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.

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.

Dharma room

Whether you sit by yourself at home or with others at a Zen center, meditation is an intrinsically solitary activity. As soon as you settle onto your cushion, there is nothing to entertain you but the parade of thoughts in your head. Regardless of who might be sitting, squirming, or sleeping on either side of you, what happens in your mind during meditation is entirely your business. Nobody can save you from your thoughts, and nobody can either blame or praise you for them, either.

Dharma room altar

Several weeks ago, headlines highlighted a study that revealed many people would prefer to shock themselves than to sit quietly with their own thoughts: presumably we’ve reached a point where our collective consciousness is so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic gadgets, we can no longer tolerate simple solitude. What future does meditation have in a society where we can’t stand our own quiet company?


We might blame smartphones and other high-tech devices for eroding our collective attention spans, but the problem predates these devices. Henry David Thoreau decried his generation’s interest in news stories and light reading, even the low-tech entertainments of books and newspapers serving as mindless distractions. Years ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous, I remember walking through the Public Garden on a sunny afternoon when every lone person I saw was listening to music on headphones: an endless parade where each person marched to her or his own personalized soundtrack. Even a homeless man had a battered boom box perched atop a shopping cart piled high with his possessions, the volume loud enough to drown out any semblance of solitude. Why spend quiet time with your own thoughts when even entertainment is easily portable?


Over the years, I’ve learned I actually enjoy solitude. I like sitting and doing nothing; I like the sheer boredom that comes from simply observing whatever thoughts roll by. Meditation is the formal practice of doing nothing in quiet isolation, but there are plenty of other things I do that are similarly solitary. Although sharing your writing is a social task, the act of writing is inherently solitary. A lot of novice writers like the attention that comes from having an audience, but many of these writers crumble when faced with the quiet loneliness of the blank page.

Buddha and friends

I’ve often said I was fated to become a writer because I like the sound of pen scratching paper. It’s fine and good to enjoy any attention or acclaim that might derive from something you’ve written, but at a certain point, you have to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the lonely hours it takes to produce, revise, and polish that work. There might be people who are born with a natural talent for meditation, writing, or both, but I’ve certainly never met any. In my experience, both writing and meditation are deep-rooted things that flourish with sustained attention. If you’re going to last as a meditator or a writer, you’d better like spending time with yourself, your closest companion being the cushion beneath you or the blank page before you.

This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Solitude.

The Potluck

Yesterday morning, I went to the Cambridge Zen Center to practice and give teaching interviews, stopping on my way to photograph David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” a bright, larger-than-life mural depicting a happy gathering of all ages and races sharing an abundant meal. Yesterday was a gorgeous day—sunny and not too warm—so it would have been perfect for either a picnic or potluck, but instead, I started the morning by going to the Zen Center, where I spent a half hour quietly contemplating the Dharma room floor before secreting myself in the interview room, where I met individually with a handful of fellow meditators, one after another, each bringing some sort of question: a potluck of interactions, each presenting its own possibilities.

Dharma room

After I’d gotten home from the Zen Center, J and I took the T downtown, where we walked to the North End for Saint Anthony’s Feast: a whole other kind of potluck. Instead of the quiet minimalism of the Zen Center Dharma room, in the North End we encountered the pomp and camaraderie of an Old World religious festival, a marching band accompanying a group of men who carried a statue of Saint Anthony through the streets, stopping (and even raising the statue to second-floor level) when anyone wanted to pin money to the ribbons that adorned it.


Although most of us easily understand the pomp and protocol of a picnic or potluck, Catholic festivals can be a bit more mystifying to the uninitiated. Both J and I are Italian and were raised as Catholics, so we don’t raise an eyebrow when we see colorful saint statues decorated and adorned…but I can imagine the consternation and even concern that people from other religious backgrounds might feel when they see folks in the North End apparently worshipping or even “bribing” idol-like statues with kisses and cash.

Dollar-pinned ribbons for Saint Anthony

When I see the obvious reverence that attendees at Saint Anthony’s and other North End feasts display toward these saints, though, I see tradition, not idolatry. Italians in Boston’s North End have been celebrating Saint Anthony’s Feast for nearly a century, continuing a festive tradition they carried with them from their homeland. Saint Anthony’s Feast might not match the kind of picnic or potluck you see in mainstream America, but it does suit North End tastes and traditions.

Saint Anthony pinned with dollars

America is often compared to a melting pot, but that metaphor is all wrong. When you toss (and then melt) disparate cuisines in a pot, what you end up with is a homogenous mush, the various tastes and textures all pureeing to gray. America isn’t a melting pot but a smorgasbord—a potluck—where each community offers something characteristic to their own tradition, even if “my” cuisine doesn’t perfectly match “yours.”

Italian pastries

At a potluck, everyone contributes something, and everyone shares…but at a potluck, you have the opportunity to pick and choose, not every plate offering something for every palate. Do you prefer a quiet morning spent meditating in the shadow of a gold guy? We have that. Do you prefer a festive afternoon feasting among confetti and cannoli? We have that, too. Whether you stick with familiar foods or explore something new, you can help yourself to whatever you’d like, then come back for seconds. There’s plenty for everyone, and something to satisfy every taste.


As much as meditating at the Zen Center and feasting in the North End might seem like opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, I find a lot of ways that Buddhism and Catholicism complement one another. Both Buddhisim and Catholicism offer a rich iconography of visual images: when newcomers come to the Zen Center, for instance, I make clear that the Buddha sitting at the head of the Dharma room isn’t a god to be worshiped but a visual representation of the clear, pure nature we all possess. Similarly, the money that festival-goers pin to statues of Saint Anthony or Saint Lucy aren’t idolatrous bribes: they’re expressions of gratitude and hope. A Catholic festival like Saint Anthony’s Feast suggests that if we make a point to be generous with saints, perhaps those saints will in turn be generous with blessings.

Saint Anthony shrine

Both feasts and potlucks, after all, are celebrations of abundance: there’s enough for everyone to eat, enjoy, and come back for seconds. On a gorgeous August Sunday, I can’t think of a better way to spend the day.

Click here for more photos from Saint Anthony’s Feast, which J and I had first visited in August of 2007…or click here for more photos of David Fichter’s “The Potluck,” which I’ve blogged in May of 2009 and February of 2011. Enjoy!

Wall at Central Square

Last night was one of those nights when I could think of a million reasons not to show up for practice at the Cambridge Zen Center. I’d spent the day juggling face-to-face and online teaching obligations, teaching classes at Framingham State then grading papers and submitting online grades between classes. It was (and still is) unseasonably cold and windy—blustery conditions perfect for catching a cold—and I’m still clogged and froggy from last week’s bronchitis. After tending the online graduate course that ended on Sunday, the online graduate course that started on Monday, and the three undergraduate classes that are ongoing, all I wanted to do yesterday afternoon was come home, plant myself on the couch with a book and a blanket, and not be bothered.

Wall at Central Square

Instead, I came home, changed clothes, ate a quick dinner, then drove to Cambridge, where I took a quick, brisk walk to check out the neighborhood graffiti before heading to the Zen Center, spending the next three hours chanting, meditating, and walking, all in the golden glow of the Dharma room Buddha. Sometimes you need to get away from it all, and other times you need to get in touch with it all, tuning in rather than tuning out.

Wall at Central Square

On hectic days like yesterday—too often, in other words, than I’d care to mention—working my day job feels like spinning in a revolving door, with students constantly coming and going while I go nowhere but ’round. I’ve taught face-to-face classes for nearly twenty years now, and I’ve taught online for ten, and I can’t begin to count the number of students I’ve worked with, much less the number of papers I’ve read, commented upon, and graded over those years. You collect one batch of papers; you hand back another. You read, hand back, then collect some more. When one semester ends, another begins: you read final papers, submit final grades, then promptly rewind and begin again, again, and again. Your students finish your class, take other classes, then graduate, moving on to whatever’s next while you, their teacher, keep revisiting the same lessons over and over and over. It’s a nonstop ritual that makes me dizzy just thinking about it.

Wall at Central Square

When it feels like you’re spinning in circles, you have several options: namely, you can keep on spinning, or you can stop. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your day job is more rote or repetitive than others’, but actually life itself is a revolving door: we wake, bathe, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, clean up our mess, tend our kids or pets, plant ourselves on the couch with a book and blanket, then go to sleep, destined to repeat it again tomorrow. We are born, grow up, grow old, then die, stuck in the epic catastrophe of human life, a drama culminating with the dire trinity of old age, sickness, and death. Surely, we say to ourselves, there must be something more than this; surely, the Buddha said to himself, there has to be a way out.

Wall at Central Square

Last night at the Zen Center, I reminded myself of something I’ve long known but constantly forget, time and again: it takes only a second to stop. Swept up in the rat race of your mundane life, you think the earth itself will stop spinning if you power down your laptop, shut off your phone, and step away from your to-do list…but having done these things, you realize nothing has changed but your own perspective. The emails are still there to be answered when you reboot your computer; the to-dos still beckon from their list. But you yourself can change; you yourself can re-charge.

Wall at Central Square

From your dizzying perch atop life’s revolving door, it’s easy to grow queasy from the ceaseless swirl of activity we call life, but the second you step off that dizzy-go-round, the world slows and solidifies underfoot. This revolving door called life is filled to overflowing with discreet moments, each one marching in turn. You can grow sick from the spinning redundancy of it all, or you can zero in and focus on This Present Moment, then the next, then the next. Suddenly the cycle isn’t sickening but wonderful: a glorious procession of moments staged just for your own enjoyment, so don’t miss it.

Wall at Central Square

Last night at the Zen Center, I had the same realization I always have at the Zen Center: why did I stay away so long? The rat race is always there, ready to welcome me back as soon as I return to it…but the rat race holds no power over me the second I decide not to run. There’s nothing more repetitive than spending three hours chanting, meditating, and walking, your own breath coming and going through the revolving door of your own body: inhale, exhale, repeat. The cyclic certainty of your workaday life is enough to drive you mad, and the cure is to reacquaint yourself with another kind of monotony: this breath, this body, this moment, each instant following the next like a foot stepping into its own footprint. It takes only a second—this second—to return to it.


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