I start today with a story I heard over beers from an old friend from college. My friend was in medical school. We had met each other for drinks on a Friday night and he told me about his current rotation working in the emergency room of a hospital in upper Manhattan. He was doing his psychiatry rotation. He met a man the night before who was distraught. He had financial difficulties and was having problems at home. In short he was anxious and maybe a little depressed. My friend had explored the man's issues and determined that there was no immediate threat, and that the man was safe. He helped calm him and gave him some names and numbers of outpatient therapists and reassured him that he was OK.
The next week my friend and I met again, yes same bar and more beers. This time my friend was excited to tell me what had happened. The same man he had seen a week before had come in and this time he was very agitated and couldn’t sit still. He was looking all around, and acting and talking quite paranoid, He told a story of how for a week, everywhere he went, whenever he left his house he saw a little person following him. He said this person mimicked every move he made and wouldn’t let him do anything without copying the movement. My friend was concerned. He thought the man was having a psychotic break and he needed to help him. He reassured the man and they worked together to get him admitted. When everything was done and they were headed up to the psychiatric ward, they got on the elevator together. My friend told the patient the floor number and the patient went to press the button. My friend looked down the hall as the elevator doors were about to close. There down the hall was a little person making the motion of pressing the elevator button. He stopped the elevator door. The little person turned out to be a schizophrenic who had been at the hospital the week before. He was off his medications and had inexplicably latched on to my friends patient and followed him for a week.
I learn from this story many lessons but today I’d like to focus on two aspects. The importance of being present and in the moment, or mindfulness. My friend was aware enough in a busy hospital to notice the small person. He didn’t reject that reality but instead acted. The other point is that the patient told himself a story of going insane and presented it that way. The story was untrue and he was actually ignoring reality.
I’d like to share two stories of how being present and in the moment has helped me through a difficult moment and another story of how being mindful helped a Unitarian Universalist congregation to which we belonged through a traumatic event.
You may know I have been an outpatient therapist. Much of my professional life I have used DBT or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy as my primary methodology. DBT is a skill-based therapy that teaches functional ways to lead a healthy life. Much of what DBT interestingly draws on is Buddhist teaching. One fundamental lesson of DBT is mindfulness. In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Tim Temerson shares a sense of mindfulness and writes “mindfulness means living in and being deeply aware of the present moment. Mindfulness is a doorway to the here and now -- to a way of seeing and listening and living that enables us to let go of the worry, the anxiety, and the judgments of the past and the future. “
One lesson about mindfulness in DBT that I’ve taught a thousand times is called the Dandelion story. In the Dandelion story, there was a man who had bought a home and he wanted to get rid of the Dandelions on his lawn. He went out to the store and got an herbicide (I know very un-Unitarian Universalist of him). He put it all over his lawn and the Dandelions went away. However in not that long of a period he noticed they were coming back. He also noticed his neighbors had Dandelions. He called his neighbors and they all put herbicide on their lawns, The Dandelions went away, but then not too long after, yes, they came back. Then the homeowner's association hired professional landscapers and they did their work. The Dandelions went away, but you can probably guess they came back.
Finally out of pure frustration he wrote to President Obama complaining, saying with all the resources at his disposal did the President have a way to solve the dandelion problem. He of course didn't expect a response and did it out of pure frustration. So he was shocked when a month later he received a letter from the president. The president said I have the solution to your problem. It’s simple. You just need to learn to love Dandelions. Interestingly that concept also cuts across many religious traditions, In Buddhism it is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is feeling the emotions of the moment and then letting them go. When in life we hold on to struggle and pain, we allow that pain to become suffering. Suffering is like a cloud that hovers over us. In the individual that becomes anxiety and depression. In the group it becomes alienation and strife. In the Christian tradition the concept is best expressed in the serenity prayer. God give me the grace to accept what I can not change, the strength to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The first story is of a Saturday morning and how being mindful allowed me to get through a difficult morning. It’s a story of when my children were young. I need to ask you a favor when I tell this story. I ask that you not see it as a dark story full of struggle because for me it isn’t. I ask that you not feel sympathy or concern because I neither need it, nor is it the point of why I share it. To understand this story you need to understand a little bit about our children. Both of our boys are adopted and both have disabilities. Our son Tony was born with autism and has mild mental retardation. He is high functioning and doing quite well, and again no sympathy needed. Our son Robert suffers from schizophrenia and has had many struggles, but, again, is doing well and has not needed to be in the hospital for years. Again no sympathy needed. We are actually very proud of both of them.
That being said it was, I believe, a weekend morning, most likely a Saturday, but I’m not sure. CJ was out of town it may have been for work. I was home with the kids and it had snowed the night before. I had gotten up and was going to make breakfast. I asked Tony to go out and shovel the driveway. My phone rang. It was the hospital, Robert had been there for a few days and was in crisis and the nursing staff wanted to give him an injection to calm him down. As I was talking to the nurse I looked out the window and Tony, who was in his early teens was shoveling snow from the front lawn into the driveway. He never was the best with directions. I looked over and our 90 pound puppy Henry had decided it was time to eat the mail. He had half of a check a friend had just sent us for our wedding sticking out of his month. Now this could be an overwhelming moment. I am very proud of what I did. I started laughing. You see Robert was where he needed to be right then and safe, and Henry and Tony were just being themselves. Nothing to worry about. I had the ability to be present enough to see the comical absurdity in my life and to appreciate it.
The last story I will tell is of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Worcester, MA. It was the first Unitarian Universalist church that CJ and I belonged to, and is a large congregation with a fairly conservative tradition for Unitarian Universalists. When we were there, the Christian prayer, the Our Father was still read during every service. CJ and I were attending a dinner for all the teachers who had volunteered at the church that year. If I remember correctly they had many religious education classrooms and there were over a dozen of us present. At the party, which was at a member’s home who lived close to the church, someone looked up and noticed the roof of the church was on fire. We all went and watched the fire department put out a major fire that would affect significant portions of a very large historic building and -- for all of us -- our religious home.
The next day volunteers worked tirelessly to set up a makeshift sanctuary in a back space of the building used for plays that had a stage and an open gym area. The following day, Sunday morning, the gym area was packed with hundreds of people. There was not enough seats for everyone and many were standing. I clearly remember the words of Barbara Merritt, the minister. She opened the service with the same words that were used every Sunday and had been used for hundreds of years in that congregation. When she spoke you could have heard a pin drop. She called out in her clear voice “This is a day the Lord has made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it.” The church was rebuilt and Barbara has since retired. She’s an amazing minister and I highly recommend her collection of meditations, Amethyst Beach. The power of that moment was everyone was fully present and in that moment the words told a story not of hardship but of joy, resilience, and of connection to a community.
Let us as individuals and a Congregation be present enough to recognize the comical and joyful in our lives, and not get caught up in the struggle. Being mindful of the moment without judgment allows us to feel. We must honor and learn from our past, but by being mindful we recognize that our past is not our present and the future has yet to come. By dwelling in the past or the future we miss the joy, the struggle, and the connections that are around us. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present and paying attention to what is around us. It is recognizing the each others triumphs and struggles. It is noticing, the beauty and the ugly in the world and accepting that it all will pass.
I also said beyond being mindful, it is important how we tell our stories. The stories we tell and how we tell them shape our lives. Our own minister, Rev CJ McGregor, in his sermon Reinterpretation says “Reinterpreting recalls, accepts, reorganizes, and understands the past, instead of abandoning it. To move towards freedom, towards freshness, towards something new and adventurous in our present we need to reinterpret or reconstruct our past.”
Again this is shaped by my professional life, as another form of therapy I’ve been drawn to is narrative therapy. Very simply put. The stories we tell ourselves and others make a difference. On the surface this may seem in conflict with being mindful but I believe they are complementary. We need to look at the past mindfully and be open to all the details and not just the negative.
Since, I came here last August and I heard a narrative of a Congregation that was struggling and that was doomed because the Congregation was too old. I saw and see something different. I looked about and noticed that, for lack of a better way of putting it, new old people were coming every Sunday. I was mindful of the activity going on in the Congregation. This is not a Sunday-only place. I see passion, energy, and talent as well as people struggling with the challenges of aging. I also see strength and commitment.
It is remarkable to see flowers show up on Sundays with no one asking (thank you Margaret Robeson). I see a kitchen that get mysteriously cleaned without a committee to argue about it (thank you June Kleeman). I see someone greeting every Sunday and name tags appearing out of thin air (thank you Janet Fryman). To me these are stories of commitment and caring. We need to be present and we need to tell our story differently. We are an active and involved Congregation with talent and history. We are a Congregation in which things happen because people are committed to the community not because it is their committee assignment.
Let us not hold on to the story of a Congregation that is suffering, and in this moment tell a story not of hardship but of joy, resilience, and of connection to a community. May we realize the wide universe is the ocean we travel and this earth is our blue boat home. Let us heed the words of Mary Oliver “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
In the Moment, a sermon by Richard Keelan delivered at 1stUUPB on May 11, 2012.