For the first time at a public venue, at the August 2013 Teen Choice Awards when he was awarded the Ultimate Choice Award, Ashton Kutcher revealed his real name. Jettisoning his first name “Chris” at the age 19, Kutcher divulged that he changed his middle name “Ashton” to be his first name when he became an actor at that age. Kutcher went on to dispense wisdom to his teen-packed audience—wisdom that would help make them happy and content in life,
advice from which people of all ages might benefit. He is convinced that sexy is more about being smart than it is about being attractive: it’s not the hot girl or cute guy but rather it is the intelligent geek who is the sexiest person at the party. The media’s definition of sexy is externally driven and exploitable. He challenged them not to buy into the media hype of what is sexy and beautiful. According to the 35-year old actor, sexy and beauty are internal qualities, informed by intelligence. Finally, quoting Steve Jobs, whose professional life he portrayed in film this summer, Kutcher told the teens to be proactive: “Build a life; don’t live one.”
Everybody has glommed onto those words, because on their face they make sense. Tough-minded entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs live by that credo. They are proactive in life; they do not wait for opportunity to come to them. They discover opportunity in the process of creating a business, a lifestyle, a future, for themselves and their families. Avant-garde entrepreneurs witness the same truth: while active in one thing, focused on their purpose, opportunity sneaks up on them. For conservatives, “building a life” is a worthy, hard-nosed proposition that is commensurate with life at its barest: the spoils of life go to those who pull up their own bootstraps, who are not passive, not dependent on others to care for them.
Steve Job’s words, “build a life; don’t live one,” denote something else. They reveal the spirit of the age in which we live, where the available tools for building a life are many. Knowledge is disseminated through the internet and thereby available at the stroke of a key. People have tools with which to mold the kind of life they want informed by their desire and ambition. Long gone are the days when the Latin Bible was chained to a desk and very few had access to it. In those dark ages of Western Civilization, the cathedral was the place where the illiterate masses learned the stories of their faith through stained-glass windows. In this Information Age on steroids, anyone can make for oneself the kind of life one wants. All they have to have is intentionality.
We live in a hybrid world where people build themselves by picking and choosing from an infinite swatch of experiences and traditions. The flip side is that people do not trust the ready-made life, a life that is prepackaged by tradition, especially a tradition that they consider bigoted and limited in universal scope. They distrust such packages and the recognized authority figures behind them who barter them as wisdom from a golden age that transcends space and time. Today people are too sociologically sophisticated to be impressed by the notion that people who did not drive cars or use smart phones have a profounder take on the human condition than they.
Furthermore, many people refer to themselves as spiritual, not religious. The religious person is the one who lets life passively come to them in the prepackaged forms of tradition. The spiritual person is intentional about building their
own relatedness to God and using many sources to do so. This presents a challenge to the church as a tradition-laden reality. Tradition says that we have a connection to the past and the wisdom that is inherent in it. Yet, to one living in this Steve Jobs era, tradition means merely living a life; letting life come to you, not really engaged in building one.
We who value tradition and believe that it can communicate wisdom have to become mindful of our tradition and mindful of ourselves. One of the many fruits of Christian contemplation is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is not merely paying attention to the world around you. It is how you pay attention. An adrenalin-induced hyper-vigilance is certainly not mindfulness because it is closed off to the full perspective. Mindfulness is not merely psychological awareness or consciousness. The real issue is how you are aware and conscious in the world. Mindfulness is being psychologically aware and conscious from the perspective of the whole—your whole self, body and spirit. This calls for an illustration.
I attended seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Once I arrived at seminary, I did not leave the campus much except to attend worship on Sundays. Every Sunday, a few of my friends and I would load into the car and travel to worship at the various churches in the city and its suburbs. As we drove along to our appointed places of worship, we would talk, share our concerns, joke around, do all the things students do to ease their anxiety when not studying. I looked forward to traveling through those rural areas and worshipping at those churches, some built in the 19th century. I especially liked attending a German service at a church in the country some 20 miles from the seminary. For those long drives, all along the way, our focus was solely on each other. I would pay hardly any attention as I passed by peaceful meadows, glancing at them in only a perfunctory way, for I was absorbed by what was going on inside the car.
One Sunday, I had the pleasure of riding a friend’s motorcycle to the German church service. Even though it was a trip that I had made many times before, by leaving the bubble of the car’s confining interior, I experienced this same Fort Wayne countryside from a different perspective. I almost didn’t recognize my surroundings, like I’d never seen them before. I experienced a new beauty. No, I was in the beauty, fully immersed. Traveling on that familiar road was now a feast for all my senses: the wind kissing my face, the colors rich with the visual tang of spring flowers, the change in air temperature from warm to cool as I traveled in and out of the sun through the shadowy comfort of trees. The changing perspective brought that countryside to life, which I could not have experienced in the isolation and distraction of the car. Same trip, different experience—a paradigm-shift because that motorcycle ride made me suddenly mindful.
Mindfulness causes a change of perspective. Mindfulness helps us slip the thoughts, the comforts, of the conscious mind. It allows us to experience the world through the perspective of all the senses, the whole self, the true self who sees in wholes. It is the conscious mind that limits by parceling out the experiences of life in a piecemeal way. The conscious mind focuses on the trees and ignores the forest. The true self sees and experiences both the trees and forest as a whole.
Mindfulness is informed by intentionality. It is the intention of being fully available and present to life, which comes to us in many forms. Indeed everyone is challenged to build a life. One must do so in some kind of context. No life is built de novo, out of thin air. There was a context to Steve Jobs that predisposed him to pursuing the activity that he did. And, in a sober moment, I suspect that he would be grateful for the context that gave him the possibilities to actualize himself in the way that he did.
From genetics to culture, your life’s context is informed by many things. These are realities over which you have no power. In all the alacrity to build a life for yourself, you have to concede that you are the product of a culture and
history that continues to inform your thinking and being. You are always living out of some context. The issue is: can you be aware of it? Can you be mindful of it? Can you be mindful enough to appreciate it as you would appreciate life from the perspective of a motorcycle ride?
Time spent in contemplation creates in you a striving to be integrated with your whole self, your whole environment. Contemplation lessens the rub between the life that comes to you through tradition and the life that you intentionally build. Those two aspects of life need not be at odds with each other in some dualistic way. The intentionality to create yourself anew can coexist with the self that has come to you by way of history and environment, namely your context. How is it that we do indeed become mindful of our traditions and mindful of ourselves?
Contemplation is living with your true self. The time that you spend in contemplation is an occasion to live in your true self in Christ Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This self is infinite and full of possibilities for peace, love and joy. In contemplation you sit with this true self. You learn to respond to its movements, to listen to its voice of love. Over time you get to know this true self. In contemplation, you become adept at intentionally ignoring the thoughts from your everyday context. That everyday context can be shrouded in lies, deception, falsehood and sin. The false self, whom Paul calls the Old Adam, has its origin there in that context. You sit in the presence of your eternal context in Christ Jesus. The more adept you become at sitting with your true self in Christ Jesus, the more you realize that you are firmly grounded in Christ. You take him wherever you go, for there is nowhere you can go that he will not be with you. Taking this divine person with you wherever you go is the true life that you build, for wherever Christ is, life gets amplified by the fruit of contemplation.
Saint Paul says in Philippians 4:8f, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true; whatever is honorable; whatever is just; whatever is pure; whatever is lovely; whatever is commendable. If there is any excellence; if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” These things are Christ. Whenever we engage Christ in worship, in study and in
prayer and in contemplation, these things amplify life, heightening possibilities, enabling you to intentionally build a life based on these Christ-like qualities that come to fruition in your life because they at the front and center of your life in your true self in Christ. Mindfulness has its beginning in the contemplation of Christ in you, your true self. The mindfulness that is spawned in contemplation spills over into your everyday life.
Throughout the day, a few deep breaths and the saying of your sacred word will center you on Christ, and make you mindful. It creates space in your day to fill with the fruit of contemplation. The more mindful you become throughout your day, the more spaces of peace and quiet you will experience. When confronted by a an angry driver, you will know how to step back into this space of peace and handle the situation with a kind and solid spirit, which you cultivated through being with your true self in Christ in the practice of contemplation. A few deep breaths and a saying internally your sacred word can put you in the present, fully in the now. Have the intentionality to live by this self and you will build your life and you will not just live a life. When feelings of anxiety overwhelm you, you are just living a life. When any overwhelming feeling highjacks you and takes control, you are merely living a life that is the byproduct of that feeling. But, you are bigger than that feeling. You are not that feeling. You are much more in Christ. Accordingly, there is peace in you. There is love in you. There is joy in you. They all are possibilities for you in any situation, for your true self transcends all circumstances and yet is fully available to you in all circumstances.
Though they are in the worst of circumstances, there are people who glow with peace, love and joy. Esther Trahms, the wife of the pastor who confirmed me, was one such person. She was always teeming with the joy of the Lord. Even in the last stages of her life, when she was confined to a wheelchair, she would smile with the joy of the Lord. She transformed everything that she touched; her wheelchair was a mere staging ground from which to disseminate the love of God. She is the perfect example of one who built a life. She was always in the process of building a life, for she was very mindful. Traditions come to life when you are mindful. Everything that you say and do gets heightened when you are mindful, fully present to the experience you are in. The liturgy is an invitation to be mindful and experience Christ who is present in fulfillment of his promise where two or more are gathered in his name he is present. Where Christ is there is peace, love and joy in that place. These are the products of the true spiritual kingdom through which he rules in our hearts. You come to life when you are intentionally mindful. What is presented to you in your body through the vehicle of your five senses, you receive as the gift of God. A moment, a gift. You come to appreciate even the breaths that you take in all such moments.
In 1985, Steven Spielberg directed a great movie titled The Color Purple. “Shug Avery,” an attractive, charismatic singer played by Margaret Avery, tells “Celie Johnson,” a downtrodden woman with a low self esteem played by Whoopie Golddberg that it must make God angry to walk by the color purple and not notice it, to ignore it. Too often we do that in life. We walk by so much that God offers us as gifts. We let life’s significant moments pass us by because we let emotions highjack us out of the present.
With more mindfulness, you discipline yourself to be fully available in the present. A significant engagement in contemplation teaches you to sift through the noise and lies of the false self to be fully available to the true self in Christ Jesus. This engaging of the true self fosters a profound mindfulness that enables you to experience every moment of your life as the gift that it is.