Cultivating inner space

Tom Fox, National Catholic Reporter: My own contemplative prayer efforts have been sporadic and date back some 40 years.

Like many others of my generation, I was influenced by the writings of Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton, who encouraged contemplative prayer. I felt a special affinity to the monk who was both a pacifist and Vietnam War objector.

Like Merton, I traveled to Asia in the 1960s. I flew to Vietnam in June 1966 after graduating from college to work as a civilian volunteer with war victims. After finishing two years with International Voluntary Services, a nonprofit organization, I took up writing and worked as a Vietnam War correspondent.

It was in 1969 that I encountered an American teacher of transcendental meditation who was passing through Saigon. I signed up along with my fiancée, Kim Hoa, a Vietnamese social worker, to study transcendental meditation. We spent several evenings in training and those lessons ended in a candle ceremony in which he gave us mantras.

Another entry point into meditation came a few months earlier when I traveled to Paris and met Thich Nhat Hanh, who was a member of the Vietnamese Buddhist peace delegation. We spent several afternoons discussing the war, Buddhism and his meditation practices. Some years later, I took part in a retreat he led at his monastery in Plum Village, France, where he has lived in exile for 40 years.

During the retreat, we would eat our meals in silence, chewing each morsel of food from our vegetarian plates 50 times before swallowing. We would take slow and deliberate “meditation” walks, conscious of our breathing with each step. If a bell, any bell, sounded in the distance, we would stop anything we were doing to pause and reflect for one minute.

From Asia I have learned that mind, body and spirit are intimately connected; the health of one influences the others. I believe regular exercise uplifts the spirit and sets the stage for good meditation practices. I still meditate, though not consistently. I go to yoga lessons several times a week. They allow a different form of meditation.

In India, the practice of yoga is connected to religious beliefs; outside, it varies considerably depending on the instructor and the studio. Any yoga is physically rewarding and can lead to a relaxed body and mind. My favorite yoga comes when I find an instructor who appreciates its spiritual dimension and conducts classes accordingly. Good instructors know how to create sacred space.

In recent months, through speaking with various spiritual gurus from different religious traditions, interviewing them for NCR podcasts (www.ncr cafe.org), I have found that all take time to cultivate “inner space.” It is fascinating how common Eastern meditation practices have become in the West, including, and even especially, among Christians. A few prominent examples of people who have learned some meditation techniques from the East include Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, Fr. Robert E. Kennedy, Beatrice Bruteau, Fr. Edward Hays, Sr. Pascaline Coff, Fr. Richard Rohr and Br. David Steindl-Rast. Each has, at times, blended Eastern meditation practices into their Western Christian traditions.

We have come a long way in a short time. Visionary East-West bridge builders, including Merton and Frs. Bede Griffiths, Anthony de Mello and Raimundo Panikkar, would be astonished to find so many Christians having learned from Eastern practices.

While dogma continues to separate religions, meditation draws them together. In meditation we discover that all faiths seek insight, wisdom, peace and life in the Spirit.

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