Seagull at Laguna Beach
Various contemplative exercises help me be more peace filled. When my wife Ruth and I were preparing to go to India, we met with a married couple who had served there for many years with Church World Service. They talked about how depressing the social need and poverty in India can be and how it can wear at one’s spirit and emotional health.
The wife told us of a spiritual discipline that helped her. She tried to find at least one beautiful thing each day, even something like a colorful piece of cloth hung on a balcony to dry. I also practiced that when we lived in Kolkata (Calcutta) and found that carrying my camera with me helped my eyes find such things. I was surprised by what a big difference such a little thing can make, especially when I was feeling overwhelmed and distressed by living in that city.
Something I learned from peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh is to practice smiling at strangers and silently wishing them a blessing. This may be a Vietnamese thing because a Vietnamese Catholic chaplain I learned to know at the Washington Hospital Center practices the same thing. People will often smile back. It can be an unspoken human bond and form of being peace.
Another thing that I have been working at is contemplative driving. As a matter of full self-disclosure, it’s easy for me to try to beat the traffic on busy DC highways and to get impatient with other drivers. It’s okay to occasionally get upset with a reckless driver but that’s different from finding myself in a constant state of irritation when I’m driving.
This is still a work in progress. I begin by reminding myself that having a goal of arriving at my destination as a certain time or seeing how fast I can get there is going to make me bad-tempered, which defeats the purpose. A constructive alternative is setting a goal of driving in a way that improves my gas mileage. I listen to classical music on the radio or put in a CD with relaxing music as I drive. I enjoy being aware of pedestrians, people on bicycles, other drivers, architecture, and natural scenery as I drive. If possible, I prefer driving on city streets rather than on the beltway.
It doesn’t always work and I can still fill pretty frazzled after a difficult commute in heavy traffic. But practicing contemplative driving can make a huge difference and I can honestly say that I now usually enjoy the commute between my home in Hyattsville and our church in Fairfax several days a week. I see lots of interesting things in the life of our city as I drive by.
Another spiritual exercise that I practice is focusing on my breathing. Breathing is a basic bodily function but we normally do so unconsciously. Closing my eyes and focusing on my breathing helps me relax when I’m feeling distressed. It enables me to be more in touch with myself and with the divine.
A companion exercise is to silently or audibly reflect on breathing in God’s love and God’s peace and breathing out whatever is troubling me. I breathe out my anxiety; I breathe out my anger; I breathe out my fear, while breathing in God’s peace. If I do that for a while I gradually find myself becoming more serene and at peace. By being peace we become peacemakers.