Mindfulness in a Driving Rain

The foundation of happiness is mindfulness. The basic condition for being happy is our consciousness of being happy. If we are not aware that we are happy, we are not really happy. When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. But when we do not have a toothache, we are still not happy. A non-toothache is very pleasant. There are so many things that are enjoyable, but when we don’t practice mindfulness, we don’t appreciate them. (From Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh)

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Baby Crash watching common rain, the Buddha looking in

Just now I closed my eyes and paid attention to my non-toothache. My mouth looks like a demolition derby in there, so I can vouch for the venerable Buddhist monk’s counsel. And sometimes I think my soul looks like my teeth—cracked, patched up, cavernous, important pieces missing.

Just now, with open eyes, I took in a full breath and enjoyed the air flowing back out past my throat and through my nose. My body, relaxed and light, isn’t cramped with any of the absurdities my mind habitually puts it through by narrating potholes into sinkholes and possibilities into finalities.

Happiness is fantastic, but okay will do. Hold the drama-trauma, blue cheese, and skydiving, and I’ll likely be fine. My job is to pray-meditate, walk mindfully, and swaddle Overthinking, kiss its spongy head, and shush it to sleep.

Even inclement days are sweet when my chops aren’t being busted and when I refuse to itch old scars open. Last Friday was one of those days. Weather has never bothered me, but Friday, November 13, 2015, was stern. Each chilly, gust-whipped raindrop was a slap on the cheek.

Poor daughter Elena couldn’t take Cole, now a Ninja of motion, to the playground, which is why I received a call at 10:11 a.m. Toddlers can turn homes into Thunderdomes.

“Hi, Daddy.” Was that a quiver of desperation in her soft greeting? “I was just wondering what your schedule was like today, if maybe you wanted to do lunch or something.”

Here’s a summary of our negotiations:

1.) Elena: Could we please not have lunch at my house? [X]

2.) Elena: There’s a play place at the [Millcreek] Mall. Maybe we could get a Starbucks and let Cole play there for a while. [X]

3.) Daddy: Then we could find somewhere to have lunch. [X]

4.) Elena: There is a God. [X]

We met at noon-ish, fed quarters to a fire truck and convertible, picked up coffee, and settled in at the official play place—and by settled in I mean kept Cole from making a break for the concourse, which he did four times, and from dispensing hand sanitizer until his fingers were raw.

After ten minutes of crawling through tunnels and nearly colliding with a dozen or so children of other desperate parents, he announced “Cole done” and copped a few sips of Pop’s decaf latte. Next he gnawed an eggroll and noodles while Elena and I had bourbon chicken.

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Cole likes coffee and spicy food

Then it was time to go. An hour with a toddler doesn’t allow for segues: ride the choo choo train, slip and almost fall on the padded turtle, get hurt feelings because the thick-boned boy hopped on the tug boat ahead of you, sample coffee, squeeze duck sauce on your egg roll, and refuse to hold Pop’s hand when it’s time to go home.

So we ran together, my little buddy’s jelly bones all akimbo. Before we reached the door, Elena insisted: “Do you want to ride in the stroller or let Pop carry you?”

“Pop!”

Bullets of rain got us right away. Cole’s face pinched in, and two steps later I felt his head settle on my shoulder.

“Aw, are you getting tired, buddy?” I said.

“No,” Elena said. “That’s what he does when it’s too windy.”

I must say, mindfulness is getting to be a habit for me, and it’s not for nothing. My bald spot and glasses were getting pelted, but so-the-hell what? A grandparent is made for the moment when the grandchild leans in. Love, fatigue, or safety could be the reason, but who cares? I still haven’t figured out exactly what a parent is made for, mainly because I was a trembling neurotic in that role. But Pop, I’m meant to be a shoulder for my grandson. The rest of me—I sometimes believe—is vestment.

“You okay, pal?” I said.

“Yeah.” One lilting syllable, almost a chirp.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that mindfulness can turn neutral into joyful. A non-toothache is hardly noteworthy. Neither is being able to breathe through your nose. Standard operations, that’s all. A two-year-old using his grandfather’s shoulder to hide from cold rain is about the same—thirty unremarkable seconds across the parking lot to the car.

Commonplace but for one truth: while my embrace kept Cole dry and warm, I found my own shelter from the elements.

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Micro-Post: 7:00 a.m. A Renegade Smile at My Non-Toothache

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A photograph of something not wrong. I smile at the avocado. (Credit: Pulp Photography / Corbis)

When we have a toothache, we know that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. “Breathing in, I am aware of my non-toothache. Breathing out, I smile at my non-toothache.” We can touch our non-toothache with our mindfulness, and even with our hands. When we have asthma and can hardly breathe, we realize that breathing freely is a wonderful thing. Even when we have just a stuffed nose, we know that breathing freely is a wonderful thing (From Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Life Is a Miracle” in Essential Writings, Orbis Books, 2001).

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Nice lotus position! Yeah, this is not me because: I weighed more than this guy when I was born; I avoid neckties; what he’s doing with his legs would put me in the hospital with a fractured pelvis and a concussion from falling off that filing cabinet. (Credit: Plush Studios / Blended Images / Corbis)

I sit up straight against my husband (that would be a sit-up-in-bed pillow), put the soles of my feet together, and draw both heels in—a pudgy guy’s lotus position. A couple minutes ago, Kathy pulled back the covers: “I really have to get up. Got to shower.” She loves me, understands I’m trying to bounce back from a tough emotional stretch. But it’s one thing to love someone, another to grant marital patience to a neurotic spouse since 1983.

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A husband pillow–mine, in fact.

That’s where today’s renegade prayer begins. The idea is to breathe and abide in Divine Love, not to glom onto thoughts, but gratefulness takes over. I smile at my wife.

My right knee rests against nap and prayer partner Watson’s back. I smile at my dog.

Micah’s turbo alarm goes off. Soon I’ll drive him to work. I smile at my son, at his sobriety, at his zealous work ethic. I knew it! I knew he had it in him! Proud.

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You show that wall who’s boss, son! I smile at you.

Yesterday daughter Elena, son-in-law Matt, and grandson Cole came over for Matt’s birthday: California melts and chicken noodle soup. I smile at food, shelter, and love that pours out more than my cup can hold.

The church I serve is full of compassion. I smile at my sisters and brothers, all of us trying to love our way through this crazy world.

And my teeth are okay these days. No throbbing, no cracked incisors. I smile at my non-toothache.

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The kindest depiction of my teeth ever, courtesy of Meghan, hangs on my office door.

A few years ago: I had bronchitis and cracked a rib coughing; my dad was sobbing and howling his way through dementia; my naps were delicious only because they were an escape. I smile at my clear lungs. I smile at you, Dad, resting in the lap of mercy. I smile at 3:00 p.m., the gentle rest that’s no longer about survival.

And I have you, sisters and brothers visiting A Napper’s Companion. I smile at you, and in this final moment before Amen pray you are whole and at peace.

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Wholeness and peace. A view from the deck of Scholastica, a hermitage on stilts at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, Erie, Pennsylvania.

A Tri-Phasic Man at 4:30 A.M.

A couple years ago I read somewhere that human beings are wired to be bi-phasic sleepers. Our bodies want to have one long stretch of sleep at night and a nap in the afternoon. In recent months I’ve morphed into a tri-phasic creature with the following pattern: 1.) 11:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., solid sleep; 2.) 4:30 to 5:30 a.m., resting wakefulness and occasionally prayer; 3.) 5:30 to 6:30 a.m., first nap; 4.) starting between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. depending on commitments, second nap.

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My napping buddy is getting old.

My early morning wakefulness has taken on a routine of its own. Kathy is on one side, curled on her side and facing away from me, and Watson is on the other, facing away. My choice, then: spoon with wife or spoon with dog. Resting on my back isn’t an option because they leave me with about eight inches of mattress. I could shove Watson to the floor, but I have a weird impression that sharing my pillow is “I love you” in dog language.

So I sling my arm across Kathy’s waist, rest my face close to her hair, and wait for my left arm to go numb. Then I pry myself loose, hold myself aloft with one arm, flip my girth to the other arm, and with boxers and t-shirt a twisted mess, lower myself as if with a hydraulic jack. “Hi, Watson,” I whisper, kissing his soft ear. “I sure do love you, old buddy.” He responds with a long snort. Eventually I can’t get my right arm comfortable and reverse the process. Adding panache to this deal is cat Baby Crash, who’s generally curled up on the bed’s southern hemisphere.

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Baby Crash napping on my legs.

And so it goes until my first nap arrives at 5:30 a.m. The temptation is to get frustrated, but that only insures that sleep will never return. My hour awake, then, has evolved into a session of drowsy mindfulness. Just seven hours ago I gave thanks for Kathy, how loving and skillful she is with her cancer patients, how she’s content to put a roof on our house or remodel the bathroom while I cook, how she loves me even though I can be a bummer to live with. I gave thanks for Watson, too, my faithful napping partner.

This morning was routine, with two exceptions. As usual I woke up wedged in at 4:17, but for the first time in weeks I didn’t feel the weary anxiety behind my sternum that’s been plaguing me. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches his students to smile at their non-toothaches. (Translation: You don’t appreciate being pain-free until your molar’s screaming. So why wait? Enjoy your non-toothache now.) So I smiled at my calm, for however long it’s going to last.

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Take this scene, multiply by three thousand, put in an echo chamber, and you’ve got my dog snoring. (Credit: Kevin Shafer / Corbis)

And I was entertained by a snoring concert in surround sound. Kathy and Watson were both in fine form. For minutes at a time, they snored in call and response. Each brought her/his own talents to the pillows. Watson has a lot more nostril to work with than Kathy, an advantage he uses to full effect. When he inhales, a rattle starts at his cold nose, reverberates up his boney snout, and echoes in his throat and sinuses. The result: you’d think a couple thousand lions are gnawing warthog carcasses in the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Kathy has lip dexterity on her side. This morning—and I swear I’m not making this up—she had one exhale that went wee-wee-wee-wee-wee. “How the hell did she do that?” I wondered from my wee portion of the bed. Another exhale was so surprising she heard it herself and woke up briefly. If you were to have a snoring competition, Kathy would have won first place in the Dainty Division. The very tips of her lips fluttered together, making polite raspberries—like a little bitty car with a rusty muffler.

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Hey, bub, get a new muffler on that thing. It sounds like my wife snoring. (Credit: Peter M. Fisher / Corbis)

I couldn’t help laughing. “Are you kidding?” I said.

Her groggy response: “Yeah, it had to happen.”

Umm. Okay. Go back to sleep, dear.

Eventually Kathy and Watson settled into the sighs of deep sleep, and I floated toward a last hour of oblivion before my iPhone’s Goldberg Variations alarm started the day. The last thought I remember was of grandson Cole, my present blue ribbon of gratitude. He reminds me that no matter how often I stub my emotional toes on standard upsets, I’ve no excuse to complain. I’ve lived long enough to be a grandparent, had the chance to rest my lips on that baby’s head and breathe in his pure, fragile life. That’s grace enough for one lifetime.

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Cole: Grace enough for a lifetime.

I’m not sure how long my eccentric body and neurotic mind will go with this tri-phasic sleep plan, but as long as it lasts, I intend to receive it as a visitation. Before dawn I smile at what peace I have, breathe in more blessings than I deserve, and wait for my own snoring to return.

A Zen-Christian Night Teaching

Running into Thich Nhat Hanh is always cause for celebration. I’ve never visited Plum Village, his community in France, never heard him speak in person. Still, like millions of his mindful followers, I consider him family.

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Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Last night he showed up in a short dream. Thay, as he’s known to his students, and I stood in the Coleman family kitchen. I can’t remember his exact words, but he said that in his family they drink tea from small cups. He smiled, gently rested his hand on my forearm, then placed a tea pot and a cup on the counter. He smiled again. That was it.

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Credit: Michele Constantini

In this moment, I breathe in and out and savor Thay’s night teaching. Most of my dreams are anxious, like I’m enrolled in a college calculus class and forget to attend all semester. But I receive Thay’s visitation as a blessing from my Judeo-Christian God. “Drink slowly from the little cup,” both say. “Why are you always rushing?” Thank you, Thay. Thank you, Lord. Your spiritual hybrid gratefully accepts the healing lesson.

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Stop to notice the spider plant blossoms reaching to the sink in the church bathroom.

A week ago Thich Nhat Hanh showed up in the form of words: “To be is to inter-be,” he writes. “We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing.” For Thay, garbage and flowers inter-are. “The affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other.” The same goes for people. Reflecting on the suffering of a young prostitute in Manila, Thay observes, “Looking deeply into ourselves, we see her, and we will share her pain and the pain of the whole world. Then we can begin to be of real help.”

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Neighborhood sage Patrick with well-loved Tin Man. This Down’s syndrome kid’s a master at inter-being.

Half an hour ago, sipping a Starbucks redeye, I was inter-are with a tall, skinny guy standing in the long line: shaved head, felt newsboy cap, great puff of a graying beard, black long-john shirt, corduroy pants. For all I know he may have been the most neurotic soul in the coffee shop, but he appeared so overwhelmingly corduroy that I thought to myself, “That dude. I want to be like that dude.” And now, darned if I’m not relaxed—chunky, tight-bearded, balding, but relaxed. I’ll take it, thankful that inter-being is concrete, tangible.

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A dog channels my corduroy brother. I want to be like this dog. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Five minutes more and I’m off to the church for office time. In prayer this morning, I leaned everything I had into the loving bosom of I Am. In the night, Thay touched my arm. I can still feel I Am and Thay. I’ll take them both with me, along with the corduroy man who blessed me with his peace.

Swimming Upstream on a Bad Hair Day

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An image for today: trying on one of our bathroom remodeling purchases. Does this seat make my face look fat?

Swimming upstream: that’s what I’m doing today. At home when I was a kid, we’d say, I’ve got the blues. Depressed is too strong a word. I’ve wrestled with depression before, so in my vocabulary that term is reserved for times when sleep is your lover, when you constantly feel the weight of tears behind your eyes. Tuesday, July 9, 2013 is actually in the okay category, but I can say so only by pushing myself and acknowledging an aggravating fact: nothing’s wrong! I should be following Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice and smiling at my non-toothache. In the words of Patrick, my ten-year-old neighbor with Down’s syndrome who drops his helping verbs, “It not working.” Patrick is the Sage of Shenley Drive. I not kidding.

An hour’s blessed oblivion at 2:00 p.m. didn’t work either. Usually the world shines when my alarm, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, goes off and I stand up and stretch. For a few minutes it seemed that I’d flown above the clouds, but soon, without my approval, my nose descended back into the inexplicable turbulence.

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I need your help, Barry Manilow! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

To borrow a phrase from a mom who stopped by the church this morning, if I weren’t having a bad hair day—another way of describing the blues—I might look for an answer to a question in my head: “Is my swimming upstream the result of a mostly pampered life?” I suspect today is a bummer because current troubles, most of them imaginary, have eased up enough that nebulous old sorrows have space to stretch their legs and kick at my spirit. But with this gray Tuesday matching my interior, I’m not doing research. The best I can do is recommend a fitting song: Ray Stevens’ “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow,” from which I quote:

I need your help, Barry Manilow,

I’m all alone and sitting on a shelf.

Sing me a song, sing it sad and low,

I feel like feeling sorry for myself.

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Probably a very introspective caveman (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like the rest of the song, my case of the blues is self-indulgent, worth a laugh. Imagine a caveman sitting on a rock, rubbing his forehead and saying, “I just need a little space. I’m having a bad day. Okay?!” I doubt troglodytes had as much time as I do to nurse neuroses, because if they hadn’t gone out and speared a wooly mammoth, hungry cave-children would have gnawed on their hairy calf muscles in the middle of the night.

Or what soldier in a trench mopes if she or he doesn’t get a siesta? Troops might sneak in a nap when the action slows, but when a comrade says, “I’m storming that bunker. Cover me!” you can’t say, “Aw, can’t it wait? I’m about to take my siesta.”

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Did World War II’s Rosie the Riveter have time to nap? Doubtful. (“We Can Do It” by J. Howard Miller. Credit: Wikipedia)

The point I’m back-stroking toward is this: When I say I’m swimming upstream, sometimes I’m experiencing an honest-to-goodness visitation of toxic life junk that’s worth examining. Other times, I “feel like feeling sorry for myself”–just because. Often it’s hard to tell the two streams apart. Either way, I admit that today’s bad hair is Manilow-vian. The same goes for my siesta. Most people don’t have the luxuries of stopping to wonder why they’re iron gray inside and lying down at midday to take a break from struggling against the current. Remembering the billions for whom a ten-minute prayer or a thirty-minute nap is out of the question keeps me from being ridiculous and narcissistic.

I plead guilty to being silly and occasionally self-absorbed.

My Hungry Ghost Will Have Eggs Benedict, Please.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

I first met Hungry Ghosts a couple years ago while riding Amtrak’s Silver Meteor from Philadelphia to Orlando. I was reading Savor by Thich Nhat Hanh and R. Lilian Cheung, who write, “Buddhism describes creatures known as pretas, or Hungry Ghosts, who have insatiable appetites for food, drinks, or other cravings. They are desperate beings who are always hungry, with tiny mouths; long, narrow necks; and distended bellies. Though they are constantly ravenous, driven by the desire to eat, their tiny mouths and necks prevent them from swallowing the food they ingest.”

On the unhappy way to see my father and step-mother, both of whom were suffering from dementia, I immediately recognized myself as a member of the Preta family. The train rocked, jerked and clattered, but it may as well have been a monastery. Since everybody was a stranger, the journey was mostly conversation-optional, which was convenient. I wasn’t in a chatty mood. The condominium complex where my father and step-mother lived struck me as sterile and surreal, like something out of a Tim Burton movie—irk! And the two people I was traveling to visit were sure to repeat themselves constantly and bristle at my encouragement to move into an assisted living facility. Maybe because I was bracing myself for the forty-eight cruddy hours ahead, the insight that the Preta clan’s DNA twined in my soul wasn’t depressing. As long as I was in a dark space already, why not uncover a little brokenness? It was as if Savor were diagnosing me with a condition I knew afflicted me, but couldn’t name.

I don’t have a tiny mouth, narrow neck, and distended belly, but I am frequently ravenous and occasionally desperate. And, sadly, I can swallow lots of food and drink. My real relation to the Pretas, though, is the way I sometimes eat: quickly, mindlessly, excessively. It’s not pretty. I’m much better now than I used to be, but as the saying goes, “Two steps forward, one step back.”

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Triple the Hollandaise, Please! (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Today was one step back. Two dear friends and I shared breakfast at Perkins Family Restaurant, and I went at my order like a Hungry Ghost: eggs Benedict, home fries, and potato pancakes. Since I engaged in a modified fast yesterday (diabetes makes a strict fast difficult), I started dreaming of this meal over twelve hours in advance.

And, man, was it good. Perkins has fantastic hollandaise sauce, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I ordered extra on the side. The home fries were crisp, the potato pancakes with salt, butter, and sour cream were—I’m just going to say it—almost sexy. Were my eyelids fluttering as I ate? Were my eyeballs rolling back? Maybe.

When I finished the first half of the eggs Benedict and home fries, the mindful, buzz-kill side of me said, “Wow. That was great. And actually, you’re full. You could stop now, take the rest home.” Ha! By the time I had one pancake left I was uncomfortable. But the company was great, the conversation light, and ten minutes later I looked at that lonely pancake and thought what all we Pretas think: “Ah, what the hell.”

Hell is right. After exorcising myself from Perkins, I sat at church in the pastor’s study in a stupor, too full of fat, salt, starch, and chicken embryos to think. If it’s possible to be drunk on food, that’s what I was. The work got done, but I’m not sure how. The only thing that kept me from napping at 10:30 a.m. was that it really would have been an abuse of the company clock. My congregation is great to me, a gift not to be taken for granted.

But when normal siesta time came around, I was a bloated, white walrus in boxer shorts, slack-jawed on my bed at home. (For your own safety, don’t try to picture it.) Four hours after pushing the cleaned plates away, I still felt like I was with-child. Sometimes when you overeat, you can feel food sloshing around in your stomach, right? No sloshing here. There was no room for liquid or air. My whole torso was a sad, weary, dense wad of breakfast.

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Carl Brutannanadilewski of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a Brother Preta (Credit: Wikipedia)

Here it’s important to pause and confess–the point of this post–that a siesta isn’t always a glowing expression of good health. Some afternoons, sleep is an expression of disappointment and self-loathing—that’s only a slight exaggeration. I napped lustily a few hours ago not only because the Preta in me was exhausted, but also because I was tired of myself. As everybody knows, the weaknesses that keep circling back to you again and again are a drag. Just when you think you’ve left a struggle behind, it shows up in dirty sweatpants and a wife beater and sprawls on your couch in all of its whiskery, flabby glory. Tiring, very tiring.

It’s nearly 7:00 p.m., but nothing for me anytime soon—still full. Maybe some soup later on. The nap did help, and I did get to start my day by laughing with friends, for whom I give thanks every day. I’m grateful that my Hungry Ghost isn’t a frequent visitor anymore, but when he arrives, the truth is, sometimes he gets the better of me.

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Credit: Mark Schumacher

“I Don’t Know! Ask the Horse!”

In Savor, Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung tell the Zen story of a horse and rider: “The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the rider is urgently heading somewhere important. A bystander along the road calls out, ‘Where are you going?’ and the rider replies, ‘I don’t know! Ask the horse!’”

The horse represents our habit energy, “the relentless force of habit that pulls us along, that we are often unaware of and feel powerless to change. We are always running.” I’ve decided that my life depends on understanding my habit energy—the silly, mindless actions and words that litter each day. I eat too fast, drink too fast, drive too fast. I worry too much, talk too much, eat way too much.

Thich Nhat Hanh says I should talk to my habit energy: “Hello, my habit energy. I know you are there.” Plentiful daily siestas and over twenty year’s worth of contemplative prayer are putting me in touch with my silly horse. Writing about napping and other sane practices helps, too.

Last night, as wife Kathy and I walked our happy black dog Watson around the block, we calmed our habit energy long enough to check out little flowers on a neighbor’s fence.

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This morning I prayed in bed from 6:00 – 6:30 and intended to dress and dive into the day—much to do. But oncology-nurse-wife Kathy woke up with a knot in her back, so instead of getting right to work, I did my best to massage away what felt like a concrete ping pong ball beside her shoulder blade. (Masseuses have my respect. Subduing stubborn muscles takes strong hands and forearms.) The delay turned into a blessed twenty minutes. Once the knot was worked out, she leaned against me, and we breathed in, breathed out. The cats relaxed with us.

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Today’s work includes trying to find good words for someone who lost a loved one to cancer, visiting a woman with lung cancer, and asking prayers for a six-year-old girl who was in an ATV accident a couple days ago and is still unconscious. “Change and decay in all around I see,” says an old hymn. So it is.

When I pray, rest in the afternoon, and—even in this moment—breathe, I can’t help feeling we’re all in a great lap of grace and mercy. All of us. The world’s evidence is against me. Habit energy tells me to clench up, to struggle and strain. No. For too many years my harried horse has been galloping my body and mind where it pleased. Life project: pat the horse on its big nose and train it to carry me slowly through my lovely, crazy days.

Why Not Be Kind to the Frazzled Barista?

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One View from My Prayer Chair

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.)

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Thich Nhat Hanh (Photo Credit: Dang Ngo)

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.”

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(Photo Credit: plentyofants)

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.

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Shamatha to her twin sister Siesta: “You sleep, dear. I’ll watch for traffic.”

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.