I wake at 4:15 every weekday morning. I creep downstairs and plug in the coffee. I check my email and social media, make sure my swim bag is packed, get dressed, drink one cup of black coffee, then unplug the pot before leaving for the YMCA.
I pull into the parking lot at about 4:50, in time to see the older couple, the man with a cane and the wife with a walker, push through the front doors. I turn off my music, lock my car, and go in. I slide my card through the reader, a computer beeps somewhere, I say hi to Doug or Crystal or whoever is working the front desk and has been kind enough to get up even earlier than me to make sure the lights are on, the door is unlocked and the pool cover is off. I use the boys locker room instead of the men’s because I like the cool tile floor instead of the carpet in the men’s room, and because I can be alone with my thoughts, change into my swim things at my own pace, not have to jostle with anyone for locker space, and can hear all the groans, clanks, and scuffles as the building comes to life.
I shower, walk into the men’s locker room to make sure the sauna is turned on, then wait for the click of the deadbolt when the lifeguard unlocks the door to the pool deck. I see the morning regulars, pull on my swim cap and goggles, get into to the pool and do my laps, usually splitting them between breaststroke and freestyle. I swim for about twenty minutes. I don’t count my laps. I swim until I feel done, then I get out and sit in the sauna for about ten minutes to stretch out and relax. I shower, get dressed, drive home, sometimes stopping to take pictures of the river if the light is right. I get home around 6:00.
I make sure my daughter is up and getting ready for middle school. I plug the coffee maker back in and make my breakfast, usually eggs over easy with toast or muesli. I drink another cup of black coffee. I have an hour before I have to get dressed for work, so I read or do some writing. Around 7:00 I get dressed and drive my daughter to school. I get to work around 7:30, and usually have all my emails read and answered by 8:00 when the rest of my co-workers start arriving. I grab more coffee and fill my water bottle. I have the whole day ahead of me. I help people: students, faculty, co-workers, parents, customers, vendors, delivery drivers.
Most of my work life consists of being the arbitrator of other people’s desires. I measure other people’s wants against my own, and then decide how best to proceed. I do the best job I can with the materials at hand. I subjugate my ego.
I eat my lunch at a regular hour, sometimes treating myself to a soft-serve or a lemon square afterwards. I walk around the campus, deliver packages to the mail center, stop in to the library to see what’s newly published, sometimes I meet faculty or associates on the quad and chat with them, ask after their research, their kids, what they did on sabbatical, what they’re working on now. I’m pleasant, witty, always professional.
In the afternoons I might write some emails, deal with problems that have crept up. By 5:00 I’m ready to go home. I try as best I can to leave the troubles of my workday behind me. At home I help my wife shuttle kids to and from sports practice and games, make sure there’s food for dinner, give homework help, make sure cellphones are charged, forms are signed, teeth are brushed, clothes are picked out, and bedtimes happen at a reasonable hour. Then I read a little more, or paint, or maybe edit some pictures I took during the day. I make sure my swim trunks and towel are dry and I re-pack my swim bag, set up the coffee maker for tomorrow’s coffee, place all the things I’ll need in a pile by the door: my bag, wallet, keys, glasses, clothes, flip-flops, iPod.
I’m in bed by 10:00 to sleep for tomorrow’s new day. This is what I do. On Friday nights, I go the local high school football game, if they’re playing at home. I do some yard work on the weekend, do laundry, shop for groceries, go to the beach or for a run or for a swim if there’s time. I take my kids where they need to go, or if they’re travelling by bike or by foot, make sure they check in when they get there. On Sunday nights, my wife and I might turn on Netflix and watch whatever series we’re currently hooked on.
At forty-seven years old, this is my life right now. A Zen archery master, Awa Kenzo, wrote, “Do your best at each and everything. That is the key to success. Learn one thing well and you will learn how to understand the ten thousand things. Ten thousand things are one; this is the secret place of understanding you must find. Then everything is mysterious and wonderful.”
I submit to you that all we need try to do is one or two things well. We live our life, we remain present and cheerful, we make the coffee, we wash the dishes, we fold the laundry, we sleep, we wake. This is all we need to do. Please take comfort in knowing that it is more than enough.
I’m done with day four of my barefoot challenge and it seems the stars are aligning. Another 30-minute walk this morning, posture resets, and stretching. Later in the afternoon, I went to a sporting goods store and found a pair of barefoot Merrell trail shoes on sale for half price. I started reading ultra-marathoner and vegan emissary Scott Jurek’s biography today, and I’m learning a lot. I notice it’s important to be mindful when starting a new journey, but to not let the details get me down. I’ve always been the kind of person who needs to write everything down, to make lists and resolutions. I have a manila folder that says “running” on it where I stuff all my self-help scraps and notes. I’m wearing my mala beads, remembering to stand up straight even when I’m not practicing my running form, trying to drink less coffee and more green tea, upping my intake of nuts and other healthy fats, using my myofascial roller to ease the stiffness of these old joints. On some advice from a friend, I even bought a few bags of Epsom salts and starting soaking my feet every evening. An element of serenity is starting to manifest. I feel calmer, my mind is quieter. And I’m starting to understand the appeal of the whole mani/pedi thing that my women friends are always on about. I think about my brother and sister monks, running around Mount Hiei right now, in their flimsy straw sandals, carrying lanterns through the night, and stopping to pray at all the appropriate shrines along their path. I run around my college track, dodging the occasional toddler, stray dog or tennis ball, keeping my eyes on the horizon.
Day three of my challenge was another 30-minute barefoot walk, some posture resets, and ten ankle circles. Before I left my tomb-like basement office to walk over to the field house for my workout, I watched Chris McDougall’s 15-minute TED talk. Again. If you’ve ever doubted that humans were indeed born to run, then watching this will change your mind. I’ll let Chris speak for himself, but one of the ideas he asks us to consider is that we evolved as a roving band of pack animals. Equal parts competitiveness and compassion. And of course, that running was a key part of our survival. Without the ability to run long distances in hot weather (no other animal on the planet has this skill), none of us would be here today. Running used to be a part of our daily lives. And it used to be fun. For many of us, as McDougall points out, running is instead a painful chore, something we do because we had pizza and Ben & Jerry’s last night. But it doesn’t have to be.
I noticed again today that walking barefoot demands mindfulness. Maybe “demands” is too strong a word. Encourages, perhaps. I stand erect, gaze at the horizon, rather than the ground, and walk slowly and consciously, trying to stay aware of the sensations of every step.
During breaks in Zen meditation, we perform what’s called kinhin, or conscious walking. We pay attention to every thought, every breath, every step. The Buddha said that when a monk sits, she knows she is sitting. When a monk stands, he knows he is standing. And when monks walk, they know they are walking. Sounds simple, but try for even five minutes to walk with complete mindfulness. Our modern ways of rushing from place to place, pulled by our conscious and unconscious desires, makes it almost impossible to do so. Unless we have practice.
I was also thinking again today of the running monks of Mount Hiei, who I’ve written about elsewhere, and who I consider my spiritual brothers and sisters. They run their marathons in flimsy, homemade straw sandals. Rain or shine. Day or night.
I’ve begun wearing a mala bead bracelet I bought at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra monastery in Woodstock, NY when I was there recently for a writer’s festival. It’s fragile, but reminds me of my commitment. To follow through with my 30-day challenge. To move past fear and pain. To ultimately use this body as an instrument for awakening.
When my wife and I bought our house almost fifteen years ago, there was a giant maple tree standing in our front yard. It towered over our small home, and even though the dappled green sunlight that shone through our morning bedroom window was beautiful to open our eyes to, I was always afraid it would topple over while we slept and crush us to death.
It was an old tree, and starting to fail. Its dead leaves filled our gutters with organic debris that I could never fully clean out. The bark was black in places and some of the top branches never bloomed in spring. Years went by. We couldn’t afford to cut it down, so we just hoped every morning that it would stay vertical for one more day. And night.
A few years ago, the city did some sewer line work on our street and dug up a large chunk of the pavement. After they repaired the lines, filled in the huge hole, and repaved the street, we noticed that our tree was dying at an even faster rate. We called the city, and after doing some surveying, they determined (thankfully) that the tree was on city property and that the sewer work had killed off some of the major roots, thereby hastening the old maple’s demise. Acting quickly, they brought in some arborists to take down the tree.
One day, I went to work in the morning with the tree there. When I came home it was gone. The only traces were some piles of sawdust and a large hole in the ground. The tree was almost one hundred years old, yet in a single afternoon it disappeared.
I think about that tree sometimes, and wonder where it is, its branches and leaves and bark and seeds, ground up and scattered to the wind, or recycled for garden mulch or paper pulp. On one level, the tree is gone. But on a molecular level, the tree still exists, even in its current fragmented form.
It exists, just in different spaces. Part of it might be underground, digesting in an earthworm’s belly. Part might be in parts of a new maple tree, or a rose bush, or some horses’ hay a mile or a thousand miles away. Parts of that tree are in the clouds, the same way we are breathing the same air Buddha breathed three thousand years ago.
I took a walk at lunchtime a few weeks ago and saw a dead squirrel in the road. As I approached, only his immobility told me he was dead. No blood or oozing guts to be seen. His (or her?) eyes were open. Did that squirrel have a soul, I wondered? Is his soul playing in heaven now, with all the other squirrel-souls that have been squashed throughout the ages? If the squirrel doesn’t have a soul, but we do, what is the determining factor in soul-ness? Reason? Language? A deeper level of consciousness?
I’m writing this weeks later, so by now the carcass has been tossed in a landfill by animal control or pecked away at by crows. But does the squirrel still exist, yet in another form, like my tree? What of a cat, or a dog, or a cow? If cows could curl up at our feet on our beds at night, would we still want to eat them? Is the soul of a dog more worthy than the soul of a cow?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I had spaghetti and meatballs for dinner last night. I’m no expert. I’m just asking because sometimes the question alone, or sitting with the question without an answer, keeps your mind exactly in the place it needs to be to fully receive the universe. A place before thinking, before distinctions, before good or bad.
Joshu famously answered “Mu!” when asked by a novice monk if a dog had Buddha-nature. Mu roughly translates to “no” or “no-thing.” Yet the Buddha said all sentient beings had Buddha-nature. Who is right? Who is wrong? Joshu and Buddha can’t both be right. This koan is the gate of Zen.
So. Where is the Buddha-nature of your dog? Of that dead squirrel I found in the road? Of my lost tree, scattered in the compost pile?
Is there something pure and clear that exists beyond life and death? If so, how will you find it?
image: Keri Smith
People often stop me on the street and ask me what the key to all my happiness is. No, they don’t. But if they did, I would tell them: Impermanence. The idea, the truth really, that nothing lasts. Buddhism teaches us that all our human suffering is caused by our constantly chasing after things that don’t last. Relationships, feelings, thoughts, ideas, music, gastric pleasures, tropical vacations, our pets, even our lives.
This sounds pretty depressing, right? Only if you look at one side of the equation. Impermanence is actually a great gift that allows us to be born anew every day. True; joy doesn’t last, but neither does anger. Satiation doesn’t last, but neither does hunger. Pleasure doesn’t last, but neither does pain. Happiness doesn’t last, but neither does sadness. You can see this working in your own life. Are you the same person you were yesterday, much less a week, a year, ten years ago? What of all those things that pissed you off last week or last night? Do they bug you still, or have they too passed away?
Right now, all over the world, people are killing other people because of ideas. Not because of politics, or hunger, or religion, although all those things seem to be real. They are killing each other over ideas. When ideas, which are just thoughts in our heads, manifest themselves in the real world, and we act on them as if they were permanent objects, we cause each other great suffering.
A question I like to ask myself is: In a hundred years, who will remember the point of my anger? There’s the story of two Zen monks, travelling along a muddy road after a rainstorm. The older monk sees a wealthy lady carrying packages who is trying to cross the road. The old monk, without hesitating, picks her up and carries her on his back. Setting her down, she huffy away, not even thanking him. The monks continue on their journey, and after a few hours of silence, the younger monk says, “Why did you pick up that woman back there? We’re monks. We’re not supposed to touch women. And after you helped her, she didn’t even thank you!” The older monk replied, “I set that woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
What are you still carrying? Set it down, now. Your journey will be so much lighter.
Writers, more than any other species of humans, need rituals. I have none, aside from writing when my kids are asleep or when the boss isn’t looking. That’s why I was so fascinated to read about Lionel Shriver’s writing (and running) routine. Like her, I love to run at night. When no one is looking and when the distance I have to cover is hidden in darkness. I’ve always been jealous of anyone who can follow a routine. When I read stories about people like this, I try to imagine what it would be like to do the same thing. Would it bring me any closer to the writer I want to become? As if by copying someone else, I can make their success my own. I admit it’s tantalizing. And although my wife might not appreciate it, if I were to adopt Ms. Shriver’s plan I would soon find myself:
1. Waking late and drinking nothing but black coffee until dinnertime.
2. Running nine miles every other evening, no matter the weather, at exactly 9pm.
3. Doing a punishing assortment of calisthenics.
4. Drinking wine, eating popcorn, and yelling at the evening news.
All this sounds great to me. Oh, and there would be some writing as well. A monkish existence. And a daily ritual that impels one to get the work done, whether it’s a few words or ten pages. My problem is that my sense of self is non-existent. Yes, there is the Henry that you see, the part-time blogger who walks and talks and posts too much on Facebook and occasionally writes angry letters to the paper and wears squarish glasses and sometimes goes skinny-dipping when and where he shouldn’t. I confess that I don’t think any of us really have an eternal, immutable self that remains constant throughout our lives. In fact, most if not all of the world’s problems are caused by human beings taking themselves way too seriously. But the only way we can express our “self” in the material world is by action. In my case, that action has always been through words. I may not have made a dime from my writing yet, but I am a writer. Learning what other writers and artists do on a daily basis will hopefully give me some frame on which to hang my own writerly self. My early exposure to Buddhism in college, my eventual acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, my intermittent lifelong Zen practice, the taking of vows at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center a few years ago; all this is an expression of my belief that the self is an illusion. Following a routine assumes that one has a self to attach it to. Since I was a child, and perhaps due to my Catholic upbringing, I’ve been waiting for an angel (or James Joyce) to appear floating above my bed at night and tell me what I must definitely, without-a-doubt do with my life. This hasn’t happened, and at (almost) age forty-six, I doubt it ever will. Maybe if I just start running at night, and taking Dear Sugar’s advice to write like a motherfucker, I’ll finally find that evasive self and nail him to my desk. Maybe self is born of routine, not the other way round.
This happened when I was living in Rochester, New York about fifteen years ago. My future wife and I were sharing a third-floor (and probably illegal and fire-trapped) attic apartment on a street intellectually named Harvard. I had recently purchased a used, half-rusted, lime-green bicycle at a yard sale and was using it as my primary means of transportation to and from one of my many part-time jobs around the city. One crisp early fall morning, as I was riding down Oxford Street (Cambridge Street was nearby, in case you were wondering) on the way to my shift at a funky used book store next to an independent movie theater (that served incredibly good coffee and Neapolitan pizza, strangely), a very old, very shaggy, very slow dog began to ambulate across my way. This rough beast was moving so slow I should have had time to stop or at least swerve. Sometimes people say things like “It happened so fast, I couldn’t get out of the way, etc.” but in my case things happened so incredibly slowly that my disbelief paralyzed me. Was I really going to hit a dog with my bike? Or more specifically, was a dog really going to hit me with my bike? Neither happened, because I braked and flipped over my handlebars, landing on my right elbow. Just before this happened, he looked at me. (I’m sure the dog was a he. I can still see his eyes. Sleepy. Judging.) My arm went numb almost immediately, but like the desperate wage slave that I was at the time (illegal apartments that mock building code don’t come cheap), I got back on my bike, now slightly bent in an unfixable way, and made it to the shop. All throughout my shift, as I drank excellent coffee and downed a few slices of warm, bready pizza, my elbow began to swell to the approximate size of a grapefruit. After work, I drove to the emergency room. They drained some particularly disgusting fluid from my joint, gave me some pain pills, and sent me home. A few days later, I was good as new. Why am I telling you this? That slow, mangy dog taught me a lesson. A simple lesson, but one that I needed to learn. That dog taught me to always wear a helmet. A helmet I wasn’t wearing that day. A helmet whose absence could have caused real paralysis or even death had I landed just a few feet north of my elbow. That dog also taught me a lesson about lessons. That we learn life’s most important lessons when we least expect them. And that these lessons are usually taught by unbelievable (as in, not to be believed) teachers. Like the woman I wrote about five years ago who learned the dharma from a rusty pipe, I learned the dharma of bike helmets from a stray dog. One of the towering figures of Zen Buddhism, eighth century Chinese master (and father of the modern Zen word-puzzle, or koan), Joshu, was once asked if a dog had Buddha-nature. He responded, almost angrily “Mu!” which has been translated as “No!” throughout the centuries. And yet, the Buddha himself said that all things are imbued with Buddha-nature. How then did Joshu have the temerity to contradict the Buddha? Who is right? That answer to that riddle, the entry gate to the Zen life, is still up for grabs. To this eternally unanswerable question, Master Joshu answered no. But on that day, the listless yellow mutt that crossed my path had Buddha-nature, and as I slow-motion catapulted over my handlebars, he looked up at me like he knew it.