Every Wednesday at noon here at the University of Southern California, I lead a mindfulness meditation session in our University Religious Center. We have a group of “regulars” who are a mix of students, staff, and faculty, and we always have “newbies” who come to learn meditation practice. I open the session with a short introduction to mindfulness practice and then we keep silence for about 30 minutes. There is great diversity in this group, from age to ethnicity to religion to level of meditation experience, and this adds richness to our time together. At the end, we share briefly how our practice is going, offering each other encouragement to stay with it.
Last Wednesday, as I was meditating, an image came to mind that I shared at the end of the session. It seemed to me that meditation is a lot like fly fishing for trout. You snap the line onto the water, wait attentively, and catch thoughts or feelings as they swim by. You pull them up to consciousness, contemplate them, then unhook them and toss them back into the stream. Catch and release, catch and release. I’ve never gone fly-fishing, but people tell me that it is a meditative sport. Calming, relaxing, beautiful. As I meditated I vividly imagined a placid stream in bright sunlight with gleaming fish darting under the water. I caught that image, admired it, then unhooked it and dropped it back into the stream of my thoughts and feelings.
I led a group of six students to Tucson, Arizona for the week of Spring Break this past month. It was a service-learning trip to explore the work of interfaith activists for border justice in southern Arizona. One of our stops was to the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Their monastery is a beautiful compound north of downtown Tucson. Our students were amazed at the physical, mental, and spiritual liveliness of these mostly older women, and the level of their engagement with the world despite their semi-cloistered way of life. The sisters practice perpetual adoration of the blessed sacrament. Their meditation practice is to stare at a box with closed doors, holding the wafer of the eucharist within. An unusual job, is it not? — to perpetually adore a piece of bread. We joined them for their vesper service, which begins and ends with adoration of the sacrament. We stared at the box containing the wafer at the far end of their big, ornate chapel. I contemplated the box itself, the idea of adoring the wafer, the wafer itself, the mysterious idea of Jesus and the Christ and God – and all of us and everything else – being one with that wafer. I kept my gaze fixed on it. When vespers was over, I released that focused attention and noticed its “echo”. Focusing attention, and then releasing it, made me suddenly more awake to everything and everybody in the chapel.
It turns out that this is also a form of Buddhist meditation practice – to focus attention narrowly and then release it, in order to widen consciousness. I learned about it this summer from Arthur Zajonc, emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College. I was attending a conference on the use of contemplative and meditative techniques in all kinds of classrooms in higher education. He is a leader of the movement to use such practices in university teaching and learning. He has his students look at powerpoint slides showing raw data. He’ll ask them to concentrate on one of these images, and allow for plenty of “dead air” time to do so. Then he turns off that slide, and asks them what patterns or connections they noticed. This discussion then leads into his presentation of the theory of physics that accounts for the raw data. Arthur doesn’t tell his students he’s using a Buddhist “attention and release” meditation technique, but that’s the basis of his teaching method. He finds it very effective in enabling students to gain a deep and enduring understanding of the subject matter. (New research on meditation practice, from UC Santa Barbara, confirms this sort of result.)
We are streams of water flowing, with experiences swimming through us. Catch, admire, observe, appreciate them. Release them back into the stream. Catch and release, catch and release….