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.


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.)


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.


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.

Rain slicked

Every morning, I follow the same basic routine: a daily liturgy that involves taking the beagle out and in, loading the dishwasher, taking out the trash and recyclables, cleaning the kitchen litter box, and filling various food and water bowls. It takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes to do these mundane chores, and I do them every day: weekdays, weekends, days when I feel like it, and days when I don’t.


Because I’ve repeated this same set of chores so many times, I’ve streamlined the process. I don’t do these tasks willy-nilly; instead, I do them in the same order every day, one task following the next like a wheel rolling into a well-worn track. Because my body knows exactly what it needs to do, I don’t have to think about what comes next: I don’t have to think about anything at all. When I set my feet on the floor, they know where to take me.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve come to see my morning routine as its own kind of meditation. When I lived in the Zen Center, I had a different sort of morning routine that involved bowing, chanting, and sitting rather than dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling. When the Zen Center wake-up bell rang, you stumbled out of bed and into the Dharma room, and practice happened whether you were properly awake or not. Because you’d bowed, chanted, and sat so many times before, your body knew how to complete these actions whether or not your mind really “wanted” to.

Wall at Cenral Square

To many, this might sound like the epitome of mindless practice: you just go through the motions whether you feel like it or not, as mindless as any automaton. We live in a culture of emotion that believes the heart is the highest authority, so it’s downright criminal (or worse, hypocritical) to do something when your “heart isn’t in it.” But Zen isn’t a way of the heart; it lives even deeper in the body, down in the rooted tangle of the gut. Anyone who’s lived in a Zen Center knows that following a mindless routine is the way to mindfulness: because you don’t have anything to do but show up, your mind is free to pay attention without equivocation.

The Wall at Central Square

C.S. Lewis famously argued that the routine monotony of liturgy is what makes it a transcendent experience. Only when your body and mind are trained by the predictable repetition of a church service is your spirit free to commune:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it “works” best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.


When I’m immersed in the routine of dish-washing, litter box cleaning, and bowl-filling, my mind feels free and unfettered, free to wander where it will. An entirely ordinary but profoundly satisfying kind of peace arises when you don’t have to wonder what comes next: you just do your job. In the evening, I repeat a routine that complements my morning chores, taking the beagle out and in, emptying the dogs’ water bowls, and mopping the floor. There are moments when I’m leading the beagle to or from the dog pen when I wonder whether I was a farmer in a past life, the simple routine of animal husbandry—food and water in, waste out—feeling both familiar and reassuring.

No comp

I’m currently reading Brad Kessler’s Goat Song, a nonfiction narrative about the pastoral joys of goat-tending and cheese-making. I’ve never tended goats or made cheese, but what Kessler says about his experience of goat-milking sounds so akin to my experience tending a menagerie of pets, I suspect only the details of our respective practices differ:

Maybe it’s just the routine, the same objects in the same place (the wipes, the teat dip, the feed bucket, the scoop). The smallest change upsets the balance; the repetition builds a kind of faith (milk stand, hoof trimmers, hay knife, stool). Rote is the nature of prayer. Incantation is repetition. Saying and doing the same thing over and over until entranced. Ritualizing the same physical motion with your body as Yogis do. My movements here on this milk stand are a kind of davening, a morning prayer with goat.

After dark

“Rote is the nature of prayer”: this is a line I could live and die by, a mantra truer to my lived experience than any creed. Every day, the goats need to be milked; every day, the dishes need to be washed, the litter boxes need to be cleaned, and the water bowls need to be filled. Your life isn’t what happens before and after you’ve done your chores; instead, your chores are your life. Only after these tasks have become routine can you settle into the comfortable monotony that is prayer.

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.

Snow yoga

Last week’s snow has largely melted, so we won’t have a white Christmas here in the Boston suburbs. But I’ll always have this picture of a neighborhood snow yogi to remind me of snowstorms past.

Flat Stanley loves chips and salsa!

Yesterday afternoon I submitted the last of my fall semester grades, so now I’m catching up with all the things I haven’t had time for during a busier-than-usual semester. Our nephew’s Flat Stanley has been visiting from Pittsburgh, so even while I was buried in grading, J and I have made a point to take “Stanley” with us when we go out to lunch or elsewhere. Last Wednesday night, for instance, I led practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, so Flat Stanley tagged along and made friends with a Gold Guy.

Flat Stanley makes a friend

At the end of any busier-than-usual semester, it usually takes a while for me to regain my balance after weeks of deadline-chasing. Having a meditation practice helps, as do the predictable routines of my writing and photography.

Flat Stanley loves BC basketball

Now that I’ll have a few weeks “mostly” off before classes resume, I’m looking forward to spending more time writing, meditating, and taking pictures: more time, in other words, doing the things that refresh my senses by bringing me back to the present moment. Whatever your spiritual inclination, here’s hoping this holiday season is similarly restorative.

Buddha makes a friend

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It’s a simple enough story. A few moments before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was confronted by Mara, the tempter, who tried to interrupt his meditation. Mara tried the usual techniques, assailing the Buddha with lovely women and fearsome demons. Upon seeing the Buddha wasn’t swayed by desire or fear, Mara launched his most dangerous assault, leaning low to whisper a single question into Buddha’s ear: “Who do you think you are?”

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It is a troubling and pervasive question. Who hasn’t heard an inner voice asking some semblance of this question, which is simultaneously an accusation and an invitation to doubt? Who do you think you are that you can attain enlightenment? Who do you think you are that you can offer wisdom to the ages: who do you think you are that you can have something to say, and actually dare to say it? Who do you think you are that you can dare dream to do something with your life: who do you think you are to dare do?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Buddha did the wisest possible thing in this situation: he refused to engage the question. Instead of launching into the puffery of autobiography—“Look at me and all I have done, accomplished, and learned”—the Buddha vanquished Mara by throwing him off kilter, off center, and even off his keister. When Mara asked Buddha “Who do you think you are,” Buddha said nothing but merely reached one hand toward the ground and touched earth with four gently straightened fingers. Who am I? Here I am.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Traditional accounts of this tale say that after the Buddha touched earth, the earth and all its denizens themselves bore witness. What does that mean, exactly? To my ear, that means the Buddha returned to this moment, pulled himself out of the mental wrestling match that is obsessing on your own identity, and became aware (at last!) of what was transpiring around him in the natural world: green grass, towering trees, and flourishing flowers.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

You don’t have to be a Buddha to touch the earth, nor do you have to wait until Mara is staring you down, confrontational. At any moment, the earth endures; at any moment, the earth is largely ignored. Today, outside, what is happening right here, right under my feet? Today, right now, if I stretched my hand to my side, what would I find under my fingertips: grass and soil, sidewalk and concrete, carpet and upholstery?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It never hurts to return to the present moment, to the senses, to whatever is happening right now. Even in painful moments, there is no harm in returning to the raw, unadulterated experience of suffering. What does it feel like, really, to suffer, to ache in one’s innards, to grieve, to lament, to cry? Forget the story of grief you’ve long told yourself—the narrative of blame and regret, accusation and accountability. Some things just hurt, and there is no explaining it: in the absence of explanation, then, what does the pure, unedited experience of sorrow actually feel like? In the absence of interpretation, what experience is actually true?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When I was a child, long before I became a Buddhist, I used to dissect my own headaches. As a child prone to allergies, I was also (and still am) prone to sinus headaches: an awful kind of pressure that builds within your skull and makes you feel like you have a large, hulking animal standing on your face. Some sinus headaches relent with the use of decongestants; others fade in the face of painkillers. Other sinus headaches, however, simply stay, pressing into the crevices of your skull and aggressively arching against the contours of your own skin.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Whenever as a child I encountered one of these obstreperous headaches, the kind that medicine is helpless to heal, I would consciously become quiet, hunkering into my own consciousness with a single-pointedness that only a studious child can muster. With the same attentiveness with which I watched marching lines of ants on a summer sidewalk or stalking herons picking off pond frogs, I observed and analyzed my own physical pain. Where did it originate from? Was it solid and confined, with clearly defined borders, or did it send snaky roots into distant synapses, sprawling? Was it a hot pain or a cold pain? A fat, burbling pain or a sharp, shooting one? Did it quietly creep or thunderously stampede? What color was it at the center, and what color faded delicately to a fringe at its edges?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When you clinically dissect your own pain, you might discover, as I did, something interesting. Physical pain at its root isn’t essentially unpleasant. Instead, it is a combination of elements that each in their own right is entirely neutral: a feeling of warmth combined with a sensation of pressure, or a pinprick of cold coupled with a sudden surge of tension. Nausea might strike as an overwhelming wave of motion; a stomach ache might feel like a slightly too-ripe fullness. “Pain” is a terribly imprecise word: surely we can do better than to lump so many disparate and ultimately interesting experiences—the one thing we all reliably share—under such an imprecise umbrella.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

One of the things I’ve learned from meditation—the eventual corollary to that childhood experience of simply observing my own suffering with a spirit of open curiosity—is that an adequately bored mind will contemplate anything you plunk before it. The operant word here is “contemplate,” not obsess. Obsessing is what we do when we attach a fixed narrative or agenda—an explanation—to our experiences: “I am hurting,” for instance, “because I was mistreated by my parents” or “It’s all my own damn fault, again” or “How could they have done that to me” or “I should have known better.” It doesn’t matter what story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: if you’re curious, a skilled therapist can help you untangle the threads of your own particular, favored narrative, or you can spend a day, week, or month sitting in silence, letting time and an inquisitive spirit do the untangling for you. It doesn’t matter what particular story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: what matters is the realization that whatever you tell yourself, it’s ultimately just a story.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As children, we told ourselves (repeatedly) that words could never hurt us, repeating the rhyme as kind of incantation against harm. But words regularly hurt us, and others: we hurt from the insults and accusations of others, we hurt others with our own hateful speech, and we hurt ourselves—those hidden, horrible wounds—with the thoughts we recite, intone, and repeat in the inner sanctum of our soul: the most vicious kind of spell, because it invariably goes straight to its target, ourselves. (Who needs Mara when we tempt and torment ourselves so terribly?)

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Words do hurt us because we believe them. We tell ourselves (and are told) stories to explain our experiences, and then we trust these words more than we trust our experiences themselves. Believing that “everything happens for a reason,” be batter ourselves with blame; believing that “nothing happens in isolation,” we accost our friends and families with accusations. Maybe it’s a conspiracy, or a willful tendency to self-destruct, or a mind-boggling confluence of cosmic forces entirely outside our control…but somewhere, somehow, something or someone caused whatever is happening to us, and we will cling like terriers to that belief.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

But maybe things just happen. Maybe it’s not anyone’s fault. Maybe suffering is the one universal in a sea of change—maybe the reality and the experience of suffering is the only thing we can rely on in a world filled with uncertainty.

If suffering is universal—if suffering is not just ordinary, but absolutely guaranteed—then it’s not our fault, the fault of our parents, or the fault of our exes and enemies. If suffering is simply inevitable, unavoidable, and omnipresent, like the hatching of blackflies in the spring, then we can save the energy we’d normally spend trying to explain, rationalize, or understand it. Instead of trying to fix the problem by trying to figure out who or what is to blame, we can simply experience the problem, for the experience of any moment of suffering—the experience of any moment, actually—almost always carries within it a suggestion of how it should be handled.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

If you listen to the moment, in other words, the moment itself will tell you how to handle it. Has a grieving mother ever had to wonder whether it is appropriate to cry? No. Her tears come naturally, in their own time, as will her eventual healing. But both the tears and the healing will follow a timeline you probably couldn’t have predicted, and they will arrive in ways you probably didn’t expect.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

So when Mara asked Buddha a seemingly innocuous question—“Who do you think you are?”—Buddha didn’t take the bait. Whatever story you tell yourself to explain Who and What You Are is irrelevant, for suffering truly doesn’t care: I can tell you quite definitively that pain has never retreated after the recitation of an impressive resume. Relinquishing the desire to explain, exonerate, or self-justify, we can listen as the whole wide world bears witness. Touching earth, we connect with the suffering world as it actually is and experience the instant enlightenment known as Truth.

I found this half-written essay in a forgotten folder of free-writes I’d written at last August’s BRAWN Writing Retreat. The random photos illustrating today’s post come from the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, MA. Enjoy!