For some, the Lenten season is about sacrifice, some focus upon the liturgical aspect of penance, others call to mind the scriptural reality check from Ash Wednesday to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” There is a place for all of the above, but for me, the healthiest way to come through Lent is by paying attention.
Distracted by the Process of Living
It is easy to be so busy with life that we avoid paying attention. One of things that Alcoholics Anonymous does with its Twelve-Step program is to show people who have been caught up in addiction how to pay attention. Buddhist spiritual practice can be seen as a valuable method for getting off the treadmill of life long enough to pay attention. The easiest thing to do is to not pay attention to ourselves, our loved ones, and our lives as a whole. Distraction seems to be the preferred method for getting through life, though anyone who has been forced to stop and pay attention will tell you about the valuable lessons learned. Sometimes it takes being blind-sided by illness or tragedy. Sometimes it is addiction that brings a person to the very bottom before they see the necessity of paying attention to his or her life.
“I don’t really have time for that right now,” is a common reaction, and one that I must confess to falling back upon quite easily. After all, we have commitments, obligations and deadlines. In addition, there is always something we would rather do than being still and alone with ourselves. Because distraction is so often our default setting, the arrival of Lent is an excellent time to bring ourselves back to some degree of self-examination, to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory,” as one of the Twelve Steps of AA suggests.
Taking Time to Be Still
Several years ago, the rector of the church I was attending gave some very helpful advice about what to give up for Lent. “You might try something as simple as giving up cream in your coffee. That way, you are reminded each morning to spend some time in spiritual reflection.” I thought it was a good idea. At the time, I took my coffee with cream and sugar, so I decided that I would make black coffee without sugar my Lenten discipline. As my rector had suggested, it was a very effective means to provide a daily reminder that this is a season to be spent in reflection. With that first sip of coffee in the morning I was reminded to turn my mind toward God. When I took that coffee break at work, I could not help being more conscious and circumspect. Throughout that Lenten season, I was not saddled with the notion of sacrifice, nor was I pounded with the idea of being “a miserable sinner.” My Lenten discipline did help me to pay attention in a meaningful way. (And on Sunday, when there is no fasting is to be done since every Sunday is liturgically Easter, that warm cup of coffee with cream and sugar delightfully said “He is risen indeed!")
I have tried that same Lenten discipline on occasion since that time and it has always served as a healthy reminder to take stock of my life. This year, I have decided to make black coffee my practice once again. Those who are observing Lent have, of course, already begun their practice. Whatever you are “giving up,” be sure to let it remind you to pay attention. This is not about an endurance test, is a time of renewal and reflection. Lenten practice does not have to be harsh to be beneficial. If you are not observing Lent, it is never too late to take some time away from your routine to pay attention. If all you do is sit quietly for fifteen or twenty minutes in the morning, that is a good start. Learning to sit and count your breaths in order to still the mind is a helpful form of meditation that anyone can begin right away. At any rate, you will be glad you stopped to pay attention to life now, while you have a moment to reflect.
Photo: "kaffe" by cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons