Now & Zen


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.

Annunciation with shadows and mirror

I’ve decided I feel about Thanksgiving the same way I feel about Valentine’s Day: sympathetic in theory but a bit embarrassed in practice. When you feel grateful and loving every day, it’s a bit discomfiting to be told to display those private emotions in a publicly ostensible way once a year. Both Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving strike me as being almost skeptical in nature. It’s not enough to privately love or be grateful; instead, these two holidays demand we prove it.

Although there are plenty of folks who decry the forced, greeting-card quality of Valentine’s Day, uttering similar sentiments about Thanksgiving is incredibly curmudgeonly: how can one rightly be antagonistic toward a holiday devoted to gratitude and food? But even though gratitude and food are indeed two of my favorite things, the simple fact remains: I’m always a bit relieved to have Thanksgiving over, the calendrical requirement to be sufficiently grateful crossed off the list for another year.

Morning shadows

This is more than a bit ironic, however, since if I had to offer an honest description of my daily spiritual practice, it would be this: my religion is gratitude. Gratitude is not a word many Zennies use to define or describe their practice, since gratitude implies there is someone or something one is grateful to, and Zennies tend to remain silent on questions of theology.

Zen practitioners tend to emphasize what we do when we meditate: we sit upright with eyes lowered, hands in a mudra below our navels, and attention fixed on our breath, a silent, repetitive mantra helping us keep that attention right here, right now. But this description of what a Zennie does when she meditates omits entirely the question of what she feels when she sits and follows her breath. And in my case, I can on most days answer that question with only one word: gratitude.

Tree shadows

The gratitude I feel when I meditate isn’t a hearts-and-flowers feeling, and it’s not something that involves the counting of blessings or anything that could be expressed succinctly in a thank-you note. Instead, it is a deep abiding sense of contentment that simmers beneath the sturm-und-drang of consciousness. On the surface, I might be happy, sad, anxious, or impatient, and my thoughts might be entirely subsumed with the static and distracted chatter of the day’s headlines, to-dos, and petty quarrels. But beneath that turbid roil of thoughts–down at the bedrock of consciousness–a single stream runs clear and pure. That is what I mean by the word “gratitude.”

Leaf shadows on office blinds

The gratitude that bubbles up when I meditate has nothing to do with turkeys, football games, or cranberry sauce. Instead, it is a deep and enduring realization that this present moment is enough. Watching my breath go out and in, I become deeply aware of the precious connectedness of this one individual life. My gratitude (if I must call it that) goes out to all the joined-but-disparate things in the vast wide universe that make this moment possible: family, friends, and loved ones, to be sure, but also the earth and trees and shadows and air. If I had to count my blessings, I’d have to count the entire Universe of existence, from smallest microbe to most distant star.

Such talk, of course, will earn you plenty of odd looks at the family dinner table, and that is why I’m secretly relieved every year when the public pomp of Thanksgiving Day is done and I can get back to the serious business of admiring stars and shadows in secret.

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.

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