Insomniac Nights with Joseph Goldstein

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In the anxious hours of the night, I took a bath, pouring a capful of lavender bubble bath into the running water. I hoped the scent and the warmth would finally lull me to sleep. I’d felt tired when I went to bed at 10. Now, at 2, I was wide awake and exhausted.

I soaked for a while, a warm washcloth over my face. The water felt good, and then less good as it cooled. Eventually, with some effort, I rose into the cold air and pulled the rubber plug. Water rushed noisily down the drain.

iPhone showing Joseph Goldstein podcast on screenBack in bed, I picked up my phone, found a Buddhist podcast, and hit play. I placed the phone where another pillow would have been, had there been anyone else in bed. After the familiar throat-clearing sound, Joseph Goldstein began to speak in his deep, nasal, New York voice. He spoke slowly, with space between each word. I curled in, listening to what would either be a thoughtful dharma talk or a doorway to sleep.

Another insomniac night with Joseph Goldstein. The next thing I remembered was the sound of the morning alarm.

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The first time I did not meet Joseph Goldstein was in 2008, at a retreat at the Insight Mediation Society in rural Massachusetts. Continue reading Insomniac Nights with Joseph Goldstein

The Thought of Getting Out of Bed

Monday morning after a late Sunday night. The alarm ringing. I don’t feel like getting out of bed. But I must. But I don’t want to.

I turn over and try to sleep a few more minutes, not remembering if I hit the snooze button. The alarm rings again nine minutes later. I shut it off. I have an 8 am meeting, which means I must catch the 7:20 bus, which means I have to get out of bed. Now.

Curled up on my side, I roll onto my back—a slight emergence out of the cocoon of warm sheets and sleep. Steady rain pelts the other side of the window, which makes the thought of rising even less appealing.

I try to sit up, to just get going. My head starts to lift, a suggestion of motion, but too much of me wants to remain in the snug comfort of bed. No. I roll back onto my side. What if I didn’t go to work? What if I stayed in bed as long as I liked? How long before someone phones or comes looking? How long before my reliability overrides my rebellion? Continue reading The Thought of Getting Out of Bed

On Rereading “When Things Fall Apart”

When rereading “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön, I was struck by this: “It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown.”

The sentence could have been written specifically for me and my current state of mind. I was about to get up and look for my notebook to copy the words, but I hesitated.

The first time I read “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” was the overwhelming year my mother died, my marriage ended, and I quit my job. The year before, life had seemed dull and stagnant. Then everything came undone. Chödrön’s writing helped. Since then, I’ve recommended her book to at least a dozen friends going through their own difficult times. Continue reading On Rereading “When Things Fall Apart”

The Diagnosis and the Present Moment

Karen outside at picnic table
Karen, October 2019

Karen, one of my best friends, was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in September 2019. At the time, she was working as a consultant in a small town in Utah. In early March 2020, before COVID took over the world, we talked at her house in New Hampshire about how getting a difficult diagnosis has changed the way she views the present moment.

Martha Henry: How did you end up in a hospital in Salt Lake City on Labor Day weekend?

Karen: I’d been experiencing some physical discomfort for several months and then had a bowel blockage. Joe, my husband, took me to the emergency room on a Saturday night.

How did you know you had a bowel blockage?

I didn’t until they told me. It was very different from food poisoning. The vomit had different smells.

The emergency room doctor gave me a CT scan. They pumped my stomach and got me stabilized. The doctor was looking at the scans with a flummoxed face. We heard him say something about, There’s more going on here than just the bowel blockage. He was consulting with doctors from Salt Lake who said, Get her up here.

They put me in an ambulance. I had nothing with me. We didn’t pack a bag. It was the middle of the night, driving miles and miles and miles. We didn’t know what was happening. Everything was surreal,  like we knew we were in an alternate universe. Continue reading The Diagnosis and the Present Moment

Why is it so difficult to be in the present moment?

Morning. Coast of Maine. Clear after three days of fog. The horizon visible for the first time since we’ve been here. Blue water, blue sky.

I drink coffee on the shale ledge, watch the tide go out, and wait for the heron to come and catch minnows in the shallows. The milk snake that slithers across the rocks on hot mornings is nowhere to be seen. Offshore, the lobsterman pulls traps from the back of his white boat.

When I think of a perfect morning, this is what I imagine. Here is where I’ve been wanting to be for weeks. Now here, the coffee half gone, the sound of breaking waves, the smell of beach roses and seaweed. The lone gull floating in the inlet takes flight, circles, and with a gentle splash returns to the water.

Always seeing the world through words. Can I write and be present to my surroundings at the same time? Where are you as you read this? Continue reading Why is it so difficult to be in the present moment?

Matchbox Buddhas

I meditate for 30 minutes every morning. Well, most mornings. Though I’m not religious, I’ve created a short ceremony for the beginning of my practice, a pre-sitting ritual that helps me settle into a groove. I drag my cushions out from under the bed, start a timer, and light a votive candle on the small altar I’ve created on top of a bookcase.

I’m fond of fire, verging on borderline pyromaniac. Lighting a match provides a moment of focus. All senses are involved: the feel of the wooden match gripped between thumb and index finger; the sound of the match scratching against the side of the box; the Tada! sound of the spark igniting, which sounds like a one-second rain shower; the smell of sulphur and burning wood; the sight of the white-orange flame rising upward; the faint taste of smoke on the tongue.

A small act to pay attention to.

Continue reading Matchbox Buddhas

Consume Less Buddhism

My New Year’s resolution is to consume less Buddhism in 2020. Rather than slashing calories or signing up for a spin class, my intention is to reduce my intake of all things Buddhist: to read fewer books, limit the number of podcasts I listen to, and, except for my simple timer, avoid meditation apps. For years I’ve gorged on all of the aforementioned. I’m a not a glutton in other areas of my life, in fact, I’m a skinny minimalist. Continue reading Consume Less Buddhism

Camera Pointing at the Moon

I’d been staring at screens and books all day and had to get out of the house, to feel my body moving and my gaze unbounded. The sun had set an hour ago; the full moon was just rising. Leaving the dishes unwashed, I got myself out the door.

After days of cold rain, the weather had changed and the night air had a sensuous feel—teasing amounts of warmth and moisture. Sweater weather. The leaves had begun to fall in earnest, fresh piles waiting to be kicked or walked through. People were outside enjoying themselves, reveling in the mild evening. Continue reading Camera Pointing at the Moon

Approaching William James

I may have been procrastinating when I biked to William James’s grave.

I’ve been a fan ever since I read Varieties of Religious Experiences as an undergraduate. Recently, I’d checked out James’ psychology textbook. Not the monumental, two-volume, 1200-page Principles of Psychology published in 1890 that established James as the Father of American Psychology, but the lesser, 400-page Psychology: The Briefer Course, an 1892 abridgement of Principles. James’s students referred to the big volumes as James and the shorter book as Jimmy.

I’d read the long introduction to Briefer Course and was about to start the main text when the idea to visit William James’s grave popped into my head. The weekend before I’d meant to bike but had read instead. Why is it always easier to do something other than what you’re supposed to be doing? Continue reading Approaching William James