7 02 2014

It is snowing as I write this, periods of smaller, hurried clouds of flakes rushing to earth followed by larger white clumps spaced so artfully apart they look arranged, drifting elegantly to the ground. Ten degrees outside. I want to run today, but I’m not sure running in ten degree weather is the greatest of ideas, and so I watch the snow fall and notice how everything has gotten quieter, and I rush to fill the widening vacancies in my mind with running/not running.

Why do we do this, always hurrying, like the clouds of snow I am watching from my window, to fill any and all empty places? I heard recently that a local developer is floating the idea of a restaurant on the shores of the nearby lake where I like to run, a place that has so far been uneasily free from urban planning. But the murmuring to change that is beginning, something I have anticipated and dreaded for a long time. I drove past the lake on my way to work yesterday and looked at the field where the restaurant would be built.

When writing the previous sentence, I first typed the words “empty field” without thinking and then deleted “empty”, because that is part of the reason the spaces and silences in our lives get filled: we instinctively think of open ground as vacant, time spent without a specific purpose as wasted. We are a continually restless species, driven to make lists, plans and goals when none exist. Many of us seem to always need a roadmap or a blueprint of some sort — even for places and moments that are doing just fine on their own, without any interference from us. The field where the restaurant is proposed to be built is anything but empty; it is home to grasses, plants, trees, countless families of insects, small animals, and birds. Filling that already quite full field will disrupt or in some cases end their lives, clutter views of the lake and the sunset, pour light into the surrounding fields and woods at night. All in our rush to fill what we see as a void.

When sitting, of course, my mind wants to do the same things: fill the empty space with grocery lists, plans for the house, new strategies for our impending retirement. But it’s only through actually stopping to sit that I realize how uncomfortable we are with silence and space, and yet how important those two things are to helping us see ourselves and others more clearly. Maybe we don’t really want that. But more often than not, it’s just not possible to truly change our lives by filling them with something new; to paraphrase an old Zen saying, it’s often like putting another head on top of the one you already have. Is there really something wrong with the head you have now? Or do you, like Bob Dylan once sang, just need a dump truck to unload it?

Instead of filling, try to empty more. Even just being quiet for five minutes a day before leaving for work, watching the snow fall or the sun shine on the patio or the rain drip on the trees, or running through your neighborhood with no agenda other than to enjoy a brief bit of time outside, letting space open up around you – can reveal the perfection of things just as they are. We don’t always need to build restaurants, plan the perfect mile splits, wait for that lightning strike of enlightenment. On the cushion or on the run, clear a little time and mental acreage for yourself and everything around you to just be. And let your steps and the snow fall where they may.

Free Wisdom

6 02 2014

A short essay of mine titled “The Mirror” (see post below) was recently published as part of a series on the Wisdom Publications blog. You can read it here.

Thanks to the nice folks at Wisdom for including me.

The Mirror

19 01 2014

My lower back pulsed with pain, and my legs were going numb. My head throbbed. I tried to focus on my breathing as tiny face appeared and disappeared in the plaster folds on the wall in front of me. The monitor sounded the bell to begin yet another 25 minutes of stillness and silence.

Two more days to go, and already I wanted to go home.

I run for exercise and participated in many races for over 35 years, from 5 kilometer urban “fun runs” to 100-mile ultra marathons on forest trails that took me over 24 hours to complete. One of the reasons I identified so closely to Zen practice initially was because, like running, it was a very physical practice, focused on breathing and proper body posture. But during sesshins – extended silent meditation practice periods lasting two to three days or longer – I found the physical aspect, and the mental discipline required to transcend its inevitable limits, could be tested to the breaking point.

A sesshin has much in common with an ultra marathon. I always feel an adrenaline rush when the bell sounds for the first sitting period on the first morning, a feeling this will be the sesshin where my awareness remains unbroken, my attitude unfailingly positive, and my body strong. But as the bell signaling the start and end of the sitting periods drones again and again, and the blank wall in front of me warps and wavers, and pain and stiffness steal over me like the shadows lengthening on my mat as the day inches forward, I realize no choirs of angels are going to descend from heaven. It is long, it is often boring to the point of despair, and it hurts.

As with an ultra marathon, it takes more than my body to finish a sesshin. I had always been able to eventually just watch my personal demons materialize and fade without following them –usually because I no longer had the energy to care where they were going – and hang on for the blessed sound of the bell ending the last sitting period on the final day.

But for the first time during a sesshin, I was seriously thinking about leaving and going home. I’m guessing most sesshin participants have similar thoughts at one point or another – elite ultra marathoner Dean Karnazes described his own occasional moments of self doubt during a race as “having a dark moment” – but this time, the dark moment had enveloped me and would not dissolve.

The throbbing numbness in my legs and back, coupled with the intense feeling of what I can only describe as the oppressiveness of nothing, had reached a point of no return. It was growing darker, literally and figuratively, and I felt as if I had drifted into a vacant place, a no-man’s land of suffering without relief or distraction. At the end of the next sitting period, I resolved – adding guilt to the dark emotions already swirling inside me – to quietly slip out of the zendo, get in my car and go home, back to the familiar comforts of my wife, music, books and bed.

There will be other sesshins, I thought as I rose, stiff and hurting, from my mat as the bell sounded for us to stand for kinhin, or walking meditation. I’m just too tired and sore this time. It’s not like I’ve never finished a sesshin before, or that my practice isn’t good. Right? I’m good at this, right? My ego sought reassurance, reinforcement, but all it found was exhaustion and a nagging sense of shame. Yet I had made my decision, and I was too tired to change it. In less than sixty seconds, I would reach the exit to the meditation hall, slip out the door, and head for home.

The day had turned into evening, and I stepped slowly with the others in a big, dimly lit circle as we began kinhin. The heavy dark grain in the wood floor, worn uneven from years of shuffling feet, seemed to faintly vibrate in shifting psychedelic patterns. As I turned the corner nearest the door and began to prepare for the bow that would precede my exit, a face looked up at me from the floor.

I barely had time to do a double-take as we continued our shuffle: someone else was in enough discomfort or pain that he couldn’t walk in kinhin, or even sit upright. And yet there he was, lying on the floor on a makeshift pallet of meditation cushions as we continued shuffling past. Later I learned he had been suffering from severe back spasms. But I continued in kinhin because I had to see him again: looking up at some point past all of us, body still as a stone, face relaxed and focused.

In that brief moment I was reminded of a moment in my first ultra marathon, a 50-mile trail race held in the cold, rain, and mud. Using all of the strength I had, I trudged up a slippery embankment and finally stood on its narrow crest, wavering. On the edge of a flat, featureless plain, I stared up into a vast and indifferent gray heaven, like an insect pinned feebly squirming against a giant blank specimen board. There was no me, there was nothing but my pain. And because there was nothing but my pain, I saw it clearly for the first time.

Making it to the next race aid station, I looked into the faces of some of the other runners huddled and shivering under a dripping tarp, and for the first time that day, I realized they shared the same pain I felt. It was mirrored in our eyes, reflected from one to the next under the enormous sky. Strengthened by this realization, I felt oddly at peace, and was able to finish the race.

I felt the same when I saw the face staring up at me from the meditation room floor, and realized it wasn’t just his face. It was my own face, all of our faces. When I circled past the door again at the end of kinhin, I did not leave. The bell rang for us to return to our mats and I sat down on my cushion yet again, knees and back aching intensely, to continue the sesshin with all of the others, all of us breathing, sighing, hurting together.

What child is this?

19 12 2013

“What Child Is This” is, as many doubtless know, the title of a traditional Christian carol of the Christmas season. It’s also, viewed from my own Zen practice, a potent koan for this or any time of year. What was that tiny child, born naked and helpless into the crushing totalitarian terror state that was the ancient Roman Empire, who caused kings to fear, wise men to kneel in wonder, and shepherds to see astonishing visions? Why did people react the way they did as he forged his own brave path through a deeply cruel and unpredictably dangerous world over the next three decades? How would you or I have reacted?

And what of the everyday events in our own lives we are helpless to stop or explain that constantly spin us in new directions, large and small? Marathons cancelled due to ice storms, wiping out months of hard training and planning? The snap of a hamstring during a tempo workout? The feeling of leaning, exhausted, across the finish line of a marathon, 90 seconds short of a long hoped-for Boston qualifier? Turning the key in the ignition after a hard day at work and hearing nothing but a grinding noise? Learning a close friend has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer? What countless children are these that appear in our lives every day, squalling at us to do something? And what should we do?

What child is this, right here, right now?

That’s our koan for this season, and every season, every day.

Escaping into life

7 11 2013

This morning, between my meditation and my run, I took a few additional minutes to escape deeper into my life. I sat in our den looking into our backyard — the early light still thick, sluggish and monochrome gray, shape and shadow still as one. As I sat quietly and watched, the light gradually sweetened, until everything glimmered in a dull silver, and then the moment I had waited for: the silver warmed into a brilliant orange glow, bathing the big red clay planter on the patio and all around it in soft fire. This lasted one or two precious minutes, and then full sunlight exploded in white across the trees and grass, and the real day was finally, gloriously here.

I called this moment “escaping into life,” and yet I have often been guilty of saying the opposite. Over the years, when people have asked why I run, I don’t know how many times over the years I have responded: “It’s my escape from life,” or words very much to that effect. I’ve heard other people explain their running the same way.

And yet, when I think about it, I already live my life as one long, desperate prison break — always either trying to get away from something I don’t want, or get something I do want. There are many mornings, especially in the first five minutes of sitting zazen, that I realize how twitchy I am — how much I don’t want to be here, doing this. And how often when I’m running, I’m trying to think of anything, anything at all, that will allow me to disassociate from my physical discomfort and pain. “The best part of running is being done” is another quote I’ve heard a lot over the years, including from my own mouth, and frankly it seems more than a little sad to do things with the attitude of simply wanting them to be over.

Which is way I sit zazen – to isolate and recognize that constant vague sensation of dissatisfaction, that restless feeling of continually wanting to escape from life, and try to reconnect with life as it is, what Eihei Dogen called (among other things) “actualizing the fundamental point.” And on my run this morning, I managed to, at least at times, make that escape from the prison of dissatisfaction back into my life. There were times I could fully feel the crisp brilliance of the November sunlight, so different from the heavy-lidded light of August, the simple but profound miracle of my breath coming and going, my legs churning beneath me, my muscles straining, my arms swinging forward and back, the slight, pleasant chill of the air moving over my skin. There are so many of these gifts within reach, and so often we want to escape elsewhere in search of more exotic treasure. But I’ve always found the real gold and silver, if I sit and run with awareness, is right here, right now … even at our high school track, even in my own backyard.

That voice again …

17 10 2013

It’s the racing season and, inevitably among the race reports written by friends, there are a few disappointments among the successes, the days that didn’t quite go as planned. One friend aimed higher than most: achieving a Boston Marathon qualifying time, a goal he has pursued, always with meticulous planning and preparation, for more than a few years now. He is an excellent marathoner, a diligent trainer, and an intelligent planner. This year he finished just over 60 seconds away from the time he needed to qualify for Boston – faster than previously, a wonderful finish of 3:26 and a well-executed race with pretty consistent mile splits most of the way, but still agonizingly short of his dream.

In the immediate post-race disappointment, during which he actually apologized to us for not qualifying for Boston, it was easy – for him and for some others – to overlook the outstanding achievement of having finished a marathon in three hours and 26 minutes. That’s something only a small percentage of the world’s marathoning population have achieved. And yet, it wasn’t what he wanted, and it wasn’t what we wanted for him. All of us wanted more.

Now he is trying to decide (how seriously I’m not sure) whether to run another marathon three weeks from now and try to qualify again. I am sure this has been done, but for most people it’s not the greatest idea on several levels – especially the need for both the body and mind to heal from such an intense effort, and the potential psychological damage for potential future attempts should a second quick attempt not work out.

But I raced for many years, and I understand there’s a voice that’s almost impossible to ignore and nearly as impossible to hold at bay: our egos. When we don’t get what we want, especially if we worked hard for it, our pride is wounded. And the ego, that nagging voice inside, starts its whispering: I didn’t get it, and it hurts, and I don’t like hurting, and I need to do something to stop hurting as quick as I can. In this case, rushing to another marathon starting line seems like the only way to get the voice to shut up.

And yet, you can never really shut it up, because that same voice whispers and whines in many languages: our sons and daughters make life decisions that bemuse and dismay us, our favorite store is out of a particular color in a men’s dress shirt, we can’t get the work promotion we wanted, the last of our favorite beers has disappeared from the refrigerator. Every day, our desires are thwarted and frustrated on a hundred levels, and that voice tunes up again and again. Learning how to respond to it, or not respond to it, is the primary work of Buddhism, and of being human.

Those times when our races don’t work out as planned, all of that emptiness and disappointment suddenly looming in front of us, is when we are often at our most vulnerable. That’s when you should listen especially carefully to that whispering within. Whatever you whisper back, make sure it’s your own voice, and not just the pale echo of your ego.

Standing at the dharma gates

14 10 2013

Our sangha is taking some initial steps to try serving the needs of people interested in Zen meditation who aren’t able to easily travel to the far south end of town, where our zendo is currently located. This has resulted in us trying to establish relationships with some of the Christian churches in the more central and northern ends of town, churches with rooms we can rent on a monthly basis for the sole purpose of hosting a sitting one or two nights a week for anyone who wants to attend. “Renting” by the room from a church is generally a lot cheaper and less contractually binding than most of the other options, and you might also reasonably think there is, on some level, some sort of potential spiritual connection between the two.

It’s been interesting. For the most part, the Catholic Church (a church with a pretty well-established contemplative tradition) and the more liberal Episcopal churches, along with a few of the Methodist churches, have been the most open to our presence. For awhile we sat at a Presbyterian church in what I would consider a strongly conservative area of town; while we were allowed to sit, we were not allowed to chant following the sitting. Certainly the chants are Buddhist-centric, but I frankly couldn’t see what harm was being done by chanting — it wasn’t as if the words could physically seep into the walls and somehow lodge there and grow, like some sort of dangerously mutating non-Christian fungus – and I only attended one of these sits. Why visit somewhere that you’re really not fully welcomed? We moved somewhere else very soon thereafter and are currently sitting in a dark and moldering fellowship hall at another Methodist church, amongst the whirring of power tools and the shouting of workmen and day care workers.

For various reasons – renovations, the need to use rooms for other uses, odd restrictions and some surprisingly high room rental prices, etc. – we have been forced to roam from one Christian venue to another, like Zen nomads. Ironically, our wanderings among the Christian parishes has reminded me somewhat of the wanderings of Moses and his people in the book of Exodus, only we want to stay, not go. We’re hoping to establish a permanent, more centrally located zendo soon, but there is some apparently legitimate concern that the current property we’re looking at buying will meet resistance from the Baptist church next door. Moving from the fringes of town into the more mainstream central section has made me feel like a stranger in a strange land. Can’t we all sit along?

To be fair, I’ve also witnessed in many Zen practitioners a strong reluctance to intermingle with even the most generic aspects of Christian practice. It just seems to me that Zen and Christian practice have a good deal to offer each other. I’m a former Christian who still finds much value in many aspects of the traditional Christian faith, and the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer could easily be a bridge between both. Coming together in shared silence and stillness, we can each come away with our personal practice, Zen or Christian, the richer for the encounter without danger of either being compromised or “dumbed down.” Our Zen teacher, a former Jesuit priest and a teacher of comparative religion, is certainly attuned to this idea and has done what he can to advance it for as long as I’ve known him. All it would take is for one forward-thinking Christian church to not only provide a comfortable room for sitting, but positively promote the idea in their congregation.

Our noisy, chaotic world could benefit from offering a place of stillness and silence for all. As we chant (where we’re allowed) in the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva, “The dharma gates are boundless. I vow to enter them.” By which I like to think we mean you never know when, how or where your next teacher is coming from. Let’s enter those gates together.


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