Monday, November 4, 2019

"Practicing Attention" with African Folktale, reading by Windell Berry, meditation and sermon by Reverend Tom Capo, preached on 11/3/2019

African Folk Tale
Once there was a blind man who lived with his sister in a hut near the forest. Well, the blind man’s sister fell in love with a hunter, and they were married. When the wedding feast was finished, the hunter came to live with her new wife. But the hunter had no time at all for here brother-in-law, the blind man. “What use,” she would say, “is a man with no eyes?”
Every day the hunter would go into the forest with her traps and spears. And every evening, when the hunter returned to the village, the blind man would say, “Please, tomorrow, let me come with you, hunting in the forest.”
But the hunter would shake her head: “What use is a man with no eyes?”
One evening, the hunter was in a good mood. She had returned home with a fat gazelle. Her wife had cooked the meat, and when they’d finished eating, the hunter turned to the blind man and said, “Very well, tomorrow you can come hunting with me.”
So the next morning they set off into the forest, the hunter with her traps and spears leading the blind man by the hand. Suddenly, the blind man stopped: “Shhhh, there is a lion!”
The hunter looked about; she could see nothing.
“There is a lion,” said the blind man, “but it’s all right; he’s fast asleep. He won’t hurt us.”
They went along the path and there, sure enough, was a great lion fast asleep under a tree. The hunter asked, “How did you know about the lion?”
“Because I see with my ears.”
They continued deep into the forest until they came to a clearing. The hunter set one of her traps and showed the blind man how to set another one. Then the hunter said, “We’ll come back tomorrow and see what we’ve caught.”
The next morning they walked into the forest to where the traps had been set. The hunter saw straight away that there was a bird caught in each trap. And she saw that the bird caught in her trap was a little gray one, and the bird in the blind’s man trap was a beauty, with feathers of green, crimson and gold.
 “We’ve each caught a bird,” she said. “I’ll fetch them out of the traps.”
And what did she do? She gave the blind man the little gray bird, and she kept the beautiful bird for herself. Then they set off for home.
As they walked, the hunter said, “If you’re so clever and see with your ears, then answer me this: Why is there so much anger and hatred in the world?”
And the blind man answered, “Because the world is full of so many people like you — who take what is not theirs.”
And the hunter was filled with shame. She took the little bird from the blind man’s hand and gave him the beautiful one instead. “I’m sorry,” she said.
As they walked, the hunter said, “If you’re so clever, then answer me this: Why is there so much love and kindness in the world?”
And the blind man answered, “Because the world is full of so many people like you — who learn by their mistakes.”
From that day on, if the hunter heard anyone ask, “Blind man, how is it that you are so wise?” she would put her arm around the blind man’s shoulders and say: “Because he sees with his ears … and hears with his heart.”

The Vacation by Wendell Berry
Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

Letting go is perhaps an overused directive in meditation and mindfulness circles, but despite the overuse of the concept, letting go remains a very profound practice with many different levels.
Let us move into a time of meditation.  Sit comfortably, let your eyes rest, take a deep slow breath and bring your attention within yourself.
As you breathe in acknowledge a difficult feeling or experience, accept it, let it come into your body, heart, and mind. As you breathe out, let it go. Let the experience come, let it go, go with the flow of your breath.
As you breathe in acknowledge the good, the enjoyment and the richness of your life; let it come in. As you breathe out let yourself go into the flow of this richness and enjoyment; relax into this flow of appreciation. Let it come, let it go, go with the flow of your breath.
As you breathe out consciously let go of something or someone that you are ready to release and move on from in your life. As you breathe in be aware of the space that your letting go has created, open yourself to the new energy and possibilities that can come into your life as a result of letting go. Let things go, let things come, go with the flow of your breath.

We are inundated with news, views, ads, and information.  We have immediate access to more knowledge than any humans have ever had.  We connect with hundreds or thousands, sometimes millions of people through Facebook, Instagram, Whats App, Twitter, and so many other social media platforms.  So much information, so easy to be overloaded.  Do you attend to every ad that comes across Facebook?  Do you pay attention to all the news scrolling beneath every cable news broadcast?  Do you watch every commercial that comes up before the YouTube video that you want to watch?  Our brain constantly blocks from our conscious awareness some of the overstimulating information that bombards us.  Do we realize what is being blocked?  Is our attention span getting shorter and shorter so that we can cope with the rapid flow of good, bad, and indifferent information that passes before our eyes and comes into our ears? The answer is yes!  According to research, our attention span has markedly decreased in just 15 years. In 2000, it was 12 seconds. 15 years later, it shrunk significantly, to 8.25 seconds.  As a point of reference, a goldfish’s attention span is 9 seconds. If it is getting harder and harder to sustain our attention, how do we hope to hold our attention onto the important or meaningful things in our lives?
            I want you to try an experiment today during the rest of the sermon.  I want you to do one of two things.  You can either take out a piece of paper—your order of service is okay--and a pen and write down one or two ideas that touch you during the rest of the sermon, could be something interesting, informative, useful, affirming, spiritually uplifting, whatever it might be.  Or you can take out your phone and go to the Twitter address ADDY @uumiami and tweet one or two ideas from the sermon that touch you—interesting, informative, etc.  We will reflect this later.
            I don’t know about you, but after the last Presidential election, I couldn’t watch the news for many weeks.  I was so full of grief and fear that watching the news pushed my emotions over the top, and I would feel miserable, sometimes even depressed.  It was as if each news story was more than I could handle.  After a few weeks, I eased back into watching a news story here or there, paying very close attention to my emotions and my inner critic, consciously categorizing theses stories in my brain, categories which I labeled acceptable and unacceptable.  I tried to ignore the unacceptable stories by minimizing them, criticizing them, denying them or making fun of them.  Over time, I realized this was not a good plan.  My emotional reservoir was filling with unwanted emotions and I had little capacity for positive emotions.  I was becoming more reactive, less kind, more judgy.  I had to choose a different path. 
            In Psychology Today, (July 2010), Allison Bonds Shapiro, MBA wrote: “We may think we understand the art of paying attention but many times, unfortunately, we mistake attention for judgment. We think about attention as a "critical" function. Attention is not critical. Judgment is. Attention is neutral. We begin to pay attention to something and then we start to judge it, evaluate it, categorize it and, yes, generally "criticize" it. But judging, while certainly useful, is not attention. Judging involves an underlying assumption that our purpose is ultimately to categorize and take action. We judge something to be done with it. The rush to being done with something does not increase our capacity to pay attention to it.”  Judging has to do with assessing whether or not we need to "fix" whatever it is, [or] reject it or enhance it, and move on.  Attention is noticing and being with something without trying to change it.  “Attention takes      the time to fully explore, to discover whatever there is to know about something, to watch as things change by themselves without our trying to “fix" [it]. Attention is patient and attention is kind. No rush. No burden. No criticism.”  “Paying attention is ultimately an act of loving kindness…the more we pay attention, the more we learn.”
            So, about three years ago, if I wanted to continue watch, read, or listen to the news, the first thing I had to do was to recognize that it was not useful to me to be so judgy.  I guess I should define judgy--to judge reactively, without reflection or consideration, so I can fix, reject, or move on from whatever it is I was exposed to.  I had to find a way to attend to the news without feeling that I had to fix everything, or feeling hopeless about everything that needed fixing.  I don’t know about you, but that was extremely challenging. 
As counterintuitive as it may sound, diving deep into the news stories helped me.  When a news headline prodded a nerve, provoked judginess, I stopped myself, took a deep breath, reflected on it, and then took a deep dive into the story without rushing, managing my desire to criticize it or categorize it.  I found this helped center me and I started to feel hope that I would no longer be controlled by what I saw and heard. I was able to remember, for apparently I had forgotten, that life is not simple or easily categorized, and that no headline lasts forever.  For instance, when I started reading headlines about the Dakota Access Pipeline, I dove in deep.  I learned about those protesting the pipeline, the Standing Rock Sioux.  I also read about the 50 Unitarian Universalist clergy who had joined the Sioux in their protest.  I couldn’t join the Sioux, but I was grateful that others did.  This helped me have some peace, so I could attend to this upsetting news without feeling as much fear or feeling as overwhelmed.   While the pipeline is now operational, there are still protests and court cases fighting against this pipeline and the harm it can do.  Today I am not so panicked or stressed about this, I know more about the pipeline and about the people who are continuing to try to shut it down.  And now I can decide from a place of peace, whether I am called, and if I am, how I am called, to be of help to this or other causes.
  It is easy to be judgy.  It’s a tricky and complicated thing to separate paying attention and judging.  Remember “judging involves an underlying assumption that our purpose is ultimately to categorize and take action.  We judge something to be done with it.”  Is that really the Unitarian Universalist way?  To judge something so that we can be done with it?  No it is not.  I believe the Unitarian Universalist way is, when exposed to the news of the world, to stop, reflect, learn about, and then judge the situation so we can choose whether to put our collective energies into action to fight injustice and inequity.  It is not our way to act from fear or panic or categorization.  But many times we need spiritual practices to help us and ground us in our attention, before reflecting, learning or judging.
            See with your ears and hear with your heart.  Be present in your life.  And go with the flow.  These headline like, catch phrases can be mantras to increase your attention.  In the readings and the meditation today, I hope you wondered how these concepts might impact your attention.
            See with your ears and hear with your heart.  When you focus on the world with one predominant sense, rather than all your senses, you are more likely to attend to something different, something unexpected, something outside of your conscious awareness. Let’s try it for a moment.  If you wish to try this, close your eyes and bring all your attention to your hearing.  Keep bringing your attention back to your hearing, over and over.  What do you notice?  Anything you were not attending to with your eyes open?  Open your eyes.  This is one practice to increase your attending to life, focusing on one sense at a time.  So often we assume that we are attending to life when using all our senses, when in fact we are actually missing many things around us and within us, as we inattentively walk through life. 
And hearing with your heart.  Let’s try that.  If you wish to try this, close your eyes and bring your attention inside yourself; bring your focus to your body. When we feel our emotions, we tend to feel them in certain places within us.  When you feel anger, is it in your belly or your heart, or does your mind race?  Where do you feel fear?  Joy? Sadness?  Attend to where you feel your emotions as best you know and let your thoughts flow freely through you.  As you do this, notice if you have even the smallest change in your emotions.  Did you notice anything that you weren’t aware of before?  Okay, open your eyes.  This is another practice, attending to your emotional reactions to life experiences, even small ones, can help you be more aware of negative emotions growing within you, emotions that can result in more reactions, judginess, and categorization. 
Another practice is being present or being mindful.  We have talked about mindfulness, but to review it is peacefully observing, without reacting to what is going on around and within you as you experience it.  The practice requires you to bring your attention to the present again and again and again, grounding yourself in the present, without judging what you see, feel, or experience.  Embracing the experience fully, recognizing that this is your experience, it is unique and special as you experience it.  Being mindful can also help you assess how much emotional and spiritual space you have within you right now.  The more space you have within, the more space you have to mindfully experience the enjoyment and the richness of your life in the present.
And going with the flow.  What did you notice when you experienced the meditation?  Remember you acknowledged a difficult feeling or experience, accepted it, let it come in and let it go; and you acknowledged the good, the enjoyment and the richness of your life; let it come in and relax you, and let yourself appreciate the joy and richness of life.  And then finally you consciously let go of something or someone that you were ready to release, were aware of the space that your letting go created, opened yourself to the new energy and possibilities that can came into your life as a result of letting go. 
Can you hear in this meditative strategy of letting go a new way that you might let the noise of the world come in and go out, with intention, with breath, with mindfulness?  Can you embrace those aspects of life that bring joy, appreciation, richness, and let them flow around and in you, before letting them flow out?  Can you let go of some of the accumulated junk that fills your soul, creating more emotional and spiritual space?
The image I use to help me with this process of letting go is cafeteria plates.  You know when you go into a cafeteria, the plates or trays are there stacked and ready for you.  When you take the top one off, the next one pops up.  As you let go of one thing or person you are ready to let go of, another thing or person pops up.  This does not mean that you will always have something to fret over, but that with each issue you deal with, more space is created within you.  I tell you this because it is easy to get frustrated with getting rid of one negative thing to only have another negative thing right there in your face.  That is the way of life. You work your way down the plates, each thing you deal with is usually less difficult and less painful, but there will always be something that pops up and there will always be a need for us to let go of something to keep peaceful space within us.  Space where we can attend to life with fewer distractions and less negativity. 
Let’s check on your attention.  What was it like to focus your attention on noticing something in the sermon that impacted you and write it down or tweet it while still trying to fully experience the sermon?  Did noticing and writing/tweeting split your attention or impact your experience of the sermon? Did this process of noticing and writing/tweeting seem like a natural helpful process; did you attend to the sermon by hearing with your heart or hearing with your mind?  Were you distracted by tweeting or writing?  Were able to do both things at once without it having any impact on your experience of the sermon?  Now notice what you wrote down or tweeted.  How did you choose what to write or tweet?  What feelings or thoughts are going on within you now about what you wrote or tweeted?  What will you do with what you wrote or tweeted?  Will you think more about, talk it over with a friend or family member, write more about it, meditate on it?  Or will you let it flow through you and out of you?  All of these are options, choices are available to you now. 
I can tell you that I am now more patient, kind, less rushed and more attentive to life since I have added these practices to my routine.  I am also less overwhelmed by the media frenzy I am inundated with.  Perhaps some of the practices you heard today could be helpful to you to increase your attentiveness.  The invitation I offer is this: choose a way to practice attention, over time notice what changes within you without any expectation of what might change.  When you are exposed to news that pushes your buttons, be aware of any judginess or desire to put experiences into boxes that can be easily understood and dismissed.  Stop, reflect on, learn about things in the world that you want to fix, so you can judge how you will respond to them.  Perhaps, over time, with these new practices of attentiveness and reflective judgement you will feel increased space within you to experience the wonder and awe that life provides.  My friends, “Paying attention is ultimately an act of loving kindness…the more we pay attention, the more we learn.”

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