As we creep further into 2019, it’s no secret that many of our new year’s resolutions have already fallen by the wayside. By now, especially with the world experiencing scorching heat and harrowing-sub-zero cold outside, many of us are huddling indoors trying to stay reasonably warm, let alone training to become thinner, better rested, wealthier, or healthier.
Whether your resolutions this year were to lose weight, exercise more, eat more healthfully, reconnect with those around you, or finally become tidy, there are some common practices that can help us in our everyday lives. As Fernando Camacho and Maeve Eng-Wong, both Buddhist priests and the leaders of Introduction to Zen at The Mariandale Center, teach, these practices that help deepen our awareness, increase our gratitude, and make us more mindful actors in our own lives regardless of our backgrounds or future goals. Below, we’re sharing five practices that we can all embrace for the better.
1. Be Intentional about Prayer
Prayer is the act of living as close to God as possible. It can be done in stillness, while eating, while doodling, or while exercising, to name a few possibilities. However you do it, there’s scientific proof that prayer can help change aspects of our lives for the better, from increasing forgiveness within relationships to correlating with physical healing. The best part is, all you need to start is your own will. Set aside time to sit in silence, without your access to your phone or those living with you. For some, it helps to turn the lights off and find God in the darkness. Set a timer, dismiss your thoughts, and give yourself the gift of time with God. Then, repeat the practice. Assign yourself a specific time everyday to pray, and honor that time commitment. If you’re not able to find silence, try praying while you drive or while you cook. It doesn’t have to be a long stretch: five minutes is a good starting point, and you can always increase the length of prayer from there.
2. Focus on Love
Love isn’t only about good deeds; it’s about realizing that we’re all connected, that we very much belong to each other. It’s about our attitude, our relationship with ourselves, and our treatment of the world around us. Perhaps Thomas Merton said it best:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
Sure, we may feel love for various people throughout the day, and we may even express our love directly to these people. But how often do we focus on the experience of love itself, as Merton describes? Dominican Sister of Hope Bette Ann Jaster, O.P. said it best after she experienced this for herself in El Salvador, “Being present can bring confidence, support, and hope for the long haul. We can grow in solidarity and oneness.”
How can you grow in oneness today, not just with those who you already love, but with all?
3. Learn Equanimity
This is a big word. Basically, it means that everything shall pass— good and bad. Ever heard the phrase, “God giveth and God taketh away?” Look no further than Ecclesiastes to preach the same message: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.”
According to Nachman Davies, a Catholic monk turned Orthodox contemplative Jew, “The joy of optimism in all circumstances -the good and the bad-…is the fruit of gratitude for whatever we are provided with daily. How can we feel joy at ANY time when we are aware that there is so much poverty, suffering and cruelty in our broken world? We are given a choice… We can moan and grumble when the roof leaks… or we can try to keep our spirits up and focus on the beauty of the stars we can see through the hole. We can give up the task of re-building when the winds blow the makeshift walls down or we can be optimistic and remember that all we have is temporary anyway…and just plod on with hope.”
Hope is not a feeling or passive emotion, but, rather, we have to do Hope. The more we do hope, the more we relinquish control and experience presence. When we understand that good times and bad are both inherent to life and unavoidable, we make room for the experience of life itself.
4. Cultivate Generosity and Gratitude
Gratitude and generosity are inherently linked. “Gratitude empowers,” Dominican Sister of Hope Debbie Blow, O.P. explains. “It’s an empowerment that allows you to share your blessings. Because you’re grateful, you are moved to action.”
When we realize that we don’t deserve the many blessings bestowed on us, we begin to view all as gift. In so doing, we are also more apt to give freely. As a 2008 study on gratitude reveals: “the emotion of gratitude is thought to have social effects, but empirical studies of such effects have focused largely on the repaying of kind gesture.”
True generosity, though, is more than repaying a kind gesture reciprocally. And, generosity isn’t only financial. When Jesus helped heal others, when He listened to others and was present with them, when He broke bread with others, that was all generosity (not to mention Him giving of Himself, the ultimate sacrifice). In the Four Heavenly Abodes session at Mariandale, Maeve Eng-Wong challenged participants to spend a year being generous. A year is a hefty goal: start with a gratitude journal, praying in gratitude each evening, or intentionally taking time to stop and utter a prayer of thanks when you experience gratitude during the day.
5. Embrace Zen
“The best time of my life is this minute, because this is all I have,” Fernando Camacho said at The Mariandale Center.
That’s powerful stuff: how many of us can say that right now is the best moment of our lives? It’s a different way of being to rely only on the present moment and to experience it fully. That’s zen: a total state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.
In short, it’s presence, gratitude, awareness, oneness, relinquishing of control, and generosity of giving your full self to those with you in a given moment. Want to learn more? Introduction to Zen at The Mariandale Center offers further explanation on all of the topics listed here, as well as real-life applications for growing in these practices. Join us for one session, or for all of them.
Introduction to Zen will take place at The Mariandale Center on Feb. 11, Mar. 11, April 8, each from 10am to 2pm. Each session costs $40 and includes lunch. Come to learn the beauty and peace of these teachings and experience meditations that will help you develop these practices.