Mindfulness and the Working Tools

by Midnight Freemason Guest Contributor
Erik Antony Marks, 32, LICSW

It is commonly held and well documented that meditation is a practice, since about 1500 BCE in areas of India. From there, the famous story of the Buddha was popularized in the west by Herman Hess’ work, Siddhartha. Meditation of some form is found in all of the major religions of the world and have significant presence in lesser recognized religions and spiritual practices. We can find in the esoteric branches of the major religions—Gnostic, Sufi, Vajrayana or Tantric, Kabalistic, a strong emphasis on meditation. In Freemasonry we agree that no major task or important venture should be started without the invocation of Deity. Mindfulness meditation can often be used as a preliminary practice to prayer, be mixed with prayer as in Trappist Monk Thomas Merton’s Contemplative prayer, or be prayer in and of itself: a prayer without words, a prayer of presence.

There are gigabytes of resources on the internet about how to practice mindfulness, meditation, contemplative practices. Brother Chuck Dunning has an excellent book about the subject in relationship to Freemasonry, which I refer to often and recommend highly. You may ask why, then, would I write this? I do better when I find the authors like Dunning, Chödrön, Trungpa, Merton, which speak to me, with whom I feel a more personal connection. The author’s voice gets my attention or a detail they attend to, matches what I need. So, with the hope this will speak to you in a new way, here is my just-past-midnight version of encouragement to use the focus on the breath in mindfulness meditation as a tool.

In my usual vocation, I sit with people to talk about what either matters to, or troubles them most. More than half the time, this involves some form of nervousness, worry, anxiety, or panic. Daily, I return to the practice of sitting still with the mind, my own--theirs. Mindfulness meditation has been such a gift in my own life that from the moment I started working in human services, I’ve tried to incorporate it. There are lots of ways to incorporate the practice. It may mean teaching them to use this technique, or incorporating a practice they already have for a therapeutic purpose. It may come only in the form of practicing on my own time so I may be more present for them. There are times I ask them to stay with something difficult or complicated...don’t move on too quickly, let’s see where this thought/feeling takes us, you. Together, we delineate, circumscribe, an area of mind to attend to and stay within those bounds, intentionally. When we draw the lines, we know when we are outside, when our desires or passions have pulled us from our intended place or course of action.

Many people find they get stuck in thought loops, ruminate, worry: “I’ve always been a worrier” I hear multiple times a month. When in those states, it can feel challenging to get some distance on the mental process. It can even be difficult to remember to stop to practice or work with the mind in some moments: we are caught in a passion about reality, or concerned about a potential scenario. We may experience a fear of our own creation and then blow it out of proportion in our thoughts. We may churn about the future, or running over the same ground of a past experience or exchange that bothers us or how we may have hurt someone we care about. All of these are workable, with practice.

I like focusing on the breath since its with us wherever we go. In most situations, the people with whom I meet agree on this focal point and find it useful. I encourage them to focus on the rise and fall of their belly or the feel of the air moving in and out of their nostrils. Don’t try to change or control the breath, just try to notice it as it is happening. When your mind wanders to anything, say to yourself: “thinking,” and come back to the breath. This is akin to getting out the mental gavel and “knocking off” an idea. There is no judgement involved, the rough edge, thought, simply needs to be removed in that moment for the ashlar to become smoother. Over the course of a minute, that process of leaving with an idea and coming back can happen many times. Sometimes we “leave” with a thought and significant time goes by before we realize we’ve forgotten the intention to return. Its ok, its only thinking. Caveat: in some religions, denominations, or spiritual practices thoughts are not “just thoughts,” they are sin. The only claim I’m making is that for the purpose of dealing with the here and now psychology of human experience, thoughts are a cognitive process, contained in our minds, until we take action, which includes speaking. A longer conversation could occur about the use of mindfulness practice to enhance prayer and/or focus, generally, as well as the remedy for thoughts as sin.

Many people return to the next session and say “It didn’t work,” or “I failed,” or “I don’t think I did it right.” I know, it happens to me too, every week. If you sat down to have a practice, put in some intentional effort, you probably did it right. Having strong feelings, mind wandering, or getting angry with self for wandering are all part of the practice and evidence its proceeding correctly. Compassionately label it all as thinking and return to the focal point--subdue the criticism. We become more adept over time, and minds still wander. I once presented with a colleague at a college health conference in which he said: “The mind secretes thoughts like the pancreas secretes insulin.” It seemed apropos. We may not be able to stop thoughts or emotions from arriving, but we can work at what to do with them once they are here. Sometimes we don’t want to be as vigilant and we indulge a little. It's ok, you’re learning your own process and how passions pull at the mind. If you cut corners, you’ll know; there is no need to be harsh or mean with yourself, just try it differently next time. You’ll see, know, and feel it.

Sometimes sitting still in silence can cause us to worry more or feel increasingly anxious. It may be so intense you may want or need to “stop early.” You can and you may. I encourage taking the longest, slowest, deepest, and most quiet breath possible before stopping and then, stop: breathe in for as long as you can, hold it as long as you can, then exhale as long as you can stand it. Done. The meta-process of that self-intervention is that moment you subdued the need to escape your experience by superimposing another on top of it. You offered your conscious mind an idea and physical process to focus on instead of focusing on, and amplifying, the anxiety about the experience of the moment. Breath as tool; breath as compasses. In that moment you taught your amygdala that the fear of the moment gripping you was not, in fact, a saber-tooth tiger about to scramble your consciousness and wreak ruin in your life. You reprogrammed, rewired, your brain…just a little bit. In return, some part of the brain, and you, said: “huh, I didn’t lose it, I didn’t freak out…I’m ok...maybe I could have tolerated a little more.” Staying present at the boundary and observing allows an unique vantage point of our felt pain or discomfort in the moment; it allows us to recalibrate our gauge and then measure our emotional experience of time differently. Then next time that nervousness or anxiety happens, you may feel calmer, grounded, centered. You may be better prepared with the lesson from the previous experience and you may feel a little less worried: try two long breaths this time before stopping. Note: for the vast majority of people, these tools don’t work in the midst of full-on panic.

Last year, I attended a memorial service for a good friend, colleague, mentor, at a friend’s (Quaker) meetinghouse. My memory of the instruction was: sit in silence until you feel moved to speak. Though wait and see if you are moved to speak by divinity and not by some other purpose (ego, showing off, being heard). Many times through the service I felt a swell of emotion and memory, and wanted to say something. But I waited and in each instance, the something was about me, not about my friend, really. There was no sermon, not liturgical charge, no directive, no rapturous music, just silence and the words of others who felt moved to speak. It was one of the most powerful “services” I had attended. I believe it was one of the most powerful because the instruction was to fully attend to the moment and my use my working tools to shape the expression of my intentions: my work was to be fully present for, and honest with, myself in the service of the memory of my friend and those in the room.

Sitting still with one’s mind doesn’t change the present, or the problems. Jon Kabat-Zin (Full Catastrophe Living) and Saki Santorelli (Heal thy self) at UMass Medical Center have decades of data about how mindfulness meditation helps with pain management, increasing tolerance to stress, improving mental functioning, shortening recovery times from illness to name just a few. Mindfulness as a daily practice isn’t a panacea, but it does help us know ourselves better, and be more understanding of our process. It helps us be less reactive and more present. It causes us to deny nothing and feel ready for anything. Even thirty seconds a day can help the mind keep coming back to the present or keep the idea of not reacting on the menu card of the moment. The more we work with our tools, the more proficient we become. The more we practice, the greater the probability we will be able to subdue our passions in the moments they occur.

Brother Erik A. Marks, 32º, LICSW, is a clinical social worker whose usual vocation has been in the field of human services in a wide range of settings since ’90. He was raised in ’17 by his biologically younger Brother and then Worshipful Master in Alpha Lodge in Framingham, MA.

At the Auction

by Senior Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Gregory J. Knott



Todd Creason and I recently attended the auction of the contents of Martinsville Lodge No. 603 (IL). Martinsville lodge merged with another lodge and they decided to sell everything in the lodge building. You could literally have furnished your own lodge with everything that was there. The bidding was fast and furious as the chant of the auctioneer got both the locals and brethren actively bidding to buy some of the great masonic treasurers.

I hadn’t been to Martinsville before, but was looking at the downtown area. This town isn’t unlike hundreds of others in rural America. Older buildings on Main Street, several of them closed or in poor condition. The bank and post office were still open. There was a restaurant, hardware store and a couple of antique shops. But overall, the best of times were in the past for the business district.

One thing struck me was that on the same side of the street were three fraternal buildings, almost right next to each other. The Odd Fellows, The Order of Redman and the Martinsville Masonic Lodge. The Freemasons were the longest survivors of these fraternities. I don’t know when the others closed, but I assume they had suffered the same fate as the masonic lodge, declining interest and membership. These lodges had been a vital part of the social fabric of the Martinsville community and now they were dark.

Todd was able to purchase the masonic pillars from the lodge and I purchased all the officer jewels. Both of us would just have assumed to see the lodge stay open, but these will be great additions to our personal masonic collections.

Everything has a season.

~GJK

WB Gregory J. Knott is the Worshipful Master of Ogden Lodge No. 754 in Ogden (IL) and a plural member of St. Joseph Lodge No. 970 (IL), Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL) and Naval Lodge No. 4 in Washington, DC.

Don't Like Your Lodge? Find Another

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
WB Robert E. Jackson


"I've had it. I'm done. I can't believe they voted that way. I've worked so hard for this effort, but the Lodge doesn't seem to care. I feel so passionate about this subject, but the Lodge simply will not support it."

I've spoken with a Brother recently who had stated that at one point in time, he had considered demitting from the Craft. And here I thought I was the only one! It doesn't take much to want to throw away membership in something, especially when you don't have much ownership.

If you find yourself at odds with your Lodge, speak with the Master. Ensure they understand your concerns. Offer solutions, because believe me, when the Master hears problems, more often than not they will want to address it. Without approaching with a possible solution, though, the statements can be received as a simple complaint that is easily dismissed. A solution proposed, however, offers a starting point from which to build that structure.

If you feel as if the Master isn't listening to you, make sure they know. These are difficult conversations to have, but the fortitude is required for progress. If you still feel like you have nothing left with which to build your moral and Masonic edifice, then it's time to move on. But don't demit. Don't just stop paying dues. But also, don't continue to support a Lodge if you don't believe in their direction.

I'm lucky enough to reside in the state of Massachusetts. We certainly have our issues, but in my opinion (and statistics show) Freemasonry is strong within this state. If I grow frustrated with my Lodge, there are a dozen (or more) within an hours drive for me to visit and see if I feel at home.

Yes it's a Lodge and we are all Brothers, but some times siblings don't get along. Find a group where you feel welcome, appreciated, and loved. I may take flack about suggesting a Brother find another Lodge, but in all honesty, if a Brother doesn't feel welcome, appreciated, or loved in their Lodge, it doesn't help anybody to have them continue in that capacity. It doesn't mean they should stop building though. There are other resources that can be tapped to help.

~REJ

Robert Edward Jackson is a Past Master and Secretary of Montgomery Lodge located in Milford, MA. His Masonic lineage includes his Father (Robert Maitland), Grandfather (Maitland Garrecht), and Great Grandfather (Edward Henry Jackson), a founding member of Scarsdale Lodge #1094 in Scarsdale, NY. When not studying ritual, he's busy being a father to his three kids, a husband, Boy Scout Leader, and a network engineer to pay for it all. He can be reached at info@montgomerylodge.org



Masonic Publications to Look Into

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Robert H. Johnson



Often times we find ourselves looking for something to read or maybe just wishing for it. If you're lucky enough to have free time that doesn't require also splitting it with paying attention to the little ones, congratulations...I digress.

As a podcaster I find myself constantly looking for material to either write about or read on the show, (if the publication is cool with it). The list of publications I'll give here are ones that I enjoy, even though some of them do not allow reprinting or readings ;) Take a look and if I can assist you in answering questions about them, please feel free to email me.

The Plumb Line - A publication of the AASR Research Society. You essentially join the Research Society. Cost is about $50 and you get a quarterly newsletter (usually with a great article in each one) and a hard cover book (usually by de Hoyos). Totally worth it.

The Fraternal Review - Probably the hippest and most relevant in terms of knowing what it's readers love, and is inexpensive for what you get. 11 issues for $37. In fact probably the coolest damn thing is that they do is a "Lodge Subscription" for $92. A lodge subscription gets you 3 physical print copies of each issue. They also offer a digital subscription for $27. It's printed on nice paper, is in color and usually comes in the usual length of a good magazine, sans all the advertisements. Just do it.

The Journal - A publication of the Masonic Society is  similar in nature to the Philalethes. Cost is $45 per year and is released quarterly. This magazine is also printed in a very nice way. Full color, good paper weight and consists of slightly more academic papers. They adhere to their quarry style guide as well, which is Like Chicago Style. Anyone in good standing can subscribe. Cost is $45.

The Philalethes - The oldest Masonic research publication in the United States, the Philalethes is Americas version of AQC, (at least that's how it feels to me.) In any case, this publication is also in color, published quarterly and has good paper weight. The cost is $50 for 4 issues.

The Rocky Mountain Mason - Another full color Masonic publication with great articles and who is more concerned with it's readership than the pomp and circumstance of other publications. That is not to say that those who are published in the magazine are not scholars, to the contrary they are. In fact many propose amazing and new research not examined before. Subscription to this publication will set you back a whopping $33 bucks for this quarterly masterpiece. ( I'm not being sarcastic. I legitimately enjoy the heck out of this one.)

The Working Tools by Cory Sigler was a wonderful magazine as well. Alas it's no longer in print. In addition, The Living Stones magazine which was published by Robert Herd was also just amazing. Although it too is out of print, Robert made all issues available for free in digital format. You can access them at the link below. CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE LIVING STONES MAGAZINE.

Happy subscribing and happy reading everyone!

~RHJ

RWB, Robert Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Midnight Freemasons blog. He is a Freemason out of the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. He currently serves as the Secretary of Spes Novum Lodge No. 1183 UD. He is a Past Master of Waukegan Lodge 78 and a Past District Deputy Grand Master for the 1st N.E. District of Illinois. Brother Johnson currently produces and hosts weekly Podcasts (internet radio programs)Whence Came You? & Masonic Radio Theatre which focus on topics relating to Freemasonry. He is also a co-host of The Masonic Roundtable, a Masonic talk show. He is a husband and father of four, works full time in the executive medical industry. He is the co-author of "It's Business Time - Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry" and is currently working on a book of Masonic essays and one on Occult Anatomy to be released soon.