If you are like me, much of life is lived on automatic pilot. I don’t pay attention to many of the routine things I do each day. I can go through a meal without really paying attention to what I am eating. I can get through a long conversation and remember very little of what was said. I have been introduced to people and within seconds forgotten their name, not because I have a bad memory, but because I wasn’t paying attention. While my body was doing one thing, my mind was somewhere else.

Pay attentionThe season of Lent is about paying attention, and the self-imposed disciplines are the tools that help me do that. The suggested disciplines of prayer and fasting, along with other such disciplines, are not simply routines to make us better people. When done with intention, they help us pay attention.   I don’t do much praying and fasting, but with the disciplines I do choose, they prompt me to do consciously some things I might otherwise do mindlessly.

I grew up Southern Baptist, and the church’s season of Lent was a foreign concept for me. In the university office where I worked as a grad student, I commented to someone just returning from lunch that she had a smudge on her forehead she might want to wipe off. She smiled and said, “Ash Wednesday.” I nodded and said and understanding, “Oh,” though I had no idea what Ash Wednesday was.

Lent has since become my favorite part of the Liturgical calendar. I am not highly observant of most church seasons, but Lent is special. For some, Lent is a bit of a joke, mostly because of the way the disciplines are observed. “What are you going to give up for Lent?” “Well, I think I’ll give up sky diving, or broccoli,” or some other thing that either you never intend to do or don’t like anyway.

Giving something up is not what is important. It is the map, not the journey. Depriving myself of something merely requires will power. For me, Lent is not about deprivation, it is about awareness, about noticing what happens when I consciously give something up or adopt a new behavior.

An idea I used in my grief therapy when someone felt stuck and unable to move forward was to do some “intentional grieving.” I suggested they not wait for the sadness to hit them, but to do some things that invited the sadness, such as look at photos, listen to “their songs,” do things they used to do together.

Lent for me is like “intentional grieving,” engaging in a discipline that creates a self-imposed crisis. “Oh wow, look at how I feel when I don’t automatically eat when I’m bored.” It sounds simple, but a self-imposed deviation from a routine, often mindless activity creates a small crisis that I must then pay attention to. I live so much of my life in default mode. Such disciplines help me see that. Then I am forced to ask, “What now?”

The goal of the disciplines is not to accomplish the task; the goal is to create a space in my daily life for being focused, for paying attention, for being mindful of that moment.

ash wednesdayAnd then there are the ashes of Ash Wednesday. They took on a whole new meaning for me several years ago when I watched a good friend, a woman my age, apply ashes to the forehead of her husband, knowing it would be the last time she would do it. He was dying of cancer.

None of us knows if we will have another year or another day. That makes it all the more vital, the more sobering, and the more joyful that we pay attention to each other and to our impermanent moments together.

I can struggle against my awareness of impermanence, I can deny it, I can ignore the fact that it is a part of the natural order. But when I do, I lose something vital about my life and my relationships.

When we love someone, nothing intensifies the preciousness of the relationship more than recognizing its impermanence. The thought of losing that person reminds us how vital that person is in our lives. Without that sense of impermanence, we tend to take each other and our own lives for granted.

When we have a thrilling, memorable experience, we want to hold onto it precisely because we know it will not last indefinitely. It is the impermanence of the moment that makes it all the sweeter to experience and to remember.

Today, each day, rather than struggle against or deny our impermanence, let’s celebrate it. “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.”