On Faith: The spirituality of reading

Beach reading, professional journals, vacation reading, classics, the Daily Pilot — our pile of things to read is stacked high.

Those with electronic reading devices may not have the physical clutter, but the challenge to find time to read is the same. Besides entertainment, professional development or keeping up with the news, reading may also be a vital spiritual practice.

Many Americans describe themselves as "spiritual" rather than "religious," emphasizing a preference for personal experience and responsibility over affiliation with a religious organization. Sometimes people do not feel especially drawn to meditation or prayer.

Cultivating a practice of spiritual reading is one easy but effective way to nourish mind and spirit. For those who are readers, it builds on an already established interest and habit, but adds a dimension that is sometimes missing.

One approach is to select books that are spiritual classics or have an inspirational theme. A good start might be to peruse interfaith lists such as HarperCollins' "100 Best Spiritual Books of the Century." The offerings include the "AA Big Book," "Black Elk Speaks," "Journal of a Soul" by Pope John XXIII, "Mystical Dimensions of Islam" and "the Lord of the Rings."

For those who prefer books from a particular tradition, "25 Books Every Christian Should Read," "A Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan" or "Top 100 Jewish Books" may be stimulating. For even more specific recommendations, religious organizations often have libraries or websites with suggestions. The Zen Center of Orange County's "Top Ten Zen Books" is at http://www.zcoc.org/gsbooks.htm. And, of course, good selections may also include books that are uplifting even if they are not considered religious or spiritual.

Another approach is to choose the type of book that can be read meditatively each day. Ideally, this is a book that lends itself to being read in small sections, just a few paragraphs or pages.

This quiet and comfortable reading, followed by reflection, is its own spiritual practice. It is important to read only a small amount and to allow unrushed time for reflection — to thoroughly absorb the passage. It can be done for five to 20 minutes each day.

This connection with the bigger picture — which some people might describe as the ultimate meaning of one's life, God or a higher power — is transformative. It provides focus and an increased ability to apply spiritual values to daily endeavors and challenges.

In Zen meditation, we sometimes use a sentence or a phrase as part of meditation. The passage is first studied for its ordinary intellectual meaning. Next, it becomes a question for meditation: "What meaning does this have for my life?"

It is important not to think directly about the response, but to simply allow the question or passage to come up gently now and then during meditation, while continuing to practice awareness of the breath and the body posture. "Being with" the passage in this way allows deeper meanings and insights to emerge.

A similar practice in the Christian tradition is lectio divina, Latin for "divine reading." In this method of prayer, a Biblical passage is used. The divine reading has four steps: read, meditate, pray, contemplate.

It is compared to "feasting on the Word:" the reading is taking a bite, the meditation is chewing on it, the prayer is savoring its essence and the contemplation is its digestion and becoming part of the body.

Taking time to read slowly, reflect and absorb is critical if the words are to become our own. Too often, we search for truth in other people's ideas, rather than spending the time and energy to truly understand our own experience and to trust that wisdom.

Zen is radical in pointing practitioners to their own experience in meditation (on the cushion and in daily life). Zen practice emphasizes no dependence on words and letters, a direct pointing to the mind and seeing into one's own nature.

Each summer for the past 14 years, the Zen Center has engaged in a Summer Book Study. We choose one book to read slowly, to use for reflection and meditation, and to discuss as a community. This year's choice is "Warm Smiles from Cold Mountains: Dharma Talks on Zen Meditation" by American Zen teacher Reb Anderson.

Spiritual reading of any kind is a practice that should help us appreciate the value of our everyday lives.

DEBORAH BARRETT is a counselor, minister and teacher at the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.

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