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fun and games at the zen monastery

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Four of us are planning a long retreat in the fall. You may think of a zen monastery as a somber place, with bald people scurrying to and fro, sitting for hours on black cushions, chanting in Sanskrit and Japanese, bowing to everyone and every thing, eating out of wooden bowls and drinking the wash water oryoki-style, getting up at 3:40am and collapsing into bunk beds by 10pm, working in the garden, kitchen, housekeeping, or sewing room, and did I mention bowing? Yes to all that, and then some.

Also a fair amount of smiling, laughing, and chatting (except during the monthly week of silence and between lights-out and that nasty wake-up bell). One of the fun activities at Great Vow Zen Monastery, where I trained ten years ago, is their marimba band. Go figure. See YouTube of a concert given at a meeting of (dancing) Zen teachers. My spiritual teacher, the monastery’s Oh So Venerable roshi (japanese word for ‘old teacher’) Chozen Bays MD, plays in the second row, starting things off with “a-one, a-two.”



good for nothing

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Nor sure who said it first, some ancient zen master for sure, but there’s this quip that “meditation is good for nothing.” It leads nowhere, offers no reliable outcome and, should not be approached as a remedy or solution. Instead, as best as I can imagine, it is a way of being in the world, moment by moment. It offers the chance to glimpse what’s called our ‘true nature’ or ‘essence.’ Just don’t count on it.

But go looking for it and you’re sure to be disappointed. Yet day after day, in all corners of the world, individuals will take a seat, on a cushion, bench, or chair, cross their legs in some contortion or another, lower their gaze, bring attention to their breath, and … begin to witness the unfolding and dissolving of thoughts and sensations. Not striving to achieve anything, they nonetheless aim for something. It’s that “aim for what” that perplexes me.

Most of my dreams are marked by anxiety. I’m always running after trains, getting caught without a ticket, walk around crowded places without pants on, get accused of wrongdoing, run from one authority figure after another, and so on. Years of meditation (and psychotherapy) haven’t cut down on the frequency of such dreams, but helped me recover more quickly from the panic once I wake up. This morning, once more in a state of agitation, I sat up in meditation posture, hoping to calm my fast-beating pulse and get a nearer to the source of this anxiety.

What I found was that … my heart was beating rapidly, my breaths felt short, and the cause of anxiety … is a mystery. That’s it for today.

image: “The Thinker” bronze sculpture in the Musée Rodin in Paris.

in the ordinary everyday

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We finished a 4-week Mindful Living course last night. In response to someone’s report of persistent back pain and another’s mention of not having enough time to meditate, I spoke of obstacles as key ingredients to the practice of mindfulness. Each obstacle on the path to happiness is in fact the path itself. Each calls us to ‘come to our senses.’ Instead of resisting or wishing them to go away, I suggested, we can welcome them as fingers pointing to the moon. “It’s helpful,” writes Pema Chodron,

to realize that … doing everyday things like working, walking outside, talking with people, bathing, using the toilet, and eating is actually all that we need to be fully awake, fully alive, fully human. 

source: Chodron, P. (2010). The wisdom of no escape and the path of loving-kindness. Boston: Shambhala, p.5. image:

loving eyes

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Seven of us met for mediation last night: twice 25 minutes of sitting and 15 of slow walking in the garden. Afterwards someone serves sweets and tea, bowing before each cushion, with a bow in return … a simple formality to savour this simple exchange. We end with a brief go-around to share insights or questions. Awaiting my turn, eyes brimming with tears, I resist the habitual urge to analyze. For an instance, the capacity to empathize is boundless. Lingering at the door with good-byes, I notice a gentle intimacy — within me, towards others and every/thing.

I thought no more of this until I saw, just now, the mention of “loving eyes” in a review of my Zen teacher’s new book:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out?

source: Review by Bodhipaksa of Jan Chozen Bays. (2011). How to train a wild elephant & other adventures in mindfulness. Boston: Shambhala (due in July). 

can you sit still for 3 minutes?

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I’ve been reading about Christian mystics and was struck by Apostle Paul telling the flock to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). In the 3rd and 4th century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who lived solitary lives away from communal bustle, recited all 150 Psalms every day. A recent 60 Minutes piece showed the Greek Orthodox monks of Mt. Athos continually praying while doing routine chores. Talk about being focussed, about bringing monkey mind back to the centre, moment by moment. I admire such dedication and concentration and, in a romantic moment, wish I could be one of them. I tried it 10-15 years ago, spending guest-time with Benedictine and Franciscan monks and training at a Zen monastery for a year.

What can we busy bees — with jobs, studies, relationships, and assorted worries — learn from people living in monastic seclusion? For many of us, meditation appears to be a route towards stilling the mind and finding some peace amid everyday chaos … but sitting still for 30 minutes or an hour isn’t working out. We try … and then give up, discouraged. We join a sitting group … and gradually stop coming. Many practical explanations, all good. Net result: new disappointment on top of old.

Here then is my suggestion: “meditate every day for three minutes.” That’s about as long as it takes to drink a quick cup of tea, make a short phone call, or reply to a couple of emails. Is that something you could do — would like to try? Can you find a quiet place somewhere (at home, in your office, the college library, a bathroom, on a bus, before getting out of the car)? Can you sit upright or lie down, on a chair or meditation cushion? Close your eyes or lower your gaze? Notice your body’s sensations: aches and itches, tensions and pleasures? Sense your breath, even half a breath? Do this for three (3) minutes, no more. Do it every day, ideally at the same time.

Let that be your meditation practice, gentle and kind.

image: monk at Mt. Athos

sunday poem

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Hope is with you when you believe
The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
That sight, touch, and hearing do not lie,
That all things you have ever seen here
Are like a garden looked at from a gate.

You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there.
Could we but look more clearly and wisely
We might discover somewhere in the garden
A strange flower and an unnamed star.

Some people say we should not trust our eyes,
That there is nothing, just a seeming,
These are the ones who have no hope.
They think that the moment we turn away,
The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist,
As if snatched up by the hands of thieves.

Czeslaw Milosz. (2006). Selected poems 1931-2004. HarperCollins, p. 26. photo: played all day with my god-daughters Orla and Amelie who’re visiting from Scotland.

let’s face it

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One of the key insights articulated by the Buddha (known as the First Noble Truth) is that to live involves suffering. This is neither morose nor pessimistic, but a fact. A fact we pleasure-seeking creatures would rather avoid. We’d rather believe that “all is good,” tell each other to “be happy,” and hope that “tomorrow is another day” and “this too shall pass.” Yes, to all of those — and yes, suffering is inevitable — and yes, the sun will shine again.

Reflecting on my everyday experience helps explain this seeming contradiction. Hardly a day goes by that I’m not in some physical discomfort, from mild aches to severe pain. Several fingers joints hurt, as do my knees, lower back, and neck. Tests point to rheumatoid arthritis and herniated discs. Not much I can do but to learn to live with them and reduce their impact with yoga, meditation, and keeping active.

But ever so often my mind goes to “poor me” and “this is not fair.” I don’t like what’s going on. It shouldn’t be this way. In short, life should be free of pain and hassle. Of course it isn’t and never will be. Fact: we have to endure sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and death. Fact: we have to cope with heartbreak, loss, grief, and separation from those we love. Fact: from time to time, we’ll be lonely, frustrated, hurt, disappointed, and enraged. Fact: No amount of “being good” or “living right” can guard us against the human condition.