Take time, slow down and focus

Years ago, when I was chaplain at a college in Maryland, I sat in on a meditation class. The class was taught by the head of the religion department. Although this was a private college, founded by a Christian denomination, the meditation teaching was in the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Our habit in the class was to sit on the floor for 20 minutes of introductory lecture and then 20 minutes of meditation. It was a carpeted room with pillows to sit on, easily darkened when the time for meditation arrived. It soon became a welcome time of the day for me, and I took to the practice with eagerness. After sitting in on the class for a second semester, I started practicing on my own with regularity, finding it the spiritual discipline I’d been longing for but missing.

For me, the practice relaxed and calmed the body, quieted and focused the mind, and opened the channels of the spirit. I found that the practice could become integrated into the everyday. When a disturbing experience arose and the body was agitated, having focused on the breathing in meditation enabled one to breathe through the anxiety or anger or other emotions that might arise in the body.

Since most of us in western culture are constantly busy being “productive,” and our mind is traveling a mile a minute, sitting daily in meditation helped slow what’s called “monkey mind.” That is where the mind jumps from a thought, to a task, to a memory, to a worry and back to a different thought again. The mind is always swinging from one branch to another, seldom at rest and mindful.

Meditation also opened the channels of the spirit. It became a new experience of prayer. I see it as listening prayer. One isn’t putting in an order for a product but listening patiently and attentively for what might come. One approaches meditation with an attitude of gratitude.

I can hear the complaints of the busy: “Who has time to sit around doing nothing for 20 minutes a day? Not me!” The interesting thing is, that a few minutes of focused time in meditation or prayer each day can save a person hours of unfocused time during the week. As the body, mind and spirit are calmed and focused, so is one’s life. You don’t need as much time to do what you will. Life is calmer and clearer.

Reading a book by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is the reason for writing this column. He’s a Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and meditator in the Zen tradition, forced to leave Vietnam during the war because of his peace activities. He began a community in France that has drawn thousands to his presence and teachings over the years. He’s also a prolific author. The first book of his that came my way was “Peace Is Every Step.” In it, among other things, you learn how to meditate on a tangerine. (The scoffers will scoff; the curious may be intrigued).

He has also written a book on anger. This should be required reading for every young man before he graduates from high school. The title is: “Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.”

Then there are two books where Nhat Hanh specifically speaks to Christians. One is about Buddha and Jesus as brothers. Another is “Living Buddha, Living Christ.” It’s gratifying that his writing reaches out in relationship to others in the Christian tradition. There’s no attempt to proselytize, but to show the connections and similar teachings of the different traditions. Where there are differences, they are respected.

But the stimulus for this column really comes from the most recent Thich Nhat Hanh book I’ve read, “No Death, No Fear.” Although he warns us not to get too fixated on ideas or “notions,” (as he calls them), there is wisdom in his notion of historical impermanence. Nothing lasts! Everything is always changing.

My body has been changing as I write this, especially because I took bites of breakfast between paragraphs. The sun has been shining in the window, except when it passes behind the clouds. All of the flowers in the backyard garden are gone until spring comes. The cardinals have returned to the spirea by the dining room window.The cover of the Bible sitting next to my computer is torn and badly wrinkled. Our neighbor just died.

A member of a congregation I served worked hard all his life, looking forward to his retirement. He scrimped and saved and planned and worried and when the time finally arrived, he celebrated. Shortly after, his wife became ill, suffered for several months and died. Alone and grieving, he was unable to care for himself and died in a care center.

I’m reminded of the story of “bigger barns” in the gospel of Luke. We can lay up all kinds of things; we can eat, drink and be merry; but Jesus calls it foolishness. 

Better for us to be mindful and focus on the here and now. Better for us to probe the deeper realities of life and offer kindness and compassion to those around us. Better to look upon Buddhism and Christianity as companions rather than competitors. Better to recognize the impermanence in everything and live each moment more simply and lovingly.