Monday, September 19, 2016

Starting again?

A friend introduced me at a party last Friday as a writer - citing the "small stones" blogs I did a couple-three years ago. And I also recently finally (once again) dug out the notebook I had been meaning to transcribe into a new blog called "Praises and Lamentations" (a kind of personal psalm writing) and posted the first one. So . . . maybe I'm starting up again? We'll see.

I've been wanting to say something about a small book I've re-reading: Finding the Quiet Mind, by Robert Ellwood. A tiny book published by the Theosophical Society, Finding the Quiet Mind will surprise you.

Ellwood is a widely respected religious studies scholar (now retired) who has specialized in the study of new religions (my favorite beat) and also written some religious studies texts for introductory study of comparitive religions. His small book Finding the Quiet Mind is, to my mind, the single best and most approachable handbook for doing meditation I know of, apart from specialized methods held within particular religious disciplines. (On the Buddhist side, my favorite authors are Thich Nhat Hahn and Pema Chodron.)

Written as an outgrowth of Ellwood's having taught meditation techniques in public university classes, Finding the Quiet Mind presumes no religious interest or background, and introduces several techniques that people can try, with the idea that they will find one that fits well, or branch out to new techniques if the initial techniques get stale.

The opening of Finding the Quiet Mind is especially inviting to the new practitioner, as Ellwood makes the case that anyone who is generally mentally healthy can learn and benefit from doing meditation without needing a guru or teacher. It's easy - 15 minutes a day - and confers immediate and lasting benefit. This reminds me of the enthusiastic introduction I got to meditation from David White at Macalester back in the heady last 1960s (yes, that dates me). (See page 19 of this Macalester Today from 1987 for David White's parting words as he retired after influencing generations of Mac students.) David, too, told us that meditation conferred immediate and lasting benefit for a small commitment of daily time. He and his wife Beverly, a Zen Buddhist practitioner, used to hold meditation sessions in their home - I regret I never attended.

But if you are already a practitioner, you may find valuable insights later in the book, where Ellwood suggests mixing things up a bit and also being open to responding to impulses that arise from within the meditation practice to use meditation time to open to the needs of others. By the last third of the book, Ellwood's Quaker practice can be discerned (he mentions it only in passing) - as the describes the he meditation practice moving to a stance of being open and responsive to the inner experiences, rather than simply the benefits of health and mental peace. By the end of Ellwood's book, it's clear that a thorough overhaul of one's life is likely to take place if the meditation practice is persisted in with good will and fidelity.

Ellwood addresses the book to the individual practitioner, but makes it clear that joining with a compatible community provides a plus. That's also a Quaker understanding (as well as a Buddhist understanding) - for both practical and more mysterious reasons, as the group practice can give power to the individual practice.

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