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Stopping the Inner War and the Art of Insight Meditation

by Matthew Daniell

(Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper, January 30th, 2016)

One of my favorite Zen stories is of a man named Paul Reps who many decades ago was on his way to study with a famous Zen master in Korea and stopped in Japan to get an entry visa.  When he went to the Korean visa office he was told the bad news that a war had just broken out and no visas were being issued.

Mr. Reps didn't immediately leave but rather took a seat in the waiting area.  As the story goes he mindfully opened up a thermos and poured himself a cup of tea, noticed its swirling steam, and enjoyed an unhurried sip.  After his tea was finished he took out a slip of paper, wrote something on it, walked back up to the customs official, and handed him the paper.  The official carefully read the note and then issued him an entry visa and stamped his passport.  Reps’ trip was successful and he went on to be one of the pioneers in bringing Zen Haiku poetry to America.  This is what he wrote that changed the official’s mind:

Sipping a Cup of Tea I Stopped the War.

The story is dear to me not only because I went on a spiritual sojourn which led me to Japan where I lived for some years practicing Zen in some of the same traditions and places that had inspired Reps decades earlier, but more fundamentally because the poem touches a universal theme that is just as relevant today as it was in the 1950's.

Sipping a cup of tea I stopped the war. What tea? What war? What stopping? 'Tea' represents our life, and the simple activities that make it up. 'Sipping' represents a simple whole-hearted, relaxed quality of attention that we bring to the present moment.  The 'war' refers to conflict in all of its forms, inner and outer; from nations at war, to families, to our personal struggles with various conflicting priorities, our bodies, emotions, etc.

The beauty of the poem shows simply what great spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama have long emphasized, that outer wars and conflicts begin in the heart of men and women.

Together the elements of the poem express a mindful pause from action, a clearing of the heart and mind through bringing mindful awareness to something as simple as sipping a cup of tea, or in mindfulness training to perhaps the breath or mindful walking, from which to re-enter the world of action fresh and not-conflicted.

As a personal example of this; there was a time many years ago when my mother and I had some healing work that we needed to do in our relationship. I had recently returned from Asia where I had been for the better part of a decade mainly practicing Buddhist meditation, including a year as an ordained monk in Thailand.  The healing was centered on the fact that my parents got divorced when I was six, and I stayed mostly with my dad. During these challenging discussions, sometimes I would ask for a pause, and I would go and practice a little mindful walking and breathing, and then return.  One time when the tension was a bit high she paused and said, "Why don't you go and do that breathing thing? It seems to go better when you do".

She was asking me to use my skill in breaking the cycle of reactivity to "sip a cup of tea" because she wanted help in "stopping the war," the struggle of wills we were locked in, and my version of sipping a cup of tea was to just pause and give my full care and attention to some simple awareness of the breath.

Recently, a lot of medical research has been done to show that simple attentional training can change how our brains communicate with themselves, and help to turn our fight or flight responses into calm clear choices.

At the Insight Meditation Center of Newburyport, (which I, along with my mentor and friend Larry Rosenberg and the ever generous Jacalyn Bennett, founded over a decade ago) our mission is simply, to provide a 'place of sanity' amidst all of the psychological stress, and strife in the world.  It is a place to come and learn how to calm the mind, open the heart, and see clearly into our experience through the practice of insight meditation.  It is a place to be renewed to enter freshly back into our lives; a place to learn how to sip of cup of tea and stop the war.

One of the places I teach is online at eMindful.com. Now we are joining with Goldie Hawn (you remember her right!) to promote the 1% challenge.  Fourteen minutes is 1% of our day.  So there are guided mindfulness meditations of fourteen minutes throughout the day (I currently lead the ones at 8:00 and 10:00 am Monday-Friday, and a thirty minute guided meditation at 8:30 am). This is an invitation to learn daily how to stop the war within so that we can sow the seeds of peace for us in relation to our own minds and hearts, our bodies, families, and the world.

Taking time, to just pause and be present can have profound effects.  To paraphrase an ancient Buddhist text (the Dhammapada):  "with a greedy angry mind suffering will follow, from a mindful kind one, happiness will follow, sure as the shadow of the sun follows the oxcart on a cloudless day."

So please sip a cup of tea, and as you can tell by now it is not the sipping, but the quality of bringing full care and steady relaxed attention to the sipping (or whatever we are doing) that makes all the difference.  Enjoy!