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?


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?


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.

The Potluck

Yesterday morning, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice and give teaching interviews, stopping on my way to photograph David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” a bright, larger-than-life mural depicting a happy gathering of all ages and races sharing an abundant meal. Yesterday was a gorgeous day—sunny and not too warm—so it would have been perfect for either a picnic or potluck, but instead, I started the morning by going to the Zen Center, where I spent a half hour quietly contemplating the Dharma room floor before secreting myself in the interview room, where I met individually with a handful of fellow meditators, one after another, each bringing some sort of question: a potluck of interactions, each presenting its own possibilities.

Dharma room

After I’d gotten home from the Zen Center, J and I took the T downtown, where we walked to the North End for Saint Anthony’s Feast: a whole other kind of potluck. Instead of the quiet minimalism of the Zen Center Dharma room, in the North End we encountered the pomp and camaraderie of an Old World religious festival, a marching band accompanying a group of men who carried a statue of Saint Anthony through the streets, stopping (and even raising the statue to second-floor level) when anyone wanted to pin money to the ribbons that adorned it.


Although most of us easily understand the pomp and protocol of a picnic or potluck, Catholic festivals can be a bit more mystifying to the uninitiated. Both J and I are Italian and were raised as Catholics, so we don’t raise an eyebrow when we see colorful saint statues decorated and adorned…but I can imagine the consternation and even concern that people from other religious backgrounds might feel when they see folks in the North End apparently worshipping or even “bribing” idol-like statues with kisses and cash.

Dollar-pinned ribbons for Saint Anthony

When I see the obvious reverence that attendees at Saint Anthony’s and other North End feasts display toward these saints, though, I see tradition, not idolatry. Italians in Boston’s North End have been celebrating Saint Anthony’s Feast for nearly a century, continuing a festive tradition they carried with them from their homeland. Saint Anthony’s Feast might not match the kind of picnic or potluck you see in mainstream America, but it does suit North End tastes and traditions.

Saint Anthony pinned with dollars

America is often compared to a melting pot, but that metaphor is all wrong. When you toss (and then melt) disparate cuisines in a pot, what you end up with is a homogenous mush, the various tastes and textures all pureeing to gray. America isn’t a melting pot but a smorgasbord—a potluck—where each community offers something characteristic to their own tradition, even if “my” cuisine doesn’t perfectly match “yours.”

Italian pastries

At a potluck, everyone contributes something, and everyone shares…but at a potluck, you have the opportunity to pick and choose, not every plate offering something for every palate. Do you prefer a quiet morning spent meditating in the shadow of a gold guy? We have that. Do you prefer a festive afternoon feasting among confetti and cannoli? We have that, too. Whether you stick with familiar foods or explore something new, you can help yourself to whatever you’d like, then come back for seconds. There’s plenty for everyone, and something to satisfy every taste.


As much as meditating at the Zen Center and feasting in the North End might seem like opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, I find a lot of ways that Buddhism and Catholicism complement one another. Both Buddhisim and Catholicism offer a rich iconography of visual images: when newcomers come to the Zen Center, for instance, I make clear that the Buddha sitting at the head of the Dharma room isn’t a god to be worshiped but a visual representation of the clear, pure nature we all possess. Similarly, the money that festival-goers pin to statues of Saint Anthony or Saint Lucy aren’t idolatrous bribes: they’re expressions of gratitude and hope. A Catholic festival like Saint Anthony’s Feast suggests that if we make a point to be generous with saints, perhaps those saints will in turn be generous with blessings.

Saint Anthony shrine

Both feasts and potlucks, after all, are celebrations of abundance: there’s enough for everyone to eat, enjoy, and come back for seconds. On a gorgeous August Sunday, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.

Click here for more photos from Saint Anthony’s Feast, which J and I had first visited in August of 2007…or click here for more photos of David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” which I’ve blogged in May of 2009 and February of 2011. Enjoy!

Wall at Central Square

Last night was one of those nights when I could think of a million reasons not to show up for practice at the Cambridge Zen Center. I’d spent the day juggling face-to-face and online teaching obligations, teaching classes at Framingham State then grading papers and submitting online grades between classes. It was (and still is) unseasonably cold and windy—blustery conditions perfect for catching a cold—and I’m still clogged and froggy from last week’s bronchitis. After tending the online graduate course that ended on Sunday, the online graduate course that started on Monday, and the three undergraduate classes that are ongoing, all I wanted to do yesterday afternoon was come home, plant myself on the couch with a book and a blanket, and not be bothered.

Wall at Central Square

Instead, I came home, changed clothes, ate a quick dinner, then drove to Cambridge, where I took a quick, brisk walk to check out the neighborhood graffiti before heading to the Zen Center, spending the next three hours chanting, meditating, and walking, all in the golden glow of the Dharma room Buddha. Sometimes you need to get away from it all, and other times you need to get in touch with it all, tuning in rather than tuning out.

Wall at Central Square

On hectic days like yesterday—too often, in other words, than I’d care to mention—working my day job feels like spinning in a revolving door, with students constantly coming and going while I go nowhere but ’round. I’ve taught face-to-face classes for nearly twenty years now, and I’ve taught online for ten, and I can’t begin to count the number of students I’ve worked with, much less the number of papers I’ve read, commented upon, and graded over those years. You collect one batch of papers; you hand back another. You read, hand back, then collect some more. When one semester ends, another begins: you read final papers, submit final grades, then promptly rewind and begin again, again, and again. Your students finish your class, take other classes, then graduate, moving on to whatever’s next while you, their teacher, keep revisiting the same lessons over and over and over. It’s a nonstop ritual that makes me dizzy just thinking about it.

Wall at Central Square

When it feels like you’re spinning in circles, you have several options: namely, you can keep on spinning, or you can stop. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your day job is more rote or repetitive than others’, but actually life itself is a revolving door: we wake, bathe, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, clean up our mess, tend our kids or pets, plant ourselves on the couch with a book and blanket, then go to sleep, destined to repeat it again tomorrow. We are born, grow up, grow old, then die, stuck in the epic catastrophe of human life, a drama culminating with the dire trinity of old age, sickness, and death. Surely, we say to ourselves, there must be something more than this; surely, the Buddha said to himself, there has to be a way out.

Wall at Central Square

Last night at the Zen Center, I reminded myself of something I’ve long known but constantly forget, time and again: it takes only a second to stop. Swept up in the rat race of your mundane life, you think the earth itself will stop spinning if you power down your laptop, shut off your phone, and step away from your to-do list…but having done these things, you realize nothing has changed but your own perspective. The emails are still there to be answered when you reboot your computer; the to-dos still beckon from their list. But you yourself can change; you yourself can re-charge.

Wall at Central Square

From your dizzying perch atop life’s revolving door, it’s easy to grow queasy from the ceaseless swirl of activity we call life, but the second you step off that dizzy-go-round, the world slows and solidifies underfoot. This revolving door called life is filled to overflowing with discreet moments, each one marching in turn. You can grow sick from the spinning redundancy of it all, or you can zero in and focus on This Present Moment, then the next, then the next. Suddenly the cycle isn’t sickening but wonderful: a glorious procession of moments staged just for your own enjoyment, so don’t miss it.

Wall at Central Square

Last night at the Zen Center, I had the same realization I always have at the Zen Center: why did I stay away so long? The rat race is always there, ready to welcome me back as soon as I return to it…but the rat race holds no power over me the second I decide not to run. There’s nothing more repetitive than spending three hours chanting, meditating, and walking, your own breath coming and going through the revolving door of your own body: inhale, exhale, repeat. The cyclic certainty of your workaday life is enough to drive you mad, and the cure is to reacquaint yourself with another kind of monotony: this breath, this body, this moment, each instant following the next like a foot stepping into its own footprint. It takes only a second—this second—to return to it.


Earlier today, I submitted two batches of end-term grades, and the rest of today and tomorrow, I’ll continue commenting on essay drafts from my FSU students. We’ve reached the point in the semester when I feel word-weary, too full of other people’s ideas, other people’s opinions, other people’s words. If there were a way to crack open my head and rinse out the residue of other people’s prose, I’d do it. Instead, I sit here and try to purify my brain by pumping in prose of my own.


Tonight I go to the Zen Center to lead Tuesday night long sitting. I always feel a surge of adrenaline before leading practice: as the head Dharma teacher, you’re responsible for making newcomers comfortable as well as making sure things go smoothly in the Dharma room. If the head Dharma teacher does her job, everyone else can meditate without wondering who is watching the clock, who is keeping track of interviews, or who will indicate when to walk, when to sit, or when to bow and chant at the end of the evening: all done. If the head Dharma teacher does her job, Tuesday night long sitting is a calm and quiet time, but if the head Dharma teacher doesn’t mind the details, an atmosphere of confusion rather than calm prevails.

Cat eyes

The last time I led Tuesday night long sitting, a bunch of things went wrong. Although I arrived at the Zen Center early, I was late bringing tea to the teacher giving interviews…and since I’d made the wrong kind of tea, I had to bustle back to the kitchen to brew a second pot before finally arriving (late) to the meditation session I was supposed to be leading. While I was bustling around brewing tea, the order of people in the Dharma room waiting for interviews got screwed up, with everyone looking around nervously when the interview room bell rang: “Who’s next?”

Porno piggy

What was wonderful, though, was how quickly even these tempests in a (late) teapot subsided. Having fretted before practice that Something Would Go Wrong, I did indeed drop a few proverbial balls…and in the end, everything was fine. When I brought the second pot of tea, the teacher giving interviews was genuinely grateful I’d taken the extra effort, and when the bell rang, people figured out who had the next interview. By the end of the night’s regular routine of sitting, walking, and sitting, everyone (myself included) had settled down and settled in. This seems to be the recurring pattern behind my Zen Center practice: beforehand, I worry myself with what-ifs, then once I’m there, everything works out fine. Even when things don’t go entirely according to plan, everyone is flexible and forgiving, and the ruffled waters quickly return to calm.

9/11 Truth Building / Bowz

One of the things I tell newcomers at the Zen Center is that there’s no mistake you can possibly make that someone else (probably me) hasn’t made countless times before you…and every time, both the mistake-maker and the Zen Center itself has survived. I’ve yet to encounter someone who has died of embarrassment after making a mistake at the Zen Center, and as of yet, I’ve never died of embarrassment there, either.

Street buddha

In my tenure at the Zen Center, I have brewed the wrong tea, sung the wrong chants, eaten from the wrong bowl, bowed at the wrong time, sat in the wrong seat, walked the wrong way, fallen asleep, fallen down, farted, snored, cried, and said any number of wrong, idiotic, and inappropriate things. In response, I’ve been gently corrected, nudged, hugged, laughed at, and laughed. Never, though, have I self-destructed, and never have I (yet) managed to destroy the place. In grandma-gentle style, the folks at the Zen Center always seem to respond to mistakes with placid compassion: “Another mistake? No problem!”


So tonight, I’ll go to the Zen Center to rinse out the residue of other people’s (and my own) ideas, other people’s (and my own) opinions, and other people’s (and my own) words. Tonight at the Zen Center, I’ll probably make a mistake or two, but I won’t die of embarrassment. Instead, I’ll follow my breath, watch the clock, and keep track of the order of people waiting to have interviews with a teacher who rings a bell and drinks tea in the next room. That tea might come late, and it might take several pots before I brew the right kind. But the only way to make a second pot of tea is to completely pour out the first, rinsing out even the residue of “wrong.”

I illustrated today’s post with images from the graffiti-covered Wall at Central Square, which I shot last December.

Dharma room

Last night I pulled myself away from my paper-piles to go to the Cambridge Zen Center. It’s been too long since I’ve been to Tuesday evening practice at the Zen Center, as the demands of a busier-than-usual semester have interfered with my best intentions. Although I’m still buried in end-term grading, last night I wanted to take a break from grading a seemingly endless supply of student papers (words piled atop more words) in order to share silence with old friends. It was a break I sorely needed.


In the aftermath of last week’s school shootings in Connecticut, there has been a lot of talk online, in the news, and elsewhere about important things: talk about grief and healing, talk about guns and violence, talk about mental illness and bullying. All of these are worthwhile topics that deserve thoughtful and ongoing conversation, but after a certain point, even these issues can become words piled atop more words.


As I was driving to the Zen Center last night, I felt overfull with words and ready simply to sit with sadness: my sadness, the city of Newtown’s sadness, and the sadness of the whole suffering, sentient world. There’s nothing words can do to explain or erase sadness: sometimes all you can do with your own or someone else’s heartache is sit and share silence with it, giving it a warm lap to curl up on, quiet, while it lulls itself to sleep.

Pixelated Marilyn

I’ve been to the Zen Center twice this week: first on Thursday night, when I answered questions at a Dharma talk, and again this morning, when I gave consulting interviews. On Thursday, I arrived in Cambridge early enough to meet a friend for a late afternoon chat in Harvard Square. During the time it took me to park in Central Square and then stroll down Modica Way snapping a quick set of photos on my way to the subway, I got doused by a quick afternoon shower. During the time it took me to take the subway from Central to Harvard Square and then make a quick stop at the drugstore, the rain stopped and my clothes began to dry…until the heavens re-opened in a torrential downpour. Finally, after my friend and I had enjoyed a leisurely cup of hot chocolate, a stint of stationery shopping, and a soothing glass of iced tea, the sun came out, making for a bright and brisk sunset.

In bloom

Today’s weather has been more constant than Thursday’s: it’s been sunny and summery all day long. But today’s constancy doesn’t belie Thursday’s fickleness. August is a transitional month where lingering heat waves and sudden summer showers gradually but inevitably give way to the brisk days of September. Given the August weather now, you never quite know what the August weather will be like next.

The spray-painted, stenciled, and wheat-pasted works on the wall at Modica Way are similarly fleeting. Given I’d snapped those quick photos on Thursday, I figured I wouldn’t see anything new this morning…but between then and now, the wall at Central Square has burst into bloom, last week’s graffiti being covered by this week’s. August is the season when nature seems to kick into overdrive, with goldfinches finally getting around to lining their nests with late summer thistle-down while backyard cicadas and crickets grow deafening, cramming as much volume as possible into waning days.

Check yo self

Neither schoolchildren nor their parents need advertisements to remind them that back-to-school is imminent: August itself suggests as much. Already it’s getting dark earlier, the first acorns have begun to drop, and drought-distressed trees and shrubs are getting a head start on their autumnal colors. August rain comes and goes, and Saturday night graffiti artists will surely spray-paint over any art that’s grown stale. Walking past the Same Old Wall on my way to meditate upon the Same Old Mind, I’m reminded that everything is constantly changing: the weather, the walls, and my own fleeting thoughts.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

I stand as nigh

Yesterday morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, as I do about once a month. Consulting interviews give Zen practitioners a chance to have a private, one-on-one conversation with a teacher: a time to ask questions, talk about things you’d be too embarrassed to mention at a public talk, or simply check in. As a Senior Dharma Teacher, I’m supposed to be the one “answering” student questions, the assumption being that someone who has been practicing long enough to earn the title “Senior Dharma Teacher” must know her way around the karmic block. But of course, I’m as new to the metaphysical neighborhood as the next person, so I never know exactly what will come out of my mouth when someone enters the interview room looking for Answers From The Teacher.


I’m always amazed by how sitting face-to-face behind closed doors with someone creates a heightened sense of awareness, an experience just as intense as any silent meditation session. Perhaps it’s the sanctity of the Zen Center’s interview room, a place where I’ve spent many a face-to-face session on the student cushion puzzling over some metaphysical mystery or (more typically) struggling with some personal conundrum. Given this history, it seems outright comical to find myself sitting, about once a month, in the teacher’s seat. I always feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz when I don my long, bat-winged Dharma teacher robes. Walking down the street, I’m just another average Joe, but when I put on my Dharmic Disguise, people think I have answers, insight, or clarity they lack.


“Ignore the woman behind the curtain,” I’m sometimes tempted to say when students enter the Interview Room at the sound of the bell that signals “next”…but I don’t. As much as the Wizard of Oz turns out to be another clueless guy from Kansas, Dorothy and her companions need to believe that someone like the wizard exists. Before Dorothy and her companions are ready to realize they already have the things they seek, they need the feedback of an impartial third party to validate their quest. The Wizard of Oz doesn’t give Dorothy, the Tin-Man, the Cowardly Lion, or the Scarecrow anything they didn’t already have…but somehow they each needed to make the trip to Oz to realize what was already as apparent as the ruby slippers on Dorothy’s feet.


Like the Wizard of Oz, I don’t have much in the way of Answers to offer those folks who are brave enough to sit face-to-face with me behind the closed door of the Zen Center interview room. Instead, I try to listen and be present with whatever question, problem, or situation each individual brings, and when I do open my mouth, I hear myself saying variations on the same basic responses. “Yes, I’ve experienced the same thing,” “You’re on the right track, so keep going,” and “You already understand” all sound like pat answers, the Dharmic equivalent of a doctor saying “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning.” But all of these responses are nonetheless entirely true. In most cases, even beginning practitioners already understand, in their heart of hearts, what they need to do in Situation X, or they already are halfway down the road to their own solution, and they simply need encouragement to keep going. And yes, there is very little any given Zen practitioner can tell me in interview that I haven’t done, thought, or otherwise experienced myself, too: there are only so many flavors of suffering we all keep rehashing and reheating in recipe after recipe, ad nauseum.

Walt Whitman with table and chairs

Before arriving at the Zen Center on Sunday, I took my usual walk around Cambridge to clear my head before practice began. In a park at the end of Auburn Street, between Central Square and MIT, I stumbled upon a plaza with the words of Walt Whitman inscribed on the sidewalk: “If you are a workman or workwoman, I stand as nigh as the nighest that works in the same shop.” In the 1855 version of Whitman’s “Carol of Occupations,” Whitman reassured readers that divinity isn’t some distant person or concept; it’s as close at hand as your nearest neighbor. Similarly, the answers any of us seek aren’t far off or even separate from ourselves: you needn’t visit a Zen Center, go into a special room at the sound of a bell, or ask a teacher.

The answers any of us seek are like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, already on our feet, or like the wisdom, courage, and heart the scarecrow, lion, and tin-man already had. The answers any of us seek are as close and familiar as our own nose: something immediately close at hand, but sometimes hard to see. The dialogue between so-called-teacher and so-called-student on Sunday mornings in the Zen Center interview room is like looking into a mirror. In case you need help finding and seeing your own nose, a teacher sits as nigh as a face-to-face neighbor ready to reflect back that which you already own and understand.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,979 other followers