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The Swedish theologian, Krister Stendahl, famously spoke of “Holy Envy” as that virtue of remaining open to aspects we find in religious traditions other than our own in order to admire them and incorporate into our own tradition. A well-known Zen story depicts a disciple asking the master, “What is enlightenment?” to which the master responds, “I chop wood.
This spirituality of work reminds the Christian that her tradition affirms the goodness of the world and all things therein. Most mornings I have the privilege of running along the Mississippi river which separates parts of Minneapolis and St.
I had a memorable experience of this when I was once sitting still at 30,000 feet on an Alaska Airlines flight high over the Tongass National Forest[1] in Southeast Alaska. About State of FormationState of Formation, founded as an offshoot of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (JIRS), is a program of CIRCLE, The Center for Interreligious and Communal Leadership Education at Hebrew College and Andover Newton Theological School. In my typical do-something-about-it fashion, I attacked this most recent funk head-on with physical activity and distracting OCD tasks. I know what the proverb is supposed to mean, but I don’t think it matches what I want it to mean. With each pass of the axe, I destroyed a spindly honeysuckle and felt an emergence of purpose, gratitude and hope. Destroy the garbage, carry the wood to the pile, clean up the mess and reveal the emerging beauty springing forth with each new section of cleared forest.
I promptly retrieved my 2013 garden journal and reread the play by-play on the dirt covered pages. I charted my course, sketched out the design, strategized the perfect companion plants and dreamed about building more raised beds.
After being in a dark cocoon all day, life popped back into my body and a smile teased the corners of my lips as I re-engaged with the forgiving people who love me no matter what my mood. So, how does a person know what to pick when given the choice to focus on the past, present or future?
In late Winter this year I was taking video from a very old digital camera after it started snowing hard. Speaking of the past being important in the moment, I took that image last fall but only discovered it yesterday. Bottom line, we all have different ways to deal with the blues…writing, running, chopping. Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. The practice of mindfulness—being in the present moment—invites us to focus on the task at hand.
I was very aware of the idea of chop sticks slowing one down to enjoy the meal, yet as you say it is still about attitude. Recently I was being mindful when looking at digital photographs I’d taken in a cemetery. Pouring the coffee into my cup I take in the aroma (ah hazelnut) fully appreciating it as I take a deep inhale and slow exhale. Another way to be mindful during the day … before the next call just take a deep breath or 2. My partner started using chopsticks to slow down and become more mindful during meals, too, but now he seems to be more skilled with the sticks than with a fork! I also am a KIND person, and I work at putting kindness first in every encounter – even with myself. Laurie would it be cheating if I said my most favourite tasks to practice mindfulness are painting and photography?
Sheila – There certainly has been a plethora of rich comments here — a goldmine of mindfulness in and of themselves!

Mindfulness cab be practiced in a number of ways, but methinks you settled on the one area (eating) that for a number of reasons benefits the most from reflection and purposeful moderation. For quite some time, I have been envious of the Zen element of striving for and finding bliss in work and being – simply being.
Spirituality, as I understand the term, refers to the lived religious experience of a particular person in the world. The Ignatian tradition teaches that God is to be found in all things, but this can be lost in the broader Christian tradition. I was only aware of the earthy smell of the wood, the sweet sting in my muscles and the complete blank page that my mind had become.
My mind was racing and regrets about the past and uncertainty about the future started to weave its way into my brain. I looked at the haphazardly inserted photos and fondly remembered the best gardening season ever.
So often, I’d bury and avoid the past only to have it sneak up on me at my most vulnerable and public moments. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments on physical activity and society’s short fuse. I commend you for dealing with bluesy feelings in such a productive way – I just curl up into a ball and continue to feel sad. Writing the first piece was highly therapeutic and I followed its lead today between teleconferences by watering the herbs, plucking dandelions and piling sticks.
When we’re in the moment, everything becomes lighter; we’re not compelled to watch the clock.
One can still eat with chop sticks and not be aware or thankful for the food in front of them.
I so appreciate being on the receiving end of what you capture when looking through your lens. Because I was paying particular attention, I became aware of something that I’d never known (thought of) before.
The first time I did so I noticed the coffee was quite bitter … changed brands as a result. Wendy Palmer (Conscious Embodiment) offers several other mindfulness practices on her website.
The instructor is a physiotherapist who is very cognizant of the majority of her class (who have suffered strokes). There is something about the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward, that settles me back into myself and opens my senses. I started reading this post balancing my bowl of oatmeal in my hands, but when I got to the part about being mindful while eating, I guiltily put it down for later! It’s precisely because you are mindful when painting and photographing that you have a global following! I was mindful of waiting and not responding as soon as I received your blog post.The gift of everyone’s mindfulness was lovely! Christianity is sometimes perceived as overemphasizing the finding of God in the non-corporal while shunning the raw earthiness of the body and world.
It does not need to be tortured out of experience or out of the world, but rather (as Zen helps us to see) God is there in the simple mundane everyday-ness of our bodily lives. I find this time to be one of the most spiritual parts of my day, not because of the beauty of the river and its banks (although that certainly doesn’t hurt) but rather because of the practice of taxing my body (my spirituality of work).
I remember thinking there is “nothing” down there, by which I meant “no people.” Even though I had spent countless days living and moving about in the Tongass, it was when I was high above and removed from it that I appreciated it without attachment. Once the lingering memories of dinner plate dahlias, juicy tomatoes and busy little hummingbirds subsided, I tucked my journal away and looked toward the future.

I’m a bit of a gym rat and run junkie myself, but nothing produces the visual, mental and emotional high that a manual labor, tangible-get-dirty type of day does. Every time I read one of your poems, I get a little bit of talent envy and think, “Wow. As I take the first sip, I notice the taste of the coffee,its warmth moving down my throat and down through my system.
After many weeks of healing, letting go of resentment, and strengthening my marriage and family dynamics, I can now do the same chores while feeling the warm water in the sink, smelling the lilac dish soap, hearing the broom swish on the floor, things like that instead of just hearing the anger stuck in my heart. What bliss!”  There is bliss to be found in work, in rigor, and in exhausting the body in the routine tasks that fill our lives; the bliss is to be found in simply being.
With this broad understanding of the term, we can place ourselves in a position to be envious of many spiritual practices other than those provided by our own traditions (and in a manner that hopefully does not scandalize our own tradition). I made a huge wish list from the seed catalog and then plotted the planned architecture of Spring on graph paper. On the flip side, I often avoided thinking about the future because it was so overwhelming and sad as I imagined getting older, seeing kids leave and friendships end. There is definitely something to be said with the cleansing power of manual labor, and how it helps put things into perspective.
I’m sure you experience that same satisfaction in your volunteer fire fighting activities! Anyway, she tries to get the class to focus inward in an effort to re-create connections between the brain and the muscles. The Zen element of finding bliss, or enlightenment (satori), by engaging the world without attachment and seemingly turning the mind off can teach the non-Buddhist (in my case, the person striving to live in the way of Jesus as a Christian) a thing or two. I had no desire to go down there and explore (like I usually did), but took joyful bliss in simply seeing it there for what it is: pure powerful forest, sea, mountains, and animals.
Instead of embracing the past and hoping for the future, I’d get stuck in the present and stunted by being unable to move backward or forward.
I think one of the main reasons society in general seems to have a short fuse these days is that lack of connection with physicality — and going to the gym doesn’t really count. It centers me, attunes me, places me into the rhythm of the world, and as a result my mind is better able to accomplish the tasks that lie ahead. There’s just something about being singularly focused on a task and watching it progress — whether chopping wood, building a cabinet or repairing something. I often close my eyes during some of the motions to help with the focus and how my muscles are moving. You are not only smart enough to recognize that need in yourself, but wise enough to act on it.
These tasks are immediately gratifying and down well a person must pay attention, unless you like pink hues to your white tee-shirts. If I miss a morning run or go some time without physical exercise, my mind, I find, in not as sharp. Another chore I like is taking the garbage out – has to be done about every six weeks in our house as we recycle to much to get in any heavy duty mindfulness practice.
I envy this emphasis we find in Zen to immerse in the world (but with some detachment) in order to see the world.
Eating is not a task for me it is pure pleasure and I like to say – chew slowly as you can no longer taste after you have swallowed.
By engaging the world and the body through work, we might be able to stop and see the world in an ordinary way yet without craving and attachment.

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