Wednesday, December 24, 2003

a Christmas meditation

The exercise in Buddhist metaphysics is one I've performed with students ranging in age from high school to 90 years old. I say to the class, "OK, I'm standing at the white board with this marker. Help me draw a flower by calling out instructions." And so it begins. I usually hear commands like:

"Draw roots!"

"Draw a stem!"

"Draw thorns!"

"Draw petals!"

But I also hear things like:

"Draw dewdrops!"

"Don't forget the soil!"

"Draw rays of sunlight!"

"Draw rain!"

And so I step back after I get a few more comments like that, and ask the class what just happened. Usually, the response is expectant silence, but occasionally someone will say the obvious: "We drew a setting."

The flower makes no sense without its context. It has no meaning, as a flower, without relationality. No flower stands alone, floating in a priori space, pace Plato. As the Vietnamese Thien (Zen) monk Thich Nhat Hanh pointed out in his great little book Living Buddha, Living Christ, the flower is composed entirely of non-flower elements. To which I add: as we can see from the exercise, the flower implies the universe.

You can pick any phenomenon and achieve similar results. Start with a toy truck instead of a flower, if you want. You'll see that the truck, too, implies the universe. All phenomena do, and do so simultaneously. You begin to realize what it means to say that things are intimately interconnected.

It's Christmas. For most Christians, this means it's a time to be mindful about something new breaking into our lives, something with the potential to change us deeply, to make us aware of the profound ways in which we're interconnected. A lot of this gets lost in the shopping shuffle, of course, which is a close cousin to the irony of driving fast and pissed-off because it was a rough morning and now you're late for church.

It's Christmas. Silent night.

Buddhists aren't the only ones who appreciate silence-- I'd like to think that we Christians do, too, even if our faith is, on the whole, a noisier one. While Easter is often hailed as the culmination of the central Christian mystery, where Jesus is present to us in all his Christ-ness, Christmas is a finger to the lips, a call to quietude: we need to look and listen.


The world moves, and we don't see it. Change appears to us suddenly: "My, how you've grown!" But this astonishment is often a reflection of our own unmindfulness, our inability to be present, here and now, for every "here and now." For Buddhists, the deliberate exercise of meditation facilitates the cultivation of the fruits of silence because the body's movement is restricted. This restriction has the strange effect of being liberating: if it's done right, it truly does help to clear the mind.

And this liberation isn't foreign to Christians, especially at Christmas. We don't know when, exactly, Jesus was born; only two of the four gospels have birth narratives, and our folklore has done a good job of squashing the two narratives together in the Christmas pageant (in case you didn't know: the shepherds are from Luke; the wise men are from Matthew; it's Mark and John that have no birth narratives). But it's precisely because we don't know when Jesus was born that we should feel free to take Christmas as something that should be in our hearts not only on December 25th, but every day, every moment of our lives. Something new is always breaking in, and it's only when we're open that we can receive it in its fullness. We achieve this openness through the silence, the awareness, to which Christmas calls us.

This is the walk of joyful mindfulness. Christians might call it a journey of love. Open the eyes, the ears, the hands, the mouth, and the nose. Breathe the air, whether it's warm and polluted right now, or crisp and pure. Close your eyes and feast on the sounds around you, the smells. Tour your bedroom with eyes closed and get to know it in a new way. Hell, tour your Significant Other this way-- I doubt they'll mind.

You're alive. You feel. You breathe and think and laugh. But Christmas means you keep your smile and your silence. Take more time than usual to be attentive, mindful. And in taking the time to do these basic things, other things will naturally happen: the argument you thought you were going to have might not occur. The rush you were going to be in might be averted. The new year, which you thought would dawn so bleak, might prove itself instead to be a bright horizon, brimming with potential and hope.

Those of us lucky enough to celebrate Christmas where it's cold and wintry are blessed because nature herself aids us, like a teacher, in the exercise of mindfulness: the leaves have fallen; the snow covers everything; the world is quiet and still-- there's little to distract us. It's easier to focus. But those of us in warmer weather, those of us in noisier locales, can still take some time for the silence of Christmas. Listen to the beating of your own heart, feel the tide of your own breathing, taste the magnificence (or horror!) of something you just cooked. Experience life.

I'm not a believer in miracles-- I think they're distracting. So my message to you is this: the kingdom of God is found in the ordinary. The Absolute you seek "out there" is in fact found right here, right in front of your nose. It's found in the wisdom that "Allah is closer to you than your own neck vein," or "nirvana is samsara," or "ordinary mind is Tao," or "Zen is nothing special," or

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
(Lk 2:12, KJV)

There's good symbolic reason to portray Jesus' birth as such a humble thing: because it's in the meager, everyday, mundane reaches of reality that human experience primarily lies. A baby in rags, disgraced parents, a stable, a manger, a silent-- but still holy-- night. These are the places where Christ resides. Perfection is written in the imperfection of this strange, terrible, beautiful world. The Absolute is no different from the ordinary. The kingdom of God, which religious thinkers have long characterized as "here and not yet," lies within you, bursts from you, finds its voice through you and all of creation. Christmas preaches stillness, but only so we may better know the dance.

Look, but don't just look-- see. Listen, but also hear. Be silent, be mindful, but be filled with joy!

For when we do this, we all participate in the blooming of something new-- the radiant flowers in the garden of our heart.

Merry Christmas.


[NB: You'll have noticed that I tweaked the essay a wee bit since you last read it. I hope you don't mind. The "Merry Christmas" certainly hasn't changed! I felt there are some things I said awkwardly when I first wrote this piece, and a couple ideas that made sense when I considered them, but which didn't connect well when I expressed them. I hope to have cleaned this up a bit.]