Now & Zen


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.

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.

Propane tank-filling day. #signsofspring #almostgrillingseason

Today I went to the hardware store to fill two propane tanks: an annual ritual that marks the start of spring and the almost-advent of grilling season. Every year, I park my car by the big propane tank at the corner of the lot, go inside to pay, and then return to the big tank, where a man wearing a hat, coat, and gloves fills each of my smaller tanks in turn.

Almost forsythia

Tonight when I finally sat down to meditate, I felt like I’d plugged myself into a power source: a chance to refill and recharge. We’re entering the busy part of the semester, and on any given day, I have to juggle a half dozen different obligations: pets to feed and errands to run, student emails to answer, classes to prepare, and papers to grade. On any given day, there are more to-do’s on my list than there are hours to do them.

Leafing

And yet, all it takes for me to feel grounded and centered is the simple act of stopping: right here, right now, I make a conscious effort to do just one thing as I follow my breath going in and out, in and out. When you have a hundred and one things to do, doing just one thing sounds like an indulgent luxury, but it’s just as practical as stopping by the hardware store for propane. One’s inner stores of energy are easily depleted, but the Big Tank where you can refill is always close at hand.

Next Page »