Why you should care

Because if this correspondent can Zen even a little, you can do anything.

We all have our coping mechanisms, those hard-won ways of dealing with daily stress. In this series, we at OZY share our secrets to staying sane.

“Everybody says they meditate,” my very sweet grandmother complained to me the other day. “But it’s the hardest thing in the world. Sit there and think of nothing? How do they do that?”

My sari-clad Indian grandmother knows her Hindu scripture and prayers intimately; she and my grandfather were doing yoga before you’d ever heard the word “namaste.” So it makes me feel a little better to know that this practice isn’t easy for her either. Depending on your orthodoxy, you might meditate to flush the mind of its busyness or because of some considerably heftier beliefs you hold about suffering and reality. Meditation, for me, is about calming down my rather chitter-chattery normal state of existence — and about posture, about sitting up straight, mentally and physically, about having a calm core available when I need stability. But thinking of nothing is friggin’ hard. So people come up with interim stages. Some say to focus on your breath. Some, like those who practice TM (Transcendental Meditation), pay a lot of money to get a customized mantra to repeat over and over.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

 

An alternative: read a text. Silently, to yourself, over and over. Every morning. It’s called passage meditation, and the prescribed dosage is 30 minutes a day; I usually flame out at 15 minutes a couple of times a week. You can read whatever you like — ideally verse, no longer than two or three pages. Eventually, you will have this passage memorized, and you can move on to reciting it silently to yourself with your eyes closed. When you’re ready, move on to another text.

The practice is intuitive, and the fellow whose work introduced me to it, late English literature professor Eknath Easwaran, said as much. He wrote that he happened upon the practice accidentally after the death of a loved one. His mind a frenzy, he sat down and began to read the Bhagavad Gita over and over to himself. Perhaps it was the simple repeated practice that did it — do anything steadily enough and it might become meditative — but of course, there’s something about the just-do-it message of the Gita that appeals in the telling. Originally from South India, Easwaran migrated to San Francisco in adulthood and became a kind of guide for Westerners seeking the East. He translated many Sanskrit texts, including the Upanishads and the Gita, and founded the Blue Mountain Meditation Center in Northern California. But passage meditation isn’t just for the Eastern-minded. In fact, Easwaran recommended beginning with the Prayer of St. Francis — Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. A list of other passages to try is here, on the center’s website.

The point is to choose something that you want to return to every day. Something that amid the madness will stick in your head and that you want stuck in there. In the middle of a fight, I occasionally hear the ring of It is in pardoning that we are pardoned (St. Francis), and on a hike I could not shake the verse Proudly I ascend / Toward the height of the world soul (Rabbi Abram Isaac Kook). Practice long enough, and words you thought were familiar turn out to be crystalline, cutting new shapes each time the light hits them.

One of my favorite bits, an excerpt from the Isha Upanishad:

Those who see all creatures in themselves,

And themselves in all creatures know no fear.

Those who see all creatures in themselves,

And themselves in all creatures know no grief.

How can the multiplicity of life

Delude the one who sees its unity?

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