Photo Friday


Dharma room

Whether you sit by yourself at home or with others at a Zen center, meditation is an intrinsically solitary activity. As soon as you settle onto your cushion, there is nothing to entertain you but the parade of thoughts in your head. Regardless of who might be sitting, squirming, or sleeping on either side of you, what happens in your mind during meditation is entirely your business. Nobody can save you from your thoughts, and nobody can either blame or praise you for them, either.

Dharma room altar

Several weeks ago, headlines highlighted a study that revealed many people would prefer to shock themselves than to sit quietly with their own thoughts: presumably we’ve reached a point where our collective consciousness is so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic gadgets, we can no longer tolerate simple solitude. What future does meditation have in a society where we can’t stand our own quiet company?

Stigmata

We might blame smartphones and other high-tech devices for eroding our collective attention spans, but the problem predates these devices. Henry David Thoreau decried his generation’s interest in news stories and light reading, even the low-tech entertainments of books and newspapers serving as mindless distractions. Years ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous, I remember walking through the Public Garden on a sunny afternoon when every lone person I saw was listening to music on headphones: an endless parade where each person marched to her or his own personalized soundtrack. Even a homeless man had a battered boom box perched atop a shopping cart piled high with his possessions, the volume loud enough to drown out any semblance of solitude. Why spend quiet time with your own thoughts when even entertainment is easily portable?

Haloed

Over the years, I’ve learned I actually enjoy solitude. I like sitting and doing nothing; I like the sheer boredom that comes from simply observing whatever thoughts roll by. Meditation is the formal practice of doing nothing in quiet isolation, but there are plenty of other things I do that are similarly solitary. Although sharing your writing is a social task, the act of writing is inherently solitary. A lot of novice writers like the attention that comes from having an audience, but many of these writers crumble when faced with the quiet loneliness of the blank page.

Buddha and friends

I’ve often said I was fated to become a writer because I like the sound of pen scratching paper. It’s fine and good to enjoy any attention or acclaim that might derive from something you’ve written, but at a certain point, you have to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the lonely hours it takes to produce, revise, and polish that work. There might be people who are born with a natural talent for meditation, writing, or both, but I’ve certainly never met any. In my experience, both writing and meditation are deep-rooted things that flourish with sustained attention. If you’re going to last as a meditator or a writer, you’d better like spending time with yourself, your closest companion being the cushion beneath you or the blank page before you.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Solitude.

Marble altar

The chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a paragon of simplicity. MIT is a place where brilliant people think deep thoughts while solving complex problems involving complicated technologies. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that famed architect Eero Saarinen designed a chapel that is almost painfully austere in its simplicity: a windowless brick cylinder surrounded by a shallow moat and shaded by a grove of elegant birch trees. Everywhere else on campus is where Thinking Happens, but the MIT chapel is where Thinking Falls Away.

Altar and skylight

I didn’t take any photographs of the outside of the MIT chapel when I was on campus for a meeting yesterday, but I did take several photos of the inside sanctuary, which features a plain marble altar and a metal sculpture by Harry Bertoia. This sculpture flows like a cascade of glittering metallic dust motes from a circular skylight that serves as the sanctuary’s only source of natural light. I’d arrived on campus early yesterday, giving myself plenty of time to get lost on a campus where a maze of buildings huddles around an Infinite Corridor, the name of which is enough to make you think you’ve left this world for an alternate one. But inside the chapel, there are no infinite corridors, only this present room, this present window, and an Infinity that streams down from above.

The simplicity of Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture is so alluring, it finds echoes in a piece of even greater simplicity: a student-designed display of thousands of origami cranes folded, strung, and hung in the MIT Stata Center in memory Officer Sean Collier, who was slain while on duty protecting the MIT campus and community.

Skylight

Where do souls come from before we are born, and where do souls go after we die? Is there, somewhere, an Infinite Corridor where souls stream as free and unfettered as sunlight, and where time stretches inevitably into eternity? These are complicated questions, and their solution lies beyond my ken. But here and now, in this sadly mortal world, I know that sometimes the simplest gestures resonate with infinite profundity.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Simplicity.

Rah, rah!

You might say I’m a collector of shadows, considering I have a Flickr tag and blog category devoted to them. So when I saw today’s Photo Friday theme, Shadows, I knew I’d have to go no further than my own photo archives to find an assortment of images to share.

Shade tree

Scissorhands with shadows

I stand as nigh

Fire escape shadows

Towering, with shadow

Shadow selves

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Shadows.

Furry and fiery

One week after the Japanese maple in our front yard lit up like a red torch, I shot this close-up of a Japanese maple at Boston College, its leaves burning orange rather than red. In autumn, it’s best to stay on the alert, as you never know when the trees around you will catch fire.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday them, Fiery, as well as my Day 22 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Someone forgot the milk

I don’t know what it is that compels me to reach for my camera whenever I see a lost or forgotten object, like this gallon of milk someone left behind in their grocery cart at the Auburndale Shaw’s this afternoon. There’s something lonesome and forlorn about castoff things. I always wonder about the story behind these objects, and I feel sad for the people who left them behind. Is someone upset now that they’re home and find themselves with a full refrigerator of food, but no milk? Is some harried parent making an emergency trip back to the store right now because the kids will need milk with their Saturday morning cartoons-and-cereal tomorrow?

Angry Pig

I guess I feel a kind of sympathy for lost objects and the unseen folks who might be looking for them: who among us, after all, hasn’t lost something, and who among us hasn’t, at some point, felt lost? Often the lost objects I find (and compulsively photograph) are prominently displayed on fences, benches, or other eye-level perches: someone took the time not only to retrieve this lost thing but to place it somewhere that it might be found. The sight of such kindness from one stranger to another always cheers me: it seems inherently hopeful to think that a frantic searcher might find a castoff thing, all because of the kindness of an anonymous stranger.

Castoff glasses

One day last week while J and I were in New York, a woman dropped her sweater as she bustled down a busy Chelsea sidewalk, and no sooner had the sweater landed but a handful of strangers each lunged forward, separately, to retrieve the garment and alert the woman: “Ma’am!” “Miss!” “Hey, lady!” J noted how this instantaneous rush to help an anonymous passerby belies everything you hear about brusque New Yorkers. Although city-dwellers might walk fast and avoid eye-contact, there still lies within us an instinctive urge to reach out, retrieve, and reunite lost objects with their owners. Perhaps we all know, intrinsically, the ache of lonesomeness, and this compels us to reunite lost objects and lost souls whenever we can.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Lonesome.

Crash on lockdown

You’ve probably heard the Boston area is on lockdown while authorities search for the second suspect in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing. Luckily, our cats are highly practiced when it comes to hanging out, hunkering down, and otherwise doing a whole lot of nothing, inside, so we’re spending the day taking lessons from the lockdown experts.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Pets.

Melony, looking attentive

Some mornings, our beagle, Melony, is mellow enough to pose for photos, either by herself or with a cooperative cat or two.

Melony and Crash, grooming

Melony, Crash, and Rocco

On most mornings, however, both Melony and our Labrador retriever, MAD, are antsy to go outside, which means all I get for morning photos are shots of blurry fur.

Blurry dogs

This is my submission for today’s Photo Friday theme, Mornings.

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