Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Minute to Breathe

"Morning Clouds"
 - At the Desert Retreat House -

I just got a new Apple Watch and now throughout the day I get this periodic reminder:

Take a minute to breathe

The first time I saw this notification I thought it was sort of silly and maybe a bit annoying - why would I need to be reminded to breathe? After all, if I wasn’t breathing I’d need a lot more than an electronic gadget to tell me to do so. But I quickly realized how helpful it was to receive this regular message throughout my routine of everyday life. The fact is that we all breathe yet most of the time we are very unaware of our breath; and yet, this simple act of regular, intentional focus on the air we breathe in and the air we breathe out can actually go a long way in improving physical, mental and spiritual health.

Interestingly enough today’s neuroscientists have now accumulated an abundance of evidence about the health benefits of “mindful awareness,” an awareness that can be triggered by simply focusing on one’s breath. A deliberate effort at stopping the normal pattern of thinking and simply being fully present in the moment elicits a “relaxation response” in the nervous system, suppressing what is known as the “flight or fight” response.” Taking a “minute to breathe” calms fearful, stressful emotions and chaotic thoughts. So it’s no wonder that the Apple corporation might build this feature into their new electronic watches reminding people to “breathe.”

While today’s contemporary scientists have confirmed the benefits of mindful awareness, the discipline of breath awareness has been a fundamental practice since ancient times in most spiritual traditions. Prayer, meditation, and various contemplative practices have all included “taking a minute to breathe” as a pathway to greater enlightenment.

I think of something Buddhist teacher and monk, Thich Nhat Hanh once said:

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky,
conscious breathing is my anchor.

This all makes me think of how the word “God” is so often used to refer to a “man” who lives up in some distant place - a king, a judge or a ruler, a heavenly father. And yet, when I examine the images of “God” in many of the scriptures and teachings of most world religions, a common way of imaging God is: the air we breath.  

In the Christian tradition, after his resurrection, Jesus appears among his disciples as a Holy Spirit, the “Living Christ” is depicted as a powerful wind blowing through the room where the disciples are gathered together. In the Hebrew tradition, “God” is often referred to as Ruah: a breath of air, sometimes mighty, sometimes gentle. Similarly, a Navajo word for “God’ is Holy Wind: “the breath of creation that pervades the cosmos.”  Buddhists focus on awareness of one’s breath as a means of being grounded in and connected to the greater universe.

It seems to me that, taking a deep breath helps me to feel so anchored because with every breath I take, I am breathing in “God” who was, who is, and who is yet to come and so I can be still and feel confident even in the midst of chaos.

A little bell on my watch just sounded and a message came up on the screen telling me that it’s time to “take a minute to breathe.”  I think I’ll do that now.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Counting Down to Christmas

"A Magical Moment"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

Yesterday I watched the TV broadcast of the annual “Holiday Tree” lighting in New York City’s Rockefeller Plaza. Like most “tree lightings” across the country, the event followed a predictable format: people gather around an unlit tree as anticipation builds and finally the “countdown” begins, leading to that moment when the lights are lit and the tree explodes in a burst of color as music fills the air.

Now that December has arrived, I imagine many people will be “counting down” to Christmas, preparing for a big holiday, eagerly anticipating that day coming at the end of the month.

As I think about it, like most people I have spent much of my life “counting down” the days, anticipating something yet to be.  We “count down” the remaining days at work or school before the weekend or the next big vacation time arrives, while we are in elementary school we anticipate getting into high school and when we finally get there we begin to countdown the days before we go to college.  Then of course in college we count the days remaining before we can begin a long-expected career out in the real world. But, of course, the countdown hardly stops with a first job since most of us are always looking for that next step up the rung in the ladder of life.

I imagine I have spent most of my life thinking about where I had been and anticipating where I wanted to go and I fear I probably missed a lot by squandering time so foolishly.

I am reminded of something Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh once said:

In everyday life we are always looking for the right conditions
that we don’t yet have to make us happy,
and we ignore what is happening right in front of us.
We wait and hope for that magical moment,
always something in the future when everything will be as we want it to be,
forgetting that life is available only the present moment.

In the Christian tradition, the season of “Advent” is celebrated in these December days before the festival of Christmas.  Some people think that Advent is a time for preparing to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus, but as I see it, Advent has little or nothing to do with “counting down” to Christmas. Advent is a season for developing “mindfulness,” learning how to wait patiently in the present,  embracing the revelations of each and every moment – open and awake to life as it is.

Priest and author, Henri Nouwen once put it this way:

A waiting person is a patient person.
The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are
and live the situation to the full
in the belief that something hidden there
will manifest itself in the moment.

In these December days of “Advent” when so many people find themselves counting down to the “magical moment” of the next big event, I am making a deliberate effort to stop and breathe, watch, wait, look and listen.  The magical moment is always right here.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Restless and Anxious

"Peace, Be Still"

In order to get to most stores, restaurants or businesses in the region where we live everyone is forced to travel on one major highway that is peppered with a variety of “annoying” stop signs and signal lights - for some reason or other, one of these stop lights is programmed for an exceptionally long wait.

Yesterday I waited in a line of traffic stopped at that particularly long signal-light and I noticed that everyone waiting there with me seemed a lot more “antsy” than usual. Most people (myself included) usually feel rather impatient when forced to stop at that light,  but yesterday I noticed a particularly pronounced sense of restlessness. It felt like we were all “race cars” waiting for the gun to go off to start the competition. People were revving  their engines and the traffic was slowly inching forward anticipating the green light. One person decided that he wasn't going to wait any longer so he “ran the light” and almost caused an accident.

I’ve been reflecting on all the restlessness at that stop light yesterday and determined that that it was probably a powerful icon about life nowadays especially in these post-election weeks and during this busy “holiday” time of the year. Everywhere I look it seems like there is a “more-than-usual" sense of restlessness and anxiety,  everyone anxious to make the next move, to get to the next destination, to accomplish the next task.

 The celebrated Buddhist author and teacher, Pema Chodron, once observed:

Human beings have an inherent restlessness.
We often want to get up and leave
and yet this feeling of restlessness
can teach us an important lesson about what it means to be human.
We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience.

As I sat at the stop-light stuck in that traffic yesterday, I wondered if our restlessness might have been more than feeling inconvenienced as we were forced to wait, maybe our restlessness was emblematic of an inherent human resistance to the nakedness of the present – somehow being “in the present” makes us feel too vulnerable, too exposed, perhaps too “out of control.”  And yet, it is precisely this experience of the present moment that lies at the very core of the spiritual journey. It is only when I can train myself to “stay, wait and settle down” in the moment that I am able to experience greater truth and deeper wisdom - the revelation each moment has to offer.

 I also remember something Buddhist author and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said:

When we see a red light or a stop sign
we can thank it because it is helping us to return to the present moment.
We may have thought of it as an enemy preventing us from achieving our goal.
But now we know the red light is a friend helping us to resist rushing,
calling us into the present where we can meet life with joy and peace.

For me,  this Advent season is clearly calling me to greater “mindfulness” in my everyday life. So I have decided to “welcome” the long wait at that annoying stop light as I go about my business every day.  The light is a “bell of mindfulness” for me,  a friend helping me to stop all the rush, to “stop and settle down,” to spend a minute breathing into the moment where I “can meet life with joy and peace.”