I don’t think of myself as a pious Christian. That is because I don’t do many of the things that I imagine most pious Christians do. Piety is, I think, a concept familiar to those of us who are “People of the Book” (that is, Jews, Christians, and Muslims) than those (of us) who are Buddhist.
And also, I thought of piety as empty – an attention to ritual or observance that lead to a “holier than thou” sort of perspective, but was empty of meaning.
Then I started to read Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Piety gives rise to reverence, which sees the “dignity of every human being” and “the spiritual value which even inanimate things inalienably possess.” Exploitation and domination are utterly foreign to genuine piety, and possession of things leads only to loneliness.
He speaks so eloquently of the deepness of a genuinely pious life. The ways in which it opens us to the divine, shapes us, and helps us tap into meaning. And I began to re-arrange my concept of piety, to open it up to be more expansive.
Is piety simply a way of living where we are really just paying attention? I’ve often translated the concept from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing”, to mean that I pay attention to the present moment, and listen for God’s voice in it. Is being pious, which for some mean very specific observances, just that? And how do I bring that to my life, as someone who does not have that framework of observance?
At least, for now, perhaps I’ll be reframing my ideas about piety, thanks to Heschel. I’ll probably have more to say about what I’ve learned from him in later posts.
Most Buddhist traditions focus a lot on training you to pay attention to what’s happening at this present moment. It’s a really important practice. Being able to be present in each moment to whatever is happening, whether it is your breath sitting, or being with a loved one, or working, or whatever it is, is the beginning of being able to be equanimous with whatever is–whether it is joyful or difficult.
And, of course, we all know that now is all there really is. The past is past, the future is yet to come, and living in them, dwelling in them, keeps us from the present moment.
The problem is, that in order to live our daily lives, we need to attend to both past and future. What do I need to accomplish today? Where did I leave my keys? We need to dip into both past and present with some regularity. So how do we do this without losing the present?
Part of the question is: are you clear, and in the present when you are attending to the future or past, or are you lost in the future or past? Are you constricted when you consider, for example, what you have to do tomorrow, or what happened yesterday? Are you dwelling on it, perseverating, feeling stressed about either the past or the future? Being present to those feelings is key.
I have two examples of practices I use that help me in this regard. First, is cooking practice. I love to cook, particularly for other people. And I love cooking for retreats – it’s a kind of container that helps me with this practice.
Cooking requires thought about present and future, particularly. You want everything to be cooked approximately at the same time, and, especially if you are cooking for 30 or more (yes, I’ve done that) it requires a lot of coordination. What I find really interesting is how I deal with the stress of trying to make sure that everything worked well, was seasoned correctly, is cooked, and arrives basically together, on time, when people are ready to eat. In a sense, it’s attending to both the future (how everything is going to come together) and the present (how am I feeling about it all.)
Christians contemplatives have some great practices to look at the past. My favorite is the Prayer of Examen (I mentioned it in a past post.) This prayer has its origin in Ignatian spirituality – the spirituality of the Jesuits. The basic idea of the prayer is to look back on your day with mindfulness, and notice what happened during the day, with an openness to the presence of God.
I came up with a version that is kind of a mix of traditions, and I think it is one that someone who doesn’t identify as Christian can use.
First, sit and be present to how you are feeling in this moment about the day. Is there anxiety about what happened, joy, pain, and/or anger? Be open to those feelings, and have compassion for yourself. If you wish, be open to the presence of the Divine, however you define it.
Be willing to look at the days events with gentleness for yourself and others. And if you find yourself unwilling, notice that, and let yourself admit that you don’t have that willingness. It’s all OK.
Then, look at the events of the day, one by one. Notice what feelings come up when a particular event occurred. Notice when there is sadness, or anger, or joy, or pain. Let gentleness and compassion wash over those feelings, if they are difficult for you. Notice what you might have done differently, or said differently, and forgive yourself if you feel shame or anger at yourself. Let the grace that is present in the Universe bathe you with love.
Notice if you can’t remember much of the day. Notice what might have allowed you to be more present in the day. Think about what you might do tomorrow to be more present for the day.
End the Examen with gratefulness for your efforts during the day to stay present, and gratefulness for whatever the day has brought to your practice.