Let’s get still

27 01 2010

If you live in or are just visiting the Dallas area and are looking for some Thursday night zazen action, please join me at Saint Christopher’s Episcopal Church (7900 W. Lovers Lane, SW corner of Lovers Lane and North Central Expressway) each Thursday evening beginning tomorrow, January 28, 7:30pm – 9:00pm.  It’s sponsored by my very awesome sangha, Maria Kannon Zen Center

I’ll be doing my imperfect best to assist your sitting with my trusty bell, clappers, and timer.  Three 25-minute sits with five minutes of kinhin (walking meditation) after the first and second sit just to stretch the legs a bit, and probably a simple chant or two at the end.  I don’t know yet if anyone will be offering dokusan regularly, but we’ll definitely be sitting and staring at a wall. See you there if you can make it!

How long is that marathon?

26 01 2010

I really enjoy koans of all kinds. There are the many collections of classic Zen koans, such as The Gateless Gate; I always have one volume of those working and simply read one or two a day for entertainment, like Aesop’s Fables. Then there’s the koan I’m currently sitting/running with, that latest in a series of mental worry beads courtesy of one of my Zen teachers. And then the everyday koans which I am learning to be more sensitive to; the many people, familiar and strange, who unconsciously present us with a teaching as we simply go about our business – an offhand comment (“Goodness! Where did all this wind come from?”), a passing, seemingly banal remark we think we’ve heard a million times, until we suddenly hear it a different way (“Two o’clock already! Where does the time go?”). And for runners, there’s one of my favorites, usually asked of us by someone who’s not a runner: “How long is that marathon?” On one level we like to make fun of people who ask this, because we know all marathons are a uniform length and their question implies they don’t know.  But on another level, it’s well worth more consideration. Marathoners might find a lot to contemplate when standing at the start line of their race if they ask themselves, “How long is this marathon?”

Sun surprise

24 01 2010

It was dripping rain for most of yesterday, and I debated running until I had finally talked myself out of it for no very good reason.  But the rain stopped and the sky seemed to lighten a bit, and I decided to go outside.  As I ran, the wind clawed at the clouds until they hung in spectacular ruins. Suddenly a shock appearance by the sun that had been hiding all day,  the tops of the trees flaming into a sharp golden glowing.  As I ran, the sun hurried through a series of changes as if trying to make up for lost time,  igniting the tips of fleeing cloudbanks into pink, then rose, then red.  The wind and final day’s light teased a retreating thunderhead into a psychedelic pompadour, and I bore witness to and celebrated this heavenly firestorm, all because I had somewhat reluctantly decided to go for a run.

Training Break #166

22 01 2010

A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein

Distrusting patience

14 01 2010

In an interview published in the Paris Review, Spanish author Javier Marias was asked if there was one quality a novelist should have.  “Patience,” he answered.   I think that’s also true of marathoners and ultramarathoners.  But really, running those distances requires something beyond patience.  Patience implies an expectation of something to arrive, pass, or to end.  There is a sort of hope in patience, and hope is not what ultramarathoners need, because hope is a false promise you can all too easily betray yourself with, mile after mile.  Despite our hope, things happen and keep happening.  Ultra runners need what a lizard has as it sits on a rock through sun and rain, what our rosemary bushes have as they cling through burning summers and freezing winters.  They need acceptance, and, beyond that, the ability to recognize acceptance as something other than defeat or weakness, to stand on the dark howling brink of the Tao and simply fall into the present, second by second.  At mile 71 of a 100 mile race, when your hamstring is failing, the cold rain is turning the narrow ribbon of dirt you can’t really see in front of you into slush, and you’re imagining a hot bath and warm bed a little too vividly, you need to accept it all and simply let it pass through you, over and over, big and wide and free.  You need to accept acceptance.

Solo, in unison

11 01 2010

Last night was our annual sangha party.  Getting past the standard “meditators gone wild” jokes, it was, as always, a lovely evening — terrific food and conversation with some of the nicest people you’ll find anywhere.  Over the months and years, surprisingly deep bonds can develop between people who spend the majority of their time together in stillness and silence.  Or perhaps not so surprising.  There are no words more intimate than the simple breathing of the person sitting or running next to you.  Sitting or running alone are different experiences, as are sitting or running with others, but all four activities can follow a similar path, to a similar place:  ourselves.  And by eventually finding ourselves while sitting or running, we discover the many others who have been with us all along.

Training break #165

8 01 2010

We are instructed to do the negative; the positive is already within us.

– Franz Kafka, The Zurau Aphorisms

Best foot forward

7 01 2010

Thoreau was a surveyor, which is the practical reason he knew the Concord area as well as he did, the minute changes in its seasons and its citizens of all species.  Running can be seen as a sort of surveying, allowing us to register the changes in our own neighborhoods.  I know one woman on our street who told me she is glad I run because she thinks it helps keep crime down for neighbors to be out and about, watching things.  Running is surveying, a crime patrol, a nature walk, a personal meditation, a social event, a fitness test, a training session, stress relief, a hundred things besides just running, and to set all of them into motion at once we simply walk outside, pick up our feet and put them down, over and over again, with total awareness.   Such a wellspring of positive karma from such a simple act.

Containing multitudes

6 01 2010

I recently heard from someone that a writing mentor of ours passed away last November at the age of 86, shortly following a stroke. He was a local personality who had been a modestly successful author turned literary agent, and in his later years started mentoring and advising beginning writers.  It has been many years since I attended, but I still remember his generosity in opening up his home every Friday evening to writers of all ages and skill levels, most of us complete strangers to him, and how he would stop our readings at 10 p.m. to serve tea and cookies. All of us crammed into this man’s living room, reading a few pages of our latest hopeful writing project out loud to everyone and offering comments on what others read to us. 

I also can recall his racist comments at times, no matter who was in the room, and how shocked I was that a man of such obvious intelligence could be so openly and freely stereotypic and hurtful on issues of race. But later I made some remarks about him that were printed in a local newspaper profile and, in retrospect, just as ignorant and hurtful.

We never spoke after that, and I never sat in his living room again. But fortunately I also still remember the sign he posted on his front door every Friday evening inviting one and all to come in without ringing the bell, and serving all of us tea and cookies at 10.  My memories of those nights are a mixture of warmth and dread — happy to be discussing writing with other writers, dread at what horror would crawl out of our host’s mouth at some random unfortunate moment.  And yet, most of us always thanked him when the evening was over.  He was hard not to thank.

“I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman wrote, and given examples like my late writing mentor, or you, or me, it’s quite impossible to disagree.  We’re the most contradictory and chaotic creatures imaginable.  But that shouldn’t really be a problem.  The problem comes when we, recalling the blind man in that sly old fable, grasp the tip of the elephant’s trunk and say that elephants are exactly like snakes. And even the most cultured and learned of us are capable of doing that.

Are you okay?

5 01 2010

“Are you okay?” I have been asked this question twice in the late stages of marathons by well-meaning spectators, who were observing my faltering gait with genuine concern. They were, of course, simply worried that I was about to topple over. But what a tidy little koan that is. I wonder how we would react if a total stranger came up to us at random moments during our day, peered closely into our faces, and asked, “Are you okay?”


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