As a child, I yearned to be good. Not just pleasant-table-manners good, but profound, give-away-all-your-belongings-like-St.-Francis good. This may surprise anyone who knew me back then, since I appeared to be a competitive, selfish, critical little pill of a girl, but that’s the story of my life: I want to be good and I don’t know how.
I don’t mean that I don’t know what actions are good. That’s usually clear enough: be honest, be kind, help others, and share what you have. The difficult part is how to be the type of person who really is good, who has good impulses, who wants to be good. How do you become more compassionate, more kindly, and more patient? How do you transform yourself so that you are happily, not grudgingly, good?
My well-meaning Sunday school teachers and family never gave me any tips that worked to achieve that goal, though I know they tried. Adults who tried to teach me Christian virtues made it sound like all you have to do is want to be more kind and more patient, and somehow the wanting will turn into being. But everyone knows that wanting to be good doesn’t work any better than wanting to lose weight. What I needed was a not a diet to lose weight, but a diet to gain compassion.
Putting awareness in the driver’s seat
Several years ago, almost by accident, I started attending a class on Vipassana meditation, a type of Buddhist meditation that focuses on one’s breath as it naturally rises and falls. A therapist had recommended the class to me as a way to deal with stress. And it certainly helped me do that. When I meditate, I practice being aware of the fact that emotions and thoughts come and go. I can observe that my fear, my defensiveness and my anxiety are present, and yet they don’t control me. My awareness can stay in the driver’s seat, instead of the aggressive emotions that used to rule my moods.
As I continued to practice meditation daily, I began to find that the impatience and anger that everyday life stirred up in me was being replaced by something slower, something softer — something I have to call compassion, or kindness. As I talked with other students and read more about meditation, I found that a lot of people have the same experience. It seems that daily meditation somehow shapes our minds to listen to people more genuinely, and to respond with kindness that is neither feigned nor forced.
This became my “diet” to be a better person. I finally had a “to do” list, a set of exercises to practice, that brought me to greater feelings of compassion and patience. If I meditated regularly, I felt the well of kindness and patience rise inside me, not just during meditation but all day long. If I skipped meditation, those ordinary challenges of the day, when people are rude or thoughtless, sparked my anger like they always had.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not speaking from some mountain top where I have achieved a blissful state of oneness with the universe. I’m just a rank beginner to meditation who has dipped her toe into these feelings. But even with just a dip of the toe I sense the possibilities for personal transformation.
I have discovered more recently, Christianity does have a tradition of contemplative prayer that is similar to meditation, but it isn’t something that is taught in many churches.
A new grasp of what it means to be Christian
Looking back, it seems to me now that the Christian message as I experienced it incompletely in childhood was something like, “Jesus would like you to run a marathon. Start running.” More helpfully (to me, anyway), the Buddhist teachings seemed to say, “It is virtuous to run a marathon. Start by running a mile. Practice every day. Keep at it. You’ll get there.” The steps are clear and if I follow them, I see results.
And, perhaps ironically, the Buddhist meditation has been leading me right back to Christianity, with a new grasp of what it means to be Christian. As I attended my Buddhist meditation classes, I began to feel a profound personal spirit reaching out to me from a powerful center of compassion and kindness. It was a voice that stopped me in my tracks and humbled me, a voice that reminded me that I had obligations to my fellow human beings, not just to reduce my own stress and improve my own mood.
Just as I know that the warmth I enjoy on a summer day comes from the sun, and not from my own body, I felt sure that the spirit of compassion that I felt when I meditated did not arise from my ego but from something holy — or more specifically, Someone holy.
I still meditate, though now I call it “centering prayer,” and my goal is somewhat different. I am quieting my mind to acknowledge the presence of God and let His spirit work on me. He’s always there, I know; all the walls and fences between us are entirely my own. And I have a lifetime of practice putting them up to try to keep Him out. Now, though, thanks to spending some time with some wise Buddhists, I have a way to practice letting Him in.