Now & Zen


Contrails

In this time of social distancing and self-isolation, there is a meme going around that suggests introverts have been waiting their whole life for this moment. This might be true, but so is this: Buddhists of all stripes–introverted and extroverted alike–are similarly well-prepared for these extraordinary times, as hunkering down is something Buddhists do religiously.

When I contemplate the next few weeks (or more) of social isolation–the staying home, the sheltering in place–what comes to mind is a Zen retreat. Going on a retreat turns the simple choice of staying inside into an intentional spiritual practice. Right now, countless people who don’t consider themselves Buddhists are waking up to the realization that the Universe has signed them up for a long Zen retreat without asking first.

How do you turn self-isolation into a retreat? You make a schedule and stick to it. You intentionally alternate sitting and walking. You pay attention to mental hygiene, which is as important to your sanity as hand-washing is to your physical health. You cultivate gratitude and embrace boredom. And in the end, you recognize your intrinsic, unavoidable connection with all sentient beings in this contagious and contaminated world.

Yesterday on a video conference call with some other professors, a colleague remarked that he was diligently recording brief video lectures so that when or if he gets sick, his online course will carry on without him. While others are hoarding toilet paper and cans of soup, this colleague is preparing for the inevitability of his own mortality.

A split second after my colleague made this remark, a thought appeared: how will I continue teaching if I grow deathly ill and die…or worse yet, how will I continue teaching if any of my students were to sicken then disappear? This is a thought I’ve never contemplated: in all my years of teaching, the hyperbolic language of “surviving the semester” and even simply “passing the class” were innocuous and mundane. It’s not like my class or any other is a matter of life and death.

But then again, isn’t everything in our daily lives a matter of life and death? My earlier assumption that there would inevitably be a “next semester”–an “after” that follows this “before”–now seems terribly glib, presumptuous, and naive. Who was I just last week that I took so much for granted?

The thing about Zen retreats is this: absolutely nothing happens. You stay inside and spend hours staring at the floor. Every day, you eat the same boring breakfast–always oatmeal–at the same boring time; every day you show up and follow the same boring schedule whether you feel like it or not. You do this because when you sign up for a Zen retreat, you choose to put yourself in a situation where you have no choice.

None of us chose to live in these interesting times: we all are trapped in a situation that none of us willingly signed up for. But if self-isolation follows the model of a Zen retreat, here is what will happen, eventually: a couple days, weeks, or months into this crazy exile, something unforeseen and even magical will happen. Eventually, if you stop fighting against inevitabilities, you will see nothing more than what is actually there. You will taste the same bowl of oatmeal for the very first time, and you will notice anew that this morning’s angle of sunlight on the floor is somehow just like yesterday’s while being entirely unique.

None of us signed up for this: we were thrust into a dying world the moment we were born. But now that we are stuck here, isolated in our separate homes but united in our shared mortality, what will we do with this fragile moment?

Journaling at Burdick's

This morning J had to wake before dawn for a work call, so after I finished my morning tasks, I drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, sat one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square to write my morning journal pages at Burdick’s Cafe.

Although I was sleepy at the Zen Center, the brisk walk to Harvard Square and a small cup of high-octane Burdick’s dark chocolate woke me right up. Practicing at the Zen Center always feels like plugging into a power source: even during meditation sessions when my body nods and dozes, I can feel my inner battery charging with every breath. There’s something energizing about returning to a familiar place and a familiar practice, like climbing back into a well-worn saddle.

Reflective self portrait at Burdick's

When I lived at the Zen Center, I’d often go to Harvard Square, claim a table at a restaurant or cafe, and write in the bustling anonymity of a clean, well-lighted place. Burdick’s on a Sunday morning nicely suits this purpose. You can generally find a table for one if you wait for quiet couples to finish their beverages then bundle up to leave, and once you’re settled in, the waitstaff doesn’t care if you take a half hour or so to nurse your hot chocolate over journal pages or the morning paper.

Some days I bring stationery so I can write a quick, chocolate-fueled letter; today, it was just me and my notebook. Like meditation, journal-keeping is a habit I’ve practiced for decades, so doing it generates its own energy, like a turbine turning a gear. Meditation fills my lungs, walking gets my blood flowing, writing stimulates my brain, and high-octane dark chocolate gives me a buzz that lasts the whole day. This is how you weather a sleepy morning that started before dawn.

Flames

This past summer I read Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life. Steinke’s book is one I’ve been yearning for since realizing I’m perimenopausal. Unlike the countless books that describe lowered hormone levels as a malady to be fixed, Steinke’s book describes menopause as a passage to be navigated.

Steinke’s book is part memoir, part cultural history. Steinke recounts her own experience with hot flashes, insomnia, and the crazy-making changes of middle-aged womanhood, and she also explores cultural attitudes toward post-reproductive women. (Spoiler alert: these attitudes aren’t pretty). In a society that fetishizes nubile women, women who have outlived their natural fertility are a nuisance and a threat. As a result, menopause is either marketed as a medical problem to be cured through hormone replacement, exercise, and other products or it is dismissed as the punchline to a misogynistic joke.

Several years into perimenopause, I’ve come to see the experience as inherently spiritual: a kind of involuntary retreat where you are subjected to physical discomforts you didn’t choose and thus can’t control. There is no escape from the suffering of insomnia, night sweats, and hot flashes because your own body is the source of that suffering.

When I teach meditation, I explain how the body is chained for better or worse to This Present Moment. The mind can (and does) wander across time and space: close your eyes, and you can immediately transport yourself in your imagination to distant lands or far off eras. The mind can and does wander, but the body is itself a root. Regardless of how flighty or scattered my mind may be, my body is always Right Here.

Meditation is nothing more than a conscious decision to bring the wandering mind back to the rooted body. The moment you focus your mind on your body–the arch and angle of your spine, the tender gaze of your eyes looking toward the floor, and the rhythmic rise and fall of your breath–you witness the most wondrous of reunions: your mind returning to your body, your self unified with itself, at last.

On a long retreat, your body’s aches and pains–all those pangs, itches, and grumbles–are a goad urging you back to your practice: a reminder to your Mind that your Body is still here. Instead of running away or trying to distract yourself from physical discomforts, you hunker down and make a conscious decision to stay: stay in the moment, stay in your own body, stay in your own experience. This simple act of staying is transformative. By staying with your own discomfort, your suffering transforms into strength.

In a battle between mind and body, body always wins. When we are young and able-bodied, we tell ourselves otherwise, internalizing the myth of Mind Over Matter. But the wisdom of our elders–the wisdom of our own aging bodies–is that Matter Matters More.

When I told a middle-aged friend that my meditation practice helps me cope with nighttime hot flashes–the middle-of-the-night eruptions of heat and restlessness I call my Dry Roasts–she misunderstood, thinking that meditation somehow made these surges less severe. But that’s not what I meant. Meditation doesn’t stop the waves of heat roiling through my body; instead, meditation helps me weather them. Instead of running from my body–instead of recoiling, resisting, or refusing–I return to it. I recognize these waves of heat and energy as a call from my body to my mind to come back from from its restless wandering and stay with my body as it smolders in its own dying fires.

In Zen we say you have to digest your karma like a cow chewing its cud. The flames of a hot flash are not unlike the flames of karma. In either case, the heat arises unbidden; in either case, you are powerless to time or temper the emotions that are visited upon you. What you can do, however, is choose to return–return–return. Here is my body, damp with sweat, sticking to my own skin. Here is a heat that arose without warning and will last as long as it chooses before passing away.

When I am lying in bed awash in what I call my waves–surges of heat that originate in my torso then pool and pulse in my extremities–I think of the ancient anchoress Julian of Norwich, whose visions of the embodied Christ are full of fire, sweat, blood, and tears. Julian didn’t have a cerebral Savior but a bruised and bloody one. That rooted embodiment is how she knew her Savior was real.

Reading Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary was a relief, like finding a wise companion who whispers “You’re not the only one.” It is a rite of passage for female teachers to explain to adolescent girls the changes that will come when they start to menstruate, and for the questions our teachers didn’t answer, my peers and I turned to the well-worn copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret we secretly passed among ourselves.

When you hit menopause, however, you’re largely on your own: no more teachers, no more Judy Blume. In a culture that loves to ogle nubile femininity, post-reproductive women are largely invisible, left to figure things out for ourselves. Thank goodness for women like Darcey Steinke who are wise enough to light the way.

Watching

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center after months of being too subsumed with Other Obligations to attend formal practice. Whenever I go to the Zen Center after months away, settling onto a cushion feels like coming home. 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.

Meditating at the Zen Center this morning felt like a welcome respite: a chance to plug in my mental batteries after running for far too long on a depleted charge. On any given day, I feel like the queen of multitasking: every day there are students, pets, and a husband all depending on me to Do My (Various) Job(s), and it often feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Meditating at the Zen Center, however, is pure monotasking. For thirty solid minutes, I have nothing to do but sit up straight, keep my eyes down, and follow my breath, gently bringing my mind back to attention whenever it wanders. This opportunity to do Just One Thing for an uninterrupted span of time is an inconceivable luxury.

Today has been rainy, with constant drizzle and intermittent downpours. After I’d finished giving the last of this morning’s interviews and had returned to the Dharma room for the final few minutes of practice, I noticed someone had opened the windows just a crack: not enough to let in the damp chill of November, but just enough to let in the sound of rain.

Shopping carts

I have a confession to make. On most days, my favorite place to meditate isn’t on a mat and cushion. It’s behind the steering wheel of my car.

When you teach at two different colleges, you spend a lot of time in your car: my favorite euphemism for “adjunct professor,” in fact, is “roads scholar.” There have been times when, lacking an actual campus office, I referred to my car as my office. Fortunately, these days I do have an office at both of the campuses where I teach, so my days of teaching from my car are over. But I still spend four days a week commuting to either of the colleges where I teach, and many days, that commute is the only reliable quiet time I get.

Expert meditators would say you should meditate first thing in the morning, immediately after awakening: this is, after all, how Buddhist monks, nuns, and folks who live in Zen Centers do it. But I’m not a Buddhist monastic, I no longer live in a Zen Center, and I’m not much of an “expert” at anything. When I get up these days, the first thing I do is tackle my morning to-do list, then shower, dress, and head out the door.

The wisdom of meditating first thing, of course, is that you’re more likely to do something if you do it before you get distracted, and Buddha knows my days are full of distractions. When you live in a house filled with pets, there is always something to sweep, scrub, or mop up, and when you teach college students, there are always questions and emails to answer, problems that arise, and crises to avert.

During my morning commute, however, I am (literally) the one in the driver’s seat. Within the quiet confines of my car, I can enjoy a stint of uninterrupted quiet after the morning’s chores are done and before the day’s catastrophes have commenced. When I’m driving, the only thing I need to do is just drive, and this one-pointedness is a relief from my usual multitasking: while in the driver’s seat of my car, I don’t have to answer any emails, texts, calls, or questions. These days, my car is more than a means of transportation; it’s my own personal shrine on wheels.

Mannequins thinking of spring

This morning for the second Sunday in a row, I woke up early, did my morning chores, then drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, where I meditated for one session before heading to Harvard Square, where I wrote my morning journal pages over a small cup of Burdick’s dark hot chocolate.

Respect art / Not art

Sitting one rather than four Sunday morning meditation sessions means your practice is necessarily concentrated. You can’t space out for minutes at a time, figuring you’ll pay attention later. Knowing you have only thirty minutes to sit following your breath, you pay close attention to every minute, saving nothing for “later.”

This, in my experience, is the difference between living at a Zen Center and simply visiting. When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center, I quickly grew accustomed to the mundane nature of Dharma room practice, taking it for granted and not paying as close attention over time. When you live in a Zen Center, it’s easy to show up in body but not fully in mind. When you drive in from the suburbs to sit a brief half hour, on the other hand, you take care to pay close attention to that time, recognizing it as a precious respite in a sea of hurry.

Outside Warby Parker

A cup of dark hot chocolate is like this too. Burdick’s chocolate is rich, intensely flavored, and delivers a day-long buzz: a whole day of energy in one small cup. If I lived next door to Burdick’s, I might take it for granted, growing too accustomed to a mid-morning pick-me-up. Instead, a concentrated cup of dark chocolate is an occasional reward I give myself on those Sundays when I get up early and go to the Zen Center as planned: a good start to a new week, capped with something strong and just a little bit sweet.

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.

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