exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

the fine art of sitting still

by Jen at 9:02 am on 12.01.2007 | 4 Comments
filed under: classic, mutterings and musings

i don’t know exactly when i stopped believing in god – i only know that one day i suddenly noticed the absence in my life. and when i took a good look around, it turned out he’d been gone for a while.

i grew up nominally catholic. my mum (protestant) and my dad (catholic) dutifully took us to church every sunday, trying to inculcate in us the deep abiding faith that has both comforted and strengthened them throughout their own lives. our church was a real hippy-dippy church, rooted in activism and social causes and rejecting the more sexist tenets of the catholic doctrine. (i remember quite clearly that they used to have laywomen deliver the homily [shock! horror! that a woman might speak on the "word of god"!] until they got their knuckles rapped by the diocese.) so my initial grounding was a good one, and even if i never really believed all i was told, i never held it against them either. i never felt the need to rebel against a message i mostly agreed with. love one another. turn the other cheek. thou shalt not kill. to my mind, these were all the teachings of a wise man, worthy of veneration, even if his wisdom had been twisted to the purpose of the powerful throughout the centuries. j.c. as a profound philosopher who espoused kindness and tolerance? yes. son of god? not so much.

but even as an adult, i got something out of it. i attended church somewhat regularly when i lived in new york, not out of any sense of obligation or fear, but because i found it enjoyable. the tradition and ritual were soothing, calming and it was like turning over a fresh leaf every sunday. i would reflect on where i’d been less than kind, re-commit myself to try to be a better person in the coming week, and find encouragement in being part of a community of people who felt the same. i never felt brainwashed or sheep-like. it was a very rational kind of faith – in separating the myth from the message, i believed because i chose to. it was nice to imagine a “higher power”. it was nice to feel there was a purpose to life. it was nice to feel not-alone.

after i moved from nyc, however, i only attended church sporadically. never really found a place nearby that i liked, never really tried to. i got caught up in the crumbling of my first marriage for a long time, and my esteem took some hard knocks. and then september 11th happened. i remember going to a service shortly afterward, wanting to find some assurance and peace, and instead of feeling strengthened, i felt hollow. i was sending out prayers reflexively into the universe, and there was nothing in return. whoever i thought had been listening before, was gone. september 11th didn’t shake up my beliefs so much as point out they were no longer where i thought i’d left them.

and i’ve missed faith. missed that feeling of inner solidity – that unfailing sense of peace and certainty at the core of everything. the idea of grace and a benevolent force that carries us through when all else seems meaningless. it felt good. for a while i really wanted to still believe, but part of me always knew i was faking it.

and then lately i stumbled back over buddhism. i first came across it in university (where i once considered doing a major in religion) and for whatever reason, as intriguing as it was, it didn’t connect. but as i begin to explore it now, years later, i find there’s some small string of my heart resonating with what i read and hear. something inside me nodding quietly. no god – yes. impermanence of all things – yes. karma and dharma – yes and yes. finding an end to the desire and pain and harm which block kindess and compassion and equanimity. someone once explained it to me as a light which is obscured by a thick layer of dust – these things are already there within us, waiting to be revealed once the rest is cleared away. and i’m nodding. this is what i believe of people’s innate nature, this is my worldview. this makes sense to me, and it is something i can test empirically myself. i don’t need to filter out bits i don’t understand or pay lip service to something i don’t believe. buddhism is a religion of practice. and lord knows, practice is something i am good at.

so i’ve been reading and listening. trying to learn how to meditate – the fine art of sitting still and being still within. anyone who knows me will know how difficult i find that – i am many things, but calm and quiet and still are none of them. yet perhaps those are precisely the things that i need the most. and since they don’t come naturally to me, i’ve been trying to practice. it’s heartening to know that even monks must practice. i’m in good company.

i am a fledgling in this process, all wide-eyed naivete with more questions than answers. but for the first time in a long time, i am finding that center again. the strength at the core of me that was always there, but long covered in dust. i am practicing sitting. practicing being and accepting. practicing quieting down the fear and noise that get in the way of my life. working to find a path through the dust to the light.

after all, practice makes perfect.


in other news, heading to paris for the weekend, so will update when i return. haven’t been there since the deportation debacle of 2003, so should be fun (if very wet)!



  • 1

    Comment by gigi

    12.01.2007 @ 15:17 pm

    i just started reading a book i was given 14 years ago. i didn’t hit for me then, but it sure does now. things do resurface in our lives at the right time, huh? speaking of things resurfacing – have a fabulous time in paris!

  • 2

    Comment by Anglofille

    13.01.2007 @ 23:50 pm

    I’ve sort of been thinking more about spirituality lately. I had horrible experiences with “penis religion” growing up and have not been to church since I was a teen. But I’ve been thinking about spirituality and faith a lot lately and I’m not sure what to do about it. Living in Paris, I visit churches frequently as a tourist. And on my recent trip to Italy, I spent a great deal of time in churches. I’m just rambling here…I guess I’m searching for something. Not sure what that is. I hope I find it.

  • 3

    Comment by Thomas Foolery

    15.01.2007 @ 22:58 pm

    Hey, how was Paris, stinkypants?

    Old “classics geek” joke:
    Q: How do we know that Helen of Troy was an American?
    A: Because all Americans go to Paris.

    Cymbal crash.

  • 4

    Comment by Avril

    16.01.2007 @ 13:16 pm

    Great post

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