By the Reverend Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner
Director of Spiritual Life
Most religious and philosophical traditions feature a theory about why we stumble on our journeys towards enlightenment, liberation or salvation.
In Buddhism, it is our tendency to attach to things and people: to life itself and even our sense of individual existence.
In Islam, it is our forgetfulness. In Surah 7 of the Qu’ran, the prophet Muhammad describes how, prior to our births, God brought all of us souls together to testify concerning ourselves — am I not your Lord, who cherishes and sustains you? In reply, we said, Yes! You are the Sustainer!
Unfortunately, as soon as we were born, we forgot this testimony, and now struggle to feel at home and at ease in the world.
One of my favorite explanations for our “original sin” is John Calvin’s. The Father of Reformed Protestantism was not sold on the explanations in vogue in his day (namely, pride or lust). That the good burghers of Geneva liked a nice dress on Sunday and good bottle of wine did not strike him as particularly alarming.
Calvin thought our issue was dullness, obliviousness, an inability or unwillingness to open our eyes to the beauty and graciousness of the world: the endless variety of the heavenly host, the ingenious symmetry of the human frame.
He conceived of the world as a mantle God had wrapped himself in so as to teach us about himself. The sad thing was — we had somehow or other forgotten how to look.
One way to think about the kinds of practices we are doing this summer in Constructive Meditation (9:00 a.m., Sundays) is to see them as an opportunity to regain this skill. Practices like anchoring, body scans, and mindful eating are designed to focus our attention on some aspect of our day-to-day lives.
We concentrate on our breathing, the sounds of the room in which we sit, the sensation of our feet touching the floor, a raisin’s texture and wrinkled sweetness: we learn to see, hear and taste again and more completely.
Over the course of the summer, Culver campers will come to realize —
- There are still seeds in those raisins!
- The chairs in Roberts Auditorium sometimes squeak.
- When meditating, our hands can start to feel kind of weird: heavy or prickly.
Is dullness the real original sin? I leave that to you to decide.
This much I can say, however. Mindfulness is about more than learning how to reduce anxiety and stress. Its careful parsing of experience has the power to plug us back into the beauty and depth of ordinary life, to show us things about the world, one another and ourselves we would otherwise pass by, heedless.
Editor’s Note: Constructive Meditation has been offered to Culver Academies’ students for the last several years. It focuses on building age-appropriate mindfulness skills and fostering wisdom through journaling projects and group activities. These are based on disciplines as diverse as Quaker clearness committees and the study of the sunnah by the Prophet Muhammad. This is the first year for Culver Summer Schools & Camps. In this article, the second of a series, the Rev. Dr. Johanna McCune Wagner, director of Spiritual Life, describes some of what campers will be doing week-to-week.