Watching

It’s been almost two years since I’ve been to the Cambridge Zen Center, which remains closed because of the pandemic. On November 24, 2019, I blogged about giving consulting interviews there, writing “My meditation practice isn’t limited to the four walls of the Zen Center–even when I don’t drag myself to Cambridge to meditate with other folks, I continue to practice on my own–but there is something about sitting alongside other meditators in a Dharma room that is steeped with practice energy.”

I had no idea when I wrote those words that a pandemic would cleave our lives into the Before and After Times; I had no idea when I wrote those words that the Zen Center would close its doors, offering online-only practice for nonresidents. When I wrote those words, I took for granted that the Zen Center would always be there for me to return to when I had the time and inclination. There was so much we took for granted during the Before Times.

Apart from giving a talk, online consulting interviews, and two no-show Intro to Zen classes, I haven’t “attended” any of the Zen Center’s online practice sessions. Although I regularly meditate at my desk, I just can’t bring myself to meditate in front of a Zoom screen. I already spend too much of my life tethered to my laptop; when I meditate, I want more than anything to unplug.

What I miss about going to the Zen Center is the “going to.” I miss parking in Central Square on a Sunday morning, taking a quick stroll to take pictures of graffiti, and slipping out early to walk to Harvard Square for hot chocolate at Burdicks. I miss being in the Dharma room: the familiar feel of sitting on a cushion, the “smells and bells” of the altar and its iconography, and the deep silence of an intentionally quiet place.

Someday, eventually, the Zen Center will reopen. In the meantime, it’s strange to exist in a world where it’s “safe enough” for me to teach in full classrooms, shop in stores, go to museums and even restaurants, but not safe enough for me to sit in a quiet room with a mask, following my breath. When I lived at the Zen Center, one of our guiding teachers used to say that if you were healthy enough to go to work, you were healthy enough to practice, but these days my job is open and the Zen Center is closed. It’s a pandemic oddity I still haven’t come to terms with.