Preached by Rev. Andy DeBraber at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ on Nov. 6, 2011:
I Corinthians 9:19-27
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
Today is your lucky day! You have come to the right place. Because here’s what we have to offer you: the secret key to a whole world of possibilities. You can have a clearer mind, less stress, more serenity, and a better ability to cope with tasks. You can have greater peace of mind, greater inner strength, greater will power, greater self-confidence, and better functioning in daily life.
You will be able to make your mind work for you when you need its services. You will be able to silence it when its services are not needed. Things, circumstances and events that used to agitate and anger you will not influence your inner calmness. You will experience happiness, contentment, and satisfaction. You will be more conscious of the choices being made in life, more self-determined than one’s life being determined by other forces. You will be able to attain your life goals, your “Bucket List,” if you will.
And all of this for just $69.99! No, despite all of that, I’m not trying to sell you something. However, there is of course a catch: you must tame the monkey - the monkey mind, that is. The one that wants to jump quickly from place to place to place, from one activity to another. The good news is that the monkey can be tamed.
In fact, we have all done it at times in the experience of what is called “flow”: those moments when we are so into doing something that nothing else matters. This usually happens when we are doing something we love. The rest of the world seems to stand still. Time does not exist. An hour might as well be five minutes. We are filled with energy. We give no thought to the lists of other things that must be done.
In those moments, our attention is hyper-focused, our concentration complete. We feel fully alive. The idea of today’s message, “Concentrating our Energy,” is that we can live this kind of life more often. The affirmation in the children’s curriculum is “I give full attention to everything I do.”
Paul writes to the Corinthians about exercising self-control, running the race to win it, enslaving the body. While that language may sound a bit harsh, he’s inviting us to channel our energy into what we really want to accomplish in life. We are not only our bodies. We are not only our minds. We are the ones who exercise self-control and can point our bodies and minds in the direction we want to go and keep them going in that direction even as they will naturally want to wander off, like Barnabas the monkey.
The concentration necessary for such self-control is like a magnifying glass on a sunny summer day: it takes the parallel rays of the sun, which might warm a piece of paper, and focuses them intensely in one spot, enough to burn that same piece of paper. Sometimes, the paper will even burst into flames. With concentration, we can burn with a particular passion, shutting out all negative and destructive thoughts. With concentration, our focused attention allows new insights to burst onto the scene.
We can train our minds to concentrate better, a skill so necessary in an increasingly fragmented world where so much calls for our attention at the same time: we have three windows open on the computer doing our email, banking, and facebook, when the cell phone rings followed by the landline ringing. Recent studies say we were not physiologically made for this. And learning to concentrate can help immensely.
The key to developing concentration is effort. It’s the effort to pay close attention, to keep coming back. Usually the energies of the mind are scattered in a thousand different directions. The mind is all over the place, and its energy is simply frittered away in random thoughts and desires, hopes, fears, feelings.
As concentration deepens, our minds become calm and centered. We’re less reactive. We come into greater emotional balance. We can more easily let go and let things be. The mind gains a spaciousness which gives room for pain and anger and fear all to arise and pass, without our being broken by them, or needing to act them out.
The choice is ours, to be a slave to the mind and its whims, or to be its master. Mind loves its freedom more than anything else, and will try to stand in the way of concentration whenever it can. The drift of thoughts that occurs in our minds is not necessarily a bad thing nor a disorderly one; it is the relaxed condition of mind, and we can use it for resting when we are mentally tired, as we do each night while dreaming.
In much of everyday life, most people are effectively day-dreaming - at worst we are sleep-walking automatons. Our minds flip mechanically from one thing to another, never resting on anything for very long or intentionally. Unless we can wake ourselves from this mechanicalness and sleep, we cannot begin work on ourselves and we cannot get things done in life.
As we are able to concentrate more, the subconscious mind will be less able to affect us. Really, only the ‘sleeper’ is affected by the subconscious mind. When we wake up, we are free of it. For instance, if you concentrate on a book, you are aware of the book and you are not thinking, looking, or listening to anything else. You are aware of the associations; in fact, you are more aware, but you are not distracted by them.
A person with good powers of concentration can shift their attention from point to point and return at will to the original center. A person with poor concentration wanders to distant matters: golf, income tax statement, the attractive person nearby, or anything at all. One disconnected thought leads to another, and in a little while this individual forgets what he or she was originally considering.
Concentration is a means to live life purposely and creatively rather than as a reaction to the flow of sensations, causatively rather than at effect. Our ability to pursue chosen goals irrespective of obstacles placed in our path is one measure of our freedom from slavery to the monkey.
Concentration is like a muscle, the more we exercise the stronger it becomes. We must engage in training. I have three practical skills for us today:
which sounds very simple, but it works. When you notice your thoughts wandering, say to yourself STOP and then gently bring your attention back to where you want it to be. Each time it wanders bring it back. To begin with, this could be several times a minute. But each time, say STOP and then re-focus. Don't waste energy trying to keep thoughts out of your mind (forbidden thoughts attract like a magnet!), just put the effort into STOP and re-focus. To begin with you will do this hundreds of times a week. But you will find that the period of time between your straying thoughts gets a little longer each day, so be patient and keep at it.
2. Worry time
Set aside one or more specific periods in the day when you are allowed to worry. It can help to set them just before something that you know you will do, to ensure that you stop worrying on time - e.g. before a favorite TV show or a meal-time. Whenever an anxiety or distracting thought enters your mind during the day, banish it until your next worry time, and re-focus on what you are supposed to be doing. Some people find it helpful to write down the banished thought: it is easier to banish a thought if you are sure you won't have forgotten it when you get to your worry time. It is important that you keep your worry time(s), and make yourself worry for the full time. If you find that you can't fill the time available, then make a conscious decision to reduce it. You may notice, particularly if you keep a list, that certain things keep reappearing: this is a fairly clear indication that you need to do something about them.
3. Candle Concentration (I had people practice this at the beginning of the service and then referenced it here.
- In this exercise, we will use the candle, although you can adapt the exercise to whatever object you are using. Sit with your back straight, and place the burning candle at eye level.
- First bring your awareness to your breath. Gradually your breath becomes slower and more relaxed. Try to imagine a thread placed in front of our nose; you are breathing so quietly it will not move to and fro.
- Now we look at the object. Gradually bring your attention to a tiny part of the candle flame, for example, the very tip of the flame.
- When you breathe in, feel that your breath, like a golden thread, is coming from that point on the candle and entering into your heart. And when you breath out, feel that your breath, feel that the light is leaving the heart, passing through a point in your forehead between the eyebrows and a little above (in Eastern philosophy this is a powerful concentration point) and then entering into the object of concentration. Try to feel that nothing else exists except you and the object you are focusing on.
- When you do this exercise, thoughts will invariably get in the way. When this happens, don’t be annoyed or upset, just bring your attention back to the exercise. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and similarly it will take time to rein in your mind.
After a couple weeks of this practice - first two or three minutes a day, then five, maybe increasing to 10 or 15 minutes, you should notice the progress -- a clearer mind, better ability to cope with tasks, less stress, more serenity. May it be so. Amen.