Now & Zen


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?


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? 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.

We out here though

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always there was a pot of hot tea waiting for me when I went into the interview room to begin. Sunday mornings when I give interviews are hectic: I have to get up early enough to do my morning chores before I leave, so by the time I arrive at the Zen Center, I’ve already taken the beagle out and in, loaded the dishwasher, cleaned the kitchen litter box, and fed the cats. It feels good, in other words, to sit down to a hot pot of tea someone else prepared: a chance to play guest.

After the laughter

I usually take about three sips of tea before I ring the bell for the first interview. While everyone gets settled on their cushions in the main meditation room, I get settled on my cushion in the interview room, making sure I have everything I need close at hand: a clock so I can keep an eye on the time, and a box of tissues I can offer to anyone who comes in with a heavy heart. (Sometimes I think the most important job a senior Dharma teacher can do in consulting interviews is listen without judgement while calmly doling out tissues.) Once I’ve determined everything is in place, I pour a cup of tea and take approximately three sips, breathing in the tea’s aroma, feeling the heat of the cup in my hands, and savoring the warm flavor on my tongue. The Zen Center is a ritual-rich place, and these three sips of tea have taken on an almost magical meaning for me. Before I can ring the bell that says “I’m ready to listen to whatever question or issue you want to talk about,” I have to make myself present to a simple cup of tea.

Rest in paint

A lot of profound, powerful, and deeply humorous things happen in the interview room: all that consulting interviews are, after all, is a chance for two practitioners to sit down and talk face-to-face behind a closed door. But sometimes I feel like the most powerful moment for me personally is the moment or two before I ring the bell, when it’s just me holding a cup of tea in my hands, wondering what sort of questions will walk through the door.

Je suis XXVI

Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I spend a moment looking at the drawing of Kwan Seum Bosal, the bodhisattva of compassion, that hangs above the interview room mantel. In the guise of an eleven-headed goddess with a thousand hands and eyes, Kwan Seum Bosal looks like a harried mother with heads instead of eyes in the back of her head: ever watchful, and ever ready to lend a hand (or a tissue) when someone is suffering. Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I silently invoke the spirit of Kwan Seum Bosal, whom I recognize as a representation of the compassion we all possess. Once I ring the bell for the first interview, I have no way of knowing what flavor of suffering will walk through the door. All I can hope for is that like Kwan Seum Bosal, I’ll find a way to be present in the face of whatever arises.

Teddy bears' interview

Last night, I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center: a chance for practitioners to have a one-on-one conversation with a senior teacher.

Teddy bears' interview

One of the best bits of advice I ever got about giving consulting interviews came from Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton), who sat next to me the first time I gave a round of interviews. Consulting interviews, he explained, aren’t about answering questions; consulting interviews are about sharing an experience with the person sitting across from you.

I think of Zen Master Mark’s advice whenever I ring the interview room bell to signal the next person to come in and sit down. If consulting interviews were about answering questions, I’d have to worry about knowing enough to say the right thing. But since consulting interviews are about sharing an experience, I don’t have to know anything to give a good interview: I just have to show up, sit down, and be present for whatever arises.

Zen Master bear with Zen stick

These three guidelines–show up, sit down, and be present–are the same whether you sit in the teacher’s or the student’s seat: these three guidelines, in fact, apply to pretty much any face-to-face encounter. And as if to underscore that point, last night when I walked into interview room, I found it was already occupied by two plump teddy bears sharing a face-to-face experience that transcended human words.

Buddha and houseplant

Last night I went to evening practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, even though I still haven’t fully recovered my voice from the cold-turned-bronchitis I’ve been fighting all month. My voice is mostly better when I’m simply talking…but chanting was a whole other story, with my voice squeaking, croaking, or falling silence whenever the melody varied from the middle-monotone. It will take a while before my vocal cords are back in shape for either chanting or singing, but in the meantime, it was good to squeak by with roomful of other practitioners who filled in the melodic gaps when my voice wasn’t able to rise to the occasion.

This is my Day Twenty-Four contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Any person with the ability to observe the world can deduce the simple facts the Buddha taught: suffering exists, things are impermanent, and the quality of our contentment isn’t necessarily related to our external circumstances. There are unhappy people in paradise and people who find contentment in hell. All things change, but there sits at the root of our nature certain enduring tendencies: the grain in the wood of personality, the slant of our inclination and the direction of our days.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Nothing the Buddha taught needs to be taken on faith: you can test anything he said against your own experience, against what you yourself have seen and lived. If you don’t believe that suffering exists, scan the headlines in the nearest newspaper, tune into your favorite TV news channel, or ask the person next to you how things are going, really. Or try sitting with nothing but your own thoughts for ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes: as long as you can stand. How long does it take to sink beneath the skin of surface contentment to find the existential angst beneath?

The Wall at Central Square

If you don’t believe things are impermanent, try loving a child, an old person, or an elderly pet. Whenever you see someone change, grow, or age before your very eyes, you’re seeing impermanence in action. Or take a long view of your own relationships and your own self. How many of the people you loved ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago are exactly the same now as they were then? Take a good, honest look in the mirror. How have you yourself changed over the past decade? Even the most stubborn, entrenched personalities grow old, grow sick, and die.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a fortune teller; he simply was observant. He was, as I keep telling you, a man with eyes in his head. He closely observed the people around him, and he carefully monitored the coming and going of his own thoughts. The Buddha was like Isaac Newton sitting beneath an apple tree: he didn’t see anything particularly unusual, but he had the intelligence to notice the patterns that underlie the seemingly random nature of our days. Apples fall and seasons change. If you don’t believe me, go sit under an apple tree and see for yourself.

The Wall at Central Square

One morning this week, I wrote my journal pages outside, sitting at our backyard patio table. The bird feeder was empty, so there wasn’t the usual flapping, energetic throng of birds, but still there were squirrels foraging overhead, robins singing in the neighbors’ yard, and chipmunks scurrying through dead leaves. There wasn’t a single moment in even my quiet backyard that was truly quiet: there was a constant soundtrack of birdsong, animal rustlings, and insect humming.

The Wall at Central Square

You don’t have to set foot outside—you don’t have to move from wherever you’re reading these words—to experience the constant activity that is impermanence in action. Shut your eyes and turn your attention inward to where your thoughts chatter without ceasing. Try to follow the flow of your own thoughts: the way they inevitably jump from one thing to another. Even when the world around you is quiet and serene, your mind is agile and electric, jumping from one thought to another like a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. People erroneously think that meditation is about “stilling the thoughts,” as if this were possible. Stilling your thoughts is as possible as stilling your own heartbeat or the stopping the flow of blood in your veins. Even if you could do it, why would you want to?

The Wall at Central Square

Several weeks ago I spent two hours writing in downtown Boston at rush hour. I sat in a café facing a wall of windows with a clear view of a steady stream of people walking down the sidewalks on either side of a narrow one-way street. Occasionally, there was a burst of vehicular activity: at one point, several cars, a taxi , and a police SUV cruised down the street, followed by a lull in traffic. Although the cars moved in sporadic bursts, the flow of pedestrians was constant: people walking singly, in pairs, or loose groups; people talking on phones, gesturing to friends, or pointing to landmarks. One man stopped to take a picture on his phone, then three people passed in a kind of parade, each one steering a vendor’s pushcart: lemonade, hot dogs, Italian ice. Each person who passed was on an errand known only to them, and this activity never stopped during the two full hours I observed it. Trying to stop the rush hour flow of people walking, cars moving, and cyclists pedaling is impossible, as this activity is simply the nature of a city.

The Wall at Central Square

So is the nature of our minds. Our mind is a road at rush hour, with a constant traffic of thoughts moving past. Sometimes these thoughts come singly, one after the other, and sometimes they arrive in bursts of activity. Sometimes these thoughts slow and quiet, and we think we’ve reached the end of them…but inevitably they return, always arriving from unknown origins and wending toward unspoken destinations.

The Wall at Central Square

Sometimes our thoughts get stuck and we find ourselves endlessly obsessing over a single idea that returns again and again like a car that keeps circling the same block. But just as it’s impossible to count much less stop every single person that passes down a busy city street, it is impossible to stop the stream of our own thoughts. Thinking is the mind’s job, so it’s both foolish and futile to try to stop it. Why not try to cover your ears, stopper your nose, or paste your eyes shut?

The Wall at Central Square

The contentment that comes with meditation doesn’t come from stopping one’s thoughts; it comes from making peace with them. As I sat typing on my laptop and watching the stream of people pass by that rush hour coffee shop, I had no quarrel with any of them. If I had been sitting in traffic, I would have wanted it to move faster or slower: I would have had an interest in controlling it. But as a mere observer watching the people who pass, I didn’t have to worry about their pace, direction, or destination. When you simply observe your thoughts move through your mind like people passing down the street, there’s no need to worry over them. They’ll find their own way without any interference from you.

The Wall at Central Square

It isn’t our thoughts themselves but our impulse to control our thoughts that drives us crazy. Because the Buddha had eyes in his head, he realized this. If you spend time watching your thoughts, you’ll quickly realize that crazy thoughts, calm thoughts, happy thoughts, and angry thoughts all come and go. These thoughts arise and pass away without reason: there’s no need to try to excuse or explain them, just as there’s no need to excuse or explain the passing of people and vehicles during rush hour.

The Wall at Central Square

We suffer when we cling to impermanent things, and that includes thoughts. If we cling to the idea of “baby,” we’ll suffer when our child grows into an adolescent then adult. If we cling to the idea of “youth,” we’ll suffer when we see our bodies gray and wrinkle. If we cling to the idea “I am a good person,” we’ll suffer when angry, lustful, or selfish thoughts arise. If we cling to the idea “Meditation will make me peaceful,” we’ll suffer when we find our minds to be noisy with distractions.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha realized that all things, including our thoughts, are impermanent because he himself watched them pass. It was an observation anyone with eyes in their head could have made. Right now, look around at the people who pass, then look inside to the ebb and flow of your own thoughts. What can you hold? What can you take with you after you’re gone? If you have eyes in your head, you too will see the whole world is passing, and the only instant we can claim is the very moment at hand.

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