Christ Episcopal Church
The Mother Church of The Dakotas
Meditation Practice: Mindful Awareness
(Homily for Christ Episcopal Church, Yankton, SD)
Sept. 13, 2015
Many of you are aware that Christ Church hosts several contemplative practices. This includes “Centering Prayer” on Monday mornings at 10:30am; “Serenity” on Sunday mornings at 9am prior to the Eucharistic service and finally the “Yankton Area Meditation Group” with sessions that are held each Wednesday evening from 7pm to 8:30pm at the Olde Rectory (513 Douglas Ave.). All of these are complimentary practices but have different intentions, and styles of meditation. This morning it is my wish to tell you more about the Yankton Area Meditation sessions that occur on Wednesday evenings. The group will be celebrating their 1 year anniversary on November 7th with an open house which will be celebrated in the undercroft.
The meditation practice that is emphasized during these sessions is based on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness or also called awareness. What is this mindful awareness? It has nothing to do with becoming a Buddhist. , but has everything to do with waking up and living in harmony with oneself, and with the world. Simply put, mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.
--Thich Nhat Hanh 
I would like to share with you now how I came to be acquainted with meditation and have come to see its value in both living each day fully, but also how it has enhanced my spiritual growth. I suspect that most of you know that I was a practicing physician and cardiologist for over 30 years. During that time I became increasingly aware of the role of stress as a key factor in the development and aggravation of heart disease. In particular I noted that it was the patient’s thoughts that were the principal cause of their stress. However, I found it was very difficult to give any helpful advice in the usual 15-20 minute office visit. So 15 years ago I was offered a Bush Fellowship that allowed me to explore more deeply the mind body connection and how stress adversely affected many aspects of the body’s function. It was in this period that I was introduced to meditation and mindfulness as an effective practice to help counter the harmful effects of stress. Like many of you here I did not have any prior experience of meditation. My Midwestern upbringing did not introduce me to any meditation practices and to the contrary there appeared to be much skepticism about its value and I was well aware that many Christian churches in the community felt it was a practice to stay away from.
However, as I was introduced to mindfulness meditation and trained in it I soon began to see its immense value. The practice itself awakens us to the fact that we have consciousness that is not thinking. Up until that time I believed that my thinking defined who I was. However, meditation practice helps me realize that we have thoughts but are not just our thoughts. This was indeed a revelation to me. My wife Ellen and I then introduced to the Yankton community a series of stress reduction classes through the Avera Center for MindBodySpirit. Meditation was a key concept which we practiced during the 8 week sessions. During a 5-6 year period hundreds of people from the area went through the classes and experienced the benefits of a mindful meditation practice.
So meditation can be beneficial in reducing stress but how does it tie into a spiritual practice and in particular how does it relate to Christian belief? I would like to share with you another story about myself that may help understand this. Many years ago, Ellen and I were attending a service at the church we attended at that time. The topic of the homily that day was taken from the scripture reading: Matthew 19: 16- 24, often call “The Story of the Rich Young Man.” “Then someone came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus replies, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one that is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments…” The young man responded, “I have kept all of these, what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, and sell your possessions and give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
I remember distinctly my response to that passage: I thought: Jesus, you give me this instruction but no practical advice how to deal with my thoughts that are concerned about money. This was years before my introduction to a meditation practice but when I became familiar with value of mindfulness meditation I could see right away how it could help me to wake up to the fact that I am more than just my thinking and in fact it was showing me a way to get beyond my thinking to live a more peaceful, compassionate, life and not be so attached to its comforts e.g. money.
There is now an emerging trend in Christian churches to tie in contemplation with action or deeds. Actually, contemplation was very much a part of early Christian practice, particularly with the desert Fathers and Mothers. This tradition however was eventually discouraged and lost within the Christian Church. In the past 50 years however there has been an awakening to the Christian contemplative tradition in the West led by such people as Father Thomas Keating who has been so active in promoting Centering Prayer as a contemplative practice. At the same time many Americans are finding that the contemplative traditions of other religions have marked similarities to each other.
In the spring of 2014 you might recall the Christ Church hosted a series of Saturday morning seminars where we viewed the video “Jesus and Buddha; Paths to Awakening”. In this series we listened to James Finley, who comes from the Catholic tradition; Jim is a therapist and author. He was a novice at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky and had Thomas Merton as his spiritual director. He said: “So, taking Merton as my teacher, it was just very natural to me that I could see in these non-Christian contemplative traditions a kind of expansive enrichment of the path of non-dual consciousness, of the realization of the mystic way. I got the impression that when we seek what is truest in our own tradition, we discover we are one with those who seek what is truest in their tradition. There is a point of convergence where we meet each other and we recognize each other as seekers of awakening. James Finley points out that unlike Christianity, “there is no belief system in Buddhism. That’s why you can be a devout Christian and a devout Buddhist at the same time. There is no dogma or anything contrary to any Christian dogma in authentic Buddhism. Alongside everything the Buddha said, he also said, ‘Don’t believe it because I said it. Listen to it and check it out for yourself. See if it rings true with your own experience.’” 
Father Richard Rohr comments quotes the author Paul Knitter who is a theologian friend of his from Cincinnati; he wrote an insightful book called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. In it, he explains that Buddhism teaches “practices that will help Christians draw on the mystical contents of our faith. Buddhism can help Christians to be mystical Christians . . . to realize and enter into the non-dualistic, or unitive, heart of Christian experience--a way to be one with the Father, to live Christ’s life, to be not just a container of the Spirit but an embodiment and expression of the Spirit, to live by and with and in the Spirit, to live and move and have our being in God.”  Buddhist practices such as meditation, silence, and living mindfully help us encounter the deepest, truest reality--our oneness with God.
Knitter also writes, “True, what Christians are after is different than what Buddhists are after. For Christians, it’s identification with the Christ-Spirit. For Buddhists, it’s realizing their Buddha-nature. And yet, both of these very different experiences have something in common: they are unitive, non-dualistic, mystical experiences in which we find that our own identity is somehow joined with that which is both more than, and at the same time one with, our identity. This is what the Buddhist practices are so good at--achieving such unitive experiences in which the self is so transformed that it finds itself through losing itself.” So, on Wednesday evenings we are exploring Buddhist meditations as a path to awakening. It is a very gradual process and we all learn from one another.
I want to take this opportunity to thank Christ Church: Father Jim, Deacon John and all you wonderful people for allowing Ellen and I to join you and have a contemplative home. Yankton is very fortunate indeed to have such an open and gracious community that encourages spiritual exploration and growth. I invite you to come and experience one of the contemplative practices offered here: Centering Prayer on Monday mornings, Serenity Service on Sunday mornings, or our Wednesday evening meditation sessions. Also, please come to our Meditation Open House on Saturday morning, November 7th to meet the members of this community and learn more about meditation practice.
Christ Episcopal Church 517 Douglas Avenue Yankton, SD 57078 605.665.2456