There are many ways to close a door. It can be done angrily or in haste. It can be done with infinite care. When Thich Nhat Hanh, then a young Vietnamese monk, visited the Trappist monk Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1966, Merton observed how his guest opened and closed the door. From that action alone, Merton later remarked, he could tell that Thich Nhat Hanh was “an authentic monk”.
Presumably, Thich Nhat Hanh closed the door quietly and with full attention, as his monastic training had taught him to do. In his book Zen Keys, he explains the purpose of that training:
The master can see if the student is or is not “awake.” If, for example, a student shuts the door noisily or carelessly, he is demonstrating a lack of mindfulness. Closing the door gently is not in itself a virtuous act, but awareness of the fact that you are closing the door is an expression of real practice. In this case, the master simply reminds the student to close the door gently, to be mindful. The master does this not only to respect the quiet of the monastery, but to point out to the student that he was not practicing mindfulness, that his actions were not majestic or subtle.*
Although he is articulating a general principle, Thich Nhat Hanh is also recalling a personal experience. As a sixteen-year-old novice, he closed a door with less than full attention, and his teacher called him back for a second try. That experience was, in his words, his “first lesson in the practice of mindfulness”.
In Zen practice the closing of a door is only one of some ninety thousand “subtle gestures,” each an expression of mindfulness. Symbolically, however, the opening or closing of a door has special importance, insofar as it signifies a moment of transition. In his poem “Men at Forty” the American poet Donald Justice employs that traditional symbol, as he observes that “Men at forty / Learn to close softly / The doors to rooms / They will not be coming back to”. As they stand “At rest on a stair landing,” these newly middle-aged men “feel it moving / Beneath them now like the deck of a ship, / Though the swell is gentle.”**
In her book Making Friends with Death, Judith Lief employs the same symbol to describe the transitions in our lives:
Transitions are like doorways. When we open a door, we think we know what we will find on the other side, but we can never be sure. We do not know with certainty whether we will find a friend or an enemy, an obstacle or an opportunity. Without actually opening the door and walking through, we have no way of knowing. When we face such a door, we feel uncertain, vulnerable, exposed. Our usual strategies do not hold. We are in no-man’s-land. Transitions make us uncomfortable, and they are often accompanied by some degree of pain, but at the same time, they open us to new possibilities.***
Acknowledging that each moment of experience is a transition, “bounded by its own birth and death,” Lief reminds us that transitions often engender fear. Like Justice’s forty-year-olds on their moving decks, we feel uncertain and insecure. As a counter-measure, Lief urges us to pay close attention to all the transitions in our lives, however small, and to abide, if we can, in uncertainty, rather than retreat to what we know. By so doing, we “begin to loosen our habitual fear of the unknown and undefined”.
For many of us, that noble goal is not so easily attained. It is one thing to learn, as Thich Nhat Hanh did, how to close a door with full attention. It is another to learn how to witness and accept transitions, whether they be from youth to middle age, working life to retirement, robust health to chronic illness, a stable marriage to sudden widowhood. But, in truth, the two kinds of learning are of a piece, and the one is training for the other. By learning to be mindful of the “ninety thousand subtle gestures,” we cultivate an ability to cope with the not-so-subtle changes that befall us. By learning to close an actual door with full awareness, we strengthen our capacity to pass, with grace and affirmation, through the wider doorways that lie ahead.
*Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Keys (Thorsons 1995), 29
**Donald Justice, New and Selected Poems (Knopf 1995), 76
***Judith L. Lief, Making Friends with Death (Shambhala 2001), 15