February Reflections, 2016 Christian Mindfulness: Guidance from Thomas Merton

February Reflections, 2016    Vol 38    No 6


The word “multitasking,” borrowed from the computer world, is now commonly used to describe the efforts of a single person to handle more than one task at the same time.  It is a response to the multiple demands of our complex contemporary culture, which produces common complaints:  I am just too busy; there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done; I am constantly behind in my work; finding enough time for my job and family responsibilities is very difficult; much of my stress is from having too much to do.”  We can understand why multitasking sounds like a useful skill to many people.

There are problems, however, with this solution to the busyness that burdens so many of us.  Some studies suggest negative factors:  it keeps us from concentrating completely on any specific task; it actually slows us down in completing the two tasks; it can cause more mistakes and more stress; it can be dangerous, as in the case with texting while driving; and it can distract us from full attention to persons we encounter.   Surely some multitasking seems to be effective, such as listening to music while walking.  I personally find it helpful to think about my writing task of the day while getting dressed and eating breakfast.  All such discussion of multitasking remains at a pragmatic level and does not get to the root of the challenge of living effectively in the demanding contemporary world.

As a more radical approach, let us consider what we might call “Christian mindfulness,” as suggested by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, in his interfaith dialogue with Zen Buddhism.  As a student at Columbia University in the 1930s, Thomas did some reading on Eastern thought and met with a Hindu monk, who advised him to read Christian spiritual writing, including Augustine’s Confessions and the Imitation of Christ, the 15th century classic by Thomas a Kempis.  In broad terms, he followed this advice by immersing himself in the Franciscan spiritual tradition while teaching at St. Bonaventure College and by entering the Abbey of Gethsemane in 1941, where he appropriated monastic spirituality.  His original interest in Eastern religions revived in the 1950s when he began exploring the connection between Zen Buddhism and the Christian Desert Fathers, such as St. Anthony the Great (d 356) who lived an ascetic life in the Egyptian desert and is known as the father of Eastern monasticism.  Merton sent an article on that topic to the Japanese expert on Zen, D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), which led to a long friendship, the exchange of numerous letters and a couple of personal meetings.  In his book Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Merton lauds Suzuki for making Zen “completely comprehensible” and revealing its simplicity as a means of “direct confrontation” with Absolute Being, Absolute Love, and Absolute Mercy “in a fully awakened engagement in the living of everyday life.”  Zen, which can be  detached from its cultural forms, is a type of unstructured consciousness that functions likes a “thoroughly egoless and mindless mirror,“ reflecting whatever comes before it without fitting it into preconceived structures or cultural standards.

In 1968, Merton got permission from his abbot to speak at an interfaith conference on monasticism in Bangkok, Thailand.  He hoped to unite in himself East and West so that he could help restore balance and sanity to American culture. Before he left for Asia he said: “I am going home where I have never been before.” He saw his trip not as a step toward becoming a Buddhist but as a pilgrimage “to become a better and more enlightened monk.”  His trip, which began Oct 15, 1968, took him to very diverse settings:  In Calcutta he told an interfaith group of monks that “we are already one,“  adding  “we have to recover our original unity;” in Dharamsala, India, he had a mutually enriching three day conversation with the Dalai Lama, who proved to be a kindred soul.  In Sri Lanka, he visited the Great Buddha Statues carved out of rocks at the shrine in Polonnaruwa.  Approaching them barefooted, respectfully, and silently, he had a profound religious experience which he recorded in his Asian Journal:  “an inner cleanness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident, obvious.  I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity fusing together in one aesthetic of illumination” (pp. 233-234).  On Dec 10, 1968, in Bangkok, Merton gave a talk to an interfaith group on Marxism and Monastic Perspectives, after which he retired to his room, took a shower and was electrocuted when a defective fan fell on him.

Thomas Merton was convinced that western Christians could grow spiritually through dialogue with the Eastern religions.  He was very encouraged by the Vatican II statement that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (Nostra Aetate n2).  His own spiritual journey was especially enriched by his dialogue with Zen Buddhism, which remains grounded in the fundamental teachings of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama (c490-410 BC) as they developed in the Mahayana tradition, which spread to China and Japan.  It has distinctive points of emphasis:   the preference of direct experience over analysis; the regular practice of sitting meditation; and the practice of compassionate care for others.

Developing this tradition, the Vietnamese Buddhist peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, who had an important personal meeting with Merton, wrote an influential book The Miracle of Mindfulness, which applies the fundamental truths taught by the Buddha to living in our busy, stressful world today.  Hanh has advice for us:  concentrate your whole attention on whatever you are doing at the moment; wash a dish as if you were bathing the baby Buddha; practice mindful walking by being aware of your feet touching the ground and imagining a flower blooming in that spot; be attentive to the holiness all around you, for example, the blue skies and the curious eyes of a child; enjoy your work by staying relaxed and uniting yourself with the expenditure of energy;  think of time with family and work colleagues as your time,  then you always have enough time for yourself; be aware of your thoughts and feelings but do not judge them; consider the individuals you are actually with as the most important persons and making them happy your most important task; concentrate on your breathing when meditating and when stressed because breathing unites our body and soul, helps us get hold of our feelings, and opens our heart to wisdom; be attentive to the needs of others, which move us to work for justice and peace; and accept death as part of life, which gives greater significance to our daily activities.

Merton encourages us to enter into dialogue with Eastern religions in search of a deeper spirituality.  His dialogue with Suzuki was life-giving, as he noted:  “If I could not breathe Zen, I would probably die of spiritual asphyxiation.”  In an insightful article on Christian Mindfulness, the Carmelite spiritual author, Ernest Larkin, noted Merton’s personal struggles to achieve inner peace, citing one of his journal entries where he describes a persistent state “of an anxious, disorienting consciousness, not properly centered,” which lasted until he “recovered a real awake mindfulness” after about three hours of prayer and reading.  Larkin used Merton as an example of how difficult it can be to achieve “real mindfulness” and the importance of reading, reflection and prayer in overcoming a distracted consciousness.

Our Trappist guide also encourages us to look for similarities between Zen and Christianity without denying the clear differences.  He saw, for example, a connection between the Zen emphasis on direct experience and the dark night described by John of the Cross, which allows God to lead us to the Truth by the path of unknowing.  Zen efforts to get rid of ego are like Christian attempts to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Zen compassion for suffering people functions like Christian charity for those in need.  Ernest Larkin presents St. Therese of Lisieux as a great example of the mindfulness sought by Zen and Christianity.  She practiced the “Little Way of Charity” by living every moment in a focused state of alertness that freed her to act spontaneously.   In her own words:  “I just keep concentrating on the present moment.  I forget the past and preserve myself from worries about the future.“

Finally, Merton suggests that we view the practical teachings of Zen on mindfulness from a Christian perspective.  We should be attentive to each moment as a gift from God. We can think of our ordinary daily routine as a way of practicing the Little Way of Charity.  We can enrich the Buddhist practice of mindful walking by thinking of our daily walking around as a symbol of our lifelong journey to God. Our experience of nature is enhanced by reflecting on the poetic truth that the whole world is indeed charged with the grandeur of God. Our work deserves our attention and best efforts because it is our way of cooperating with God in the ongoing creation of the world.  Our time spent with family, friends and colleagues takes on greater meaning when considered as opportunities to encounter the Holy Spirit present in all persons.  We can do a better job of attending to our thoughts and feelings without judging them if we remember that divine mercy has a fundamental priority over divine judgment.  We are more likely to give full attention to the wellbeing of the persons in our presence if we see Christ in them.  Our mantra meditation can be more effective if we join our breathing with a biblical word or phrase, such as “my Lord and my God.”  We will be more committed to personal charity and social justice if we remember that Christ identified himself with the hungry and thirsty. We are better prepared to accept death if we believe it is a passageway to a richer, more fulfilled life with God forever.

Multitasking is at best a pragmatic response to the demands of the contemporary world.  Thomas Merton’s dialogue with Zen Buddhism suggests the  more radical and fruitful approach of Christian mindfulness, which calls us to be totally attentive to the task at hand and the person before us, confident that this provides a path to union with God through Christ guided by the Spirit.