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What Faith Looks Like Now: A Conversation About Meditation with SMU’s Ruben Habito

"Palms joined, with gratitude."
By |
Allison V. Smith

Ruben Habito is a citizen of the world—certainly of the inner world.

As a young Jesuit from the Philippines, he was sent to teach in Japan where he encountered the practice of Zen Buddhism. He was, as he put it, “hooked for life.” He entered formal training for 18 years under Yamada Koun-roshi, and later moved to Dallas. Since 1989, he has been a professor of World Religions and the Spirituality Director of Spiritual Formation at Southern Methodist University. He has written five books on Buddhism and Christianity, and is the founder of Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas.

Habito still is connected to the Catholic Church. I met him when I was teaching his then 10-year-old son during CCD at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Oak Lawn. Like his father, Benjamin has a curious mind. I don’t how many times I had to pull a, “Let me get back to you on that.”  I do know that I took more notes than he did. But I digress.

Now it is my turn to ask Habito some questions. Before we get to the Q&A, let’s sit with him. I found this primer video that he produced a month or so ago quite beneficial for this moment. I think as far as the pandemic goes, we all have beginners’ minds. You will experience a bit of grounding from this short talk.

Ruben, your spiritual migration might be a head scratcher to readers who have followed a single path since childhood, but meditation is its core, as it is at the contemplative core of most religion. Is meditation actually at odds with any religion? Not that I know of. I was led into a regular practice of meditation as I entered the Jesuits in my late teens. The format was the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who was a soldier wounded in battle. He reexamined his life priorities as he lay in bed recuperating, went deep into an inner journey of meditation and contemplation, and ended up becoming a spiritual guide to others. His approach takes a spiritual seeker from a life of self-preoccupation to a life of loving service to others and to the world.

When the Jesuits sent me to teach in Japan, I was introduced to Zen practice, and suddenly my spiritual understanding was magnified. After 20 years in Japan, I found myself in Dallas, so here I am. I continue in my day job at SMU preparing students for Christian ministry, and also sit in meditation with a Zen community housed in a Methodist church in East Dallas ( We are a group open to people of various religious backgrounds or of none whatsoever, and we find common ground in sitting in silence together. Come and join us sometime. (Ooops! Perhaps not this week.) I have to say though, that during these times of social distancing, we conduct zoom Zen sessions regularly, several times a week, with a short Zen talk offered at the end for guidance.

You’ve already answered my next question but I’ll ask it anyway. For the beginner, someone who might want his or her practice to move beyond using Headspace or Calm, two wildly popular meditation apps, what would you suggest? Community is important. Joining a group practicing meditation together, whether it be Zen or mindfulness meditation, or Christian centering prayer, is always a great way of to find encouragement for going deeper into the practice.

But in these times when group gatherings are not possible, a simple practice of taking a pause from whatever one may be doing, at any time throughout the day, taking a deep breath or two, or three, and becoming aware of the here and now wherever one may be at that time, enables one to appreciate the gift of the present moment. Going further, if one can make a habit of taking time regularly, whether for five minutes, or 10, or 20, to sit still, being aware of one’s breathing, allowing the mind to rest in the present moment, this can go a long way in a life of new spiritual discoveries. It will enable you to live with a little more inner peace, a quiet joy, and gratitude in your heart.

I think uncertainty, as you mention in your video, is new territory for many people who have lived a somewhat predictable life in Dallas until now. (Ed note: If you haven’t watched the vid, go back and do it now!) Those who have been very fortunate, might find even a glimmer of compassion in this moment, which you also mention, because this pandemic has put inequities in high relief. Compassion: How do we translate this into action – and sustain it, now and 24 months from now, when the post-COVID world begins to become our way of life?

This uncertainty is bringing about anxiety in more and more people, especially the most vulnerable among us. Anxiety is a natural outcome of our not knowing where we are heading, and is rooted in a desire to have things under control, to have things go the way we prefer. We are unsettled from within by a sense of insecurity and alienation, being separated from our own roots, being separated from one another, being separated from the natural world upon which we depend for our life and sustenance. Overcoming this separation is key to overcoming the sense of insecurity and alienation.

In meditation practice, we are enjoined to breathe each breath with awareness, and to reconnect with this ever-present and the living mystery that sustains us, the breath. We are invited to come home to the breath. This is where we experience a deep connectedness with everyone and everything, and it enables us to come home to a place of peace, a peace that the world’s attractions or distractions cannot provide. In this place of peace, we are able to live through the uncertainty, and overcome anxiety, with an attitude of acceptance of “what is,” no matter what. This is a state of mind that is called “equanimity.”

And if and when things do collapse, if we remain in a state of equanimity, we will be able to muster whatever resources are still available from the rubble, and take it from there, offering ourselves in service to the world in that rubble, in whatever way we are can. Meditation can open up and bring power into our lives, a power much bigger than what our own little calculating and anxious minds can imagine.

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