April 2004

Abandoned, Keene, NH

I remember reading somewhere–I’ve forgetten precisely where–that Virginia Woolf once compared her journal to a junky drawer filled with random bits. The purpose of a junk drawer, of course, is to stash things you don’t need now but might need later. And thus this analogy between journaling and junk-hoarding is an apt one. As a long-time journaler and newly obsessive photographer of abandoned places, I guess I know junk. I’ve seen junk, and it is I.

When you practice meditation long enough, you realize that your own mental junk drawer is infinitely expansive: everything and everything can fit inside, and does. In the middle of meditation, for no apparent reason, a memory from your childhood will bubble into consciousness, followed by an argument you had yesterday, followed by an intensely detailed sensory image of a double-pepperoni deep-dish pizza. These thoughts and images come and go regardless of anything you try to do to control them. One thing that Zen teaches you is to receive this incessant junky flow without judgment or discrimination: don’t cling to any thought, and don’t push any thought away.

Abandoned, Keene, NH

My writing students–particularly my adult writing students–are sometimes shocked by the level of comfort I have when it comes to sharing my own “raw” writing and the presumably “private” thoughts it contains. Some people like to hide their junk drawers, thinking that others will judge them poorly based on the random assortment of trauma and pain they contain. I, for one, believe that we all share pretty much the same traumas and pains, so showing you mine is not much different than looking at yours. Writing in this sense is like getting naked in front of other naked people: once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, albeit in slightly different shapes, sizes, and colors. But if you’ve ever spent time with dancers, you know that people who are intimately familiar with their own bodies are typically unashamed by nakedness, seeing their bodies as the comfortable tools of their trade.

Thus, just as I was once shocked to watch a woman dancer I’d recently met start undressing in the middle of a mixed-company conversation, my writing students are sometimes shocked when I read some scribbled bit from my journal, the ink still wet from my pen. “What do you mean, you have a missing sister?” “Do you often feel like killing yourself?” “Doesn’t it bother you that your parents have never visited you since you moved from Ohio?” These are, I suppose, pertinent questions: I suppose normal people would be troubled by missing siblings, self-destructive impulses, or seemingly indifferent parents. In the chaotic clutter that is my mind, though, these are simply random bits, pieces that are there but only occasionally considered: part of the unending stream of thoughts, they neither forgotten nor dwelled upon. Like blandly ambient music, such thoughts are neither irritating nor particularly likeable. Instead, they simmer just under the surface of consciousness, appearing every now and then: oh, you again?

Abandoned, Keene, NH

Writing, like meditation, is about befriending your junk, or at least tolerating it. With pen in hand, I do the same sort of thing I do when sitting on a meditation cushion: I pay attention to the flow of thoughts while consciously not minding their character, frequency, or tone. In journaling as in meditation, there is no difference between “good thoughts” and “bad thoughts.” Just as one’s nose makes no distinction between pleasing aromas and noxious ones but instead smells them all, the mind functions by producing a nonstop assortment of cognitive bits, all of which have no direct connection to who or what we “really” are. Thus, a good person can have bad thoughts during meditation; a bad person can have good thoughts. Typically, people have a range of thoughts, good and bad, that coexist despite their contradictions: one minute you love the person sitting next to you; the next minute you’d like to slap them. This isn’t a sign that you are good, bad, crazy, or sane: this is a sign that you are a living, thinking creature. After a while, you come to realize that who we are is, like our thinking, beyond categorization and judgment. Thoughts and the selves who think them are neither good nor bad, they simply exist.

Thus the trick to journaling is to cultivate a nondiscriminating mind: pretty or not, all thoughts deserve to be recorded. And so the brain that thinks becomes intricately and directly connected with the hand that writes; after years of keeping a hand-written journal, in fact, I’ve come to wonder whether I actually think with my hand, not my head. Stashed and saved, today’s random thoughts might come in handy someday, or never. I’d like to think, though, that new thoughts, surprising thoughts, provocative thoughts, and thoughts of astonishing shapes and sizes are more likely to show up on the doorstep of a mind that has made a practice of receiving all thoughts with equanimous hospitality.

Abandoned, Keene, NH

Since many blogs (my own included) are nothing more than online journals, blog-reading is a kind of junk-shopping: I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. Like yardsale shoppers, we sift through one another’s castoff dribs and drabs, holding up piece by piece to consider what fits and is appealing. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and since we aren’t entirely the same person from moment to moment (our moods as well as our identities changing and transmuting over time, as subtle as billowing smoke), our sense of what is necessary and precious gradually evolves. Thus the scrap I stash in my junk drawer today–an incomplete pack of cards, a handful of used batteries, a tape measure, an old magazine–might tomorrow hold some special merit or memory, offering a use or application that never previously suggested itself. In a word, you never know, and as my mother always says, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. My mother’s drawers, of course, are particularly junky; in my case, it is my notebook, not my drawer, where I save both hidden hurts and surprising joys.

    This entry and the accompanying photos are my contribution to the Photo Friday topic “Junk.”

Emerald Street picnic table, Keene, NH

Everyone warned me about the post-dissertation blues, that feeling of letdown that occurs after you’ve defended, you’ve been hailed as “Doctor,” then you sit back to ponder the inevitable question, “Now what?” For humanites PhDs, considering the drum-tight academic job market is enough to drive you despair: I worked this long and this hard to be unemployable? Once the hoopla of congratulations has died down, life returns to normal, or some semblance of normal, very quickly; as Chris ever-so-helpfully pointed out right after the defense, even Doctors still have to clean up after the dog.

Knowing that the post-diss blues loomed, I prepared myself. I told myself not to get too addicted to the emotional highs of finishing, for as much as I thrilled to dissertation joys, I’d sink just as low into dissertation blues when the party was over. I made a mental list of things I wanted to do–things I’d thrill to do–after the diss was defended: books I want to read, places I want to explore, skills I want to acquire or brush up on. I want to brush up on my Spanish, for example, so I can read St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila in their original tongue. I want to blast my brains to smithereens by reading as much James Joyce as I can possibly stand. I want to explore–finally–the Horatio Colony Nature Preserve and the Cheshire County Historical Society here in Keene and the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire seacoast. I want to visit Willa Cather’s grave in Jaffrey, NH. I want to start doing yoga again, and the other day I saw an inexpensive women’s mountain bike in a local thrift shop that has me itching to go riding again. I want to feel sun on my back and dirt between my toes; I want to take a day or two or even more to do a solo retreat, just me and a meditation cushion under a tree somewhere, Buddha-like…

Street signs, Keene, NH

But instead of feeling well enough to do any of these things, I feel like hell. Now, this feeling isn’t technically “the blues,” I think, because its not my spirits that are low: I still feel a rush of accomplishment and pride for having finished the diss. But physically, I’m thoroughly wrung out. I’m exhausted and zombie-like: Chris keeps looking at me and saying, “You seem really out of it.” And I am really out of it: I have a certain shell-shocked, been-through-the-wars thousand-yard stare. I have trouble keeping awake when I’m working and trouble falling asleep (or staying asleep) when I’m in bed. I’ve been prone to random headaches, stiff shoulders, the works. I feel like I’m sleep-walking through my teaching, mechanically reading through stacks and stacks of student papers (yes, I’m still behind) that accumulated during the last stages of dissertating. In a word, I’m a physical wreck, a pathetic hull of a person.

Yesterday I ran into one of my colleagues at school who I hadn’t seen in ages: he teaches on my off days, and I haven’t been around campus to do the usual collegial mingling while under the diss-crunch. When I told him I’d defended, he was overjoyed; when I told him I felt too physically exhausted to relish the accomplishment, he nodded. “You’ve been running on adrenaline for too long,” he noted. “Now you’re running on empty.” He’s onto something. After 10 years of overwork, cyclic sleep-deprivation, and periodic spikes in caffeine consumption, my body’s saying “No more.” Back when I spent an average of 3 hours a day driving across the Granite State while teaching between 6 and 9 courses per semester at some 4 different institutions, everyone marvelled at my resilience. “How can you juggle such a grueling teaching load, diss-work, Zen teaching, and writing and still manage to be happy and perky all the time?” The answer, of course, is I was an addict. I didn’t need heroin or speed; I was arush with caffeine, adrenaline, and self-righteous pride. Complaining (and rest) was for wimps. Couldn’t anyone see that I was stronger and more self-reliant than that?

Door's open, Keene, NH

Last night our friend Jane Dobisz, Zen Master extraordinnaire and author of The Wisdom of Solitude: A Zen Retreat in the Woods, came to Keene to speak to our Zen group. Jane is one of the most vibrant people I’ve ever met. She has a razor-sharp wit, a bawdy sense of humor that can make even me blush, and a no-holds-barred approach to teaching the Dharma. At one point in last night’s Q&A time, a new practioner asked Jane what to do with his raging thoughts and his desire to cling to those shreds of mindfulness he sometimes finds in meditation.

“All you can ever do,” Jane answered, “is ask yourself moment-to-moment, ‘What am I doing right now?'” That, in a single sentence, sums up the entirety of Zen teaching: “What am I doing right now?” Thoughts of all shapes, sizes, and varieties will come and go, and Jane herself admitted that even she–a Zen Master!–feels distracted, stressed, and scattered 90% of the time. “It’s like training a puppy to stay,” she explained. “A puppy naturally wants to wander, so you gently keep bringing him back: ‘Stay.’ And so our minds constantly wander to a non-existent future and a non-existent past, and we bring them back to this single question: ‘What am I doing right now?'”

Jane’s words rang through like a wake-up call…or, more rightly, like a sleep-in call. Although I had work to do, I came home from the talk and went to bed. Although my body naturally woke up, like always, at 5:30 am, after breakfast I collapsed on the couch, surrendering myself to a much-needed 2 hour nap. In Zen, teachers will sometimes tell you to “Follow your situation”: when sick, only be sick; when hungry, only eat. And when sleepy, only sleep. Don’t fight it, don’t refuse it, and most of all don’t cling to some notion of your own strength or macho self-reliance. Put those notions done and only surrender to the situation at hand. “What am I doing right now?” Sleeping, only sleeping. The rest of the world will be there waiting when I wake up, rested.

Bluets, Keene, NH

Yesterday while walking the dog right before Jane’s talk, I stumbled upon the first wildflowers of the season: a handful of bluets, or Quaker ladies, or innocence, Houstonia caerulea, heaven’s-blue flowers named after the British botanist Dr. William Houston. Although the crocuses have been blooming for a week now and the daffodils and forsythia are newly blossomed, these bluets are the first wildflowers I’ve seen, blooming improbably on the edge of the bike trail right outside of downtown. Bluets have been doing their flowery thing for millenia, and they never tire, mainly because they never try. Instead, they meticulously follow their leafy situation, dying back in the winter for a months’ long sleep them emerging without hesitation come April. You don’t need a PhD or a Zen Master or a Zen book to know what bluets know: when sleeping time comes, only sleep; when flowering time comes, only flower. This afternoon I’ll read some more student papers, and when I get tired, I’ll sleep. Weathering the post-diss blues is easy if you follow your situation, trusting your body, like a bluet, to tell you exactly what it needs. Do I have the blues? Maybe, but I think not. Who needs the blues when the bluets do just fine?

Two estates, Keene, NH

The Keene Sentinel is our local newspaper, founded in 1799. We don’t subscribe to the Sentinel: actually, we’ve never subscribed to a newspaper, local or otherwise. Instead, we rely on the Internet, magazines, and Public Radio for our news and social commentary, which means we probably know more about what’s happening across the world than what’s happening down the street.

There’s something endearing, though, about an old, established newspaper that publishes short research projects by local high school students. I remember being a high school student, and it would have been nerdishly cool to have been published in the local paper. And where else can you pick up a newspaper and read about the 19th century hoopla over the planting of seven elm trees in Keene’s Central Square or a mysterious local death in 1869? Technically, these stories aren’t “news,” but what better way to get a sense of the mood and tenor of a place than to read about its past, and what better way to instill respect for the past by encouraging high school students to do some digging into local archives?

Kilkenny's magnolia, Keene, NH

Newspapers typically print weather reports; why not start a new trend by printing botanical reports? This week the daffodils in our own backyard have blossomed, and the magnolia tree outside Kilkenny’s Pub has flowered. The birches along the bike path are covered in catkins as are the reedy willows in the swamp behind Home Depot. The maples are poised to leaf any day now, their buds swollen with green, and in the litter-strewn gravel at Keene’s abandoned railyard, in the towering shadow of a century-old coal bin, a cluster of stubby pinkish stems sprouts silently. They look like horsetails, these strobile-topped stems, but horsetails are usually green.

And so another mystery erupts on the local scene, but you won’t read about it in the papers. No, the real news that’s fit to print seldom sees the shadow of a reporter’s notebook or the flash of a photographer’s bulb. The real news lies in forgotten, trash-strewn corners, silently sprouting beneath the hubbub of more robust controversies.

Still standing

Today I’ll spend the morning conferencing with my Expository Writing students, then I’ll attend a talk by a colleague, then I’ll resume the seemingly unending task of playing pedagogical catch-up as I continue chipping away at the immense backlog of student papers that built up as I was finishing the dissertation. While I slog on, here are some random tidbits I’ve been meaning to mention:

  • Thanks to my friend Kathleen from unsettled for taking me out to lunch in celebration of my diss-completion. In her subsequent post-lunch summary, Kathleen referenced my comment about our waiter’s ass being “flat as Nebraska.” In the interest of fairness–and to avoid charges of the kind of plagiarism Jenny mentions over at Mulubinba Moments–let me point out that the term “flat as Nebraska” as an ass-epithet is one I blatantly stole from Andi at Overboard, who used it to describe her own pre-gumdo-toned posterior. Actually, Andi’s giddy paean to her own hiphop-shakin’ ass is one of my favorite blog-posts from the past week or so: you shake that thang, girl! You can check out Andi’s ass-relishing here (scroll down to her April 13th entry. On your way there, you might read her April 16th thoughts on “Evanescence,” which makes passing reference to Andi’s and my shared appreciation for girly clothing and sexy lingerie).
  • While you’re checking out bloggers’ body parts, be sure to head back to unsettled where Kathleen comes tantalizingly close to showing us her face. Apparently once you’ve shown the blogosphere your cleavage, showing a sunglass-shaded eye no longer seems quite so provocative…
  • Over the next 20-some days, “that girl” from Thinking Out Loud is hosting a collaborative prose-project, 47 hours, consisting of eleven writers producing a tag-team narrative, each anonymous installment of which will appear 47 hours after the previous. A blogger with whom you are at least minimally acquainted will make an appearance at some point over the next 20-some days; she may or may not wear sunglasses, but she will take care to wear sexy lingerie. As none other than Virginia Woolf said, “call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please–it’s not a matter of importance” since “‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no real being.” You can read the first and subsequent posts here.

Enjoying spring

Today in New Hampshire promises to be sunny with a high in the 60s; yesterday it was sunny with a high in the 80s. The students at Keene State College (and a certain restless, post-dissertating KSC prof) were itching to be outside. If fate finds you in a mild clime, take time today to go barefoot somewhere, anywhere: find a spot of sun and indulge in a moment (or more) of mindless idleness. Whether it be gumdo-toned or flat as Nebraska, please take the time to shake that thang.

Electrical right-of-way, Keene, NH

Today down in Massachusetts it’s Patriot’s Day, time for the annual Boston Marathon; today here in New Hampshire, it’s just another Monday. When we lived in Boston, Patriot’s Day meant a day off from teaching, a chance to head downtown and stand on the marathon sidelines, cheering tired runners down to the finish line. Now that we live in Keene, there’s no one to cheer as we drag our sorry souls to work on yet another Monday morning: just another same-ol’ same-ol’.

But that’s not disaster. As the cliche goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Last week while I was wandering along the Ashuelot River, I picked my way through the aftermath of the annual right-of-way clearing, when machines that look like they rolled straight out of the pages of Dr. Suess’s The Lorax come to mow down undergrowth and trim back tree limbs along the power lines. In some parts of the state, a wandering band of sheep does the dirty work of clearing vegetation under powerlines; here in the bustling metropolis that is Keene (or not), we get massive machines.

“Ah, they really messed things up!” an older woman exclaimed to me as she picked her muddy way through the wreckage, camera in hand. “But I suppose it has to be done!” I too was walking with my camera, and the dog, but I’d like to hope I wasn’t scowling as furiously as she, her obvious bitterness twisting her face into a brutal mask. Trees fall in the forest all the time, after all, whether or not there’s someone there to hear the sound, and undergrowth was made for grazing or trampling or burning. Nature is remarkably resilient–she always bounces back–so I don’t see how a fringe of already adaptive trees growing in the ecological edge between strip mall and river can’t stand a little pruning. Animals like deer love not deep woods but the edges of woods, and some plants will grow only on disturbed ground. Had a beaver rather than a chain saw felled these trees, we’d wax poetic rather than shaking an angry fist.

Sometimes on Patriot’s Day I get nostalgic for our days living in and around Boston, the Hub of the Universe: as much as I love Keene with her trees, mountains, and river, she ain’t no Boston. Leaving any cherished place feels at times like losing a limb: part of you stays there. At least once every couple of weeks a student or Zen group member corners me on this: “You guys used to live in Boston…how can you stand living in Keene?” My answer varies, but it usually involves some sort of disparaging remark about Hillsboro, the even tinier town where lived when we first made the hop from Massachusetts to New Hampshire: Keene may be no Boston, but she ain’t no Hillsboro, either.

Ashuelot River Park, Keene, NH

People live with loss all the time, and so do trees. Come summer, the fringe of river’s edge under and along the powerlines will be green and choked with flowers; today’s muddy ruts will be cloaked in a fecund mantle of weeds and briars and loud-singing insects. Nature recovers with or without all her limbs, and so do we. Boston or Hillsboro, Hillsboro or Keene: which do you prefer? In Boston, I walked sidewalks; in Hillsboro, I strolled forest paths; in Keene, I skirt the river. We like trees set down roots wherever we find ourselves, our strength determined not by what branches out but by that which drives deep.

It seems to be impossible for me to talk about place without simultaneously talking about time. As I sit here typing these words on our back porch, the spring sun warming my bare feet, I naturally and inevitably think back to the first time I sat writing on this porch. It was September and the day was hot: one of summer’s last hurrahs. Then as now planes flew overhead; I remember feeling depressed and disconnected, a newcomer in a place where I was another anonymous face. Then in September I wrote by hand in a notebook, seeking solace in silent pages. Only later did I type and edit those words, sending them to other anonymous faces in the form of an essay that searched for the one thing we all secretly crave: connection and recognition, some indication that we indeed are not alone.

Sometimes, remarkably, the blank page talks back. A handful of readers–people I’d never met–told me they found solace and comfort in what I’d written: how could that be? When I’d written it my heart was breaking with that nondescript loneliness that marks the margins of our days, the unnamed ache that bubbles to consciousness only when we stop our hurry and look deeply into the limpid flow of time. If we’re all destined to die–and secretly we all know we are–then what is the purpose of this mundane march of time? If ultimately we face our individual fates alone, what is the purpose of human interaction? Feeling the abandonment of a motherless child, I wrote out of desperation and despair: somewhere, anywhere, is there anyone listening, be it God or man? Somewhere, anywhere, in this time or any other, is there meaning to be found in specificity, the insignificant crawl of a spider inching his forgotten way across a window screen?

Yesterday, feeling more restless than depressed, I took the dog walking along the river. The Ashuelot River runs through campus and through Keene; behind various local businesses runs a fringe of semi-abandoned riparian woods, Ashuelot River Park, that offers a quick getaway for town-worn souls. Yesterday was warm and sunny; I walked in short sleeves, shorts, and sandals. The Park was full of mothers with strollers, parents with bicycling children, kissing lovers and roaming herds of bored-eyed teenagers, all moving and congregating in a flowing swirl of human activity.

The dog and I walked alone through these anonymous faces: the dog and I nearly always walk alone. Dodging embracing lovers and wide-eyed toddlers who asked, awed, if they could pet the nice doggie, I took another photo of a lone maple tree I’d photographed last October. Then in October, this tree shimmered with neon hues of orange and yellow; yesterday, in April, it looked barren and dead, forgotten on an isolated shore.

They say you can’t step into the same river twice, but it seems that both writers and photographers continually try to use memory as a bridge between then and now. If I hold dear in my memory the image of an October maple, will it be granted a provisional immortality, burnt into nerve cell and synapse, a pattern that can be quickly and spontaneously recalled? And if I share this dearly held memory with another–with you or any other willing anonymous face–will a connection be cast across space, time, and souls, my memory becoming your memory, a bridge not only to span but to stem time’s flow?

The dog, not being burdened with the questions of human consciousness, has no thought for time. Instead, he lives in a perpetual now where the past does not exist, the future is as close as the next savored smell, and you can jump into, joyously, the same river twice, three times, four, and again. To humans aware of their own mortality, rivers are a symbol of time and its passage; to dogs attuned to their own noses and bellies, rivers are an excellent source of cold spring mud and the secretive smell of still-hibernating turtles. The dog has no memory of either September or October; the dog has no worry or care about time, no need for notebooks, photos, or scribbled pages. Neither alone nor apart, the dog has never been struck from the float; instead, he, like Whitman is forever held in solution. In springtime, while skirting rivers, my spirit watches the dog with envy and with shards of stolen, vicarious joy.

After bowing

Yesterday morning when I saw this week’s Photo Friday topic, I actually groaned. “Oh no…not a self-portrait!”

Yep. Like a dropped gauntlet, there it was staring me right in the face. “Take and post a picture of yourself. I dare you!” And since there are two primary ways to get me to do something I don’t want to do (the first being a dare and the second being the statement, “You can’t!), I knew my die had been cast…

This is what I look like first thing in the morning after bowing. When we lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, we did bows at 5:15 am, in knee-length gray robes; during retreat, we’d bow at 4:45 in the same gray robes. Now that we live in Keene, far from any Zen Center, I do bows whenever I get up and in whatever I darn well please. Bowing is a great way to wake up, get the blood moving, and clear the mind of any thought more complicated than up and down, huff and puff, 100, 101, 102…

If you’ve ever practiced with me, you know this is my “at ease” pose, a posture for unwinding after practice is done. If you know anything about traditional Buddhist iconography, you know that this posture resembles the royal ease pose of the Bodhisattva of compassion. This Bodhisattva goes by many names: in Sanskrit, Avalokitesvara; in Japanese, Kannon; in Chinese, Kwan-Yin or Guanyin; and in Korean, Kwan Seum Bosal. From culture to culture, this character takes on different forms and even different genders: the original Avalokitesvara was a princely disciple of the historical Buddha whereas Chinese and Korean depictions of this same Bodhisattva are decidedly feminine.

Some years ago a dear friend of mine started a Buddhist sangha at a prestigious women’s college. One of the necessary steps to starting any meditation group is acquiring the necessary “stuff”: mats and cushions, candles and incense, meditation bell, chanting books, etc. When it came to gathering altar accoutrements, Ji Hyang acted with her usual clear-eyed direction, buying the most beautiful bronze royal-ease Kwan Seum Bosal she could find. It’s important for women, she remarked, to have female role models: a Buddha statue, after all, is supposed to be a visual representation of one’s True Self. So why should women practice to uncover a True Self that is male?

“Damn, that’s one sexy statue!” I remarked when KSB came out of her box. Ji Hyang agreed. “Yeah, it would be, well, distracting for guys, I’m sure. But women will find it empowering!”

And I think she’s right. Kwan Seum Bosal in her “royal ease” pose suggests that women and their True Selves can be simultaneously strong and sexy, embodied and ethereal. Kwan Seum Bosal can kick back and relax because she’s at the top of her game; her eyes are open and her mind is wide. She can bring home the tofu and fry it up in the pan. Saving all beings? No problem. KSB will do that any day of the week, and like Ginger Rogers she’ll do it backwards and in high heels. The earth-watching Bodhisattva of compassion, Kwan Seum Bosal has moved beyond mere Zen Mama status: she’s the cosmic Dharma Queen.

At the same time, though, “royal ease” shows only one side of the equation. Last night Chris and I went to see Uma Thurman in the delightfully warped second installment of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. During most of the film, luscious Uma is covered with blood (her own and others), sweat, and lots and lots of dirt after attending what is euphemistically termed a “Texas funeral.” During a flashback which explains how “the Bride” acquired her kick-ass martial arts abilities, we see a sweat-grimed Uma lugging back-breaking bucket after back-breaking bucket of water up steep monastery steps to a humorously hirsute Chinese master. Hard practice is empowering, but it ain’t pretty. Sometimes even KSB needs to get off her bowing-toned ass and get down to business.

People who are new to Zen or other meditation forms usual come to practice through the sedentary and intellectual way of books. Although there’s nothing wrong with reading (or writing) books, words give only a partial picture of life and of practice. Believe me, every book-gleaned notion what Zen is or isn’t “really” about goes out the window on your first retreat when that wake-up bell rings at 4:30 am and you find yourself 15 minutes later huffing and puffing your way down to the mat and back up again, 1, 2, 3, 4… It’s monotonous, maddening, and sweat-inducing: at some point during the 11 minutes it takes to crank out 108 bows at a moderate clip, you’re going to want to collapse, run out of the room, or head back to bed. And at some point during that same 11 minutes, you’ll find a second or two (maybe even more) when you find your own blissful stride, your body flowing down and up like an inundulating stream.

If you’ve never done 108 prostrations before, you will hurt (unbelievably so) the morning after your first full set. And even if you’ve done 108 bows–or more!–every day for weeks, months, or years on end, you will find yourself panting and sweating every single morning: that fact of biology never changes. Our True Selves, you see, aren’t ethereal spirits who float up in the stratosphere, far from the travails of blood, sweat, and tears; instead, our True Selves are down here in it, bleeding, sweating, and crying with the rest of us.

So this is me at approximately 6:11 this morning, panting and sweaty, taking a self-portrait before letting the dog out. No, it ain’t pretty, this mundane gritty life, but it’s oh-so-real. If you practice long and hard enough starting right now, your True Self is guaranteed to agree.

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