Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: mindfulness

Christianly Book Review #2: Intimacy With God by Thomas Keating

I spent a few years as a Cognitive Science major, mostly because it spoke to the kind of spirituality I used to pursue: very introspective and interested in mental/spiritual/emotional growth. I first heard about Thomas Keating’s book on Christian Centering Prayer, “Intimacy With God,” while doing a paper on the similarities and differences between meditative practises and prayer. This year of living christianly is a good opportunity to finally read it.

Here’s how Thomas Keating lays his prayer out:

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
  3. When you become away of thoughts, return ever so gently to the sacred word.
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes (16).

The idea is to “gently establish an attitude of waiting upon the Lord with loving attentiveness” (43). I’ve found it to be a difficult practise to keep up, perhaps because it doesn’t have the same, er, cultural flavour as the evangelical disciplines I’m used to. Also, training intention is a different skill from training attention–one of the goals of mindfulness meditation. So while I think Christian Centering Prayer could be really useful for some people, it’s not super palatable for my evangelical tastes. Has anyone else tried it?

Anything is ever enough

When did breathing in and out become not enough?

After you’d breathed for a while and it bored you. Then you became hungry.

And when did eating and drinking become not enough?

After you’d had your fill and food bored you. Then you grew cold.

And when did a roof over my head and blankets on my bed become not enough?

After you’d lived in your house a while, and from a warm room watched the snow fall until it bored you. Then you were restless.

And then nothing was ever enough.

Until you decide to be done with boredom.

Then anything will be enough.

Hey Ruth, it’s Sunday

The day of rest. I love rest. It’s important to get it. Without proper sleep, my memory, mood, and immune system all start going screwy. But I’m not really even talking about sleep. Just rest.

As much as I love rest, I sometimes find it hard to get it–though not because there are no opportunities. I feel this tension inside that’s always trying to get me to do something, even when there’s nothing that needs to be done. It’s almost as if I feel guilty for enjoying a peaceful moment. Product of my culture, I guess. Maybe we feel guilty about resting because we think we owe it to the world to be busily doing something. We feel as if we have to pull our own weight, or something. It’s a shame.

I like to sit. Not sit around or sit and wait. Just mindfully and simply sit. You’ll notice that basically every land-walking animal on the planet will take some time out of the day to just sit. Except us. We’ve got it in our heads that if what we’re not doing or making something, we’re wasting our time. As if there was anything else we could possibly do with time. That reminds me of a capping phrase from the Zenrin Kushu:

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

Have a restful seventh day, Ruth. I’ll say Hey again tomorrow.

The things I’m grateful for today

I’ve come to believe that grateful appreciation is one of the keys to happiness.  And the nicest thing about grateful appreciation is that I can do it any time, no matter what.  It’s easy to make a list of the things that make me grateful today.

  • For Joe, who came into our room when he heard Dev wake up, just to take him into the living room so Ruth and I could get a few more minutes of sleep.
  • For Asha, who came in shortly after to wake us up by crawling all over us, just like kids in the movies do.
  • For Dev, who is determined to figure out how to stand up without support, no matter how many times he falls.
  • For Ruth, who shared my breakfast and my journey in the snow.  Who always shares my meals and journeys.

Those are just the obvious ones.  But when I’m mindful, every moment is full of things to appreciate.

  • The challenge of study and exams.
  • The dense snowfall, making  my walks downtown other-worldly.
  • The frigid wind that bites my face.
  • The way the dancing snow only sticks to the parts of the trees where two branches meet.
  • The sense of triumph when I finally arrive at Robarts Library.
  • The standing in line with other shivering, studying students aching for coffee.
  • The smell of the Reading Room.
  • The view from my cubicle.
  • The feel of the keyboard under my fingers.

This is where happiness is: mindfulness in each moment.  Recognizing that each moment is the best moment.  That Today is always the very best day.

Discovering the Universe

I discovered the universe the other day. Ever been there?

Strange place, that. Full of tricks and lights. Flashing about with them teeth. With them claws.

“With them eyes?”

No, not with them eyes. I got the eyes. And the ears and the lips and the hands for touching and the tongue for tasting. That’s why I discovered the universe, not the other way around.

“What was it like?”

Son, it was like this.

I opened my eyes, and the universe fed me with photons. Some were salty. Some were sweet. Some were loud and shaking. Some were tiny and secretive.

I opened my ears, and the universe showed me her vibrations. Her churning and her pulsating. Her rhythmic, sexual dances that pulled and pushed on the drums within my head.

I opened my mouth and the universe cradled me like a child at the breast. The fruits of the earth, made from the same stuff as I. The fruits of the earth, slowly becoming I.

I opened my hands and caressed the universe, digging deep in the brown earth. Massaging the white clouds. Pushing at the crystal-clear waters.

I opened my nose and I drank the scents that flew off of the universe’s body. The harshness of fire smoke. The gentleness of lavender and sandal.

And then I opened my soul. And she spoke to me.

“What did she say to you?”

Are you awake?

“And what did you say back to her?”

I think I am.

A Sense of Life

There is an intense sensation that I’ve found only in a few places.  A sensation of deep reality.  Of trueness.  A sort of clarity of life that reminds me that I’m alive and so is everyone around me.  Earthy.  Dirty.  Wondrous.

I first noticed it in Pakistan.  I had it every single day.  It was as if every bit of artificial life was taken away and nothing but the raw, pulsing trueness of life remained.  I think it was this sense that made me love Pakistan so much.

I have felt it in other places, too.  Sporting events.  Protests.  Certain types of bars.

I had expected it to be in Thorncliffe.  After all, Thorncliffe was supposed to be mini-Pakistan, wasn’t it?  I was surprised to find that Thorncliffe didn’t have it, though.  It was wonderful to live there for four years, but the spark wasn’t there.

But it seems to be on Bloor.

I took my bike down to the coffee shop near our new place.  I could feel it there.  The dangerous, moving life.  The sense that everyone I see is interesting and beautiful and full of so much potential love and power and happiness.

I’m going to enjoy living here.

The Skynet Zombie

     We love hearing stories about creations turning on their creators. Those stories have made it into movies, novels and religions. There’s something pervertedly fascinating about watching the computer that we lovingly and diligently programmed come of age and attempt to overthrow its creators. And when the movie is done, we sit back and thank our lucky stars that our own machines haven’t turned on us.
     Or have they? (Bum bum bummmmmm!)
     The two most frightening monsters from popular mythology are, in my view, vampires and zombies. The vampire is terrifying because of its malice, subtlety, and power. Zombies are terrifying because of their swarming numbers, mindlessness, and unworldly stubbornness. And the biggest reason to fear them both is because they come from us and work to turn us into them.
     That wasn’t just a random segue. Watch, you’ll see.
     Now, when we talk about creations turning on their creators, we usually think of a Skynet scenario. The computer realizes that humans are a threat, so it decides to completely destroy or enslave them. Skynet is like the vampire version of the creator-killer. And Skynet is not real.
     But the zombie version of the creator-killer, I think, is already attacking. And we have hardly noticed.
     Phones, TV, games, music, film. Wonderful, beautiful creations. We have taken rocks from the earth and bound up magic within them. But magic, it has been said, is like a sword without a hilt. It’s better than no sword at all, of course, but it must be wielded carefully.
     All our toys and tools and gadgets have the capability of turning into mindless zombie hordes, marching toward our brains, eager to devour them. Our minds are always being pulled and torn at by the crowds we made. Texts, songs, trailers, games, social networks, blogs, Internets, news, politics, more more more! And we keep begging for more! More ways to take our minds to any place other than where our bodies are.
     Mindfulness grows difficult. Soon we’re living lives that have forgotten what a clear head feels like. We feel scatter-brained and full of stress all the time. And in order to assage the brain-pain, we open our tech and play some more. They take hold. And soon we find that we allow them access to our minds all day, every day. We always have the earbuds on. We are always punching buttons into our phones and tablets. We spend most of our time on our asses, staring at a glowing screen.
     Things have gotten out of hand.
     What, you don’t think so? You don’t think it’s a problem? I dare you to try an experiment. Turn off your music and games and TV and Internets for a couple days. Then notice how your brain works. See if your art has changed. See if life flows easier. Twenty bucks says it will.

Joe and his Tuna

     A true story from the Cook household:

     The boy was eating his tuna casserole. He loved how it tasted. He was filling his mouth so full that it hurt to swallow. But it was worth it.

     Suddenly a thought came into his head.

     “Mommy, is this chicken?”

     “No,” his mother said.

     He sighed with relief and started filling his mouth again.

     “It’s tuna,” his mother continued.

     “Fhisofiadfs!” he said. Which, if his mouth had been empty, would have sounded like, “Fish?!”

     “Yes.”

     He looked down at the plate, covered in bits of animal corpse, and frowned. “These fish had to die so I could eat them…”

     He looked up at his mother. She shrugged. He looked back at the fish.

     “Fish,” he said. “I’m so sorry that I’m eating you. But I’m starving. You can go in my belly with the noodles and then you can play together.”

     And he continued eating, a little more sober and mindful than before.

     “Ha!” his sister cackled, pointing her finger. “You’re talking to dead chicken!”

On a Free Mind

     We rarely set our minds free.

     Usually we yoke them to distractions that force them to walk paths that deepen into ruts. We keep them running alongside music and books and socializing and gaming and movies and all those other wonderful things that I love so much. Those things are wonderful. But our minds need to be free sometimes. They need to graze and get free-range goodness. They need to explore those strange, sensual forests off to the sides of the road.

     To walk without destination or entertainment. To sit alone in the coffee shop and wonder about the beautiful strangers around. To let your mind run freely around.

     It will most likely stare at you once you let it loose for the first time. It won’t be used to this freedom and it may not remember what to do about it. But given time, it will remember and take off running into the woods. What will it bring back? Something good, to be sure.

     The mind that has been chained and entertained and focused for too long is afraid of being free. That’s one of the reasons we sit down to write or paint and compose and nothing comes. Not only that, but a deep feeling of revulsion sometimes arises. Sometimes we look at the page and say “Dear god, I do not want to do this.” Our minds have become domesticated. They are not longer the vibrant, proud wolves of the wildernesses. They are chihuahuas. Pretty. Cute. But bred for uselessness and novelty.

     So let your mind go, now and then. Resist the urge, once in a while, to read a book or listen to music or play a game just to ‘pass the time.’ Why would you want the time to pass? You’ve only got a little bit of it, and when it’s out, you’re dead.