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.
I 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.
Back 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.
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
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”
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
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.
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.
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
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