Sunday 9th May 2021 – Cultivating Attention

Extracts from a Service by Rev. Duncan Voice

Chalice Lighting

We light our chalice to begin
to gather our hearts and minds,
into presence,
into being,
into togetherness.
It is the symbol of our community.
May its light burn brightly within us all.

Prayer

Spirit of Love and Life,
We gather together
to be in gentle and loving community.
Present with friends and strangers,
each with our own thoughts and feelings;
but bonded through our common humanity
and your spirit among us.

We each bring the burdens of our heart,
to the love of this moment,
our worries, cares and concerns,
which even in silence are shared by us all.

We each bring the busyness of our minds
into the peace of this moment,
where we let go of the everyday for a time
and become quiet together.

We each bring our feelings and emotions,
to the understanding of this moment,
joy and sadness, peace and anger,
they belong to us all.

May we recognise and respect
our differences and our commonalities.
May all find freedom
May all find truth
May all find happiness
May all find peace
Amen

Story: Birbal and the Challenge

Reading: Luke 13: 18-21 – The Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Hymn: 83 Just as long as I have breath

Reading: Concentration by Thich Nhat Hanh

Meditation

Prayer: Prayer for Compassion by Elizabeth Tarbox

Music: River Flow in You by Massimo Viazzo

Address

When reflecting on the story we heard earlier, Birbal and the Challenge, author Bhaskar Goswami reflects that it is a powerful example of the saying, where attention goes energy flows. It is an interesting saying isn’t it, and although I don’t know it’s origins, I can see there is a truth there. How we cultivate attention and what we pay attention to are important to our spirituality and can profoundly affect many aspects of our lives. Not just our ability to stand in a freezing river!

Think about what takes your attention on a day to day basis. It may be the tasks before you or it could be ruminations about the past or thoughts of the future. Sometimes the object of our attention gives us energy, but sometimes it takes ours. Sometimes also our attention can be taken up with unhealthy or unwholesome obsessions. What kind of energy is flowing in these instances and where does this lead?

When I looked up the saying on the internet, trying to find its origin, I noticed it being quoted by a number of business coaches and self-help practitioners, using it in a cautionary way. Thinking in terms of how we invest our energy into our well-being or our business; the sort of thing that may be on the office wall! One article in the Guardian said,

Our life expands in proportion to the amount of attention we pay to our growth and self-betterment. However, our fears, doubts, worries, and other emotions often take a great deal of our energy from us; energy we could have used for our gain.

I can see where this is coming from to some extent, we don’t want to be spending all our time giving our attention to worries and fears, but I am a little sceptical about ideas of growth and self-betterment as an object of our attention; where we might focus too much on “our gain”. In our human lives there are time of joy and suffering, if we think we are going to get better and better, we are probably in for a disappointment. I feel there are more worthy goals for us to give our attention to, such as caring for and helping one another for example.

It is easy to listen to the story of Birbal and the Challenge just on the surface, and think that it’s just a bit of fun. That it is, after all, just a story and doesn’t relate to real life. However, giving our attention to something, something worthy, can help us through great challenges and give our lives meaning. Think for example of people who undertake endurance challenges to raise funds for charity, perhaps in memory of a loved one. The object of their attention gives them the courage and the strength to carry on, to achieve what they need to achieve. This isn’t about self-betterment, although it may have some beneficial qualities. It is usually about helping others or about love.

One of the most remarkable examples I have heard of the cultivation of attention is the story of Lopon-la as told by the Dalai Lama. He says,

The night I fled from the palace of Norbulingka, I went to the chapel to pay my respects, knowing it was likely the last time I would ever see it again. My friend, who was already a senior monk at Namgyal monastery, was there at the chapel. Lopon-la, as he is affectionately known by his fellow monks, did not know it was me, because my visit was top secret, and I could not tell him. Then as soon as I had left the palace, the Chinese bombardment started. They arrested many people and about one hundred and thirty were sent to a very remote area, like in Stalin’s rule, when people were sent to Siberia. After eighteen years hard labour, Lopon-la was able to come to India, and he told me what happened during this time in the work camp.

They had no shoes, even during the very coldest days. Sometimes it was so cold that when you spat, it would land as ice. They were always hungry. One day he was so hungry that he tried to eat the body of one of the other prisoners who had died, but the flesh of the dead person was frozen and too hard to bite. Throughout the whole time, they were tortured.

When he left the camp, only twenty people had survived; he told me that during those eighteen years he faced some real dangers. I thought, of course, he was talking about dangers to his life. He told me he was in danger of losing…….his compassion for his Chinese guards.

I could hear a gasp in the room at this extraordinary statement, the greatest sense of danger for this man had been the risk of losing his compassion, losing his heart, losing his humanity.

There are a number of cases where Tibetans who spent many years of hard labour in Chinese gulags told me that it was their best period for spiritual practice, for developing patience and compassion. (Abrams, 2016)

A remarkable tale in many ways. The object of Lopon-la’s attention where the teachings of the Buddha and specifically his cultivation of compassion towards all beings, even those that imprisoned, tortured and mistreated him. The energy of the Buddha sustained him physically, but most importantly spiritually. The danger of bitterness and hatred manifested itself, but he kept his focus on compassion. This was his small candle in the distance. This kind of attention is devotion of the deepest kind.

Lopon-la’s story clearly astonished and inspired his fellow monks, including the Dalai Lama. It inspires and humbles me too. It is a lived experience that helps us to trust that from the worst of circumstances something good may yet still blossom. That love and compassion though seemingly weak, in fact keep us strong, becoming the greatest gifts we can share in community.

It can be difficult to know what to give our attention to sometimes. There can be many competing priorities, many issues or responsibilities that we have to deal with. Sometimes we feel we just have to plough on. Perhaps what Lopon-la’s experience also tells us though, is that having a faith can give us the energy, courage or determination, or whatever it is we need to get us through. Guiding us to prioritise with love, or perhaps to even telling us that we have done all we can. To have patience and compassion for ourselves too; to take a breath, pause.

Life can be difficult, sometimes very difficult, but we can be there for one another. As we try to live in faith and build our loving communities, we can cultivate our attention and awareness to give us a point of focus and a clearer outlook. A means to see truth, seek peace and live in love.

May it be so.

Hymn: 42 From the Light of Days Remembered

Closing Words: Can You Imagine by Mary Oliver (192)

Blessing

As we go from here may we give our full attention to life. To what is within us, the people we encounter and the world we share. May the energy of love and compassion guide, sustain and be shared by us; and may the God of our understanding be with us always. Amen.

Abrams, D. (2016). The Book of Joy. London: Hutchinson.

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