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Mindful Resilience: Navigating the Labyrinth of Change in Times of Challenge by Pamela Cotton, Mindful Resilience Press, 2010, 148 pp.

It is a pleasure to tell you about Mindful Resilience, since it is a book you might not have heard of before. Pamela Cotton is a member of my congregation, and this book represents a coming together of her professional skills as a therapist, her spiritual life in contemplative practices, and her personal journey through a tumultuous time of change and loss in her life. Mindful Resilience offers concrete strategies, personal storytelling and Spirit wisdom for anyone seeking to be present and open to growing through life’s most difficult challenges.

Mindful Resilience is grounded in the belief that our ability to remain resilient in tough situations is connected to and improved by the practice of giving sustained, “non-judgmental attention”  and presence to the situation. Pamela tells the story of her own journey through a major move to a new and unfamiliar location; the death of her father; her mother’s diagnosis of ALS and subsequent need for care, and eventually her mother’s death. She describes the techniques of mindfulness that she practiced during this time, and how they enabled her to relish the beauty of these holy moments, in spite of their pain and her own natural resistance to the events that were unfolding. It was my privilege to serve as Pamela’s pastor during much of the journey she describes in the book. I can testify to that she practiced what she preaches, and that those practices kept her present to the moment and gave her strength to not only endure but grow and even find joy in the midst of the struggle.

As a pastor, I connected most deeply with her descriptions of being present to the moment. We clergy journey alongside people in some of the most difficult moments of their lives—the death of a spouse or child, a medical crisis, a divorce, a job loss, family violence and more. Sometimes, we can help in concrete and meaningful ways. Most of the time, however, all we have to offer is our presence and a few words of prayer or scripture. Pastoral care literature has long taught us that clergy can help in crisis situations by serving as a “non-anxious presence” available to those involved, remaining calm and open and attentive as those around us are in crisis. This is both impossibly difficult and the easiest thing to do. It is impossible to be present and not to also feel the intensity of pain and grief in a situation. It is easy to differentiate and remain calm, because it is not your pain or your crisis or your family.

Mindful Resilience suggests that even those in the middle of the crisis themselves can practice the same non-anxious presence by learning to be present to the situation, to their emotions in it, and to the possibilities of the power of the Spirit within them. That mindfulness practice enables everyone to be more resilient in crisis, more open to life-affirming change, more able to support family members and more attuned to the workings of the Spirit. Using the metaphor of traveling a labyrinth, each chapter of the book recounts Pamela’s own story, and introduces a new turn on the path of mindfulness, such as Mindful Presence, Mindful Commitment-to Transformation, Mindful Embracing, Mindful Embodiment, and Mindful Awareness-to-Balance. She strikes just the right balance between allowing the concept of mindfulness to remain mystical and teaching concrete techniques about how to practice it.

I think this book could be helpful to anyone who feels overwhelmed by life, crisis, change or emotion. After all, this book is about resilience.  I would also recommend it for caregivers (professional and non-professional) seeking to help those in crisis. The techniques of mindfulness she describes can help sort through the chaos. Being mindfully present to the emotions and the events helps overcome the feeling of  being out of control, of being a victim of your life rather than centered in it. Practicing Mindful Resilience opens us to the Spirit within our lives, no matter how tumultuous, and builds our resilience.

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I had the opportunity to hear a colleague preach this week at an ecumenical Lenten service. He was preaching on the story of the Transfiguration, and Peter’s desire to capture the experience of being on the mountaintop to remember and return to it forever. He opened his reflections with a story about using a camcorder to capture precious moments when his children were small. He realized after a time that he was so busy looking through the lens of the camcorder to capture the moment that he missed being a part of the moment. What we want to be about, he said, is being fully engaged with the moment, because that writes the moment in our hearts, where the memory really matters. We can return to the experience of God in quiet and prayer. It was a good sermon.

Throughout his story, I was reflecting on my (still relatively new) life as a blogger. Since I have been writing this blog, I have found myself thinking, “Oh, I have to capture this story on the blog!” or “I can’t wait to write this down!” I wondered if I am so busy thinking about how to remember my spiritual moments with God or special moments with B that I am not actually present to them.

In reality, though, I have found the opposite to be true. Since I have been writing regularly, I feel as though my senses have been heightened. I feel like I am slowing down and paying more attention to my life. All these blog entries were once just passing moments of closeness to God and people. They did not get remembered at all, much less written into my heart, because I was always rushing off to the next thing. Now I find myself noticing and then absorbing the details of an encounter, with an eye toward writing it later. Writing intensifies my mindfulness and awareness, deepens my experience of events, and implants the spiritual memories deeper in my heart. For example, I am pretty confident I would not remember anything about that Lenten sermon if I hadn’t been contemplating a written response!

Which makes me think there are two key differences between writing and recording. First, a recorder does not need to be present to the moment to record it—the camera does all the work. A writer must be fully present to the moment, because the mind and senses are the only recorders present to capture the experience. Second, what is captured by the recorder is qualitatively different than what is captured by the writer. The recorder is able to capture the moment in all its detail. In video, for example, the camera recalls the color of clothes and the condition of the room, the words that were spoken and the ambient noises, the order of events and the expressions on faces. The written word cannot handle all those lavish details without becoming cumbersome and overwhelming. What the writer captures is what it was like to be there–the feelings, the experience, the words and happenings that mattered most. A writer is reflective and selective. When I write about a moment, I am not trying to tell you exactly what happened, so that you can see it for yourself. I am trying to share with you the experience that I had in a moment, why it mattered to me and what made my heart sing. I am trying to make your heart sing too, in response. Video footage is raw, writing is interpretation.

To continue the example, consider the difference between watching a video of my colleague’s sermon and just reading my brief summation. I make no attempt to capture the nuance of his words or the richness of his outline–I only tell you what mattered to me, and why it spoke to my heart.

All this reminds me of the Bible. The Bible is writing, not recording. This is not a new insight–I long ago abandoned any understanding of the Bible as literal Word of God or factual recording of history. When I teach people about the Bible, I tell them that the Bible exists because people had an encounter with God that touched them, and they were so moved that they wrote it down to remember and share with others.

Then I realized, of course, that this is the same exercise I am participating in today. The technology has changed from parchment scrolls to WordPress blogs, but the act is the same. Encounter God and write about it, because the act of writing inscribes it in your heart and enables you to share the experience with others. I intend no arrogance or pretension by drawing a comparative line between my halting reflections and the words of holy scripture–quite the opposite. I am humbled to realize that I am doing nothing new under the sun, just participating in a long history of faith seekers and faith writers trying to inscribe the moment into their hearts and into the hearts of others, from behind the quill, the pen or the keyboard.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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