Sunday, May 3, 2009

On a Wednesday Night

For somewhere between 10 and 15 years now, Wednesday nights have mostly meant one thing; the meditation group that meets at Jose's. Actually, to be proper about it, we meet in the artist's studio of Jose's partner, Raquel. I hadn't been for several weeks this time. Last week I was teaching meditation myself in a local parish, two weeks ago I was still recovering from Holy Week and Easter, the week before that I was in New York with Br James attending a Holy Week service at a parish that was taking up an offering for St Rafael's Place, and so on. I don't always get there. I always miss it when I'm not able to go.

This week I found myself remembering the dark and stormy night in March, all those years ago, when I first went to that Wednesday night meeting. Jose and Raquel's house is in a rural and hidden area, and locating it the first time is no mean feat, especially in the rain and dark. I remember two things about that evening. One is Charles, the first member of the group to speak to me, and what a kind and gentle presence he was that evening The other thing is Jose's speech. Jose makes a small speech at the beginning of meetings when someone new has come, just introducing the sort of meditation that this group does and giving a few helpful instructions. In the course of that he said: "Let your breath be your anchor to your experience of the world", and I thought: "Yes"! This is what I've been looking for all this time." And I've never changed my mind about that.

The group is - loosely - Buddhist. We practice Insight Meditation, which concentrates on simple mindfulness, or concentration, on whatever arises during the time that we are meditating - our breath, our emotions, the sounds around us, our boredom, the kids in the yard next door, whatever. I may have mentioned that over the years I've discovered, much to my initial surprise, that the number of Episcopalian fellow-travelers is second only to the proportion of Jews in the group. Few of us are Buddhists or intend to be Buddhists. Mostly we are looking for a way to deepen our meditation practice and our lives.

How did I get there to begin with? It's a long and tangled story and even I don't remember it all at this point. I was in the midst of a long and serious illness, and one of my doctors had suggested this kind of meditation. I had known something of Buddhist practice on and off for a while and knew that I was attracted to Insight Meditation. When I discovered that there was a group in the neighborhood it seemed natural to explore it.

And it was also the result of the way my life was moving at the time. One day a while back I got into conversation at Sunday dinner with a young couple at my table who turned out to be transitioning from Buddhism to Christianity. The woman said: "You know, after all these years of this intense contemplative practice, we felt we needed......................... something more." And I said: "Isn't that interesting? After all these years of this intense contemplative practice, I felt that I needed.................... something less." Christian prayer and meditation forms tend to be centered on words. I've known more than a few people who sooner or later found that they needed to drop the words, but still find a way to stay centered. And it was that path that brought me to Jose's door.

Occasionally someone will say: "Isn't it sad that you couldn't find that in Christianity?" Well, no, actually. I've never found it sad, nor have I ever thought that my path was some sort of judgment on Christianity. It isn't at all unusual for us to discover that we need the freshness of exposure to people whose perspectives are quite different from ours in order to continue growing in our own tradition. My involvement in Buddhist spirituality has not loosened my connection to Christianity or to the Episcopal Church. If anything it has deepened my appreciation of the Christian mystical tradition. I never read in the Buddhist spiritual tradition without spending some time exploring what the Christian take is on this or that issue, and the very difference of the Buddhist view often sharpens my appreciation of just what it is that Christianity is getting at. The same applies to Jose, interestingly: he has found some things in Christianity, through his exposure to me and to Holy Cross (he now conducts some of his retreats here) that have moved and attracted him very deeply.

Jose is a wise teacher and some of his wisdom is now mine forever. He uses a simple phrase: "bring yourself back, gently and firmly and without recrimination" to guide people in dealing with what Christians refer to as "distractions". This simple phrase has become a guideline for my life in a much wider sense than just in prayer. Whenever I get off the path, when I wander into paths of distraction and lostness and then realize that I'm really far away from where I want to be, I try to stop, center myself and then bring myself back, gently and firmly and without recrimination. In that way, Jose has changed my life. And then there is his saying that I quoted just a few weeks ago: "You can do two things with meditation; you can use it to get more involved with your life, or to get less involved with your life." I knew when I heard that, that I had just heard something that was crucial for me.

And I've had an experience or two that were quite unexpected and when I went to places I didn't think I'd be going to. One night - another dark and stormy night - I was leading the group. Jose and Raquel were both away, so I had volunteered to open the house, make hot water for tea, put out the chairs and the mats, turn up the heat and then, when people had gathered, say "now we''ll start" and 45 minutes later say: "now we'll stop". That is all I had signed up for. There were just a handful of people there that night - 4 or 5, I think- and we were just about to begin when the door opened and two young people came in whom none of us had ever seen before. They were in their late teens or early twenties, and the young woman turned out to be the person who was helping Raquel in her garden. Her boyfriend worked in a local natural food store. Neither of them had ever had any exposure to meditation in any form. They just knew that a group met there on Wednesdays. So there they were, bright and eager, and the teacher was gone. It was clear that we couldn't just let them flounder - we had to welcome them in as best we could. So I opened my mouth and embarked on my first experience as a teacher of Buddhist meditation! I didn't do too badly, either. At least they came back.

I know that there are people who are upset by the explosion of interest in Eastern religions and by the many, many Christians who draw insight and nourishment from outside our own religious systems. I can only say, once again, that my own Christan practice and my commitment to my monastic life has just been deepened by my wandering in the Buddhist fields. And who knows, the deepening that I have found might never have happened in any other way.

I'm now one of the "old hands" in the meditation group. There are a few people who have been involved longer than I have, but not many. I don't think that I want to conceive of myself any more apart from that Wednesday night group, it is so deep in my experience of myself and of the world. And I am deeply, deeply indebted to a gentle, lovely old man named Jose, who has led me deeper on my own path and guided me wisely.

And this next weekend I am leading, together with my friend Mary, a retreat on Meditation in the Christian Tradition here at the monastery. The world is full of intersecting paths.

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