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The Sun: Alfred, New York, 13 August 2009

One Time, One Meeting: Resting

by Ben Howard


“During our sitting meditation,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in “Resting in the River,” “we can allow ourselves to rest like a pebble. We can allow ourselves to sink naturally without effort to the position of sitting, the position of resting. Resting is a very important practice; we have to learn the art of resting”.

In A Conservationist Manifesto, his new collection of essays on environmental issues, Scott Russell Sanders offers an evocative variation on this theme. Drawing on both his personal experience and his extensive knowledge of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Sanders likens meditative practice to the observance of the Sabbath. In both, he notes, we rest from our labors. In both, we “grant rest to all those beings. . . whose labor serves us”.

The word Sabbath, Sanders reminds us, comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to rest”. And in an essay entitled “Wilderness as a Sabbath for the Land,” he examines the nuances of the word, drawing on relevant passages from the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. According to those sources, the Sabbath is, as Sanders puts it, a time to “lay down our tools, cease our labors, and set aside our plans, so that we may enjoy the sweetness of being without doing”. But it is also a time to reenact the liberation of the Hebrew people “for the benefit of everyone and everything under their control”. For the Earth and the laborer alike, the Sabbath is a restorative, affording “medicine for soil and spirit, a healing balm”.

Turning to the New Testament, Sanders recalls the stories of Jesus offending the Pharisees by healing on the Sabbath. As Sanders sees it, “Jesus interpreted the Sabbath as a day for the breaking of fetters,” and “instead of dwelling on what was forbidden, he dwelt on what was required—the relief of suffering, the restoring of health”. When he proclaimed that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he was “recalling the spirit of freedom and jubilee implicit in the gift of the Sabbath”. For the Sabbath, in this interpretation, is not only a day of rest, in which we are restored to a state of wholeness. It is also a day “for deliverance. . . from whatever entraps us”.

In “Stillness,” a closely related essay, Sanders directly links the keeping of the Sabbath with the practice of meditation. Recounting the experience of sitting peacefully in a hut in the woods, he describes his sense of intimacy with the natural world:

I wish to bear in mind all the creatures that breathe, which is why I’ve chosen to make my retreat here within the embrace of meadow and woods. The panorama I see through the windows is hardly wilderness, and yet every blade of grass, every grasshopper, every sparrow and twig courses with a wild energy. The same energy pours through me. Although my body grows calm from sitting still, I rock slightly with the slow pulse of my heart. My ears fill with the pulse of crickets and cicadas proclaiming their desires. My breath and the clouds ride the same wind.

As he reflects on this experience, Sanders is reminded of the Sabbath and the injunction that every fiftieth year, the earth be granted a “solemn rest”. And he suggests that “whatever our religious views, we might do well to recover the idea of the Sabbath, not only because we could use a solemn day of rest once a week but also because Earth could use a respite from our demands”.

To be sure, the practice of meditation is not only one of rest and healing. It is also one of dynamic inquiry. But by invoking the idea of the Sabbath, Sanders provides an illuminating paradigm for meditative practice. What begins in solitude conduces to an awareness of the earth’s manifold inhabitants. What begins in rest conduces to liberation.

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Ben Howard is Emeritus Professor of English at Alfred University and leader of the Falling Leaf Sangha, a Zen sitting group in Alfred.


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