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Pretty pout

Last week I taught the Thursday night Introduction to Zen Meditation class at the Cambridge Zen Center. Afterward, I found myself wondering how many times have I taught this class over the years. How many people have walked through the Zen Center doors, had a half hour of meditation instruction from a Dharma teacher like me, and then never darkened the door of a Zen Center ever again?

Pink blob

Zen Master Dae Kwang once said that Dharma teachers should teach the Zen intro class knowing that students might never come back: the goal, he said, is to give people a practice they can take with them and employ in their daily life, regardless of whether they return to a Zen Center. The Zen intro class, in other words, isn’t a recruitment tool; it’s the handing out of fishing rods. I’m not giving you a fish, nor am I insisting that you fish next to me. Instead, I’m giving you the tools you’ll need to plumb the depths of your very own stream, regardless of where the river of your life carries you.

Tom

The most important Zen Center isn’t the one you can walk in and out of; it’s the one you carry within you. When I sit to meditate, the first thing I feel is a flash of welcome recognition: the relief of coming home. Ahhh, my soul sighs. At long last you’ve quit your rush and bustle–at long last you’ve reunited with your true self in the Here and Now. This sense of quiet calm–this sense of settling one’s soul beside still waters–arises whether I am meditating at the Zen Center, in my car, or at my desk at home. It is a deep, settled feeling that isn’t a place but a connection with This Present Moment.

Jerry

This is why I don’t say much about the bells and whistles of Zen Center-style practice when I teach the intro class. Instead, I focus on the three things you need to practice anywhere, regardless of setting or ideology. These three things things–attention to body, attention to breath, and attention to mind–are always with you, regardless of your external circumstance or trappings. If you are alive, you have a body, a breath, and mind, and you will continue to have each of them in one shape or another until you die.

Both your body and your breath are limited by space and time. However much the mind might wander, the body and breath can exist only Right Here, Right Now. If you stop reading these words to pay attention to the slouch or straightness of your back, the precise position of each of your hands, and the actual angle of your skull upon your spine, you will for that moment be present Here, because that is always where your body is.

Bugs

Similarly, if you take a moment to observe your breath as it flows in and out, you will be present Here and Now because that is the only place where breathing happens. Try as you might, you can’t make up for yesterday’s lost breath, nor can you store up breath for tomorrow. Both the body and breath are perishable–they are rooted in the present moment and are destined to pass–but the mind deludes itself by thinking it is immortal and unchanging. This is where the mind (literally) wanders astray, venturing far and wide into the past and future where body and breath cannot follow, the self divided against (and thus in conflict with) itself.

The Wall at Central Square

This is why meditation feels like coming home, regardless of where you do it. The moment your mind realizes it is wandering and comes back to where your body and your breath are, you are instantaneously and temporarily whole. This magical moment of reunion is something some people never experience, but it is perpetually at hand, right under your proverbial nose.

Leafy

This morning I awoke in western Massachusetts, where I had been visiting A (not her real initial) for the weekend. Before packing my car to head back home, I wrote my morning journal pages in bed, listening to a distant dog barking and the emphatic bursts and bubbles of house wrens, robins, and song sparrows.

Gallery

None of those morning sounds were my concern: there was no need for me to hush, feed, or clean up after that distant dog, and the robins, wrens, and sparrows of western Massachusetts kindly take care of themselves. I have my own backyard birds at home, and my own awaiting tasks. I arrived in Newton around noon, and Toivo wiggled herself in a frenzy at the sight of me, and J gratefully relinquished my share of the household chores, just as I hand over his when he returns from business trips.

Airy

Everything, in other words, has quickly returned to normal: how could it be otherwise? Both humans and dogs (and backyard birds, I suppose) are creatures of habit, and I am so far sunk into the happy rut of my domestic days, I don’t quite remember how to function outside of it.

Natural light

Zen is widely seen as a crazy, spontaneous practice–the stuff of carefree Dharma bums and zany Zen Masters–but this popular perception overlooks the sheer repetitive monotony of monastic practice. For every spontaneous outburst recorded in a Zen Master’s collected teachings, said Master spent countless hours getting up every day at the same time, gazing for the same meticulously scheduled increments at the same habitual floor, chanting the same traditional words at the same regimented hours, and going to bed at the same precise time every night to repeat it all over again and again.

Doorway

Monasticism is the heart of Zen practice, and monastic monotony is the stable, steady heartbeat that sustains occasional spontaneity. How can you be truly free unless you have no need to wonder where and when your next meal will be or where and when you’ll lay down your head? Monastics free their minds by taming and harnessing their bodies; an ox long accustomed to the yoke has infinite freedom to wander anywhere in his untameable mind.

Through

It’s been a long time since I lived in a Zen Center, but my daily routine with its chores and domestic rituals is its own kind of practice. This morning I loaded my car and drove home to my mundane life carrying a weekend’s worth of dirty clothes: after the ecstasy, the laundry.

The photos illustrating today’s post are from Ellsworth Kelly: Plant Lithographs, an exhibit at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA.

Honeysuckle on rainy day

This morning I submitted the last batch of spring semester grades, so once I finish a final round of faculty meetings this week, my summer will begin in earnest. “Re-entry” is the word I use for the stunned sensation of finishing another semester and returning to the things I enjoy doing in my free time, like walking, writing, taking pictures, and reading.

Lilac on rainy day

Throughout the semester, I’ve been doing those things in scattered snatches of time–the tag ends of days–but summer is when I can return to projects that require more sustained attention. But before I return to those projects, it takes a few days to sort through neglected piles of mail, catch up with procrastinated household chores, and tend to other overdue obligations that accumulated while I had my head down, grading.

Speedwell on rainy day

One of the drawbacks of teaching is that your busy season corresponds with spring: the time of year when you feel least motivated to work. Luckily, I have a dog who insists on being walked, so I haven’t completely neglected the great greening world outside. For the next three months, I’ll have more time to pay attention to it.

I posted a similarly themed blog post with the same title exactly nine years ago today: what goes around comes around.

Yuki Kawauchi (center) - eventual men's winner

This is the tenth year that J and I have watched the Boston Marathon as it passes through Newton, and today’s conditions were by far the worst we’ve weathered. I’d thought the chill and drizzle of 2015 was bad, but this year was colder and windier, with temperatures in the 40s and torrential downpours that drenched the runners and kept many spectators at home.

Eventual winner Desiree Linden on left

Usually, J and I watch the Marathon between Miles 18 and 19, arriving at “our” corner across from the West Newton medical tent in time to see the last of the wheelchair runners, the elite men and women front runners, and then the Average Joes. Our regular routine is to watch the race until the street is thronged with runners, then we walk down to Newton City Hall before heading home.

Flags

Today, we didn’t last that long. After cheering runners who at times outnumbered spectators, we headed toward home and warm clothes soon after the elite runners passed. We can only hope that other spectators showed up to cheer on the later runners who finished the race despite the miserable conditions.

Running as a pack

Congratulations to all the hardy folk who finished the race (or braved the elements to watch it). In good weather, you have to be Boston Strong to run 26.2 miles. Today, you had to be stronger than the rain and cold.

Some Kinda Strong

Click HERE to see my complete set of washed-out photos from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Raindrops on holly

Today is what the Irish call a soft day: gray and misty, with gauzy bands of drizzle wafting beneath an overcast sky. There is no need for umbrellas on soft days: a windbreaker and ball cap are all you need, along with an antsy dog who demands walking in all weather.

Binary

On soft days, Toivo and I have the streets, sidewalks, and aqueduct trail almost to ourselves. On our way to the place of pines this morning, we saw a distant border collie herding her owner toward the dog park; on the way back, we saw a woman walking a white Pomeranian that looked like a powder puff on a leash. Overhead, fish crows called and finches twittered, and underfoot, the needle-strewn trail was damp and spongy, as soft as fog.

They say that April showers bring May flowers, a saying that suggests spring rain is tolerable only if you focus on future beauty. But on a day like today, April showers are their own reward. After months of snow, mere rain cannot daunt us. After months of snow, any precipitation you don’t have to shovel is warmly welcomed.

Snowdrops in snow

This morning when I walked Toivo to the place of pines and back, the sky was full of snowflakes. April snow never lasts; even the thin layer of slush that accumulated on lawns, car windshields, and in the shade was melted by afternoon. April snow is merely a reminder that winter will leave in its own good time: on its schedule, not yours.

Toppled

April snow is decorative: a filmy veil draped across an otherwise drab scene. The snowstorms we had in March were heavy enough to wreak havoc: everywhere the dog and I walk, we see toppled trees, downed limbs, and piles of sawdust that indicate not just storm damage, but storm cleanup. Those March storms dropped snow that shaped the landscape, flattening trees and downing power lines. April snow, on the other hand, is wispy and insubstantial: something that falls and vanishes soon after contact like the ghost of a ghost.

April snow is like the snow of childhood: a nostalgic thing that is lovely to look upon but requires no sacrifice. April snow melts before we have a chance to grow sick of it, a remembered thing even before it is gone.

A single scilla

One odd benefit of having four March nor’easters in a row is the series of springs we’ve experienced in between storms. Even though these past few weeks haven’t been warm, the combined effect of longer days and a more direct angle of sunlight means March snow melts quickly. Even as we wait for our fourth snowstorm, a significant portion of previous snow has already melted, temporarily revealing bare patches of earth.

Resilient

Despite the two feet of snow we received last week, our day lilies are sprouting, and both snowdrops and scilla are blooming if you know where to look. Spring perennials aren’t deterred by snow: as soon as sunlight hits bare ground, they sprout, bloom, and ultimately outlast even the heaviest snowfalls.

Snowdrops in snow

On bright days, the snow sublimes into thin air, and even on gray days, the snow shrinks from below, the soil absorbing and then slowly emitting the warmth from daytime sunlight. Winter storm Toby can rage and spew all he wants, but the simple fact remains: spring snow never lasts for long, and ultimately both spring and summer prevail.

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