Life lessons


Abbey church

After spending Saturday with a friend in central Massachusetts, I stopped on my way home at Saint Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer.

Abbey church

Decades ago, I’d visited Saint Joseph’s as an exhausted graduate student at Boston College. The campus ministry program there had advertised a silent weekend retreat at Mary House, a retreat center right next door to the Abbey, and I jumped at the opportunity to take a weekend away from my life as a frazzled grad student juggling teaching with my own studies.

Cross and cloud

Several campus ministers ferried me and a group of undergraduates–I was relieved that none of them were my own students–to the Mary House, where they provided an abundant supply of food and gave us the freedom to spend the weekend however we wanted. We came together for meals, which we ate in silence while one person read to the rest of us, a monastic practice known as “refectory reading.” Apart from meals, we were free to come and go as we pleased, either staying close to the Mary House or venturing over to the monastery grounds.

Grass and sky

I don’t remember much from that decades-ago visit to Saint Joseph’s Abbey, but I do remember how lovely the grounds were. I spent one day walking the grounds with its rolling hills, beaver ponds, and wild turkeys, and the beauty of the landscape seemed to reflect the tranquility of the monks’ practice.

Cross and clouds

I also spent a lot of time on that retreat tucked away in visitors’ chapel, which was (and is) tiny, dark, and cavernously quiet, like the bottom of a deep well. If you visited the chapel during one of the regularly-scheduled prayer times, you could hear but not see the monks reciting the Office from their choir stalls, which were contiguous to but visually hidden from the chapel pews: no peeking.

Visitors' chapel

Since I hadn’t come to Saint Joseph’s to peer at monks, I’d intentionally visit the chapel during off times, when I knew no one else would be there. To me, the draw of the place wasn’t the presence of mysterious monks: I’d read enough Thomas Merton to imagine what the life of a monastic was like. Instead, I went to the chapel to drink in the silence left behind after the monks had gone. As an inactive Catholic who had practiced Zen meditation for years, I craved the deep steep of silence the Abbey church provided, its stone walls almost oozing with prayer.

View from under a maple

Yesterday as I drove the winding road to the Abbey church, its stones unchanged over the several decades since I had last been there, my heart was heavy with the news of the world: white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, the Denier in Chief sowing discord from the White House, and the threat of nuclear annihilation looming everywhere. How can you retreat to a silo of silence when the the world is on fire? Or, better yet, how can you not seek spiritual solace then?

The visitors’ chapel was just as tiny and dark as I’d remembered, and the silence was just as profound. After briefly praying in the shadow of an altar illuminated by a stained glass image of Mary and the infant Jesus, I went back outside to admire the monastery fields bathed in the long-angled light of late afternoon.

Monk walking with trees and geese

And that is when I saw him: a lone, white-robed monk walking down a quiet road through a grass-green field. In the distance, a flock of geese moved through the grass, either grazing or floating in an invisible pond hidden behind the crest of those rolling hills. The monk walked slowly, deliberately, neither hurrying nor dawdling, and he stopped briefly to look at the same geese I was watching. Surely the scene was just as idyllic and lovely from his perspective as it was from mine.

The world is on fire, and everywhere people are consumed in the flames of anger, fear, and bigotry. Where can you find the still, small voice who wants nothing more than to help this suffering world?

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.

No trespassing

One of the central concepts in Buddhist philosophy is that of impermanence. The Buddha said people suffer because they cling to things, beings, and experiences that pass away. Life is great as long as you have and hold the things you love, but nothing gold can stay. Children grow up and move away, our bodies age and grow old, and even our newest and shiniest belongings wear out and lose their sheen.

Toppled crane

Impermanence isn’t a tenet you have to believe; like gravity, it’s a natural law you’ll notice if you open your eyes. This past weekend, J and I saw the ruins from a massive fire that recently destroyed a luxury apartment complex in nearby Waltham. (Fortunately, since the complex was still under construction, nobody was living there.) It was stunning to see a hulking pile of rubble where there had recently been five multistory buildings.

Singed trees

J and I weren’t the only ones looking at the fire’s aftermath: every car we saw pulling into a nearby municipal parking lot slowed down to take a look as it passed. We all know, intellectually, that we can lose everything we own in an instant, but this lesson doesn’t hit home until you see the charred wreckage of someone else’s dream.

Kindergarten class, Barnett Elementary School, 1974-1975.

Ever since I decided to go to my 30-year high school reunion last month, I’ve been sorting through old photos and mementos from my school days, photographing and posting them online as a way of making a digital backup of the analog artifacts of my early life. Yesterday, I photographed and posted two photos from kindergarten: first, my class portrait, and second, a composite photo of everyone in my kindergarten class from Barnett Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio.

Kindergarten portrait, Barnett Elementary School, Columbus, OH. I wanted to be a school teacher. ☺️ #fbf

I’m Facebook friends with two members of my kindergarten class, and I recognize and remember a handful of other classmates I’ve since lost touch with. But the names and personalities of the other children in that composite photo are lost to time. I remember my kindergarten teacher, Miss Mock, and I remember vague details about our classroom, like the fact it opened onto its own brick-walled playground and had in one corner a playhouse with toy kitchen utensils and costumes for playing dress-up. But everything else is a blur.

Through

I remember learning in kindergarten not to be a tattletale, even though I was greatly aggrieved that Miss Mock didn’t spring into action when I dutifully “tattled” that some now-forgotten boy was doing something both dangerous and forbidden in that walled-in playground. Wasn’t preventing a child from braining himself on the concrete a more pressing priority than teaching me, an obedient and good child, an abstract lesson about minding my own business?

See-saw

Clearly I was wrong: Miss Mock wasn’t concerned that so-and-so would fall from whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be climbing, and indeed nobody was hurt that day. But the lesson–or, more accurately, my sense of outrage that I was being scolded for following the rules while a boy who was doing something naughty got no scolding whatsoever–clearly stays with me. In retrospect, this might have been the most valuable lesson I learned in kindergarten: not a lesson about tattling, but a lesson about life’s unfairness. Sometimes good girls get scolded and bad boys get away with being naughty, a lesson I suspect many women would understand.

Grab a hold

The only other experience I remember from kindergarten involves wooden blocks. One day I was playing with blocks, and a little boy knocked over the tower I was patiently building. (As a child who grew up with older sisters, I hadn’t realized until kindergarten how senselessly cruel little boys could be.) Enraged, I picked up a block and promptly threw it directly at the little boy’s head. It was a clear instance of vigilante justice: you touch my toys, I bean your brain.

Make it better

Except…after hitting the boy, I immediately started crying, upset at the bad thing I’d done. (Have I already mentioned I was an obedient and good child?) I don’t remember if the boy cried because I’d hurt him; I was probably too upset to notice. Instead, I was completely overwrought by the tiny tragedy that had played out: first he ruined my tower, then I hurt him in return.

Pretty pony

When Miss Mock asked what happened–as I remember, this all transpired in a split second when she was out of the room, so a more savvy child would have denied everything or pinned the blame on someone else–I gushed out a tearful confession: “He did this, I did that!” Ultimately, I think I was more wounded from the encounter than he was. The boy whose name I no longer remember presumably rubbed off the bump to his head, but I was heartbroken to think I’d hurt someone simply because they made me mad.

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.

Blue hydrangea

Last night J and I watched the second half of a PBS NewsHour interview with Warren Buffett. Thanks to his knowledge of business and investing, Buffett is one of the richest men in America, but he’s also one of the humblest. In an conversation with journalist Judy Woodruff, Buffett noted that he and other billionaires have no need for the tax cuts promised in the Republican health care bill, and he repeated his oft-referenced belief that millionaires and billionaires shouldn’t pay taxes at a lower rate than that of their secretaries and cleaning ladies.

Hydrangea

Buffett is 86 years old and still mentally sharp and active. Noting the Cherry Coke Buffett drank throughout the interview, Woodruff asked if he had any health or diet tips for staying alert and active in old age. Buffett gleefully shared that he still eats like a six-year-old, adding that you don’t often see six-year-olds dropping dead.

This playful response points to Buffett’s obvious joy in the simple pleasures of life. Buffett still works at the age of 86 because he enjoys working; he still lives in a Nebraska house he bought in 1958 because he likes it and has happy memories there. Buffett is one of the richest men on earth, but he has made a conscious decision to give nearly all of his wealth to philanthropic causes. When Woodruff directly asked Buffett why he hasn’t stockpiled mansions, cars, or yachts, he explained that he’s experienced those things but doesn’t need them to be happy. Buffett is happy with what he has, and this sense of abundance leaves no room for excess.

Hydrangea

Watching Buffett’s interview made me realize he’s not only one of the wealthiest men on the planet, he’s also one of the happiest. Buffett isn’t happy because he’s rich; he’s happy because he has recognized what is truly important. As Buffett openly shared with Woodruff his most recent tax return, I marveled at how different he is from Donald Trump, who comes across as an angry and paranoid old man who needs to guard his secrets. Buffet realizes that being happy is its own kind of treasure while Trump continually reaches for more money, power, and fame.

Hydrangea in bloom

In my Zen school, we have a saying: “Enough-mind fish never touches the hook.” If a fish is content with what he has–if he sees his present situation as being enough for his needs–he can’t be tempted with bait. Warren Buffett is an enough-mind fish. Instead of racing after the bait called More, he enjoys the life he has, taking to happiness as easily as a fish takes to water.

Floating flowers

This morning as I was driving to the Zen Center, I saw a homeless man standing at the exit from the Turnpike, where traffic often gets stopped at a light. I have a policy that if I’m stopped at a light on my way to the Zen Center and see a panhandler, I give him or her a dollar, no questions asked. I figure it would be bad karma to ignore someone in need while bustling off to do spiritual practice.

Monkey see

I know all the arguments against giving money to panhandlers: they’ll probably just use the money to buy booze or drugs, and giving handouts to the homeless only enables bad behaviors. I’ve heard all these arguments and recognize their validity, but when I’m on my way to the Zen Center, I ignore those arguments. Regardless of what any given homeless person does with the money I give them, I like to think that for one moment, they encountered someone who is happy to give them something they need: a purely human experience of one person sharing with another. If I were in their place, I hope someone would have the generosity of spirit to do the same for me.

Stormy seas

When I give money to panhandlers, I try to make eye contact and smile, figuring life on the street is difficult and human kindness hard to find. I don’t pretend to have saintly motivations: it makes me feel good to share a spot of good cheer, and makes me feel grateful to realize I can indeed spare a dollar. When I give money to panhandlers, I’m acting, in other words, as much in my own interest as that of anyone else: this is something I do because it makes me feel good, and if it helps someone else, that’s a blessing upon blessings.

RIP Adam West

This morning, the man I gave a dollar to held a sign saying he was a veteran and homeless. His face was tan and well-worn, but underneath his world-weariness was a hint of radiance: a face that in happier times had found ample reasons to smile. “God bless you,” the man said, and I thanked him: you never know when you might need the prayers of a stranger. I wished the man well and drove on: the light had changed, and there were cars behind me.

Don't forget me

That would have been the end of it, but this: hours later, after I’d left the Zen Center and was walking through Central Square, I saw the same man standing in front of H Mart counting a fistful of wrinkled dollar bills. I quietly hoped he’d saved up enough blessings upon blessings to buy himself lunch and the right to sit down in a clean, air-conditioned place for a half hour or so: a respite of dignity in a life marked by untold sorrow.

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