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This fall I’ll be teaching a new course–Modern Christian Writers–so all summer I’ve been dipping into Marilynne Robinson, Thomas Merton, Jane Kenyon, and Maurice Manning, among others.
And because I want the course to be mostly devotional, contemplative, and reflective in nature–as opposed to analytical and critical–I’ve also been reading a lot about the ancient Christian meditation tradition of centering prayer.
These days, any interest in meditation generally leads one to the Zen Buddhist monk and prolific writer Thich Nhat Hanh. When Merton met TNH for the first time, he reportedly said something like, “Now that is a true monk.”
TNH’s life has not been without difficulty. A non-violent peace activist during the Vietnam War, he was denied reentry to his homeland for many years. And yet, his life and writing shine with gentle contentment and true joy.
For TNH, it is not the case that meditation allows us to avoid our suffering. Rather, it provides an opportunity for transforming pain into peace. In his book True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, TNH describes a way of “caring for our pain” that is maternal, nurturing.
“When the mother hears her baby crying, she puts down whatever she has in her hands, she goes into its room, and takes the baby in her arms. The moment the baby is lifted into the mother’s arms, the energy of wisdom, already begins to penetrate into the baby’s body. The mother does not know yet what is the matter with the baby, but the fact that she has it in her arms already gives her child some relief. The baby stops crying. Then the mother continues to offer it the energy of tenderness, and during this time the mother practices deep looking. A mother is a very talented person. She only needs two or three minutes to figure out what is the matter with her baby. Maybe its diapers are a little bit too tight; maybe the baby has a touch of fever; maybe it needs a bottle? Then when the understanding comes, the mother can transform the situation immediately.”
Now, whatever you may think about TNH’s adorably sweet and slightly naive view of mothering (can I get an ‘amen,’ sisters?), the metaphor is nonetheless instructive. We can care for our pain, our anger, our envy, our sadness as a mother cares for her child–gently, tenderly, patiently.
“It is the same thing with meditation. When you have pain within you, the first thing to do is to bring the energy of mindfulness to embrace the pain. ‘I know that you are there, little anger, my old friend. Breathe–I am taking care of you now.'”
In a week or two I’ll introduce this idea to my students. I’ll ask them to bring their awareness to a pain in their lives, to embrace it and hold it close, to care for it as a friend.
And then we will sit in the discomfort, perhaps transforming it to peace.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.