take it in and feel the presence as quickly as possible. Notice the sights, sounds, feelings and expression of the moment in one fell swoop.
Taking time for prayer, meditation and contemplation can focus our attention on our needs and stimulate the imagination. Attunement to that place within is critical in assessing your own needs. By taking the time to see what’s right, we automatically work out what is wrong or where we are going wrong, but it can also bring out the poetic expressions of life that need to be announced.