I like the subtitle of J. Dana Trent’s new book, One Breath at a Time: A Skeptic’s Guide to Christian Meditation. I know that I am not the only person in the universe who does not enjoy being told what’s good for her. I am also suspicious of other people’s enthusiasm for new and exciting activities that will change your life, deepen your spirituality, and improve your skin. The fact that the author of this introduction to meditation as a thoroughly Christian and very useful practice is on board with such skepticism is the first plus, in my book (pun intended).
I might still have resisted, but I love the author, and I really enjoy receiving Advance Reader Copies of books, which Upper Room Books kindly provided electronically for the purposes of this review.
It helped that I had read an advance chapter several weeks ago, and recognized that Dana Trent is a genuine fellow traveler on the “yeah, right” train. She has had her own share of false starts on spiritual and meditative practices, including one infamous meditation app voiced by a relaxation tormentor known as “Mr Villain Narrator.” Trent is not offering us this meditation guide as the answer to all woes, but because in the midst of grief, chaos, migraines, and joy, she is searching as hard as any of us for some connection, some anchor, some God that can hold us when we can sometimes barely hang on.
This is meditation for real life.
Trent is not asking for much. In fact, she insists that we begin with no more than three minutes of meditation at a time – less if necessary. In a typically reassuring passage, she writes
Meditation practice is not another to-do to add to our daily lists but a way of life. … This new way of life doesn’t require a total upheaval, remodel, or demolition. It simply starts with a beginner’s mind and a longing to connect with God, one breath at a time.
Beyond personal experience, Trent offers some solid history from ancient traditions, the life of Jesus, the desert fathers and mothers, and beyond. She explores the proven physiological effects of deep breathing and physical centering, especially as an antidote to our increasingly-proven and less than healthy addictions to smart personal devices (which are also useful, ironically, for setting timers for bursts of meditation). She debunks some of the Christian myths about the dangers of meditation (including empty minds as the devil’s playground – she doesn’t advocate empty-headedness, anyway). But she is always present, in her research, practice, and sympathetic companionship on the road to “Ok, let’s give it a try. What have we got to lose?”
Those chapters of set-up are not just preamble. They are not only making a sound and solid case for meditation, but they become part of the process of readying body and mind by opening up avenues for curiosity and a questing spirit that, by the time we reach the practice, is eager to stop and get going.
The structure feels familiar. In five sets of eight days, Trent moves us slowly and intentionally through breathing, opening up, reading scripture, allowing ourselves to be changed (conversion), to devotion. It is easy to see why she recommends, at least in these first forty days, taking the practices in order, and only after we have worked through them to choose the one that hooks our bodies and souls most firmly, recognizing that each will have its season.
I only read the book yesterday, so I haven’t worked through the forty days of practice yet. Maybe I’ll check back with you when I’m a few weeks in, but for now, this sceptic is going to take three minutes to start meditating, one breath at a time. See you on the other side.
The Rev. Rosalind Hughes is a Contributing Editor at the Episcopal Cafe and is Rector of the Church of the Epiphany in Euclid. Apart from general parish duties and the Episcopal Cafe, she enjoys leading Prayer Writing retreats, writing poetry, knitting, and playing with cats.