By Elizabeth Flynn Campbell
Three days after the World Trade Center towers collapsed on September 11, my husband and I walked around Union Square Park in lower Manhattan, which had become an unofficial gathering place for people seeking the comfort of strangers as we stumbled around trying to understand what had just happened. Some of us had more pressing questions than others, especially the friends and family of people still unaccounted for, who had posted photographs and contact information on any available surface.
About halfway into our evening, just on the edge of the park, we came across a group of fifty or so white-and-brown-clad Buddhists, children and adults alike, quietly meditating, like great trees amidst a howling wind. After staring at dozens of missing-person photographs, the missing mostly young and presumably dead, the sight of these deeply still Buddhists worked on me like a healing balm. They were practicing paying attention to an interiority whose depth and breadth so clearly grounded them, and the peace they exuded made it hard to walk away.
I liked the little I knew about Buddhism, but wished I could find a similarly contemplative path in my own faith tradition. I was surprised to learn, when I attended my first meditation group several years later at a local church, that meditation was, in fact, integral to early Christianity, particularly in the fourth century, when thousands of Christians fled to the deserts of Egypt to seek a deeper experience of the divine through meditation.
The meditation group leader who introduced me to meditation, an Episcopal priest, instructed us to sit silently for twenty minutes with our eyes closed and, relaxed but alert, repeat the mantra he suggested, an ancient four-syllable Aramaic word. The mantra, he explained, is like a bone we give our brains to chew on, which frees us up to be informed by something larger and deeper than our own egos. When we say the mantra, we are, according to the Benedictine monk John Main, making a pilgrimage to our own hearts, where wisdom and peace silently reside.
Despite the endless distractions that accompanied that first meditation experience, I found that as I repeated the mantra I gradually settled into a calming depth. It was as if my distractions were like waves cresting on the top of the ocean, and over the course of my meditation, I began to sink under the chaotic surface to a quiet, still place below.
The peace I found in those depths was so compelling that I’ve been meditating twice daily ever since, striving to pay attention to something deep within me that is more compelling than anything my monkey mind can churn up. Despite the many distractions that invariably still romp through my mind when I meditate, I continue because the presence I encounter under the surface of the waves reminds me that there is so much more to reality than my efforts to control it.
Meditation regularly reminds me that most of the things I worry about are waves, and waves are only an infinitesimally small part of the ocean. Meditation is simply the practice of putting the waves into perspective on a daily basis, which makes me feel less like a cork bobbing on the ocean’s surface and more like those monks I saw in the park that night, rooted amid chaos in a powerful reality that is timeless and unchanging.
A daily practice of meditation is simple to start with a bit of instruction, but not easy to sustain; we tend to get discouraged when we realize how constantly we are distracted, even while silently repeating a mantra. But over time, and ideally with the support of a weekly meditation group, a regular practice of meditation increases our capacity for peace, joy, patience and compassion. As any Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or non-religious long-time meditator will tell you, over time, meditation will subtly deepen and enrich your experience of reality, quieting your mind daily so that you can be informed by something larger and more energizing than your own anxious ruminations.
“As breathing is for the body, meditation is for the spirit.” –John Main
Elizabeth Flynn Campbell lives in Shelburne and is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Burlington.