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.

Blue hydrangea

It’s just after noon, and I’m sitting on the screened porch listening to a grackle flap and splash in our backyard birdbath. It’s too late to sit on the patio, which is now drenched in sun, but it is comfortable on the shady porch, where I can hear the rustle and flutter of birds.

Day lily

A single cicada sang this morning, emitting a shrill and simple whine. That sound will grow and expand as the summer moves to its climax, the sound of insects and birdsong being one surefire way to place oneself, temporally, in the season.

Right now, I hear two separate birds clucking and chuckling, but I can’t name either. Alarm calls sound similar across species, so the grackle clacking by the birdbath sounds akin to the chirping squirrels. One gray squirrel moves from the bird feeder to drink from the birdbath, perching on a stone rim the same color as his fur. Another squirrel hangs from the feeder, only his tail betraying his presence. Blue jays call from a distant yard, and a cardinal whistles intermittently, its song too placid to seem insistent.

Sunny spiderwort

Along the perennial bed, chipmunks dart and scurry. Even a quiet suburban backyard isn’t very quiet, instead bustling with activity. The soundtrack changes with the season, and the seasons themselves cycle and repeat. There is nothing particularly special about today: it is an ordinary July day, the likes of which happen every year. But today, unlike other, more hurried days, I stepped outside, ready to listen.

How many mornings did the Buddha, then a mere prince, see the morning star rise as he sat in meditation? One day the morning star rose like any other, but the Buddha finally saw it, his mental clouds parting to reveal a hitherto-hidden truth: everyone has it, they just don’t know it. It’s a statement so simple as to defy credibility: is this all the Buddha attained after six long years of striving and seeking, after having renounced his throne, his wealth, his family, health, and even sanity?

Bumble bee on spirea

Is this present moment all the Buddha attained? Yes, indeed. All the Buddha attained was the entire world, and his entire life, delivered in the instant that is Now. If we don’t attain the present moment, whatever else can we attain? If we don’t live in the present moment, where else can we possibly dwell?

I wrote this entry earlier today, during a free moment I had before lunch. The photos illustrating today’s post come from past summers, the hydrangeas, day lilies, spiderwort, and spirea that are blooming today looking just like those from seasons past.

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.

Flag from below

This morning in my journal, I misspelled “new year” as “now year,” and perhaps that’s a telling mistake. One thing that makes the New Year special is the heightened awareness of the Now that welcomes it. For an expectant few seconds before midnight, everyone pays attention to this moment and the next and the next: three, two, one, Now! As soon as the New Year arrives, it quickly ages, our lighting-quick attention leaping toward more electric kindling. But for one split second at midnight, everyone shares the same hushed, expectant hope for a future that starts nowhere other than Now and Here.

Ben & Jerry's "Flipped" ad

Last night on my way to practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, I took the T to Harvard Square, ostensibly to go notebook- and pen-shopping at Bob Slate. In reality, though, I simply wanted to lose myself in an anonymous throng of fellow pedestrians, as is possible in a city like Cambridge. (As true as this Ben & Jerry’s ad is when it comes to the pace of passing pedestrians, it gets its geography wrong. The throngs passing through the Harvard Square T station are largely composed of Cantabrigians, not Bostonians. So much for market research.)

Breathe - it's the only freedom you have left

Before I left for Cambridge yesterday, I had duly planned to blog, as I do most days: one of the repeating items on each day’s to-do list, in fact, is “blog.” But as I did this time last summer, this past week I’ve felt a bit of the blog-blahs. In the past, I’ve gone walking around Harvard Square when I’ve felt my Muse was hibernating; sometimes a simple change of scenery helps you see things in a new, more creative way. Or sometimes not. One of the things about both writing and meditation practice, I’ve learned, is you can’t generalize based on past experiences. Something that worked last week, last month, or last year might not work the same way if you try it again. The standard investment advice of “your results may vary” applies not only when you compare yourself with others but also when you compare your current situation with whatever happened previously. That was then, and this is now.

Art is everywhere

And yet, we continue to make this sort of comparison because comparing seems to be a deeply entrenched aspect of human nature. One of the recurring themes I encounter in the questions I field as a Senior Dharma Teacher giving consulting interviews at the Zen Center, in fact, involves this sort of comparison: “I read somewhere that you’re supposed to do/feel/experience X when you meditate, but when I meditate, I do/feel/experience Y. Is this/am I normal?” The standard answer to the “is this/am I normal” question is YES. The books say “X,” but your results may vary. It’s not that the books are wrong, and it’s not that your experience is wrong: it’s that the Present Moment hardly ever looks how you, the books, or anyone else expected.

Harvard Square kiosk

Finding yourself, again, in a situation that Isn’t What You Expected, now what? The openness of this “now what?” is the space where the Present Moment unfurls, flowers, and bears fruit. But what unfurls, flowers, and fruits today probably won’t be identical to what you’ve grown used to. What two leaves, flowers, or fruits are identical? The beauty of any walk through Cambridge or any other city–the beauty of any stroll among fast-paced Cantabrigians, Bostonians, or others–is that you never know quite what to expect. If you knew exactly what pen or notebook to buy, what need would there be for shopping? If you knew exactly what you want to blog today, tomorrow, or the next day, what room would there be for exploration, serendipity, and surprise?

This is not Bread & Circus

These days, I’ve been meditating almost every day after lunch, sitting for fifteen minutes on a mat and cushion stationed in J’s basement with the dogs, one room over from the washer and dryer. J’s basement is dry but unfinished, so the floor beneath my mat is poured cement, and I sit facing a bare concrete wall occasionally adorned with a sleeping spider. On days when either one of us is doing laundry, I meditate to the sound of the washer running through its cycles; on days when the washer is quiet, I listen to the dogs sleep, each snoring on its bed while I sit breathing on a not dissimilar-looking meditation mat.

Tow Zone - No Parking

I mention this to note all the things that my daily meditation session is not. I sit for fifteen minutes, not thirty. I sit after lunch, not first thing upon awakening. And although I sit on a traditional mat and cushion, my practice space is otherwise painfully plain and simple, an out-of-the-way basement nook that looks nothing like this but instead embodies quite literally the truism after the ecstasy, the laundry. My meditation spot in Keene is pretty; my meditation spot here at J’s is plain. Both places are perfectly sufficient for the work of Zen practice, which is simply a matter of waking up wherever you find yourself, whether that’s with the dogs, on a fancy cushion, or one room over from the washer and dryer.

As much as it might be difficult to define exactly what Zen is, it’s easy to define what it’s not. Zen isn’t somewhere distant and removed from the dogs, laundry, and basement spiders of your everyday life, and it isn’t something that requires the purchase of special trinkets or tchotchkes. The smells and bells of Buddhist iconography can make your practice pretty, but such decorations aren’t absolutely necessary. Zen is a matter of practicing where, when, and how you can, and a plain raft will ferry you to the other shore of This Present Moment just as surely as a pretty one will.

Great vehicle, even greater bumper sticker

It’s a joke only a Buddhist would get, which made its placement on the bumper of a pickup truck parked this morning at the Providence Zen Center in Cumberland, RI all the more perfect.

Buddha's birthday, 2007

Mahayana” is the term used by Buddhists from China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Tibet to refer to their particular flavor of practice: the so-called “Great Vehicle.” Calling your own way of spiritual practice “great” is, well, great…except that referring to the “Great Vehicle” of Mahayana Buddhism automatically implies a so-called “Lesser Vehicle”: Hinayana, the pejorative name used by (of course) Mahayana Buddhists to refer to the Theravadan traditions of Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, and Laotian Buddhism.

You can get away with joking about Great Vehicles among the Korean-influenced Zen Buddhists at the Providence Zen Center: we all know that the “Great Vehicle” also refers to the Bodhisattva way, which does not discriminate between “greaters” and “lessers” in its endeavor to save all beings from suffering. From a Zen perspective, there is no “great” vehicle, only the One Vehicle that is This Present Moment. Whether you take a pickup truck, car, plane, train, or boat–and whether you’re Thai, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, or American–the One Way that’s the High Way is the very moment you’re currently in: no “vehicle” necessary. The moment you wake up and remember you’re Right Here, Now, you’ve already arrived.

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