A sermon delivered November 24, 2019
by Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
Grass Valley, California


Mindfulness Aspirations

I begin with a poem by John Travis, founder of Mountain Stream Meditation Center in Nevada City, long time teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He very recently published some of his teachings in a book titled Taking the One Seat.

Chapter 1, “Calming the Muddy Water” begins with this:

Like a great blazing fire,
body came to rest on the cushions,
fired up to stay awake and present,
only to find bitter-sweet drifting off,
old stories holding court,
while body cried out, “Pay attention to me, I’m the most important.”
Everybody, everybody, demanding attention.
Nobody getting first place today.
Maybe enlightenment can wait.
Where are my car keys?

Ring familiar to anyone? Like anyone who has ever sought to meditate?

It rings familiar to me.

I am not an expert meditator, nor a Buddhism scholar, nor particularly skilled in formal mindfulness practice…however… I do continue to aspire to mindfulness, rather than the busy fullness of mind which is so often the reality for me.

I desire and aspire to bring full and loving attention to the present moment.

I desire and aspire “to hold painful experiences in awareness without overidentifying with them or desperately trying to fix them.”

I desire and aspire to seeing “reality exactly as it is, on purpose, and without judgement.”

I aspire to mindfulness, how about you?

Mindfulness Everywhere

A number of mindfulness teachers point out that not too long ago the concept of mindfulness was primarily the province of Buddhist practitioners, but that now mindfulness is touted everywhere!

As of yesterday Amazon had over 60,000 entries listed under “mindfulness meditation.” When Gil Fronsdal, from the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City went looking about seven years ago, he found books on Mindfulness and Poker and Mindfulness and Angry Birds. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is now a mainstay in the corporate world.

There are tremendous resources out there now for all kinds of people of all ages and personalities and lifestyles, and yet, the experience of mindfulness remains elusive and aspirational, as perhaps it always must remain.

The predictable irony for me this week, is that as I was preparing for this service focused on mindfulness, I felt more distracted and agitated then I’ve felt in a very long time. I found it especially difficult to meditate and to focus my attention at all.

I’m not sure why that would be…except for all the reasons that any of us have to be slightly off kilter or on edge these days – predicted power shutoffs and risks of fire, impeachment hearings and mindboggling political stances, losses near and far…and the jingle of the approaching holidays.

A UU Thing to Do

I think the pursuit of mindfulness and meditation are particularly helpful spiritual practices in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, given the open path and the wide range of religious beliefs of our members. They are practices that can serve theists and non-thiests and in-betweenists and nothingists alike.

And the possibility of seeing reality as it is, without running from it or getting caught up and lost in our reactiveness to that reality, serves our Unitarian Universalist values that ask us to attend to well-being, sustainability, compassion and justice in this life and this world, not the next world or some other world.

I like Jon Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulness as a starting place: “Mindfulness is [the experience of) awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally…in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

So, in these times, and at this time of year, just before Thanksgiving launches us into holiday energies, I thought it might be of use to invite a simple experience of awareness this morning – the beginning mindfulness practice of bringing our attention to our breath, a practice we might draw on in the weeks ahead.

Those of us who are seasoned meditators will be ready. Those of us who have tried meditation will have some sense of what we’re getting into. And for those who think the whole idea is rather woo-woo, or who are preparing to pull some hair out at the mere thought of mindfulness meditation and attention on our breathing, I want to throw your curious and rational mind a rope to hold on to.

Polyvagal Theory

Amy Renee and Allison Rivers Samson each turned me on to Polyvagal Theory, which I’m starting to read about and study because I think it has very critical things to say to us as we seek to create community that matters now and in the future, community that connects and affects us, and community that serves the cause of good in the world.

This morning I’ll offer just a tiny piece: inspired by the fact that more than two thousand years ago Gautama Buddha was teaching the value of paying attention to one’s breath, and the fact that now, scientific inquiry is shedding light on why that works.

Dr. Stephen Porges, is the originator of Polyvagal Theory, and it’s from his (The) Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory that I am drawing my information this morning.

(To quote (approximately) my colleague, Theresa I. Soto, “Now don’t you fall asleep just because I said something sciencey.”)

The vagal nerve in our bodies runs directly from our brain stem to our internal abdominal organs. It is an ancient development in our evolution, a nerve shared by our long-extinct reptilian ancestors. One set of fibers, the older set, runs from our brain stem, the oldest part of our brains, to the organs below our diaphragm – our guts. A slightly newer set of fibers runs from the brain stem to the organs above the diaphragm, or heart and lungs.

I just said that these sets of fibers run from the brain to the organs, but it’s actually the other way around. Only 20% of the information traveling along the vagus nerve goes from the brain to those organs. 80% of the information – the vast majority of it – goes from the organs to the brain, telling IT what to do. Gut instinct determines a whole bunch of our behavior, without our conscious mind, without our prefrontal cortex, ever getting involved or even knowing about it.

It was UU minister and meditation teacher Doug Kraft, long-time minister in Sacramento, who pointed out that the Pali term that gets translated into English as “mindfulness,” the word “sati,” doesn’t distinguish between mind and heart the way the English word “mindfulness” does, losing half its meaning. As Doug notes, “sati” could better be translated as mindfulness-heartfulness. And no wonder, the heart has a hotline directly to the brainstem.

These ancient parts of our neurology are all about figuring out whether we are safe or not – whether we can stay calm, or whether there is danger and we should ramp up enough energy to flee or to fight. Or, if it looks like neither of those options has a very good chance of succeeding, whether we should simply shut down as a last resort, and appear dead in some way. Physically or otherwise.

Ancient responses that we still use, unconsciously.

By Breath

I will note that the anxiousness of our time keeps us continually ramped up to fight or to flee (you’ve been telling me this for three years), or if we are overwhelmed, to shut down (you’ve been telling me this for three years).

By attending to our breathing, we can help calm those ancient survival mechanisms, and in so doing, improve not only how we feel, but also increase our capacity to heal, to be open, to be creative and to connect to one another, to know each other as “safe.”

By taking deep breaths (if we can), particularly by taking long, slow out breaths, we send a signal from our heart and lungs to the brains tem with the message that all is well, because it’s only when there is no danger that we would feel safe enough to take a long slow out breath.

If there were danger, we would need to be breathing faster to be ready to take off or to fight. Breathing fully and slowly calms our system. In fact, Wally Holtan told me that it’s in really extending that out breath, so that abdomen pulls inward, that we most affect that vagal nerve.

We don’t control that vagal system directly, it operates on its own, but we can influence it by our conscious choices, as the Buddha knew so long ago.

There’s so much more to know about the vagal system, but for today, let’s breathe….

Just Breathe

I invite you to find a comfortable, upright position, (stretch first) with an easy sense of height, feet resting calmly, hands resting in your lap, or on your thighs, shoulders released, eyes closed if you are comfortable doing so. wave of relaxation.

I invite you to follow a wave of relaxation flowing from the crown of your head, down through your body – forehead, behind eyes, cheeks, jaw, neck, collarbone, shoulders, arms, fingers, torso, chest and abdomen, pelvis, legs, thighs, knees, shins, ankles, feet toes…..letting a pool of relaxation gather around your feet.

Bring your attention to your breath, and rather than fill up first, which is a very American thing to do, let’s empty first – send a message to that vagal nerve right away that all is well. Long slow full breath OUT. Then simply relax and receive a breath inward, full and downward. OUT-IN. Once more, OUT-IN.

Then simply relax and breathe easily – in your own most comfortable way, at your own pace.

Keep your attention on your breath. It may help you to keep your attention focused on the movement of air in and out of your nostrils – warmer on the way out, cooler on the way in…

If your mind is moving to other things, as it is wont to do, just notice that, maybe acknowledging to yourself “hm, thinking”, and bring your attention back to your breath.

You may find it helpful to use a practice shared by Pema Chödrön – to focus only on the out breath, not worrying  about the in breath, just the out breath.  Or the other way around…

It may help to give your mind something to do in order to keep your attention on your breath, perhaps count your breaths, up to ten, in any way that you choose –Use what works for you to keep your attention on your breathing.

[…….quiet attention to the breath for a time……]

[Piano begins, to bring people gently out of the silence and focus – Meditation on Breathing chords. Continues under the remainder of sermon.]

How are you?

and there’s more…

Allow me to intrigue you with this thought:

The vagas nerve links, at our brain stem, to the nerves that operate our facial muscles, our larynx and our pharynx that operate our voices, and the muscles of our middle ear that allow us to tune our hearing to the wavelengths of human voices.

So, when we sing together, which naturally extends our out breath, uses our facial muscles, and our voices, and our ears tuning to hear each other, we are activating and marshalling all kinds of internal resources to calm our vagal system, helping communicate to our brain that all is well, that we are safe, that we can be “peaceful and at ease” – all of which allows us to connect to each other.

And that’s only part of what’s going on in the vagal system when we sing together.

Look for chances to breathe this week, with intention and attention.

Look for chances to…

[SING Meditation on Breathing]

  • “Breathe In. Breathe out…”
  • humming
  • just breathing.

So may we be.

Works Cited/Consulted

Chödron, Pema. Awakening Loving-Kindness. Shambhala Publications, Incorporated, 2017. Print.

Gunaratana, Henepola. Mindfulness in Plain English. Wisdom Publications, (2002) 2015. Print.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (Mindfulness definition at Mindful.org)

Kraft, Doug. Buddha’s Map: His Original Teachings on Awakening, Ease, and Insight in the Heart of Meditation. Blue Dolphin Publishing. 2013. Print.

Heller, Rick. Secular Meditation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, and Joy: a Guide from the Humanist Community at Harvard. New World Library, 2015. Print.

Porges, Stephen W. The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. W. W. Norton, 2017. Print.

Travis, John M. Taking the One Seat. Koho Pono, LLC, 2019. Print.