Once again Oprah Winfrey has generated a lot of interest (and some controversy) regarding spirituality as she recently launched a worldwide discussion about Eckhart Tolle’s book "A New Earth."
Folks who know me know I’m a big Oprah fan. I watch the show nearly every day while running on the treadmill in my basement, and I really enjoy her magazine, which I feel has raised the bar intellectually for other popular women’s magazines. I also admire her philanthropy and her ability to speak to women on a wide range of issues, from human trafficking and AIDS relief, to self improvement and introspection, to finding a pair of jeans that look good on your butt. I don't agree with everything she says, of course, but I like her.
I’ve watched the recent shows about Tolle and A New Earth with mild interest. New Age spirituality isn’t really my cup of tea, and ever since I visited India I’ve been a bit skeptical about Eastern religions, as they seem to perpetuate a cultural indifference toward human suffering. However, unlike some, I don’t think Oprah and Tolle are out to take the world for Satan. In fact, I think they might actually have a few good things to say, particularly about mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of being intentionally aware of one’s thoughts and actions in the present moment. In Buddhism, Right Mindfulness is the seventh path from the Noble Eightfold Path.
Let me be clear. I’m not a Buddhist (or an Oprah follower for that matter); I’m a Christian. However, I’ve always felt that mindfulness is one of those good ideas from which we can all benefit, particularly those of us who tend to be excessively busy, goal-oriented, entitled, and materialistic (which unfortunately includes most Americans).
I first encountered the idea of mindfulness while reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. Here’s what he says about mindfulness:
“In Buddhism, our effort is to practice mindfulness in each moment-to know what is going on within and all around us. When Buddha was asked, ‘Sir what do you and your monks practice?’ he replied, ‘We sit, we walk, we eat.’ The questioner continued, ‘But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats,’ and the Buddha told him, ‘When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.’ Most of the time, we are lost in the past or carried away by future projects and concerns. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. When our beautiful child comes up to us to us and smiles, we are completely there for her.”
I think this is a marvelous idea, one that can compliment (rather than compete with) Christian beliefs and practices. For example:
- When I practice mindfulness in conversation, I listen to what others are saying rather than worrying about what I’m going to say next.
- When I practice mindfulness in eating, I savor and enjoy smaller portions instead of absently scarfing down an entire can of Pringles while watching “The Biggest Loser.”
- When I practice mindfulness in doing housework, I quiet those pesky and prideful thoughts of being “above” cleaning the toilet.
- When I practice mindfulness while reading Scripture, I am more in tune with how the Holy Spirit is speaking to me at that moment and less concerned about which theological system best explains what I’ve read.
- When I practice mindfulness while praying, I find myself doubting less and believing more.
- When I practice mindfulness while serving, I focus on the needs of others rather than what’s next on my “to-do” list.
I think one of the mistakes Christian fundamentalists make is to assume that other religions or cultural traditions have absolutely nothing to teach us. It’s too bad because, in this new global community, there’s a lot we can learn from one another.
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