Why Is It So Hard to Be in the Present Moment?

I’d been meaning to get to the Arboretum to enjoy the trees. To just watch the leaves fall and swirl and drift their way down to the ground. And here it was, November, and somehow, though I’d left my job in June, I wasn’t finding the hours of free time I’d imagined. There were still so many tasks to accomplish, appointments to keep, new jobs to consider.

On election night I stayed up late with friends and slept late the next day. I slept past the time I usually meditate, which threw off my morning. It was a warm sunny day—likely one of the last of the season. I meant to get outside by 11:00, then noon, but wasted hours doing chores.

At 1:30, I finally made it out the door. The 281-acre Arnold Arboretum may be the best place in Boston to get a nourishing dose of nature. The park is a 20-minute drive from my house when there’s no traffic, over an hour when there is. My intention was to spend a lazy afternoon in the park, but I had to rush to get there so I could rush to get home so I wouldn’t get stuck in rush hour traffic. By the time I reached the Arboretum, my shadow was long on the ground.

Continue reading Why Is It So Hard to Be in the Present Moment?

Return to the Zen Center

After almost 30 years, it was time to go back.

I had visited the Cambridge Zen Center once in the 1980s, back when meditation was considered an odd thing to do. Back before Oprah and Kobe Bryant and corporate CEOs were doing it. I had read the few Zen books that were available in bookstores—The Three Pillars of Zen;  Zen Flesh, Zen Bones; and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

I had just arrived in Cambridge and was eager to meet an in-the-flesh Buddhist who would teach me how to meditate. When I heard there was a Zen center nearby, I made plans to visit. My teacher, I imagined, would be an elderly Japanese monk with a shaved head. He would exude both wisdom and humor.

Continue reading Return to the Zen Center

13 Ways of Meditating with a Blue Jay

I
I notice a nest on the beam that separates my porch from my neighbor’s porch. A nest of loosely woven twigs.

Spring was cold. The maple branches that brush our second-story porches have just leafed out. My neighbor is away for the summer. From inside, I watch the robins bobbing for worms in the yard below. Screeching jays bully the smaller birds off the feeder.

II
The sight of the nest makes me happy, then concerned that my presence may scare away the mother. How long does it take eggs to hatch? Chicks to learn to fly? Weeks? Months? I don’t want to relinquish the porch, but if eggs are laid, I hope they hatch. Continue reading 13 Ways of Meditating with a Blue Jay

Did the Six-Week Retreat Make a Difference?

For years, I’d wanted to do a long retreat And finally, after months of preparation, I found myself making my single bed in a dorm room behind the meditation hall. The six-week retreat was three times longer than anything I’d done before, so I’d hoped the benefits would be three-fold.

Things did happen of course: short periods of strong concentration; one episode in which sensations came so fast I felt dizzy; and a couple of days of calm. But nothing transcendent. Nothing mind-altering. The daytime skies were a waning blue. At night, I saw the stars, which I could never see in the city.

Packing up to leave, I wondered if I’d gotten an adequate return on my investment, both of time and money. Not that I expected to, but, of course, I did. I made a note to take stock six months later, so here I am at the keyboard.

Continue reading Did the Six-Week Retreat Make a Difference?

Crisis of Faith: Does Meditation Really Work?

I was having a crisis of faith. Not the usual kind, in which you lose faith in something you once believed in. No. My crisis was about starting to feel a little faith as the benefits of meditation became clear. Continue reading Crisis of Faith: Does Meditation Really Work?

Revolving Door Meditation: Where Rather Than When

The red-coated man was waving across Main Street. It took me a moment to realize he was waving at me, and another to remember who he was. When I did, I waved back enthusiastically. It’s been over a decade, I thought. I was running late and didn’t have time to cross the street to say hello. Hopefully my smile conveyed how much his remembering meant to me.

Most meditation books suggest setting aside a specific time each day to meditate—clearly good advice. I meditate every morning. The alarm rings, I get out of bed, drink a cup of coffee, and sit my butt on the cushion. Except on the days when I don’t.

Continue reading Revolving Door Meditation: Where Rather Than When

The Smoking Shack

I don’t smoke, but finding the smoking shack on the first day made me smile. After unpacking and making my bed, I explored the grounds of the retreat center. The shack was at the edge of the woods in back of Shanti House. (Yes, the dorms have annoying Sanskrit names.) Almost hidden, the structure looked like a wooden bus stop. Continue reading The Smoking Shack

What to Let Live: A Meditator’s Guide to Insects

But is life as it appears in a fly so very different from life as it appears in a human? —Sharon Salzberg

Was I a hypocrite for rescuing the bug? It was a Wednesday, not that that mattered. I was halfway through a six-week retreat and, aside from laundry days, each silent day seemed more or less like the others.

During the morning walking period, I shared the basement with two other yogis. One was a heavyset guy who reminded me of an old boyfriend and the other was a slim guy with a moustache who looked like young Adolf Hitler.

I usually like walking meditation, and though I was trying to practice earnestly, I wasn’t connecting with my steps. My distracted mind was trying to remember all the lyrics to “Muskrat Love,” the wonderfully sappy Captain & Tennille song from 1976. Suddenly, as my left foot was in midair, a  blur of movement startled me. A bug scuttled past as my foot fell awkwardly to avoid it. Continue reading What to Let Live: A Meditator’s Guide to Insects

How Taco Bell Made Me a Better Meditator

Though I’ve learned a lot from Pema Chödrön over the years, I balked on first reading her instruction to drop the story. In the May 2001 issue of Shambhala Sun she wrote, “In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.” Continue reading How Taco Bell Made Me a Better Meditator

Talking to the Boss

Soon, I’ll have to ask my boss if I can take a six-week leave of absence for a meditation retreat. I’m not worried about getting the time off. I’ve accrued enough vacation days. What I’m worried about is how I’ll answer when he asks, “What’s a meditation retreat?” Continue reading Talking to the Boss