Last night on my way to practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, I took the T to Harvard Square, ostensibly to go notebook- and pen-shopping at Bob Slate. In reality, though, I simply wanted to lose myself in an anonymous throng of fellow pedestrians, as is possible in a city like Cambridge. (As true as this Ben & Jerry’s ad is when it comes to the pace of passing pedestrians, it gets its geography wrong. The throngs passing through the Harvard Square T station are largely composed of Cantabrigians, not Bostonians. So much for market research.)
Before I left for Cambridge yesterday, I had duly planned to blog, as I do most days: one of the repeating items on each day’s to-do list, in fact, is “blog.” But as I did this time last summer, this past week I’ve felt a bit of the blog-blahs. In the past, I’ve gone walking around Harvard Square when I’ve felt my Muse was hibernating; sometimes a simple change of scenery helps you see things in a new, more creative way. Or sometimes not. One of the things about both writing and meditation practice, I’ve learned, is you can’t generalize based on past experiences. Something that worked last week, last month, or last year might not work the same way if you try it again. The standard investment advice of “your results may vary” applies not only when you compare yourself with others but also when you compare your current situation with whatever happened previously. That was then, and this is now.
And yet, we continue to make this sort of comparison because comparing seems to be a deeply entrenched aspect of human nature. One of the recurring themes I encounter in the questions I field as a Senior Dharma Teacher giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, in fact, involves this sort of comparison: “I read somewhere that you’re supposed to do/feel/experience X when you meditate, but when I meditate, I do/feel/experience Y. Is this/am I normal?” The standard answer to the “is this/am I normal” question is YES. The books say “X,” but your results may vary. It’s not that the books are wrong, and it’s not that your experience is wrong: it’s that the Present Moment hardly ever looks how you, the books, or anyone else expected.
Finding yourself, again, in a situation that Isn’t What You Expected, now what? The openness of this “now what?” is the space where the Present Moment unfurls, flowers, and bears fruit. But what unfurls, flowers, and fruits today probably won’t be identical to what you’ve grown used to. What two leaves, flowers, or fruits are identical? The beauty of any walk through Cambridge or any other city–the beauty of any stroll among fast-paced Cantabrigians, Bostonians, or others–is that you never know quite what to expect. If you knew exactly what pen or notebook to buy, what need would there be for shopping? If you knew exactly what you want to blog today, tomorrow, or the next day, what room would there be for exploration, serendipity, and surprise?