Renowned Zen master and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thick Nhat Hanh is perhaps the greatest teacher of Zen Buddhism of our time. In You are Here the preface begins in this way:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.
In this simple statement is the essence of Buddhist practice. You can build a satisfying and fruitful life on it. You can help yourself and others. You can experience the world as pure and joyful. You can even become enlightened.
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing out.
… You [can] discover how far this simple act of mindfulness can take you….. You [can] learn how Buddhist meditation will help you to harness your natural insight, wisdom, compassion, and so transform your life and benefit those around you.
For a practitioner of Zen meditation, the point of this “breathing meditation” is to be fully present in the present moment. Not to be plagued by guilt about the past, not to be anxious about the risks of the future, but to be fully present, right here and now.
In his Philosophy as a Way of Life, Pierre Hadot shows how the members of early Christian monasticism inherited and “baptized” the spiritual practices which were shot throughout the “neo-Platonist” movement of the centuries before and after Christ. Philosophers such as Proclus and Plotinus, as well as the “schools” of the Stoics and Epicureans, would work to attain a kind of inner peace, using three spiritual exercises in particular: meditation on one’s own death, examination of conscience, and breathing exercises to attain full presence in the present moment.
Both Zen and Christian contemplation (I think, for example of James Finley’s excellent book Christian Meditation) are saying, “Don’t waste your life. Don’t be everywhere but here. Open your eyes to the mysterious beauty that is all around you in the ordinary, miraculous world. Train yourself to be so calm (as expressed in the phrase “mind like water”) that you can “hear” the still, small voice of God.
“Be still,” the Psalmist writes, “and know that I am God.”
It is hard, nay, impossible, to do this in a life full of distraction and worry. Both Zen, and the more comprehensive Christian tradition of contemplative prayer create a path, a way, a Tao, for one to get more in touch with self, world, and God.