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Returning to What’s True, Part I - Reconnecting with the Present

T’shuvah – the return, notice the word – re-turn, as in turning back, back to the source, back to our sacred authentic selves and our relationships with what’s holy in the world – is something that can be practiced throughout the day.

For an observant person, the daily cycle of prayer rituals provides the time and space to step out of the mundane activities and return to the spiritual world within and without.

In addition to prayers, there are many other opportunities to reawaken to the present moment, right there – in the flow of the day, amidst regular activities.

A recent memory. I was harvesting Swiss chard in the monastery garden just the way Phap De, an elderly monk in a mud-colored robe, taught me: cutting all the leaves of the plant, save top three, down to the stem – when I heard a bell ringing insistently atop the hill.

I froze, holding a bunch of thick, red-veined emerald leaves in one hand, and my garden shears in the other. Looking down, I focused my mind on my breath: first breath in and out, second – in, out, and after the third exhalation, I raised my head and went back to my work.

Half an hour later, the five-foot, bronze bell suspended from the pagoda rafters pagoda rang again, sending deep, gentle chimes through the chapparal-covered valley. I stopped halfway up the hillside stairs to the kitchen, holding the bowl piled high with chard, counted three breaths, labored now from climbing the staircase, and then took the next step up.

Every bell sound, telephone ring, a car honk, ambulance siren, even the roar of an airplane overhead are “bells of mindfulness,” the kind monks taught me at Thich Nhat Hahn’s Deer Park Monastery in Southern California. These bells remind us to suspend our activities and notice ourselves.

Deer Park Monastery bell, Escondido, Calif. © Lane Igoudin, 2020

We spend most of our waking hours responding to tasks at hand: one, another, on to the next, to the next, to the next; unaware of our bodies, unless there is a jolt of pain, or discomfort.

We merge with our reactions, losing the authentic, clear view of the world, of who we are, of the divine spark within us, of what the world really needs of us, and what we deeply, truthfully need of it. Days, sometimes weeks go by, when the only sense of direction is the direction in which external tasks and pressures are pushing us.