Mindfulness is being in the present moment in an open and friendly way. It's both mind-training and heart-training.You can start right where you are.
Last Monday, after my long prison day, I felt a new understanding of impermanence. We did meditations on body sensations—noticing how they shift, pulse, and vibrate; how the changing nature of our bodies is okay. It’s not wrong, it’s natural. On my drive home, I listened to a dharma talk that encouraged more investigation: watch the nature of sensations, then open awareness to death—what if I no longer exist? In my expanded awareness, I was okay because I was present, alive in the moment.
On Monday, in prison pastorals and groups, I witnessed rich and varied stories: An inmate struggling to love himself (even like himself). This motivated him to practice loving-kindness inward. He easily expresses compassion for others yet realized how little he has for himself. Now he does daily compassion prayers inward. Through tears he said, “I don’t know why it’s so hard. I don’t know why I feel so undeserving.”
Our first day in Haiti, we traveled from Port-au-Prince to Caneille, located in the rural Central Plateau. During the car trip, I looked out the window in wonder. It felt like a novel unfolding: each new visual told a story. The landscape changed from urban to mountain view to rolling-hill farmland. The sights were abundant and interesting: tap-taps carrying large numbers of people, kids hauling water uphill on makeshift wheel barrows…
Haiti is on my mind and in my heart. I’ll be processing this trip for months. It was an experience like none I’ve ever had. For six days, we were immersed in rural Haitian culture, language, and life. The homesteads in Caneille have no electricity or running water; they rarely have a latrine. People must walk miles to fill jugs of safe drinking water. Ten people sleep in a hut the size of most American living rooms.
In my last years as a professor, I saw something clearly: we give students little space to make mistakes; to mess things up in a safe environment; to experiment, fail, and try again. And now, away from academia, I still see this pattern. We don't often come as we are, we come as we think we should be.
When I teach mindfulness, the first exercise I give is red-light practice: View red lights as an invitation to pause, breathe, and be. Rarely are we told to "stop and take a break," yet red lights do just that. They remind us to pause. Three breaths of awareness can make a big difference. Often, students say, "I wish there were more red lights."
I sit in a prison meditation circle with women, most of whom are incarcerated for drug use. One of these women, typically quiet, chose to share at the end of group: "This is our chance, in this crappy place, to really know ourselves. When I first got here, I had no idea what I liked and enjoyed. All I cared about was using drugs. Now I care about knowing and understanding myself. Prison is our chance to make new choices." This was a powerful statement.
Long ago, a famous study was conducted at Princeton Theological Seminary. Students were randomly assigned to give a talk about job opportunities or about the Good Samaritan bible story. Each was instructed to give his talk in another building, with varying time conditions from “you’re late” to “no rush.” In an alleyway between buildings, each seminary student passed a man, coughing and moaning, while slumped in a doorway. The research question: Which students would stop to help?
In her book, Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett expresses an important truth: “Our world is abundant with quiet, hidden lives of beauty and courage and goodness. There are millions of people at any given moment, young and old, giving themselves over to service, risking hope, and all the while ennobling us all.
We live in uncertain times. Amid groundlessness, it’s natural to feel fear. Specific fear about circumstances or vague, roving fear about life. The mental storyline of fear is “something is wrong.” And this wrong-ness is projected inward at self or outward at other. Either way, it constricts our mind and heart.