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In a Moment, in a Breath: 55 Zen Meditations from Roshi Joan Halifax

Roshi Joan Halifax. From upaya.org

And now for something a little different from Nachaya’s Book Corner: instead of a book review, this month we have In a Moment, in a Breath, a new set of oracle-esque cards from the revered American Zen teacher and scholar Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Institute and Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

There are 55 boldly illustrated good-sized cards—original artwork by Roshi Joan—in this collection, each bearing a mediation or contemplation. They pool together the Buddhist teachings which are, by design, intended to ground us, stretch us and our egos, grow us, remind us of the precepts and the contemplative practices of lojong and encourage tonglen, as these practices are known in the Tibetan tradition. They bring us into the present moment while expanding our consciousness into more meaningful realms. 

Each card has instructions for posture and mind preparation, and some come with recitations or points to consider—these latter being printed in a separate color thus clearly highlighting them from the instructions. These are bite-sized meditations, reasonably simplified yet with far more profundity than might initially be apparent.

From shambhala.com

I received this collection in May, which has given me some time to get to know the cards. As I’m not new to the world of divination and oracle cards and own a few already, I was curious and eager and reasonably well-seasoned to see how these faired in the hand. By comparison, the sizing falls nicely between some of the playing card-sized decks we see and the larger decks, giving a good solid feel without being so large that they become awkward to shuffle. They are contained within a neat hinged box, with a ribbon to help lift them out. The accompanying manual is in the form of a concertinaed set of thicker cards bearing an explanation of said cards, the back story to the art, and suggestions on how to use them.

And how to use them is, by Roshi Joan’s suggestion, ultimately up to the user. 

In my introduction, I referred to these as “oracle-esque,” yet these are clearly meditation cards rather than a prophesizing tarot deck and, unlike divination sets, we can see to which elemental family each card belongs if you’re looking at them as you shuffle—a point I shall return to in a moment. Here, I shall briefly touch on the idea of using these cards in a similar way to oracle cards. 

From shambhala.com

My long-time preference for any type of divination has been to hold a concise thought in my mind (wording is significant here as one may frame a question too ambiguously or be unintentionally holding more than one thought, etc.) The specificity of phrasing makes clear precisely what the issue is, and the issue will often come with a visceral feeling—one that goes beyond intellect. As these are meditation cards, I have found that closing my eyes and holding a thought similar to, “Which meditation/meditation wisdom is the most appropriate for me at the moment” or “What meditation do I need for my issue regarding ****?” and allowing a card to become apparent.

Part of my professional background is in symbolism and color, and the relationship between the psyche, the emotional body, and healing. I am also a professional visual artist, so this is not a comparison but an artistic and psychological observation. We all have subtle callings to certain visual stimuli. Some images, especially in tarot cards, are layered with complex symbolism. Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot is one of the most culturally and discipline-layered decks out there. Conversely, the sumi-e-esque simplicity of an abstract representation of the elements after the quietude of deep meditation speaks in a symbolic language more akin to the intellect-free beginner’s mind.

As this set of cards from Roshi Joan is a meditation deck, rather than peeling layers of imagery for deeper meaning, the paintings speak to something innately profound, worthy of contemplation while not being the focus in or of themselves. They aptly represent an umbrella concept with the focus being on the related meditation. They are the “element family” to which that meditation finds home. Joan explains her artwork in the deck’s manual, and her reasons have psychological as well as cultural backing. For example, the long-revered black enso speaks to all things cyclic and manifest from the blackness of the prima materia—the primeval material of everything, at both the mundane and subtle levels, and so is the obvious choice for the “family” of cards that pertain to circling back home with wisdom within the quantum realm of creation.

From shambhala.com

Meanwhile, “being with dying” is something we will all face one day, and it has been a focus of Roshi Joan’s teachings for 30 years or so. She has lectured, taught healthcare professionals and individuals in hospices, and spent many years visiting women and men on death row. And this is something I can feel in these cards—they are not easy-come, easy-go angel-type cards; they are not going to make you feel magical upon every reading. And this, I think, is no bad thing.

These cards are are a wonderful addition for those who may find meditation a challenge or those who feel that they could benefit from some third-party help, or simply reminders of mindfulness, expanded awareness, and lojong and tonglen practices. As Roshi Joan suggests in the manual, they can be read and practiced in the order in which they arrive, or simply selected a day at a time as a focus for that 24 hours, without an iota of divinatory use. They can help to calm the monkey mind and contemplate the profound nature of our transitory existence and our relationships with ourselves and others. And some are not going to be easy. 

From shambhala.com

As I mentioned earlier, Roshi Joan has spent many years with people at the end of their lives, lessons from which I think are infused within these 55 curated meditations. We will all face death, so learning to be with death is a profound meditation that can lead us to live life with more compassion, wisdom, and dignity, which is ultimately what I believe Roshi Joan’s collection of meditations aims to achieve.

I find these cards, the words, the artwork, and the practices they express, which are, of course, based on profound traditional Buddhist wisdom, both lovely to handle and offering much upon which to reflect. And as many of us struggle to fit meditation into our busy lives, the regular morning practice of turning a card can help lead the way to a deeper, more expansive relationship with the day. Something from which we can all benefit. 

See more

In a Moment, in a Breath (Shambhala Publications)

Related features from BDG

Book Review: That Is Not Your Mind! Zen Reflections on the Surangama Sutra
Book Review: Talking Zen by Alan Watts
Book Review: Zen Master Tales: Stories from the Lives of Taigu, Sengai, Hakuin and Ryokan

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