Thursday, July 5, 2007

Mindfulness and Merton

"Life is not a set of boundaries but a set of possibilities."

This statement by Thomas Merton should be the official epigraph of this blog. Merton,the American Catholic monk and author, and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, have been the major influences on my spiritual journey.

Nhat Hanh has reminded all who read his work of the power of being in the present. It's so easy for people like me to worry, be anxious, anticipate the future or return to old issues and relive them in my mind. As soon as I realize that the past is as unreal as the future, that only the present is real, I know I am on the way to some inner peace.

I have learned that meditation means stopping the fast-forward mode in which we all live and calming down, looking deeply at the ordinary things I do (eating, cleaning) and being present to them and to myself: being totally aware of immediate reality.

"Peace of mind" may be a contradiction in terms since if we live in our minds, we are constantly analyzing, thinking, reviewing, etc. We are not centered on the present. And only the present is real. If we are to find God, to feel the presence of God, we must, I think, focus on living consciously in present reality.

Merton, in his extensive writing on contemplation, develops this in terms closer to my own tradition. I have relied on Merton as I have been completing the draft of a book on silence and contemplative prayer.

Merton, writing with the ancient desert fathers in mind, talks eloquently about the importance of letting go of the self--so hard to do--and just being. Letting go of words, living part of each day in solitude and silence, is a challenge for us in this postmodern world, yet how else do we achieve inner peace?

And yet, as a writer, I need words, and so I am not really inwardly silent.

Merton's comment on writing has been of enormous value to me: "Writing is one thing that gives me access to some real silence and solitude. Also I find that it helps me to pray because when I pause at my work I find that the mirror inside me is surprisingly clean and deep and serene and God shines there and is immediately found, without hunting, as if He had come close to me while I was writing."

This statement, too, is likely to be a recurring theme in this blog. Writing, along with reading, we can give me access to my inner being and to the presence of God within me. Merton was both monk and writer, a man who lived with the tension that exists between merely being in the presence of God and writing works that others will read.

Writing can be a form of meditation if I keep my focus on my work and nothing else, if I realize that my goal is not just inner peace but a connection with the divine--mysterious though that sounds.

I am fascinated by the mystery of silence and will have more to say about its power. If religion can be restricting, spirituality is limitless in its possibilities.

There is in our culture a vast hunger for meaning, a healthy longing to encounter the ultimate mystery, whether you call this God or not. I find that silence is a way in to this mystery.

Sunday, July 1, 2007


Although I have been writing and teaching writing for years, this is my initial foray into blogging. My aim is to help other writers either by sharing ideas that have inspired me or by offering advice on writing.

But you don't have to be a writer to read this new blog--you might just be on a spiritual journey similar to mine.

I have two immediate goals, two immediate projects to share. They seem totally unrelated, but of course they are connected. I will save the second one, the spiritual one, for a separate post.

The first is to announce an exciting new venture--a free online writers' guide. At a time when college textbooks have gotten way too pricey, I have found an outfit that makes quality books available free of charge.

My recently published textbook for writers, GRAMMAR,ETC.: THE HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS, which I have written with Donald Pharr, is now availabale as a free download. This book is the 6th edition of a textbook last published by McGraw-Hill in 1997 and now made available by Freeload Press. So if you want to download this book and have it as a handy reference to punctuation, usage, grammar, and style, read on.

Before doing so, you should know that, although this book is written with college students in mind, anyone who writes can benefit from it, and anyone can download it. The informaton is confidential, and the process takes 6-8 minutes. Here's how:

1. Go to
2. Go to Booklist
3. Select GRAMMAR, ETC. by Schiffhorst and Pharr
4. Register (as student or instructor). If you are neither of these, when asked to select the state where you attend school, scroll down to bottom of list of states and select OTHER; this will lead you to life-long learner and other non-student options.
5. Download (it comes in groups of chapters since the book is lengthy).

I would like to hear from anyone who has done this. Tell me not only if the process was OK for you but if you found the downloaded book helpful. You can also purchase a printed copy of the book from Freeload Press for $14.95. There is no advertising in the print version, as is there online: now you see how such a book can be marketed gratis.

If you're struggling with writer's block, maybe I can help. If you have questions about usage or style, send them on to me at

My students either call me Dr. S or Dr. J (for Jerry) since my last name is unusual.
Gerald Schiffhorst