Getting Stuck in the Present Moment
A Zen teacher describes the benefits and limitations of traditional meditation practice.
Having spent nearly two decades in monasteries and temples training as a student of Zen, in addition to more than 35 years working as a clinical psychologist, I come to the practice of mindfulness differently from many psychotherapists. It was during the years I spent working full time with cancer patients, most of whom were facing disabling treatments or the threat of death, that I first recognized the full power of mindfulness practice. At one point, frustrated and pained by the inability of traditional psychotherapy to address my patients’ deepest concerns, I sat listening to Jane, a middle-aged woman with metastatic breast cancer, who’d just returned from a prolonged hospital stay. She described how, after her daily treatment, a well-intentioned chaplain or counselor would regularly come to her room, but, in her exhausted state, she often felt herself more annoyed than comforted by these visits.
“I know they were always trying to help,” she said, “but I was still uncomfortable with them. Then one day a new chaplain came in, sat down by my bed, and, instead of asking the usual questions, said nothing. He just looked at me with kindness and without expectation. He was clearly open to whatever was present for me. For a long time, we sat together in a warm and spacious silence that was so different from what I’d…