How We Pay Attention Matters
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
Seems to me this time is year is always pretty intense.
The transition from summer – with its context of vacation, relaxation, lazy and longer days – into the fall – with back to school – back to work – back to busyness. And this year – back to more anxiety and worry because we are not even close to back to normal.
Beyond our immediate and personal realities – there are truly intense and tragic realities around us. Haiti, Afghanistan, Fires and Hurricanes, Pandemic
When things feel overwhelming the teachings of Jesus remind me to start with what I can do – look at what I am capable of and take seriously a mustard seed mentality. Meaning, the smallest of actions have profound effects. Or, as Gandhi famously said – be the change you want to see.
This morning’s passage reminded me of a practice I was introduced many years ago on a working retreat. A retreat offered in various locations around the country. I have no problem admitting I when and where I attended was totally self-motivated, because of the location – it was in Healdsburg, CA in Sonoma wine country at an Episcopal retreat center called Bishop’s Ranch – a beautiful setting with delicious everything – truly farm to table. Everything was grown on site or from local farm.
So one afternoon we were introduced to the practice of mindful eating. We entered the kitchen and the table was set with our plated food – which was covered with a napkin. We sat down, said grace.
Then we were invited to pick up the napkin and just look at our food. What do you see first? What do you want to eat first? What colors or textures jump out at you? Anything there that you thought was particularly beautiful? Take in this plate of food with your eyes – what do you smell – use your senses.
Now, choose one thing to taste first. Salad, fruit, grains and take one bite and chew. Is it soft? Crunchy? Chewy? Does it taste salty? Sweet? Savory? Are there flavors you want to combine? How many can you distinguish as you chew, chew, chew.
And as you swallow – let the food settle. Let your stomach catch up. Give yourself time to be satiated.
You probably realized there was no talking during all this – we were really being asked to slow down and focus on what it is we were eating – which is not something we often do. Eating is typically something we do while doing something else – or engaged in conversation with someone else.
And then, in this quiet dining room, we simply continued to eat our food slowly and deliberately. And as we were finishing up the retreat leader invited us – just as we had opened the meal with grace for what we are about to receive – let’s give thanks not only for what we’ve been given – but all the people, the many hands who brought this food to our table.
The cooks – the kitchen staff. The gatherers – the farmers – the day laborers. The earth itself – God the good gardener who created the soil and the sun and the rain and creation that brings forth everything we need for life.
It was a most fulfilling meal. And at some point during this past year I returned to the practice – not at every meal – but definitely when I’m feeling stressed, overwhelmed – and need to remember the connection that is all the time. The connection we have to each other – the human family – always abiding in God.
I do think the people who bring the criticisms and the judgments to Jesus are stressed. Stressed out about their position and a changing world – and that’s one reason it’ constantly – this is right, this is wrong – they are wrong – they are unclean – they are not deserving – they are out – we are in.
“You teach human precepts as doctrine,” Jesus says, “and abandon God’s commandment.” What is that commandment - Love God with all you got and love your neighbor as yourself.
There is nothing inherently right or wrong with religious or faith-based spiritual practices around what or how we eat. Just like there is not a right or wrong with how we cross or kneel, or genuflect in a church. The purpose of bodily acts in worship is to cultivate awareness – to do something that calls to mind our attention. To bring all of our present attention to what is now.
Neither ruminating on the past – or stressing out over the future. There is nothing that fuels our anxiety more than that!
Underneath the behaviors – like the ones Jesus lists – that lead to outcomes nobody wants – are the motivations within our own hearts. Judgment and blame doesn’t heal – validation does not come from outside ourselves. God has made us worthy to stand before God and we are beloved.
Paying attention helps me be grateful. Paying attention helps me be aware of what I’m thinking and saying and doing. Am I being who I profess to be? Not always – try again. Paying attention makes me aware of all God has given me so that I can become aware of what I am capable of bringing into the world. How can I cultivate ways of paying attention so that that I am attentive to loving God, loving neighbor and loving self?
This is the challenge and the good news of this passage. To pay attention in this way is to follow Jesus.