Journaling at Burdick's

This morning J had to wake before dawn for a work call, so after I finished my morning tasks, I drove to the Cambridge Zen Center, sat one meditation session, then walked to Harvard Square to write my morning journal pages at Burdick’s Cafe.

Although I was sleepy at the Zen Center, the brisk walk to Harvard Square and a small cup of high-octane Burdick’s dark chocolate woke me right up. Practicing at the Zen Center always feels like plugging into a power source: even during meditation sessions when my body nods and dozes, I can feel my inner battery charging with every breath. There’s something energizing about returning to a familiar place and a familiar practice, like climbing back into a well-worn saddle.

Reflective self portrait at Burdick's

When I lived at the Zen Center, I’d often go to Harvard Square, claim a table at a restaurant or cafe, and write in the bustling anonymity of a clean, well-lighted place. Burdick’s on a Sunday morning nicely suits this purpose. You can generally find a table for one if you wait for quiet couples to finish their beverages then bundle up to leave, and once you’re settled in, the waitstaff doesn’t care if you take a half hour or so to nurse your hot chocolate over journal pages or the morning paper.

Some days I bring stationery so I can write a quick, chocolate-fueled letter; today, it was just me and my notebook. Like meditation, journal-keeping is a habit I’ve practiced for decades, so doing it generates its own energy, like a turbine turning a gear. Meditation fills my lungs, walking gets my blood flowing, writing stimulates my brain, and high-octane dark chocolate gives me a buzz that lasts the whole day. This is how you weather a sleepy morning that started before dawn.

Flames

This past summer I read Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life. Steinke’s book is one I’ve been yearning for since realizing I’m perimenopausal. Unlike the countless books that describe lowered hormone levels as a malady to be fixed, Steinke’s book describes menopause as a passage to be navigated.

Steinke’s book is part memoir, part cultural history. Steinke recounts her own experience with hot flashes, insomnia, and the crazy-making changes of middle-aged womanhood, and she also explores cultural attitudes toward post-reproductive women. (Spoiler alert: these attitudes aren’t pretty). In a society that fetishizes nubile women, women who have outlived their natural fertility are a nuisance and a threat. As a result, menopause is either marketed as a medical problem to be cured through hormone replacement, exercise, and other products or it is dismissed as the punchline to a misogynistic joke.

Several years into perimenopause, I’ve come to see the experience as inherently spiritual: a kind of involuntary retreat where you are subjected to physical discomforts you didn’t choose and thus can’t control. There is no escape from the suffering of insomnia, night sweats, and hot flashes because your own body is the source of that suffering.

When I teach meditation, I explain how the body is chained for better or worse to This Present Moment. The mind can (and does) wander across time and space: close your eyes, and you can immediately transport yourself in your imagination to distant lands or far off eras. The mind can and does wander, but the body is itself a root. Regardless of how flighty or scattered my mind may be, my body is always Right Here.

Meditation is nothing more than a conscious decision to bring the wandering mind back to the rooted body. The moment you focus your mind on your body–the arch and angle of your spine, the tender gaze of your eyes looking toward the floor, and the rhythmic rise and fall of your breath–you witness the most wondrous of reunions: your mind returning to your body, your self unified with itself, at last.

On a long retreat, your body’s aches and pains–all those pangs, itches, and grumbles–are a goad urging you back to your practice: a reminder to your Mind that your Body is still here. Instead of running away or trying to distract yourself from physical discomforts, you hunker down and make a conscious decision to stay: stay in the moment, stay in your own body, stay in your own experience. This simple act of staying is transformative. By staying with your own discomfort, your suffering transforms into strength.

In a battle between mind and body, body always wins. When we are young and able-bodied, we tell ourselves otherwise, internalizing the myth of Mind Over Matter. But the wisdom of our elders–the wisdom of our own aging bodies–is that Matter Matters More.

When I told a middle-aged friend that my meditation practice helps me cope with nighttime hot flashes–the middle-of-the-night eruptions of heat and restlessness I call my Dry Roasts–she misunderstood, thinking that meditation somehow made these surges less severe. But that’s not what I meant. Meditation doesn’t stop the waves of heat roiling through my body; instead, meditation helps me weather them. Instead of running from my body–instead of recoiling, resisting, or refusing–I return to it. I recognize these waves of heat and energy as a call from my body to my mind to come back from from its restless wandering and stay with my body as it smolders in its own dying fires.

In Zen we say you have to digest your karma like a cow chewing its cud. The flames of a hot flash are not unlike the flames of karma. In either case, the heat arises unbidden; in either case, you are powerless to time or temper the emotions that are visited upon you. What you can do, however, is choose to return–return–return. Here is my body, damp with sweat, sticking to my own skin. Here is a heat that arose without warning and will last as long as it chooses before passing away.

When I am lying in bed awash in what I call my waves–surges of heat that originate in my torso then pool and pulse in my extremities–I think of the ancient anchoress Julian of Norwich, whose visions of the embodied Christ are full of fire, sweat, blood, and tears. Julian didn’t have a cerebral Savior but a bruised and bloody one. That rooted embodiment is how she knew her Savior was real.

Reading Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary was a relief, like finding a wise companion who whispers “You’re not the only one.” It is a rite of passage for female teachers to explain to adolescent girls the changes that will come when they start to menstruate, and for the questions our teachers didn’t answer, my peers and I turned to the well-worn copy of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret we secretly passed among ourselves.

When you hit menopause, however, you’re largely on your own: no more teachers, no more Judy Blume. In a culture that loves to ogle nubile femininity, post-reproductive women are largely invisible, left to figure things out for ourselves. Thank goodness for women like Darcey Steinke who are wise enough to light the way.

Watching

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center after months of being too subsumed with Other Obligations to attend formal practice. Whenever I go to the Zen Center after months away, settling onto a cushion feels like coming home. My meditation practice isn’t limited to the four walls of the Zen Center–even when I don’t drag myself to Cambridge to meditate with other folks, I continue to practice on my own–but there is something about sitting alongside other meditators in a Dharma room that is steeped with practice energy.

Meditating at the Zen Center this morning felt like a welcome respite: a chance to plug in my mental batteries after running for far too long on a depleted charge. On any given day, I feel like the queen of multitasking: every day there are students, pets, and a husband all depending on me to Do My (Various) Job(s), and it often feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Meditating at the Zen Center, however, is pure monotasking. For thirty solid minutes, I have nothing to do but sit up straight, keep my eyes down, and follow my breath, gently bringing my mind back to attention whenever it wanders. This opportunity to do Just One Thing for an uninterrupted span of time is an inconceivable luxury.

Today has been rainy, with constant drizzle and intermittent downpours. After I’d finished giving the last of this morning’s interviews and had returned to the Dharma room for the final few minutes of practice, I noticed someone had opened the windows just a crack: not enough to let in the damp chill of November, but just enough to let in the sound of rain.

Shopping carts

I have a confession to make. On most days, my favorite place to meditate isn’t on a mat and cushion. It’s behind the steering wheel of my car.

When you teach at two different colleges, you spend a lot of time in your car: my favorite euphemism for “adjunct professor,” in fact, is “roads scholar.” There have been times when, lacking an actual campus office, I referred to my car as my office. Fortunately, these days I do have an office at both of the campuses where I teach, so my days of teaching from my car are over. But I still spend four days a week commuting to either of the colleges where I teach, and many days, that commute is the only reliable quiet time I get.

Expert meditators would say you should meditate first thing in the morning, immediately after awakening: this is, after all, how Buddhist monks, nuns, and folks who live in Zen Centers do it. But I’m not a Buddhist monastic, I no longer live in a Zen Center, and I’m not much of an “expert” at anything. When I get up these days, the first thing I do is tackle my morning to-do list, then shower, dress, and head out the door.

The wisdom of meditating first thing, of course, is that you’re more likely to do something if you do it before you get distracted, and Buddha knows my days are full of distractions. When you live in a house filled with pets, there is always something to sweep, scrub, or mop up, and when you teach college students, there are always questions and emails to answer, problems that arise, and crises to avert.

During my morning commute, however, I am (literally) the one in the driver’s seat. Within the quiet confines of my car, I can enjoy a stint of uninterrupted quiet after the morning’s chores are done and before the day’s catastrophes have commenced. When I’m driving, the only thing I need to do is just drive, and this one-pointedness is a relief from my usual multitasking: while in the driver’s seat of my car, I don’t have to answer any emails, texts, calls, or questions. These days, my car is more than a means of transportation; it’s my own personal shrine on wheels.

Pretty pout

Last week I taught the Thursday night Introduction to Zen Meditation class at the Cambridge Zen Center. Afterward, I found myself wondering how many times have I taught this class over the years. How many people have walked through the Zen Center doors, had a half hour of meditation instruction from a Dharma teacher like me, and then never darkened the door of a Zen Center ever again?

Pink blob

Zen Master Dae Kwang once said that Dharma teachers should teach the Zen intro class knowing that students might never come back: the goal, he said, is to give people a practice they can take with them and employ in their daily life, regardless of whether they return to a Zen Center. The Zen intro class, in other words, isn’t a recruitment tool; it’s the handing out of fishing rods. I’m not giving you a fish, nor am I insisting that you fish next to me. Instead, I’m giving you the tools you’ll need to plumb the depths of your very own stream, regardless of where the river of your life carries you.

Tom

The most important Zen Center isn’t the one you can walk in and out of; it’s the one you carry within you. When I sit to meditate, the first thing I feel is a flash of welcome recognition: the relief of coming home. Ahhh, my soul sighs. At long last you’ve quit your rush and bustle–at long last you’ve reunited with your true self in the Here and Now. This sense of quiet calm–this sense of settling one’s soul beside still waters–arises whether I am meditating at the Zen Center, in my car, or at my desk at home. It is a deep, settled feeling that isn’t a place but a connection with This Present Moment.

Jerry

This is why I don’t say much about the bells and whistles of Zen Center-style practice when I teach the intro class. Instead, I focus on the three things you need to practice anywhere, regardless of setting or ideology. These three things things–attention to body, attention to breath, and attention to mind–are always with you, regardless of your external circumstance or trappings. If you are alive, you have a body, a breath, and mind, and you will continue to have each of them in one shape or another until you die.

Both your body and your breath are limited by space and time. However much the mind might wander, the body and breath can exist only Right Here, Right Now. If you stop reading these words to pay attention to the slouch or straightness of your back, the precise position of each of your hands, and the actual angle of your skull upon your spine, you will for that moment be present Here, because that is always where your body is.

Bugs

Similarly, if you take a moment to observe your breath as it flows in and out, you will be present Here and Now because that is the only place where breathing happens. Try as you might, you can’t make up for yesterday’s lost breath, nor can you store up breath for tomorrow. Both the body and breath are perishable–they are rooted in the present moment and are destined to pass–but the mind deludes itself by thinking it is immortal and unchanging. This is where the mind (literally) wanders astray, venturing far and wide into the past and future where body and breath cannot follow, the self divided against (and thus in conflict with) itself.

The Wall at Central Square

This is why meditation feels like coming home, regardless of where you do it. The moment your mind realizes it is wandering and comes back to where your body and your breath are, you are instantaneously and temporarily whole. This magical moment of reunion is something some people never experience, but it is perpetually at hand, right under your proverbial nose.

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.

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.

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.