Now & Zen


Hosta

Earlier this week, I watched a viral video of Jimmy Fallon meditating on The Tonight Show with Andy Puddicombe, co-creator of the Headspace meditation app. While Puddicombe walked Fallon through a guided meditation on The Tonight Show couch, the show’s band and studio audience participated in their seats, the camera showing them sitting quietly with closed or downcast eyes, following their breath.

Daylily

Meditation isn’t new to me; it’s something I’ve been doing daily for years. But it was remarkable to see an entire studio audience of ordinary people meditating in the most ordinary way–in their seats, in the midst of watching a TV show, without any suggestion that meditation should be hidden away in a mystical, mysterious place, far removed from daily life.

Ferns

These days I meditate at my desk because I’m much more likely to do it if I do it where I’m at. There’s no room for excuses: there’s no putting off getting up out of my chair and heading to my cushion, and there’s nothing to pull out or dust off. Dragging myself onto a meditation cushion takes a bit of effort, but there’s nothing more natural than me sitting at my desk, my back upright and my feet flat on the floor, while I watch my breath for ten minutes or so before picking up my pen to write.

Some would argue it’s too difficult to meditate at one’s desk, in the very midst of one’s daily distractions, and I suppose that’s true for many people. But if I can’t meditate at my desk, in the very heart of my life, what business do I have saying I can meditate anywhere else?

Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia)

The Jimmy Fallon clip wonderfully illustrates something teachers in my Zen school often say: meditation is nothing special. It’s not some otherworldly activity that grants magical powers; instead, it plugs you solidly into the life you already live. If you breathe and have a body and a mind, you have the three things–the only three things–necessary to meditate.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with meditating in a special place surrounded by special things: the whole purpose of the “smells and bells” of formal Buddhist practice–the robes and cushions and altars and incense–is to put your mind into the mood for practice, just as candlelight and fine china turn an ordinary dinner into a romantic meal. But just as a fancy candlelit dinner isn’t necessary for romance–lovers will love regardless of where or what they’re eating–you can meditate anywhere and anytime, with or without special accoutrements. When it comes to meditation, the main requirement is to come as you are.

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.

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.

Hokusai

Tonight I’m scheduled to teach the weekly “intro to meditation” class at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always I feel unqualified.  What do I know about meditation that a person couldn’t learn from a book, video, or their own experience?

Hokusai

People come to the Thursday night intro class expecting profundity.  Zen carries an aura of mystique, and this leads people to think that sitting in meditation must be essentially different and more profound than, say, waiting for the bus.  So when I pull back the curtain and reveal that meditation is nothing more and nothing less than watching your breath go in and out, the disappointment is palpable.  Why so much fuss, so much hype, so much pomp, and so much attention to candles and incense for something that isn’t essentially different from something you’ve done without thinking since you were born? 

Hokusai

Breathing is boring–nothing special–at least when it happens freely:  most of us don’t notice our breathing unless it’s somehow troubled or impeded, like when we have a cold or are breathless from exercise.  All meditation does is ask us to pay conscious attention to the most mundane, ordinary, taken-for-granted thing–our own breath–and notice how amazingly difficult it is to accomplish even this most simple of tasks.

That is what makes meditation magic.  Breathing itself is entirely ordinary:  if you’re alive, you do it automatically.  But the second you try to pay attention to your breathing, you realize how out-of-shape your Paying-Attention muscle is.  Your heart and lungs are powerhouses, automatically doing their jobs nonstop without any conscious input from you.  But your brain, on the other hand, is a far less focused entity.  When you ask your brain to focus on just one thing, it has an incredibly difficult time, choosing instead to flit from thing to thing.  When you start trying to train your mind to focus on one thing, you realize how scattered and all-over-the-place your mind usually is, wandering off in every direction except Here and Now.

Hokusai

I sometimes compare sitting in meditation to the process of teaching a puppy to stay.  Our minds are like inquisitive puppies:  they like to wander off and stick their noses in everyone else’s business.  Telling our brain to focus on This Breath is like asking a puppy to sit still:  it’s a war of wiggles.  When you train your mind to Sit and Stay, you must do so calmly and patiently, with an abundance of love and gentleness.  It’s not about yanking, smacking, or even scolding your mind-pup; it’s about gently steering it back, back, back to the Here and Now.

Hokusai

That is all that happens in meditation:  your mind wanders, and you call it back.  You do this over and over, more times than you can count:  every time your mind thinks something other than the mantra you silently intone with each inhalation and exhalation, you calmly steer it back.

This kind of sitting and paying attention to your breath is nothing special, and it is very much like the kind of sitting you do when you’re waiting for the bus…assuming, of course, you aren’t checking your phone, reading a book, listening to music, or flipping mentally through your day’s to-do list while waiting for the bus.  When you think about it, actually, very few of us truly wait for the bus while our bodies are physically present at the bus stop; instead, we’ve become incredibly adept at doing all sorts of other things while we wait.

Hokusai

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this sort of multitasking, but too much of it alienates us from our own lives.  Unaccustomed to being Where We Are When We Are, we find our minds wandering off when we want them to pay attention.  This is how it happens that as our children grow, our elders die, and our lives pass by in a flash, we ultimately find ourselves on our deathbeds, wondering where it all went. “It” didn’t go anywhere; instead, “it” all happened right here under our noses while our minds were otherwise occupied.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from last year’s Katsushika Hokusai exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, which I viewed last summer.

Black birds

I went to the Zen Center twice this week, leading sitting on Sunday night then giving consulting interviews on Tuesday. Whenever I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, it feels like coming home and plugging in. Whereas the rest of my life might be running me ragged, going to the Zen Center and focusing on only one thing helps me calm, collect, and renew myself.

Minds closed eyes blown

I sometimes imagine consciousness as being like a beam of light or a stream of water. When a flashlight shines widely, its brightness is diffused; when rivulets branch and wander, their stream weakens to a trickle. When you tightly contain either a beam or stream, however, you experience its true power: focused light becomes laser-sharp, and concentrated water both stings and penetrates.

During the school year, my energy is scattered among obligations, and during the summer, my attention is relaxed and diffuse. When I settle on a cushion at the Zen Center, however, I feel a sudden surge as I harness my energies, reining them in like a large, tractable horse with ample abilities to either prance or pull.

A mind of trees

I recently started reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I wanted to read before checking out her latest book, Better Than Before. The latter focuses on positive habit-forming, which is a perennial fascination of mine: I’m basically a sucker for any sort of self-help book that suggests you can improve your life by honing your habits. But I decided to read The Happiness Project before Rubin’s newer book, even though both books arrived at the library at the same time. Now that I’ve started The Happiness Project, I think I’ll return Better Than Before and then re-request it later, as I’m not sure even I could stomach two self-help books in a row.

Tresses

I’m enjoying The Happiness Project, but I can’t say I’ve learned anything new from the first fifty-some pages: so far, Rubin is revisiting familiar territory. But this is, after all, one of the things that I like about self-help books: they’re easy to read (basically, a guilty pleasure) because they reinforce the things I already know even if they’re things I’m not currently doing.

Shadowy

Reading a self-help book is like watching a workout DVD while lounging on the sofa eating bonbons: everything (including exercise) looks easy when you sit and watch it, but getting up and doing it is a different story. Much of the research Rubin cites in The Happiness Project is stuff I’ve already read: I’ve read classics such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden along with newer titles such as John M. Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. (Spoiler alert: the latter didn’t save my first marriage, but it did help clarify what was wrong with it.) I’ve also read Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness: I did, after all, briefly train to become a life-coach, a career I back-burnered after realizing I’m not good at marketing myself. So the information Rubin shares isn’t exactly new if you’ve read these various works she’s referencing; what she does, though, is offer a new configuration of the same old ideas.

Easter bonnet

What fascinates me so far about The Happiness Project is its central premise that we can be happier if we understand and employ the specific techniques that make people happy. This belief in personal perfectibility–the notion that the human psyche is a machine, and if we understand its inner workings, we can fine-tune it to work better and more efficiently–is pervasive in self-help literature. This belief in personal perfectibility is also quintessentially American, a psychological version of the American dream: “If I work hard enough, I too can make myself into a better, happier person.”

Faceless

I recognize this optimism as a cultural myth, an idea deconstructed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America as well as Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, both of which I loved. (You can read my review of Burkeman here.) But even though I fully understand the cultural mythology and outright error endemic in self-help books, I still find myself consuming them like candy, finding an escapist joy in the irresistible belief that we can make ourselves better. For me, self-help books are like fairy tales for grown-ups, offering the bewitching hope that you can be your own Prince Charming, sweeping yourself off to a happily-ever-after world where your closets are organized, your marriage is blissful, and your body is beautiful, well-rested, and well-toned.

Hat, shades, and scarf

The irony, of course, is that I’m a Buddhist, and Buddhism basically throws a bucket of cold water on self-helpism. Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular focus on what is, not what could be if only you employed a system of resolutions and self-help strategies. The ultimate statement of “what is” is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which bluntly observes that Suffering Exists. Contemplating your messy closets, listless marriage, or sagging body, a self-help guru would whip up an action plan to get your you, your relationships, and your closets back in shape. A Zennie, on the other hand, would commiserate without blame: Yes, sweetheart, it be’s that way sometimes.

In the building

Zen isn’t philosophically opposed to helping yourself; Zen, in fact, isn’t philosophically opposed to much of anything. My Inner Zennie accepts with bemused equanimity the fact that hope really does spring eternal: after all these years of failed attempts, I still hold out hope for getting my junk drawer organized. What my Inner Zennie knows that my Inner Self-Helper is loathe to admit, however, is that happiness isn’t contingent on tidy closets: I can find serenity in a cluttered house, and I can be miserable in a perfectly clean one. My Inner Zennie, in other words, knows that happiness dwells in the Here and Now, regardless of how many things my Inner Self-Helper wants to fix. Samsara is indeed Nirvana, so go ahead and either clean your closets or let them be: it’s your choice. At the end of the day, a Zennie doesn’t ask herself “Are my closets tidy” but “Who am I?”

Backyard koi pond with Kwan Seum Bosal statue

So who am I? The asker of that question has perpetually cluttered closets and an insatiable belief that someday, somehow, they might be tidy. That riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma loves to read books like The Happiness Project while wryly remembering that Ben Franklin, the Founding Father of American optimism, ultimately gave up his quest for personal perfection, noting that whenever he made progress with one of his self-defined virtues, he backslid with the others. As none other than Saint Paul noted, it’s human nature to continue doing that which we know we shouldn’t do, which is precisely why books like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project will continue to have an enthusiastic audience. We know that life isn’t as simplistic as self-help books suggest, but we still request these books from the library and greedily consume them, errors and all.

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