St Benedict, an Italian monk of the early sixth century and founder of the Benedictine order, had a powerful approach to staying in the present. The word novice comes from medieval Latin, and it means to be a beginner, a person who is new to an activity. St Benedict instructed novices to take a special vow- a vow of fidelity to the moment.
This vow was designed to help support men and women who were embarking on a spiritual journey. St Benedict’s formula is just as relevant and useful as ever. Fidelity to the moment is a deliberate, concentrated attention on what is immediately before you. Focus your full attention on each action, each thought, each feeling, and each sensation. Pay attention to the particularity of the here and now, even in mundane things. For example if you are washing dishes, notice how the soap swirls over the plate. Let go of the modern tendency to do multiple things at once and instead focus on one thing at a time. Try to view dish washing- or any other routine task- as a worthy activity, an end in itself. Notice how quickly you leave the present moment to replay the past or worry about the future. The past is gone, and the future is yet to be. All that exists is now.
To ensure that their focus is never far from the holy now, Benedictine monks return to the church to sing their prayers seven times daily. Similarly, Muslims are called to prayer by the muezzin at special times throughout the day. This is to ensure that one’s focus of energy is never far from the contentment of inner life. Pause throughout your day to notice the fullness of the moment, then carry this fullness back in your wordly activities.
Contentment- a way to true happiness- by Robert A. Johnson & Jerry M. Ruhl
Now we will count to twelve
And we will all keep still
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;…
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
“Inner calmness is a way of being that can transform our lives. Taking one thing at a time as our focus, letting the imperfections of life be, fosters a sense of the present, a contentment with the moment.”- Joseph Goldstein, Seeking the heart of wisdom
A friend of mine who is a yoga teacher has a poster up in her apartment which reads: ‘You are what you practice’, immediately I think of the saying from the work of the psychologist Donald Hebb: "when neurons fire together, they wire together".
“When we learn something new, neurons that fire together wire together, and a chemical process occurs at the neuronal level … which strengthens the connections between the neurons. This means that people with learning problems, psychological problems, strokes or brain injuries might be able to form new neuronal connections by getting their healthy neurons to fire together and wire together.”1.
This also means that what we repeat strengthens. Like language for example or playing a musical instrument, repetition strengthens the neuronal connections.
However we might find ourselves practicing things that are less helpful like practicing resentment about the housework or anger in traffic or repetitive thoughts of things we must do. If we are often angry for example then we are strengthening those neural connections, if on the other hand we are often generous, patient and relaxed then the same applies.
The opposite occurs too, if we don’t use it we lose it: “When the brain unlearns the associations and disconnects neurons, a different chemical process occurs. Unlearning and weakening connections between neurons is just as plastic a process, and just as important, as learning and strengthening them.” 2.
We can learn to be more patient, calm, empathetic, secure, happy. And we can unlearn to be angry, anxious, depressed, impulsive, unhappy. Psychotherapy, counselling and psychology are all ways we can change the way we think and feel for the better. What flows through your mind sculpts your brain, thus you can use your mind to change your brain for the better. Psychotherapy helps us to work out what we DO and DON’T want to practice in life.
“Eric Kandel (Noble Prize 2000) proposes that when psychotherapy changes people, ‘it presumably does so through learning, by producing changes in gene expression that…alter the anatomical pattern of interconnections between nerve cells of the brain.’ Psychotherapy works by going deep into the brain and its neurons and changing the structure by turning on the right genes. Psychiatrist Dr Susan Vaughan has argued that the talking cure works by “talking to neurons”, and that an effective psychotherapist is a “microsurgeon of the mind” who helps the patient make needed alterations in neuronal networks.”3.
1.The brain that changes itself -Norman Doidge, M.D.
2. Same as 1
3. Same as 1