Life lessons


Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

One of my goals for this summer is to write daily. When I sit down to write each day, I don’t usually have a topic in mind. Instead, I have a commitment to sit at my desk, uncap my pen, and fill four journal pages with whatever comes up, following Natalie Goldberg’s advice to “keep my hand moving” as faithfully as interruptions allow.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

This practice of sitting down and seeing what arises is very similar to what I do when I meditate; in fact, I’ve come to think of writing and meditation as being basically “sitting with and without pen.” When I write, I allow my sentences to follow wherever a given thought leads, regardless of how silly, stupid or scary that thought may be. When I meditate, I watch my thoughts without either chasing or repressing them. Like a flagpole planted on the edge of the sea, I stay standing no matter what the tides and surges throw at me, using my breath as an anchor.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

It turns out that these two practices–following random thoughts with a pen on one hand, and watching thoughts come and go on the other–are flipsides of the very same coin. In both cases–whether you’re following and recording your thoughts or simply watching them–the muscle you’re exercising is what Buddhists call non-attachment. You aren’t judging your thoughts, and you aren’t weighing their worth. You aren’t sorting your thoughts into piles to keep and piles to discard. You aren’t rating or ranking or recoiling from any of them. Instead, you remain firm and rooted in your commitment to simply stay sitting. Whether writing or meditating, you commit to staying firmly planted, regardless of what comes up.

Karner Blue, by Evan Morse

What you don’t do, in other words, is stop because you think your writing or your meditation “isn’t working.” The phrase “isn’t working” is code for “This activity isn’t immediately delivering the kind of results I want, so I’m going to stop and do something that feels more rewarding.” Both meditating and writing require you to ignore the demon named “Isn’t Working” and press on regardless. Does it feel like your writing “isn’t working” because what you’re writing seems stupid, disorganized, or inane? Keep writing anyway. Does it feel like your meditation “isn’t working” because your thoughts are scattered and disjointed? Keep sitting anyway. Ultimately, the quality of your writing or your meditation isn’t contingent upon the quality of your thoughts; it’s determined by the strength of your staying.

Blue hydrangea

Last night J and I watched the second half of a PBS NewsHour interview with Warren Buffett. Thanks to his knowledge of business and investing, Buffett is one of the richest men in America, but he’s also one of the humblest. In an conversation with journalist Judy Woodruff, Buffett noted that he and other billionaires have no need for the tax cuts promised in the Republican health care bill, and he repeated his oft-referenced belief that millionaires and billionaires shouldn’t pay taxes at a lower rate than that of their secretaries and cleaning ladies.

Hydrangea

Buffett is 86 years old and still mentally sharp and active. Noting the Cherry Coke Buffett drank throughout the interview, Woodruff asked if he had any health or diet tips for staying alert and active in old age. Buffett gleefully shared that he still eats like a six-year-old, adding that you don’t often see six-year-olds dropping dead.

This playful response points to Buffett’s obvious joy in the simple pleasures of life. Buffett still works at the age of 86 because he enjoys working; he still lives in a Nebraska house he bought in 1958 because he likes it and has happy memories there. Buffett is one of the richest men on earth, but he has made a conscious decision to give nearly all of his wealth to philanthropic causes. When Woodruff directly asked Buffett why he hasn’t stockpiled mansions, cars, or yachts, he explained that he’s experienced those things but doesn’t need them to be happy. Buffett is happy with what he has, and this sense of abundance leaves no room for excess.

Hydrangea

Watching Buffett’s interview made me realize he’s not only one of the wealthiest men on the planet, he’s also one of the happiest. Buffett isn’t happy because he’s rich; he’s happy because he has recognized what is truly important. As Buffett openly shared with Woodruff his most recent tax return, I marveled at how different he is from Donald Trump, who comes across as an angry and paranoid old man who needs to guard his secrets. Buffet realizes that being happy is its own kind of treasure while Trump continually reaches for more money, power, and fame.

Hydrangea in bloom

In my Zen school, we have a saying: “Enough-mind fish never touches the hook.” If a fish is content with what he has–if he sees his present situation as being enough for his needs–he can’t be tempted with bait. Warren Buffett is an enough-mind fish. Instead of racing after the bait called More, he enjoys the life he has, taking to happiness as easily as a fish takes to water.

Floating flowers

This morning as I was driving to the Zen Center, I saw a homeless man standing at the exit from the Turnpike, where traffic often gets stopped at a light. I have a policy that if I’m stopped at a light on my way to the Zen Center and see a panhandler, I give him or her a dollar, no questions asked. I figure it would be bad karma to ignore someone in need while bustling off to do spiritual practice.

Monkey see

I know all the arguments against giving money to panhandlers: they’ll probably just use the money to buy booze or drugs, and giving handouts to the homeless only enables bad behaviors. I’ve heard all these arguments and recognize their validity, but when I’m on my way to the Zen Center, I ignore those arguments. Regardless of what any given homeless person does with the money I give them, I like to think that for one moment, they encountered someone who is happy to give them something they need: a purely human experience of one person sharing with another. If I were in their place, I hope someone would have the generosity of spirit to do the same for me.

Stormy seas

When I give money to panhandlers, I try to make eye contact and smile, figuring life on the street is difficult and human kindness hard to find. I don’t pretend to have saintly motivations: it makes me feel good to share a spot of good cheer, and makes me feel grateful to realize I can indeed spare a dollar. When I give money to panhandlers, I’m acting, in other words, as much in my own interest as that of anyone else: this is something I do because it makes me feel good, and if it helps someone else, that’s a blessing upon blessings.

RIP Adam West

This morning, the man I gave a dollar to held a sign saying he was a veteran and homeless. His face was tan and well-worn, but underneath his world-weariness was a hint of radiance: a face that in happier times had found ample reasons to smile. “God bless you,” the man said, and I thanked him: you never know when you might need the prayers of a stranger. I wished the man well and drove on: the light had changed, and there were cars behind me.

Don't forget me

That would have been the end of it, but this: hours later, after I’d left the Zen Center and was walking through Central Square, I saw the same man standing in front of H Mart counting a fistful of wrinkled dollar bills. I quietly hoped he’d saved up enough blessings upon blessings to buy himself lunch and the right to sit down in a clean, air-conditioned place for a half hour or so: a respite of dignity in a life marked by untold sorrow.

Alongside the World Trade Center

Today J and I went downtown to see the Tall Ships that are in town for this week’s Sail Boston festivities. It was a warm and sunny day, and there were thousands of people strolling along the waterfront, many of them queued to board the ships in port. J and I didn’t board any ships, but we walked alongside them, admiring and taking pictures from shore.

Happy kid

Security for the event was tight: earlier this week, I heard a radio interview with the Massachusetts Undersecretary of Homeland Security, who explained Sail Boston had received the highest possible risk rating from the Department of Homeland Security given the large number of people it was expected to attract to a variety of land and sea venues over a large area. Today, J and I saw local and state police everywhere, a mobile Homeland Security command center, and massive plows and salt trucks parked at every intersection to prevent unauthorized vehicles from gaining access.

Our Lady of Good Voyage

On our way home, J and I stopped at Our Lady of Good Voyage, a new church built in the Seaport neighborhood to replace a tiny chapel that once bore the same name. The new church is on a now-busy corner with new skyscrapers, upscale offices, and luxury apartments on all sides: an island of calm in the city’s hottest (and rapidly developing) new neighborhood.

Inside Our Lady of Good Voyage

One thing that traditionally Catholic cities do well, I think, is provide places for contemplation in otherwise bustling neighborhoods. Our Lady of Good Voyage was open to passersby today, so Jim and I went inside to sit a spell, admiring the maritime-themed decor and relishing the chance to sit somewhere quiet, apart from the bustling crowds.

Ship models and stained glass

When I lived in Beacon Hill as a stressed and over-worked graduate student, I occasionally visited two Franciscan shrines in the heart of downtown Boston: the St. Anthony Shrine on Arch Street, and the St. Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center. Although both shrines offered frequent Masses for nearby workers to attend on weekdays, I never actually went to Mass at either. Instead, I appreciated them as open and available spaces where anyone could step inside, take a seat, and enjoy a quiet moment of private contemplation.

At a time of my life that was busy and bustling, those sacred spaces provided a safe and reliable harbor in the midst of my own personal storms, and I trust Our Lady of Good Voyage will do the same for its new neighbors.

Robot kid

I recently started reading David M. Levy’s Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. The book was published last year, but I checked it out from my public library last week, when I upgraded my smartphone and am hyper-aware of how reliant upon technology I am in my daily life.

Mindful Tech is filled with exercises encouraging readers to observe how they interact with technology, and it’s encouraging me to revisit and reflect upon my own use of email, social media, and other apps. Although I was one of the last of my friends and colleagues to get a smartphone several years ago, I quickly became dependent upon it for a wide range of uses.

Robot

On a typical day, I use my phone to check email, access my calendar, manage to-do lists, and follow news stories. I take photos on my phone, and I use my phone to post those photos to Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. I manage blog comments on my phone, I read Kindle books and New Yorker articles on my phone, and I use smartphone apps to pay for parking, manage my library holds, and time my meditation and writing sessions. Although I do occasionally use my phone to make phone calls and send texts, I mostly use it throughout the day, every day, to manage my time and daily tasks.

Given all the things I do on my phone, it’s easy to become an obsessive checker, even when such checking isn’t helpful, useful, or efficient. In the summer and on weekends during the school year, for example, I’ve gotten in the habit of checking school email on my tablet in the morning, before I begin my morning journal pages. I don’t check email then because I have time to answer any important emails I’ve received overnight but because I want to make sure there aren’t any important emails awaiting. What I’m looking for when I check email in the morning, in other words, is permission to start my day…and when I phrase it that way, it doesn’t sound like a good or healthy thing.

Molten

When I check school email in the morning on my tablet, what I find in my inbox sets the tone for what’s to follow. If there aren’t any urgent emails in my inbox, I am relieved I can start the day with a clean slate. But if there are urgent emails awaiting me, one of two things happens: I either get sidetracked into answering those emails right away, which always takes longer than I’d planned, or I put off answering those emails for later, which means the thought of Unanswered Messages hangs over my head like a boom that’s just waiting to drop.

On a purely rational level, checking email just to check doesn’t make much sense. Unless I have time to answer any urgent emails immediately, there’s no reason not to put off checking until after I’ve written my journal pages: any student who has waited overnight for an answer can surely wait another half hour or so. Levy’s book is encouraging me to look more closely at habits such as these, not with a prescriptive aim of telling me how I should interact with technology but by encouraging me to ask honest questions of myself. Why do I check email or interact with social media the way I do, and how well are those choices working for me?

Robot Kid

I’ve just started reading Levy’s book, so I don’t know what conclusions I’ll ultimately draw from it. But already, it’s been helpful to think about my work habits as a series of choices that are largely under my control. Although I can’t control all the parameters of my work life, there are some basic habits I can enforce, such as making a conscious effort to bring my awareness back to my body as I am working: how am I breathing? How is my posture? Where in my body do I feel stiffness or tension?

This simple act of bringing attention back to one’s body is a meditative act that can be done anywhere, including at one’s desk while doing work, so it makes sense that Levy encourages it. The mind can wander, but the body can only be here. The moment you bring your attention back to your body, your focus instantly and automatically returns to the Present Moment: a low-tech attention exercise that can be done anywhere at anytime, with or without a smartphone in hand.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

Yesterday was a cool, gray day with a fine, misty drizzle: a day the Irish call “soft” but Americans call “gloom in June.” Personally, I don’t mind drizzle. Cool days make for comfortable sleeping, and misty days aren’t bad for walking: just wear a ball-cap and waterproof jacket, and you have no need for an umbrella.

Raindrops

Yesterday morning I sat at my desk writing with windows closed and the sounds of the street trickling in: a patter of raindrops, bursts of wind rattling the windowpane, a distant siren, and the intermittent chirps of birds. The dog lay resting behind me, her body right up against my chair; it was so quiet, I could hear her breathing. These are the simple moments I cherish–quiet, contemplative moments after I’ve meditated when the scratch of the pen on the page seems completely of-a-piece with my practice–meditation with and without pen.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

I’ve started to read Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, by Mary Mann. So far, it isn’t what I’d expected: I thought it would be more about the science of why we yawn and the state of “zone out” we sometimes label boredom, although it often goes by other names. But instead, the book is an uneven collection of semi-autobiographical essays loosely related to the topic of boredom, written by a woman who seems terrified to think she might ever be bored or boring.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

The result is a frustrating and disjointed book, with a lot of subtopics that are worthy of further exploration, like the intersection between boredom and spirituality (think acedia and the Desert Fathers), boredom and sex (think sex toys and sexual fantasies), and boredom and violence (think soldiers consuming porn during wartime and the psychology of thrill kills). As soon as Mann touches upon an interesting way boredom says something deeper about our society and ourselves, however, she skitters off in another direction, as if fully exploring any one idea for a sustained period is (alas) too boring.

The result is a book about boredom for the ADHD generation, with fascinating half-thoughts interspersed with rambling autobiographical associations. (I feel a bit embarrassed, for example, by the amount of information I know about Mann’s relationship with her boyfriend, Grant, but that’s probably because I grew up before the Oversharing Age.)

Raindrops

Although I’m infinitely interested in boredom, I’m not the ideal audience for Mann’s book: I’m probably the exact opposite. Mann (like, perhaps, others her age) fears and thus wants to avoid boredom; I, on the other hand, want to embrace it. Boredom is valuable because it is the entrance to something deeper, the greatest treasures hiding behind nondescript doors. Boredom is the blank patch of soil where the seeds of insight sprout…but if you continually dig up that soil to check the progress of those seedlings, the plant you’re tending will quickly die.

Mountain laurel on drizzly day

As a Buddhist, I make it my practice to cultivate boredom: that is, after all, what modern meditators and the Desert Fathers share. Sitting and watching one’s breath is the most boring thing a person can intentionally do, and that is exactly what monks and meditators do to maintain and strengthen their mental focus. Flitting after butterflies, chasing rainbows, and compulsively checking email and social media are all fine and good; we’ve all done (and do) these things to fritter away nervous energy. But if all you have is flitting and chasing–if your mind isn’t also practiced at stopping and staying–you’ll struggle to attain depth.

Throughout the essays in Yawn, Mann wades ankle-deep into interesting insights only to retreat suddenly to shore rather than wading deeper. Yawn, in other words, reads like a mind-map for a larger, more interesting project, assuming Mann could pick a focus and stick with it. Ultimately, my advice to her is the same as I give to my writing students: feeling bored with a topic is a sign you need to slow down and go deeper.

Above

This past Friday, I went to Boston’s Logan International Airport to pick J up from a two-week business trip. I got to the airport early, not knowing how bad the Memorial Day weekend traffic would be, so I had time to seek out the airport’s 9/11 Memorial, which commemorates the passengers and crew lost on two flights out of Boston that were hijacked and flown into New York’s World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

Departed

I like airports, despite (or maybe because of) their nervous bustle. Even if you yourself aren’t going anywhere, at an airport you can pretend you are while walking for what seems like miles within a labyrinthine warren of networked corridors. To get to the 9/11 Memorial on Friday, I walked the long corridor connecting Terminal E in one direction and Terminal A in the other, encountering along the way a disoriented fellow who was trying to find the arrivals terminal without knowing which airline his “arrival” was flying on. Pointing this man toward the closest of the airport’s terminals, I hoped someone would be able to help him once he got there.

Gingko grove

Once I found it, the 9/11 memorial at Logan Airport was underwhelming: a translucent glass cube in a grove of young gingko trees. To me, the trees were the most attractive aspect of the memorial–in autumn, they must be spectacular as they gleam golden. But the cube itself felt sterile and disconnected, nestled into a wedge of green between the central parking garage, the airport Hilton, and a noisy highway interchange.

American Airlines Flight 11

I’m guessing the cube is more impressive at night, when its panels are lit by ground-level lights. But by day, it looks like an empty bus-stop shelter or a giant glass Rubik’s cube. Whereas the 9/11 Memorial in New York City is fluid with paired waterfalls marking the spot where the Twin Towers stood, Logan Airport’s memorial to the two flights that were hijacked out of Boston is literally unmoving: the one thing in the landscape that never changes.

United Airlines Flight 175

While the parking garage next to the memorial is sided with countless metal flaps that swing in the breeze, creating a mesmerizing ripple effect like wind tousling a dog’s fur or a bird’s feathers, the memorial cube has solid glass sides and an open-air “roof” with glass tiles affixed on two slanted planes of parallel wires. The effect is of glass fragments caught in mid-air, and perhaps that is the intended impression. But while those mid-air shards evoke the shattered glass of the wrecked Twin Towers and the subsequent confetti-like fall of paper, glass, and other debris, this image of shattered-glass-frozen-in-abeyance seems an odd choice to commemorate two planes that were turned by hijackers into missiles, the exact opposite of an unmoving cube.

Departed

Inside the cube are panels listing the passengers and crew lost on the two flights out of Boston that crashed into the Twin Towers: American Airlines Flight 11, which departed Boston at 7:59 a.m, and United Airlines Flight 175, which departed at 8:14 a.m. The cube commemorates the moment each of these planes departed, not the moments they were hijacked and crashed into the North and South Towers. If you wanted to freeze in time any moment from that day, it would be the moment of takeoff, not the moment of impact. At the moment of takeoff, all but five passengers on each place were blithely unaware of their fates, laboring under the sunny illusion that their lives like their travels were going somewhere.

Memorial cube

Airports are places of promise and opportunity–Bon Voyage!–except when they aren’t. A sterile glass cube tucked into a forgotten corner between a hotel and a parking garage at Boston’s Logan Airport reminds us that sometimes the dearly departed are not destined to arrive.

Next Page »