There was an absent-minded professor who found himself in an unfamiliar city.  He hailed a taxi and got into it.  Then he said to the driver, “Take me to the following address,” reading it out.  “Oh,” said the taxi driver, “that's this street, and there’s the house-number, right beside us.”  “Very good,” said the professor, “but next time, try not to drive so fast!” 

We don’t really believe that the present moment is just where we are.  We feel there must be some distance, some process of getting there.  The mind makes everything an object, an object of thought.  Then there appears to be some distance between that object and oneself, the subject.  So if you think about yourself you make two of you, the one thinking and the one being thought about.  This can have its uses, but at a certain point, clearly, it becomes absurd.  I can be two in my mind, but I am only one in reality.  Meditation means taking a step back from that dualism of thinking to the oneness of one’s being.  It’s only a little step, but it’s another world.  Not a strange world, but a strangely simple one.  We are used to complication; we can handle complexity far better than we can handle simplicity.  When something is complex you can take a part of it and try to understand that, then another part; and then you try to see how they fit together, and so on.  But simplicity has no parts.  You have to take it all in one breath, so to speak.  In meditation we become familiar with simplicity. 

The task, then, is to keep this wayward mind from leaping away in all directions.  How is it done?  It’s not like switching off a motor.  Would that it were!  There’s a sense in which the mind can't be quieted.  There’s no such thing as a perfectly peaceful mind.  The analytical mind is restless by nature.  There’s no such thing as a still storm.  So don’t say: I have to calm my mind.  Instead, bring your whole attention to your breathing.  That at least is real.  It’s not complicated, it’s not very interesting, but it’s really happening.  The mind glances at this quickly and very soon becomes bored with it and tries to bring up more entertaining subjects.  When that happens bring your whole attention once more to your breathing: your whole attention, so that there is no part of your attention straying away.  If you do that, and continue to do it, you are fully present.  Breathing has this about it: that it is always in the present.  You can be present only in the present moment.  The breathing you did a moment ago is of no use to you now; and the breathing you will do later on will not keep you alive now.  Breathing is like an anchor in the present; if you drop anchor in the present you will not drift away into past and future. 

It doesn’t take long to reach the present.  In fact it takes no time at all.  You are there already.  You didn’t have to drive so fast! 

Donagh O'Shea




These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.