Perhaps, as a priest, one should not admit to enjoying meditation in one’s garden. Pounding through prescribed prayers with attention to seasonal shifts and situational demands for liturgical calculations served me once and it still serves many I love and respect – even still serves me at times. But this orange chair has been my resting place this last four weeks. I guess because it has been August and because mornings in Colorado, free of mosquitoes and heat are so delicious, I like sitting outside for my practice.
“Practice” is a wonderful word for what people do as a way to connect to their God and to themselves. I like the word, in part, because when one practices piano or medicine or law or singing, one is using mental or physical muscles which one is attempting to train. In practice there is failure and there is success and they mischievously comingle.
Practice, over time, can improve a skill or a function.
When I left the monastery, as when I left New Hampshire, I committed to working hard to retaining what was good, while letting go of what failures were mine and those of others. That is how we live. We let go. And if we do not, we cause ourselves and the people around us terrible harm. Thomas Merton once wrote that “Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity.” Anxiety is easy to see in people and institutions. And yet, letting go of control and manipulation can be hard to do.
So my practice – a central function of my Rule of Life – is what I have come to term “the three hours.” I do not always get them, especially if I have house guests or am traveling. But living alone, I find I can live with “the practice of the three hours” most of the time,and have enjoyed it particularly this August as I have healed and worked on letting go of the story behind my thoughts and the demands of what I think life should be like. These two things- letting go of both story and demanding expectations, get a lot of my attention in the three hours.
The first hour begins once I have showered, shaved, made a pot of tea and lit a candle (if it is dark). The first hour is for sitting practice. I just sit there and notice my breathing. I welcome my thoughts and send them on their way. I observe my body and how it feels. I observe my thoughts, seeking to let them go. Unfortunately, peace usually only really comes in the last few minutes.
The second hour gets another pour of hot water on the old tea leaves. Just as the first hour was for mindfulness, the second one is for dedicated thought. I usually remain seated but my eyes open from half to full. My posture relaxes and I remain committed to thinking about how my life is going. I try not to fixate or make any one thought into a fetish. I simply try to expand my awareness on the platform established by the first hour. What is going well? What is not? What grief do I have? What joy exists for me? What apologies do I need to make? Where do I need to let myself off the scaffolds of my own puritanical judgements? Where might I need the help of another person? I end this hour with a simple prayer which hands the mess over to God in an imaginary bowl (or…sometimes…dump truck!
The third hour is for walking. I can go from my house, down 6th Avenue’s gorgeous park-medium and back in about an hour if I turn around at a certain point. While I walk, the metaphorical flowers I picked in the first two hours have time to decide where they want to be planted in my heart – what needs shade, what needs sun, what needs further consideration for the compost heap? And this is also a time for listening to scripture and the study of it with Podcasts such as On Being or audible books such as Daring Greatly.
When I am done with the three hours, I am ready to face the day, regardless if it is a day of work or sabbath. Regardless of what I must face after the three hours, I am better able to face it if I have practiced mindfulness, listening and walking. It means I need to go to bed early since the practice requires at least four first hours of a day. It means I need to limit my work-day to a normal, rational and sane 8-9 hours of hard, focused work (unless it is Christmas or Easter) But it also means that I can model the kind of person that I and other people want in a priest- actually not just a priest, but also a well human. The three hours are not very pious. They involve no church and as few words as possible. But they give me the inner strength to see what I need to see, know what I need to know and love as I need to love. Most days I fail often in the three hours. But wellness practice allows for failure if we are willing to give up control and step off the cliff of our tendency to avoid or anesthetize what is inside us.
Kai models behavior for me as I sit my practice. He seems to be my icon these days. And a comfy chair is always helpful. And some tea.