Succeed Immediately

Yes, those were the words: Succeed immediately. Was that possible, or even desirable?

Sudip’s father died. When I heard about the Medicine Buddha Puja in his honor, I decided to attend, though I wasn’t sure what a Medicine Buddha Puja was.

The ceremony was held at a Tibetan Buddhist center in a Boston suburb. Driving there, I missed a turn my phone instructed me to take. As I was trying to find my way back to the main road, I turned a corner and saw the moon— huge and full and beautiful— rising above an empty parking lot. Continue reading Succeed Immediately

Why I Dislike the Term “Path”

I get annoyed when someone says, “I’m on a spiritual path,” even though I, too, am on a spiritual path.

If someone says, “I have a spiritual practice,” I’m interested. I want to know what that person’s practice consists of and how consistently it’s practiced. When did they begin to practice and how has the practice changed over time?

I’m not against paths. As a walker and hiker, I appreciate well-marked trails. I’m grateful for those who created, cleared, and maintain the pathways along which I tread. Though I love the thought of­ bushwhacking, my nonexistent sense of direction (and several adventures involving being lost in the woods after dark) has convinced me of the usefulness of paths, as well as maps. Continue reading Why I Dislike the Term “Path”

You Just Saved $16

The library reopened gradually. First, the lime green tape that blocked the mouth of the book drop was removed. A few weeks later, an email announced that library books requested online would be available for pickup. Patrons were required to make a reservation, then show up, masked, at a table outside the library, where a masked librarian would hand over the goods in a brown paper bag. Getting a book had never felt so dangerous. Continue reading You Just Saved $16

Listening to Let It Be

The first record I ever became obsessed with was the Beatles’ Let It Be. Music wasn’t a part of the house I grew up in—not that my parents were against it, they just weren’t interested. When my older brother got a record player, I’d sneak up to his attic room when he was out and listen to his collection of 45s. Let It Be was the one I played over and over and over.

At the time, the message escaped me. Like most kids, if I had a scab, I’d pick it. If there was a puddle, I’d jump into it. The song made me sad, though I wasn’t sure why. Or why, if it was sad, I continued to play it.

As an adult, I fear inaction—a particularly American anxiety. If I’m wondering whether or not to do something, my default position is that it’s always better to do than not to. I regret the things I haven’t done, rather than what I did, no matter how bad the outcome. Continue reading Listening to Let It Be

Buddhism as a Hobby

I felt distinctly guilty—almost accused—when Joseph Goldstein said, “If Buddhism is more than just a hobby to you . . .” I don’t remember how he finished the sentence. I was one of a hundred or so students in the meditation hall. I’d never met the man, yet I felt like he was directly addressing me. Is Buddhism just my hobby? I wondered.

My fear, of course, was that I was an amateur Buddhist, a dilettante, a poseur in a lotus t-shirt. Clearly, I was not a professional. I’ve never listed Buddhism as my religion on a questionnaire. And though I’m all for enlightenment, it seems unlikely I’ll realize it in this lifetime. It’s not even on my to-do list.

In a good week, I meditate seven out of seven mornings. In a bad week, I may not sit at all. How often I sit is the sort of thing I sometimes discuss with others meditators, though it seems a lot like asking married friends how often they have sex. Everyone, I’m sure, imagines everyone else is doing it more than they actually are.

When I got home from the retreat, I looked up hobby in the dictionary. “An activity or interest pursued outside of one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure,” was the definition.

Hmmm. If you substitute sanity or well-being for pleasure, maybe I am a Buddhist hobbyist. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

When I first read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind years ago, Shunryu Suzuki’s simple text inspired me to try to meditate for the first time. I somehow trusted the author’s words and his shaved head and kind face in the photograph on the back book.

Twenty years later, I’m still trying. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made any progress or if it’s all been an enormous waste of time. No. Yes. No.

Yes. Begin again.

Insomniac Nights with Joseph Goldstein

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.

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”

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