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.

Snow yoga

Last week’s snow has largely melted, so we won’t have a white Christmas here in the Boston suburbs. But I’ll always have this picture of a neighborhood snow yogi to remind me of snowstorms past.

Flat Stanley loves chips and salsa!

Yesterday afternoon I submitted the last of my fall semester grades, so now I’m catching up with all the things I haven’t had time for during a busier-than-usual semester. Our nephew’s Flat Stanley has been visiting from Pittsburgh, so even while I was buried in grading, J and I have made a point to take “Stanley” with us when we go out to lunch or elsewhere. Last Wednesday night, for instance, I led practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, so Flat Stanley tagged along and made friends with a Gold Guy.

Flat Stanley makes a friend

At the end of any busier-than-usual semester, it usually takes a while for me to regain my balance after weeks of deadline-chasing. Having a meditation practice helps, as do the predictable routines of my writing and photography.

Flat Stanley loves BC basketball

Now that I’ll have a few weeks “mostly” off before classes resume, I’m looking forward to spending more time writing, meditating, and taking pictures: more time, in other words, doing the things that refresh my senses by bringing me back to the present moment. Whatever your spiritual inclination, here’s hoping this holiday season is similarly restorative.

Buddha makes a friend

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It’s a simple enough story. A few moments before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was confronted by Mara, the tempter, who tried to interrupt his meditation. Mara tried the usual techniques, assailing the Buddha with lovely women and fearsome demons. Upon seeing the Buddha wasn’t swayed by desire or fear, Mara launched his most dangerous assault, leaning low to whisper a single question into Buddha’s ear: “Who do you think you are?”

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It is a troubling and pervasive question. Who hasn’t heard an inner voice asking some semblance of this question, which is simultaneously an accusation and an invitation to doubt? Who do you think you are that you can attain enlightenment? Who do you think you are that you can offer wisdom to the ages: who do you think you are that you can have something to say, and actually dare to say it? Who do you think you are that you can dare dream to do something with your life: who do you think you are to dare do?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Buddha did the wisest possible thing in this situation: he refused to engage the question. Instead of launching into the puffery of autobiography—“Look at me and all I have done, accomplished, and learned”—the Buddha vanquished Mara by throwing him off kilter, off center, and even off his keister. When Mara asked Buddha “Who do you think you are,” Buddha said nothing but merely reached one hand toward the ground and touched earth with four gently straightened fingers. Who am I? Here I am.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Traditional accounts of this tale say that after the Buddha touched earth, the earth and all its denizens themselves bore witness. What does that mean, exactly? To my ear, that means the Buddha returned to this moment, pulled himself out of the mental wrestling match that is obsessing on your own identity, and became aware (at last!) of what was transpiring around him in the natural world: green grass, towering trees, and flourishing flowers.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

You don’t have to be a Buddha to touch the earth, nor do you have to wait until Mara is staring you down, confrontational. At any moment, the earth endures; at any moment, the earth is largely ignored. Today, outside, what is happening right here, right under my feet? Today, right now, if I stretched my hand to my side, what would I find under my fingertips: grass and soil, sidewalk and concrete, carpet and upholstery?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It never hurts to return to the present moment, to the senses, to whatever is happening right now. Even in painful moments, there is no harm in returning to the raw, unadulterated experience of suffering. What does it feel like, really, to suffer, to ache in one’s innards, to grieve, to lament, to cry? Forget the story of grief you’ve long told yourself—the narrative of blame and regret, accusation and accountability. Some things just hurt, and there is no explaining it: in the absence of explanation, then, what does the pure, unedited experience of sorrow actually feel like? In the absence of interpretation, what experience is actually true?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When I was a child, long before I became a Buddhist, I used to dissect my own headaches. As a child prone to allergies, I was also (and still am) prone to sinus headaches: an awful kind of pressure that builds within your skull and makes you feel like you have a large, hulking animal standing on your face. Some sinus headaches relent with the use of decongestants; others fade in the face of painkillers. Other sinus headaches, however, simply stay, pressing into the crevices of your skull and aggressively arching against the contours of your own skin.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Whenever as a child I encountered one of these obstreperous headaches, the kind that medicine is helpless to heal, I would consciously become quiet, hunkering into my own consciousness with a single-pointedness that only a studious child can muster. With the same attentiveness with which I watched marching lines of ants on a summer sidewalk or stalking herons picking off pond frogs, I observed and analyzed my own physical pain. Where did it originate from? Was it solid and confined, with clearly defined borders, or did it send snaky roots into distant synapses, sprawling? Was it a hot pain or a cold pain? A fat, burbling pain or a sharp, shooting one? Did it quietly creep or thunderously stampede? What color was it at the center, and what color faded delicately to a fringe at its edges?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When you clinically dissect your own pain, you might discover, as I did, something interesting. Physical pain at its root isn’t essentially unpleasant. Instead, it is a combination of elements that each in their own right is entirely neutral: a feeling of warmth combined with a sensation of pressure, or a pinprick of cold coupled with a sudden surge of tension. Nausea might strike as an overwhelming wave of motion; a stomach ache might feel like a slightly too-ripe fullness. “Pain” is a terribly imprecise word: surely we can do better than to lump so many disparate and ultimately interesting experiences—the one thing we all reliably share—under such an imprecise umbrella.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

One of the things I’ve learned from meditation—the eventual corollary to that childhood experience of simply observing my own suffering with a spirit of open curiosity—is that an adequately bored mind will contemplate anything you plunk before it. The operant word here is “contemplate,” not obsess. Obsessing is what we do when we attach a fixed narrative or agenda—an explanation—to our experiences: “I am hurting,” for instance, “because I was mistreated by my parents” or “It’s all my own damn fault, again” or “How could they have done that to me” or “I should have known better.” It doesn’t matter what story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: if you’re curious, a skilled therapist can help you untangle the threads of your own particular, favored narrative, or you can spend a day, week, or month sitting in silence, letting time and an inquisitive spirit do the untangling for you. It doesn’t matter what particular story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: what matters is the realization that whatever you tell yourself, it’s ultimately just a story.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As children, we told ourselves (repeatedly) that words could never hurt us, repeating the rhyme as kind of incantation against harm. But words regularly hurt us, and others: we hurt from the insults and accusations of others, we hurt others with our own hateful speech, and we hurt ourselves—those hidden, horrible wounds—with the thoughts we recite, intone, and repeat in the inner sanctum of our soul: the most vicious kind of spell, because it invariably goes straight to its target, ourselves. (Who needs Mara when we tempt and torment ourselves so terribly?)

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Words do hurt us because we believe them. We tell ourselves (and are told) stories to explain our experiences, and then we trust these words more than we trust our experiences themselves. Believing that “everything happens for a reason,” be batter ourselves with blame; believing that “nothing happens in isolation,” we accost our friends and families with accusations. Maybe it’s a conspiracy, or a willful tendency to self-destruct, or a mind-boggling confluence of cosmic forces entirely outside our control…but somewhere, somehow, something or someone caused whatever is happening to us, and we will cling like terriers to that belief.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

But maybe things just happen. Maybe it’s not anyone’s fault. Maybe suffering is the one universal in a sea of change—maybe the reality and the experience of suffering is the only thing we can rely on in a world filled with uncertainty.

If suffering is universal—if suffering is not just ordinary, but absolutely guaranteed—then it’s not our fault, the fault of our parents, or the fault of our exes and enemies. If suffering is simply inevitable, unavoidable, and omnipresent, like the hatching of blackflies in the spring, then we can save the energy we’d normally spend trying to explain, rationalize, or understand it. Instead of trying to fix the problem by trying to figure out who or what is to blame, we can simply experience the problem, for the experience of any moment of suffering—the experience of any moment, actually—almost always carries within it a suggestion of how it should be handled.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

If you listen to the moment, in other words, the moment itself will tell you how to handle it. Has a grieving mother ever had to wonder whether it is appropriate to cry? No. Her tears come naturally, in their own time, as will her eventual healing. But both the tears and the healing will follow a timeline you probably couldn’t have predicted, and they will arrive in ways you probably didn’t expect.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

So when Mara asked Buddha a seemingly innocuous question—“Who do you think you are?”—Buddha didn’t take the bait. Whatever story you tell yourself to explain Who and What You Are is irrelevant, for suffering truly doesn’t care: I can tell you quite definitively that pain has never retreated after the recitation of an impressive resume. Relinquishing the desire to explain, exonerate, or self-justify, we can listen as the whole wide world bears witness. Touching earth, we connect with the suffering world as it actually is and experience the instant enlightenment known as Truth.

I found this half-written essay in a forgotten folder of free-writes I’d written at last August’s BRAWN Writing Retreat. The random photos illustrating today’s post come from the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, MA. 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.

Sleeping

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.

Abyss

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!”

Dreaming

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.

Haloed

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.

Stigmata

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.

Asymmetrical

Earlier this morning when I stepped outside to carry the recycling to the curb, I heard cicadas singing from the trees and a chickadee chattering from the shrubs, the two sounds roughly equal in volume. “This is the soundtrack to July,” I thought. In June, the birds are louder than the insects; in July, the birds and insects compete in volume and persistence; and in August, the insects clearly win.

Sprouting

Later in the morning, however, while I was meditating, I heard a chickadee whistling his spring song right outside the open window: “Sweet, sweet.” It’s a song I haven’t heard since May, when the chickadees were courting; recently, given the demands of nesting and chick-rearing, the chickadees have been calling and chattering, but not singing. I wondered what inspired this spontaneous outburst of song: a surge of territorial ardor, a wave of vernal nostalgia, or an avian earworm hearkening back to younger, more carefree days?

I don’t know, but I sat up on my meditation cushion, jostled into awareness. What if the neighborhood chickadees have been singing–not just calling–all along, and I simply haven’t been awake to notice?

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