Faith Matters: Why we sit: Members of the West County Sangha explain the importance of not doing anything

The Rev. Alison Cornish is a Unitarian Universalist minister and member of the West County Sangha.

The Rev. Alison Cornish is a Unitarian Universalist minister and member of the West County Sangha. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By THE REV. ALISON CORNISH

Unitarian Universalist minister and member of the West County Sangha

Published: 11-24-2023 10:21 AM

You have probably heard the expression “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Our world is awash with urgent needs — for material support, justice, peace, care — that this call to action makes perfect sense. It’s more than an invitation — it’s a command, really; to rouse ourselves from our inertia and distractions and get on with it, whether in service or protest, charity or mutual aid. Makes all the sense in the world.

Yet the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Often we tell ourselves, ‘Don’t just sit there, do something!’ But when we practice awareness, we discover that the opposite may be more helpful: ‘Don’t just do something, sit there!’”

Wait, what? How can this inside-out, counter-intuitive, seemingly nonsensical directive possibly be true?

The key words from Thich Nhat Hanh are “practice” and “awareness.” “To sit there” means to sit in meditation, not to zone out on a couch. And the Buddhist term “sitting” has some specific qualities: often referred to as “zazen” in the Zen Buddhist tradition, those sitting in the quiet practice suspending judgmental thinking, letting words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without getting involved in them.

Sitters remain, as much as possible, in the present moment, aware of and observing what is occurring around them, and what is passing through their minds.

Twice a month, we do just this — we sit, together, in practice and awareness. We — the West County Sangha — began 30 years ago when a few folks created a meditation and discussion group focused on the Buddhist teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. They, and those of us who have found our way to this small Sangha over the years, are drawn to his particular version of Buddhism, which invites people of all denominations to sit silently together to foster a deep understanding of our interrelatedness to everyone and everything in nature.

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No doubt, for many who are used to a very different practice of religion — spoken prayers and sung hymns, a sermon or homily — what might be experienced in sitting meditation is a bit of a mystery. What does sitting feel like? What does it do? What meaning does it have? Some of us who regularly attend West County Sangha reflected on this question, “why do you sit?” to try to put words to the experience.

Randy writes, “I ‘sit’ because sitting in silence with others is deeply calming for my mind and body, an all-too-rare opportunity ... like lying in a cool stream on a hot summer’s day. And I ‘sit’ to be reminded of the gentle yet profound wisdom of our compassionate teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.”

And Betsy reflects, “sitting quietly in our biweekly Sangha is my best practice. Finding [Thich Nhat Hanh’s] wisdom about anger and how one might respond to our feelings and others has given me relief over and over again. I often resist going to Sangha only to be reminded of, and rewarded by, the practice.”

Juliet, one of the founders of the Sangha, says, “from the beginning, I was drawn to the central teaching of ‘present moment, wonderful moment,’ and adds, “the Sangha helped me establish a daily practice. This awareness of mindfulness helps to support peace and balance in my life.”

Ned offers, “I sit to breathe. ‘Breathe in, breathe out’ is a refrain of the warm and inspiring teacher Thich Nhat Hahn. When I’m distracted by anxious thinking, I’m helped by the mindfulness of breathing. Sitting with others gives me a communal sense of slowing down on the way to peace.”

And Marian says, “I love sitting with others and not having to say anything. I try observing my mind while aware of the changing light, the songs of birds, and the breeze in the trees. When we reflect on Buddhist teachings, I love sharing and listening to the thoughts of the Sangha.”

Kathy offers, “I sit to calm my mind, and that of course also helps my body. I find that as I age, anxiety and worry are with me so much of the time now, and simply watching my breath is more difficult. Sometimes I say, ‘Breathing in, I am at peace; breathing out, I am calm.’”

Yes, we sit. We also meditate-and-walk, and we talk, discussing and learning from a gifted, loving teacher and one another. But to me, the key is that we sit … together. We hold the silence … together.

We offer space for calm, respite, nourishment … together. So then we might go forth — together — and, do something!

The Rev. Alison Cornish lives in Shelburne Falls. An ordained and fellowshipped Unitarian Universalist minister, she is grateful for the generous hospitality offered to all at the West County Sangha, which meets at the Shelburne Falls Shambala Center the first and third Sunday afternoons of the month. For more information about West County Sangha, including details for attending, please contact springcircle@gmail.com. Please note: The West County Sangha shares space with the Shelburne Falls Shambala Center (shelburnefalls.shambhala.org), which also offers opportunities for gathering in meditation.