For me, a siesta is about much more than sleeping for an hour in the afternoon. A siesta is just one part of a way of life built on stopping, breathing, reflecting, praying, and waiting. Some people who are in constant motion are able to be healthy, balanced, thoughtful, and peaceful. Not me. If I go more than a day without prayerful meditation, mild anxiety sets in. In a few days my chest is full of static electricity. I’m a mess. So I have a choice: either cultivate peace in myself or be miserable and useless.
A couple years ago, while riding Amtrak from Pittsburgh to Orlando, I discovered vocabulary that describes the mind- and spirit-set that now keeps me something-like sane. It’s worth mentioning the purpose of my train ride wasn’t pleasant. My dad, who has since passed, and step-mother were in a synchronized nosedive of dementia, and my mission was to convince them to leave their beloved condo and move into an assisted living facility. They were dug in and defiant, chaining their door against the social workers my brother and I had commissioned to do something—anything!—to dislodge them. Just thinking about that whole time makes me feel cruddy. In the end, my trip was a failure. (Months passed before my dad and step-mother were in a safe place.)
But the train ride itself was fine, accompanied as it was by Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life by Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lillian Cheung. Not too many pages in, the famous Buddhist monk and the dietician were offering up words and images that had me pausing to digest with every paragraph. The audience for Savor is largely folks who want to lose weight, but the book’s application is universal.
The first word that hooked me sounds as though it could be a name for Siesta’s twin sister: “The Buddha teaches that change requires insight, and insight cannot begin until we stop and focus our attention on what is happening right in front of us. This stopping, or shamatha, allows us to rest the body and the mind. When we have calmed ourselves, we can then go on to look deeply into our current situation.”
Shamatha: from the moment I said it in my head on the Silver Meteor it’s been a mantra. Ironically, the practice of stopping hasn’t slowed down my gluttony much, but it’s helped me to be mindful in other ways. Walking from the car to the house, why not stop, look up at the stars, take in a draught of cool air? Sitting with wife Kathy at the end of a tiring day, why pass along the news story I read about an abused child left for dead or the absurdity du jour from Washington, D.C.? What good will it do her to know that mess? Why not be kind to the frazzled barista? Why drive 70 mph in a 55 mph-zone on I-79 as I think of a steaming, bitter, sweat Americano? Am I really in a hurry? Wouldn’t it be better to glance along the way at the pale gray trees not yet budding and give thanks? Shamatha.
Right now I’m actually sipping one of those Starbucks coffees and getting ready to head to the church. Breathe in, breathe out. The sky’s cloudless. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have stopped to notice. Today Siesta and Shamatha are my wise twin sisters, taking my hand and teaching me to be gentle and patient.
Stay tuned for more good words from Savor.