Summer sesshin begins this evening. It’s the Boundless Way Zen annual seven-day residential retreat. People are coming from around the northeast and from across the ocean to live and practice together here at the Temple. This place that usually serves as a home for the two resident teachers, becomes transformed to a residential practice center. It’s a little like a really big and really quiet party that goes on for a week.
We get up early and spend a lot of time sitting in stillness and silence together. There are also Zen talks, caretaking practice and individual meetings with the teachers. Though I’ve been on countless retreats over the past three plus decades of training and teaching, I never really know what to expect.
I’m always a little nervous heading in. It’s like beginning an extended trek in the high mountains. Even if you’ve been many times before, you don’t really know what you will encounter this time. There will be high wind-swept peaks and dense forests tangled with underbrush. Moments of elation that take your breath away and moments of discouragement that make it hard to go on.
For me, practicing together in this intensive format is one of the most extraordinary things a human being can do. We have the opportunity to encounter ourselves in all our myriad identities. With so few distractions, we see, up close and personally, how our minds participate in creating the world. We can see how thoughts and emotions just come and go of their own accord. And we can begin to find a place that is spacious enough to allow all things, including ourselves to be just as we are.
[special thanks to Gahan Wilson for the above favorite cartoon--my favorite ever.]
I went to the Apple store in the Natick Mall last Saturday. I didn’t mean to go, but Melissa has been having trouble with her new Macbook Air and I volunteered to accompany her to the ‘genius bar.’
For those of you who are not local, I just want to mention that the Natick Mall is a shopping Armageddon. It’s one of the major feature of the landscape in the Boston metroplex; like the Charles River or the Prudential Building. But being a rather reluctant shopper (excluding buying outdoor gear and fantastic moisture-wicking, soft and stretchy clothing guaranteed to keep you cool or warm in all temperatures) I had never been to the Natick Mall.
We get in the car in the early afternoon and set Melissa’s iphone (an ancient version 4) GPS for the Apple store. We do fine till we got to The Mall. But once we turn into this dense concentration of capitalism and concrete, even our trusty GPS is overwhelmed. We can see signs for ‘Preferred Parking’ and a big Neiman Marcus building, but our GPS directions became nonsensical: ‘turn left on ……… [silence], then turn right.’ Unnamed streets. Dead ends. Cars parked everywhere.
It is a brilliant summer day. Blue sky and temperatures in the 80’s. Everyone should be at the beach, or in the woods, or at outdoors is some fashion. But here, at this grand palace of purchase, the parking lots are without vacancy. Spotting a man slowly strapping his small son into a big black SUV, we wait semi-patiently while he thoroughly completes the process, lazily ambles over to the drivers side, and finally gets in the driver’s seat and backs out.
We happened to be near the Sears store, so we followed the advice of the ancient Master who said: “Enter here.” We went through the multiple glass doors—right into the tool department.
I remember, as a young boy in the late 1950’s, pouring through the Sears and Robuck catalogue. My brother and I paid particular attention to the sports and outdoor equipment. We’d carefully study the baseball gloves that we knew we would never get. Was it better to get a catcher’s mitt or a more generalized outfielder’s glove? A specialized first base-man’s mitt was practically a necessity for playing first base, but would it be worth the trade-off of limited use?
With each item, Sears and Roebuck’s made our dilemma even more enticing. We could always choose between three categories: good, better and best. The middle quality generally seemed the best choice. Though we figured that if we were fabulously rich, we would certainly buy ‘best’. I didn’t even really like baseball – the whole hand-eye coordination was never my strong suit, but I dutifully played with the neighborhood kids though I had a secret longing to stay at home reading books and making things.
As we wander through the Sears store hoping to find a way into The Mall, it appears to be a world unto itself—filled with everything from manly shining barbeque grills to racks of petite sundresses on sale. You can buy a sweet looking enamel red rolling cabinet to hold all the tools you could ever want or bring home the perfect burr grinder for you daily caffeine fix. Everything the modern American needs for good living is available (at a good price) here at Sears. But in spite of this, the store wasn’t that busy and the employees looked bored and distracted.
Once we meandered into The Mall itself, the full impact hit us. American Shopping Culture is one of the true marvels of the modern world. When we have visitors from other countries, many of them insist on including shopping as part of their adventure into the authentic American experience. And this particular Mall is occupies a place near the pinnacle of Malls across the country.
Endless wide corridors of shiny stores selling sneakers, hand-made soaps, video games, and a clothes for every life-style and self-image. The is a store that sells personalized covers for phones and computers so you can make sure you are like everyone else and slightly special at the same time. There are lots of people wandering these huge hallways, but the carefully crafted flow pattern moves us by each other with minimal contact. As I now think back over my time in the Mall, I couldn’t describe one person we saw there, though I remember it being a veritable United Nations of colors and styles of dress.
Natural light filters in from unseen skylights above. It’s a bright place and the temperature is perfectly nonexistent. But I am assaulted by the noise level is both unobtrusive and seems perfectly pitched to disturb my sense of being grounded in my body. As we begin finding our way to the Apple Store, I become convinced they pumped something into the air here. My senses are slightly dulled and I enter a mild and not altogether unpleasant trance. I feel like the good-natured volunteer who goes on stage with the hypnotist who reassures me even as I know I will soon be convinced to do many silly things.
Walking down this commercial corridor, my eyes wander incessantly and I peer into each store to see what it might have for me. Of course, not only are there endless shops on either side, but the center is also occupied with carts selling all the little things that make life worth living.
We navigate a couple hundred yards down to the intersection of the corridors and then out on another corridor that looks pretty much exactly the same but is where the Apple Store appears to be. On the way, we walk by a lovely water feature, black stone that at first looks like an infinity pool with water coming down the side. This is a welcome and incongruous sight. The walkway inclines up by the wet stone and we see the top of it is solid, but covered by a continuous film of water. And rising above in our line of view is, of course, a new car. I didn’t get close enough to see if it was a raffle, or simply a reminder of the wonderful possibilities of life. (Note to self: Move forward on plans for a water feature in the Temple gardens. Car is probably not necessary.)
The Apple Store itself is full of people hovering around freestanding tables with sample computers (i)phones and (i)tablets—peripherals are relegated to wall-space. We are greeted immediately by a salesperson who directs us to another salesperson who confirms Melissa’s appointment and further directs us to the ‘genius bar’ itself. (Which appears to be simply another table with a couple open laptops attached to it.) Melissa stays here to wait for her ‘genius’ and I go back to the front of the store to look at some ipads.
Because, you see, I didn’t just come to keep Melissa company. I came because I have a problem—a very serious first-world problem. I do most of my writing on the computer, so when I travel, I carry by MacBook Air. It weighs a whopping three pounds and it seems to me that I should be able to find something smaller and lighter that I can use for writing. Now I know that on one level, this is ridiculous. Five years ago, people were happy to lug around laptop computers that weighed six or seven pounds and felt amazingly portable. But now, owning one of the thinnest and lightest computers available, I’m pretty sure I need something smaller and lighter.
I’m here to look at the ipad Air that weighs in at a svelte one pound. There are six ipads spread spaciously around one table. Every one has a person fondling it as the bright screens sparkle with their nearly infinite number of tiny multi-colored pixels. When it’s my turn, I pick up one version of this nine by seven inch piece of technology. With perfectly rounded corners if is thin yet substantial. It rests easily in my hand—smooth and solid. This tiny piece of technology is the acme of our consumer and computer culture. Amazingly functional tool and a cultural fetish—fully imbued with Apple’s symbolic meaning of creativity and individuality. I am in awe—here so close to one of the driving engines of the modern world—the Apple gods.
A salesperson comes over and prods me for questions. The base model is only $500, but he confides in me that his wife bought one of these and then had to buy the next model, because this one only comes with 16GB of storage space. The 32GB model is only $100 more. When I ask about an external keyboard, he shows me a beautiful red case containing a keyboard with a silky feel and a place for the ipad air. It too is a marvel of design and engineering – holding the ipad at an adjustable angle and with the black keys giving the same feel and sound as the keyboard of a laptop. This too is only $100 more. And this helpful man also suggests getting Apple care, which is again, only $100 more. He’s also kind enough to mention that though he doesn’t get the extended warrantee on his refrigerator or on his car, he always does on his electronics.
I think this is called ‘up-selling.’ I’ve held the sweet little ipad air in my hands and been delighted by it’s amazing screen and quickly gone from $500 (actually a sizeable chunk of change) to $800 – to get what ‘really makes sense.’ From ‘good’ to ‘better’ and we haven’t even considered ‘best’. Just like the baseball gloves.
The ipad and keyboard will tickle the scales at an unassuming 1 pound 12 ounces. So I’m looking at a cost of about $40 per ounce for the twenty ounces I would lose carrying this modern miracle as opposed to my ‘old-fashioned’ Macbook Air.
But by this point in the process, it’s not just about the weight. (Was it ever?) I can now visualize this compact and well-designed cover and keyboard in my backpack. I imagine pulling it easily out to write a few insightful sentences or to quickly check email in a café in Dublin or Milan or even Worcester. It’s so well-designed and easy to use. Of course I don’t really ‘need’ it. But it is totally cool and I can afford it…
In a daze of desire, I drift back to find Melissa. Her computer has been examined and ‘fixed’ by a rather unassuming and quick-talking genius. (Unfortunately, when we return home she finds the problem of connecting to the internet is exactly the same as when we had left.)
I do manage walk out of the store without buying anything. It was a close call. I think my saving grace was finding out that if I wanted to use Microsoft Office on the ipad air, I would have to ‘rent’ the software for $70 a year. Outrageous.
But walking out of the store empty-handed, I feel vaguely empty and unmoored. The image of me with an Apple bag filled with an ipad air and a case and keyboard is vivid. I can feel the thrill of this wondrous new technology, that could have been in my possession.
We walk back the way we came – past the stores and the people. We don’t stop anywhere though I’m tempted by the idea of a new pair of wildly colored sneakers and Melissa is almost ensnared by the smell of hand-made soaps and oils.
Back in Sears, I gravitate to a bank of TVs that are showing the World Cup match between Columbia and some other team. Each time the referee calls a foul, the action stops and we get a close-up of the faces of both the foulee and the fouler. The former cannot believe the indignity he has suffered at the hands of such a dastardly villain, and the later is indignant to be accused of something he would never dream of doing.
I stand mesmerized by the wall of grand TVs. Though the action is identical on each screen, the color of the grass is slightly different. As if an artist were experimenting with different shades of green to find the perfect hue. The camera angles are zooming in and out in unison – a gorgeous ballet of multiple perspectives in this ‘beautiful’ game.
I look up and Melissa is no longer next to me. I watch the game a little longer, (when you’re lost, stay right where you are to let yourself be found) and then look around. Melissa is nowhere to be seen. I take out my (Android) phone and call her. She picks up (on her iphone 4) and says she is waiting by the exit. ‘By the tools?’ I say. ‘No, by the washing machines.’ I walk toward the exit we came in and ascertain it is definitely not near the washing machines. I walk toward the exit on the other side of the store and eventually make visual contact with my beloved. We terminate cell connection, cross the distance between, then walk back through the tools. I hardly glance at the red enamel five foot rolling tool cabinets.
Through the doors, we’re out in the blazing summer sun again. We’re not hungry and there are no good movies playing, so we decide to go to Whole Earth, do some food shopping and go home.
I am filled with a kind of deadness. Driving in the hot sun of a summer afternoon, I wonder about the emptiness of my life. I have just wasted a perfectly good afternoon driving too and from the Natick Mall. And I have bought nothing. The glut of choices at Whole Earth reassures me slightly. I buy a small piece of Valdeon blue cheese and a hunk of aged gruyere for later consumption. And at the liquor store next door brows the plethora of artisanal beer. I end up choosing an organic IPA ‘crafted’ in Vermont that claims a perfect blend of bitter hops and smooth and fruity malt.
But, driving toward Worcester on route 9, with the a/c on against the heat of the afternoon, it’s clear this small culinary spree was not enough to save me. I feel lost and adrift.
Arriving at the Temple, we put the car in the garage and walk to the back door of the Temple. I am strangely heartened by the row of four oblong stones that grace the edge of the little garden around the old tree stump. Putting away the groceries, I crack open a smooth cold one and wander into the garden seeking solace.
Yesterday in this blog I wrote about my rocky start to the day which included not being able to find my phone and trying to remember the three encouragements that my Dad had passed on to me. Of the three, I only came up with two: Rejoice in everything and Be kind to people. The third had disappeared into my fog of sleeplessness and worry.
Latter in the day, as I was sitting at my desk, I happened to look up and see that I had written down these three things on a small piece of paper that was carefully propped up against my pen-holder. I laughed out loud when I saw the one that I had forgotten. Here’s what was written on the paper: Rejoice always. (Got that close enough.) Treat other people gently. (I actually like this better than the more moralistic ‘Be Kind to people’ which I had remembered.) But the last one, the one I could not recall in the midst of my state of mild agitations was: Don’t worry. How perfect—and no wonder I couldn’t remember it.
These numeric memory devices have been used by human beings for thousands of years. Many of the early teachings of the Buddha were passed down first recorded in this way; as lists of a specific number. The four noble truths, the three refuges, the eight-fold path, the seven factors of enlightement, etc, etc. There is a whole sutra entitled THE NUMERICAL DISCOURSES (THE ANGUTTARA NIKAYA). This collection of teachings of the Buddha is organized by the number of points in the teaching. All the teachings of twos are grouped together, then threes and so on up to eleven.
One story from this sutra relates how Venerable Girimananda, one of the Buddha’s disciples, was very ill. Upon hearing this, the Buddha instructed his disciple Ananda to visit Girimananda and “speak to him about the ten perceptions.” (For a complete list and thorough discussion of the ten perceptions see Bhante Gunaratana’s book MEDITATION ON PERCEPTION) I won’t list them all ten here, but the ten perceptions begin with the perception of impermanence and the perception of non-self and end with mindfulness of breathing. Rather bracing medicine for someone quite ill. But I can see the potential healing benefits of hearing this kind of core truth when we are in distress. (As the three things I couldn’t quite remember were somewhat helpful to me yesterday.)
As human beings, most of us seem to forget (often and repeatedly) what we already know. I imagine relating the Ten Perceptions to Girimananda was akin to reading the bible or speaking of God’s love to a devout Christian who is suffering. Wisdom teachings of all traditions are reflections of the deep truths of the human heart. For me, these true teachings appear in every tradition. When I hear or read them, they set up a kind of resonance in my heart—the external words seem to correspond to some inner knowing. And this inner knowing of the human heart is what has the power to truly heal us.
And speaking of healing—I want to report that a few minutes after my discovery of the true teaching of the three things, my phone showed up on a table in the hallway. Now, I don’t believe that it had anything to do with finally getting the correct version of the three things but… The phone had apparently been found by the small plastic turtle that was holding it up for me to see. (Later Melissa reported that the turtle may have found it in the change compartment in the car.)
However it came back to me, I’m happy to have it again.
July 1st, 2014. I wake early in the humid darkness. The sound of the fan in my window. The silence of the street and the few isolated bird songs tell me it is near daylight. I feel exhausted and slightly sick. I don’t want to get up, but suspect that sleep has fled.
I do some ‘petal breathing’ and think of my friend Sarah who taught it to me. She’s working in the UK developing a mindfulness curriculum for primary school children. This exercise is one way they found to allow children to bring their attention to their breath. You hold one hand open, then when you breath in, you bring the thumb and the fingers together, and when you breath out you let the fingers extend—like a flower that is opening and closing. Only I can’t remember whether it’s open with the in-breath (lungs and belly expanding) or open on the out-breath (releasing the air.) I’m too tired to move my hand, but even imagining the hand opening and closing with my breath is soothing. For a few minutes.
Then I remember something my Dad told me the other day that someone told him. It was one of those lovely three things thing. The first was ‘Rejoice in everything.’ Or was it ‘Be grateful for everything?’ The third was ‘Be kind to people.’ But what was the middle one? Not remembering, I consider making something up but nothing comes.
Now I recognize—my mind is fixed in worry mode.
Some big things are stirring in my life. Words spoken and actions taken in this next week will create new realities that will be part of the geography of the world I move into. It’s complicated and my mind turns to the details even though I would prefer to sleep.
Then I remember my web site. Yesterday afternoon I entered some dates in the ‘calendar’ section—to let my many (or few) fans know where I will be teaching/speaking/leading. But I don’t like how the information appears on the screen and am not sure how to alter it. I also want to change the photos and refresh the web site and haven’t done anything toward that yet.
Now I see that it’s not the decisions as much as my mind—the special worry section of my brain has decided to go on full-alert.
No going back to sleep this morning. Why fight it? I rise in the darkness and take my morning ramble to the bathroom. In the glow of the nightlight by the sink, I see a reflection and think for a moment that it’s my cell phone. The cell phone that I haven’t been able to find since Sunday. It, and several other important objects of my life, seem to be acquiring a mobility of their own as I progress in years. They don’t always appear where I think they should. I generally don’t get too worried as they usually come back in a day or two. But heading into the third day of missing my cell phone, I’m getting a little anxious. Looking closer, I see the reflection is just the surface of a box of allergy pills I have left out for easy access.
I pull on some sweats (it’s warm but I know sitting on the porch will cool me off) and go down to the kitchen to make some tea. Now, having arrived on the porch and begun this writing, it’s almost five thirty. The eager morning cars come with more frequency—hurrying to their important destinations. Invisible birds manifest their own urgency as call back and forth in their private languages. Knowing no one is watching, I put my sox on my bald head to keep me warm and keep writing.
I wonder how to find my way through the natural complaint that arises. ‘I don’t want to be worried/anxious/unsettled.’ But the truth of this moment is that I am in this particular mind-state and would prefer not to be. What if this is not a problem? What if even this is OK?
My tea has gone cold. My sox have now been taken off my head and sit on the glider next to me. The Temple trees dance in the breeze as they shush their leaves together in quiet song. Just this moment. Just this moment.
I am grateful for this mysterious dream of being alive.
Last week, in Vermont, I was guest curator of my mother’s lakeside garden. On an impulse, I bought a packet of nasturtium seeds, intending to put just a few in an open spot she had pointed out. But after soaking them for a few hours, I realized there were too many seeds. So after I planted a few in the open spot her vegetable garden, I planted a few more in a hanging pot and a then few more in another pot. The last few found a home in a small patch of open space in a flowerbed by the water.
She discovered the ones by the water yesterday. I imagine the tiny round leaves—apparent only to the careful observer. A growing gift from her long-grown son— each small leaf as perfect in its particular articulation as the miraculous fingers on the hand of a newborn.
Nasturtiums have had my attention this year ever since I put a couple of my seedlings in a pot on the porch for the first time ever. They quickly outpaced the several dozen other plants I put into the garden and I’ve enjoyed their shape and their apparent happiness with their new location. They first bloomed several weeks ago and now these wild tangerine blossoms have been decorative delicacies in several early summer salads.
And this morning, after taking this selfie of me and the orange beauties, a tiny humming bird comes by. For a moment, she hovers noisily by the blossoms. Then she takes a sip of nasturtium nectar and darts off to destinations unknown.