My Mindfulness Journey
When I was in my early twenties, at the University of North Carolina I joined the Presbyterian Campus group, the Westminster Fellowship. Two books made a major impression. The first was Paul Tillich’s sermon, “You Are Accepted,” in his collection, The Shaking of the Foundation. After reading that piece I felt the weight of self-criticism palpably lift from my shoulders. It seemed like for the first time in my life I walked on air. John Bright’s book, The History of Israel, traced the biblical drama of the Old Testament revealing a God who was moving history toward his own purpose and using frail individuals to work out his will. Together those experiences gave me a sense of destiny in a world that had been characterized by Sartre and Camus as “absurd.”
After four years in seminary at Union Theological Seminary and Yale I began my professional journey which began as a pastor and, shortly after, a 40-year career at the helm of Total Action for Progress that was wonderfully consistent with my earlier experiences and my training.
Long before there was a word for it, I was an inclusive Christian. I believed that, in addition to the special revelation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, there was also general revelation that was open to all and that all could be touched by “the Ground of Being” and express it differently. In fact, my thesis at Yale was on the presence of the concept of “natural law” accessible to all, “believer” and “nonbeliever,” in John Calvin’s thought. The wonderful work of Houston Smith, professor of world religion at MIT, Diana Eck, a Methodist whose wonderful book Encountering God gave voice to an appreciation of Hinduism’s connection with God, and Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian has made incredible good sense.
As a result I began to read widely in Hindu and Buddhist thought. Seeking an inner peace that still eluded me, I would attempt sporadically to practice a variety of meditative practices. My first introduction to Buddhism was through the books by Alan Watts. My greatest lesson from Alan was that all language was fingers pointing at the moon not to be mistaken for the moon. For, instance when we say the word “tree” we usually have in mind a tree with roots, branches and leaves. However, in reality a tree is much more. It is the soil, the water, the air, the sun light. Remove these and there is no tree. The word “tree” is not the real tree, it simply points to it. This confirmed my distrust of all religious language which is taken as truth in itself and not something that simply points to that which is beyond language. Perhaps, that is why the people of the Old Testament would never pronounce the word Yahweh, but substitute the word “Adonai” when they came to it in the text.
Around 2007 I happened to read The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by the Vietnamese Buddhist leader, Thich Nhat Hanh. The author had been nominated by the late Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He was a proponent of “Engaged Buddhism” that, instead of retreating from the world, acted out compassion in the real world. His monks were engaged in rebuilding villages which had repeatedly been bombed, creating a system of social services for those affected by the war, rescuing boat people, and working passionately for peace. “Thay,” as he is affectionately known to his students, was well versed in Christian thought as well as Buddhism and would interchangeably use the words “ultimate reality,” the kingdom of heaven, ground of being, God, and nirvana for the Source of all. Most important, he was caring and explained the importance of mindfulness as central to finding happiness in life. He also expounded on the principles of non-violence, caring speech, sexual morality, mindful consumption, and non-exploitive livelihood in clear, relevant terms for the modern world.
In 2008, by sheer chance I happened on a poster in downtown Roanoke that announced the presence of a lay meditation group in his order of inner-being being held at the Universal Unitarian Church. The group, founded by Laurie Seidel, a professor of psychiatric nursing at Radford University, was open to all with no creedal demands. In my first visit I knew that I had found a home that would help me develop my own practice. In addition, that meeting has brought me in touch with a whole new world.
Around 2010, I had the opportunity to attend a five-day retreat under the leadership of Thich Nhat Hanh at Blue Cliff Monastery, one of three sites that “Thay” has founded in the U.S. His base is in Plum Village, France, to which he had to retreat after he was exiled from Vietnam by the communist government. In truth, I went because it was a privilege to be in the presence of one of the great personalities of the twentieth century. At one point he was leading us in a simple mediation of focusing on our breath, calling attention to the privilege of being able to breathe. “Breathing in, you know you are breathing in. Breathing out, you know you are breathing out. Breathing is a miracle. You are alive.” So much of my life had been given to planning ahead and living in the future. Realizing that now is the only time that I am alive hit me like a ton of bricks. I said to myself, “Got it!”
A year or so after, my good friend, Alan Forrest, then chair of the Counselor Education Department of Radford University, invited me to attend the Mindfulness in Education Conference at Omega Institute. There, over a three day period, we heard from Dr. Dan Siegel, a leading neuro-researcher and child psychiatrist, Linda Lantieri, MA, a leader in the use of mindfulness and social emotional learning in schools, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. Kabat-Zinn had introduced an eight-week program of deep relaxation, yoga, and mindfulness meditation called Mind Body Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts hospital. The well-researched program was so successful in improving the health conditions of those in chronic pain and in danger of life threatening illness that it is now used in 250 hospitals around the world. Kabat-Zinn had successfully cut these practices loose from their eastern religious roots and transformed them into practices that would enrich life and well-being in an ever expanding arena of secular life.
The result of developing a mindful practice is that it increases focus, reduces stress, modulates distressed feelings of fear, anxiety, and anger, increases impulse control, improves interrelationship skills, and builds emotional intelligence. Brain research, which has exploded in recent years, confirms that mindful practice continues to build the prefrontal cortex of the brain which houses our executive function that can control the areas of the brain that are given to emotional impulse.
Convinced that the practice of mindfulness is a useful tool for anyone seeking to improve their lives, I brought Linda Lantieri to Roanoke to meet with TAP’s entire Head Start team to show what could be done with small children. I also began to introduce simple practices of focusing on the breath and relaxing the body at meetings with my director-level staff. In my work as an LPC with clients at a free mental health clinic, I introduced the practices to my clients.
Around 2012 I attended a five-day mindfulness conference/retreat under the leadership of Jon Kabat-Zinn that had a profound impact. During that session I was overwhelmed with awe at the sheer complexity of the world and the miracle of existence. I had the same overwhelming experience of the miracle of the human body. I likened the experience to Job’s final meeting with God in which God confronts Job with how little he really knows in the face of all that God has done. “I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders way over my head… now I have it all firsthand-from my own eyes and ears!” (Eugene H. Peterson, The Message).It is only when we take a break from the routine that we become open to experience the awe and wonder of existence.
In recent years, the explosion of sessions on mindfulness and counseling has grown from one or two a few years ago at the annual Virginia Counselor Association conference to sessions that fill each day. This is more than a fad. The reason is clear. While we understand that our thoughts and attitudes determine our feelings and behavior, as long as those thoughts are moving so fast that they are a whirlwind in our minds it is extremely difficult to even identify them, much less question them and choose less risky thoughts and attitudes. Mindfulness helps to slow the body and mind down and give us space so we are able to more compassionately and objectively look at what is taking place in our mind and make better choices.
In 2014, working with Radford University, Roanoke City Public Schools, Family Services of the Roanoke Valley, Jefferson College of Health Sciences, Virginia Western Community College and Mental Health America in the Roanoke Valley, TAP brought author Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. and Patricia Jennings, Ph.D. to headline the first Mindfulness Conference: Strategies, Practices, and Application to the Roanoke Valley. We had a sellout crowd of 275 participants. A specially taped welcome by Congressman Tim Ryan, the author of A Mindful America, began the conference.
On October 16th, 2015 we will hold the second Mindfulness Conference featuring world renowned lecturer, Dan Siegel, Ph.D., who is a professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and will speak on mindfulness and the science behind it.
This year I have released 13 mindfulness meditations on Sound Cloud to help the practice of anyone interested (soundcloud.com/tededlich/tracks). In late August, I will conduct a workshop at the National Community Action Partnership on “Mindfulness and Community Action.” The journey goes on.