[Author’s note: It is now four weeks after the first draft of this blog post, and it still is not posted. Another sesshin has passed (May 6-11), and as of late I’m just too tired in the evenings to write. “Time passes like an arrow…”]
Time has a way of flying. I wanted to post about Holy Days Sesshin (April 1-8) right after it ended to give you stories fresh out of the experience. I got a chest and head cold the night before sesshin started, and it lasted 16 days. On regular days, I’m usually up at 4:45AM and our evening sit ends at 8PM. Then I clean the incense bowls from five altars and have dinner after that. So it is 9PM when my personal evening time starts. During sesshin, I’m up at 3:30AM and we sit until 10PM. You get the picture. Generally, my (mental) energy level by the end of the day is not up for blogging. I also have been doing some more outdoors work lately, adding a nice but uncompromising fatigue at the end of the day. Every day I would think, “OK, tonight I’ll blog for sure.”
Suddenly it is three… now four weeks later (???!!!) and [the last day of April] May 22. Our free time starts on Sundays around 2PM, and I made firm resolve to at least start a new post today. To give you an idea of how tired I was earlier, I made a two-shot cappuccino at 2:15. At 2:45 I laid down to take a 30-minute nap which turned in to two hours. I did yoga, ate, socialized a bit, meditated with Nature on the deck, and suddenly it’s 10PM as I start to blog. The song “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” composed by Sandy Denny while she was with Fairport Convention, is a lovely expression of the beauty and sadness of the fleeting of time… and of life. And Pink Floyd’s “Time” makes a more pointed statement on how easy it is to waste one’s life.
By the way, don’t tell other monasteries about our cappuccino machine. An member from Brooklyn asked if we had one, and upon hearing “no” decided to send us one. The residents who have been here the longest weren’t thrilled, but per tradition, gifts cannot be refused. So, our use of it was limited to personal days. That’s fine; it’s a huge luxury in a monastery. Although I do have mixed feelings about such indulgences while here, it is the first thing I do after lunch clean up is done on Sunday. Monks love caffeine. Not all of them love coffee, but those that do, LOVE coffee. How much? Here’s about 2/3 of the bag we buy about once a month from King David Coffee (who buys directly from small farmers and roasts in small batches per order. It is the best bean I’ve ever had. Try out his coffee and consider supporting such a high quality and ethical roaster).
One thing the contemplative path has me face is (the concept of) time. On the surface, I get a much closer look at how fast it does indeed pass. It’s already day 231 of the 1000 days…I turn 50 in September…today is already over. Going a little deeper, and what this post is about, I see how much time I waste in unnecessary thought. It is more accurate to say I see how much quality of life I waste in fantasizing. Thinking is a tool, and we need it to do things like design, build and use the computer I’m typing on, or plan and execute a project or activity, or make decisions. However, when I slow down and examine more closely what is actually going on in my head, it amounts to bad television, with way too many channels, and way too many reruns.
Now that deep contemplation and meditation are my primary activity each day, I can see and get feedback loops on my internal reality with much greater frequency and clarity. Did that make you gasp or cringe? If so, yes, indeed, it can be very uncomfortable, often, and even for days on end. This is the stuff that the bustle of “civilization” prevents from seeing. Be it education, jobs, family raising, entertainment; we often do not have the time or energy (in general) to slow down, be still, look, listen. However, isn’t the very source of our dissatisfaction and troubles in life caused by not-seeing of the aspects of ourselves that limit us? “An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. We all experience fears, confusion, misunderstanding, varying degrees of depression, frustration and more. We wish we had more time and energy for what matters to us. But, really, what matters more than having an accurate understanding of who we are inside?… and the clarity to clean up what is contrary to the well-being of our lives and those around us (which, in the big view, is everyone… there is no separation)? In “It’s Alright, Ma,” Bob Dylan sang “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
One thing I have come to terms with is that the quality of my meditation practice, and of my presence, fluctuates day to day, even moment to moment. I see the perfectionist illusion, the lie of getting to some awakened, trouble-free stasis, or even of “forward” or “upward” progress. Mental chatter, either fixated on a topic or relationship issue, or bouncing around from things I have to do, want to do, don’t want to do, imagining my future as a Buddhist and land steward,… Ding! goes the meditation leader’s bell. The 45-minute sit is over… also revealing that life ends. What quality of mind, of being, will I have cultivated, will I be in, when it is my time to go?
There is an aspect of our culture (in the U.S. that does not deal well with death at all. From the obsession with youthful appearance, activity and behavior, to shipping our elders off to “senior communities” reveal how poorly we have integrated the reality of death in to our living. In Zen there is an exhortation, which Charlotte Joko Beck eloquently rephrased:
“Let us be respectfully reminded:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by, and with it our only chance;
each of us must strive to awaken.
Be aware! Do not squander your life.”
So when a meditation session, or a beautiful moment in nature, or precious times with friends, go by even somewhat unnoticed because I was elsewhere in thought, I notice it more and more. I used to react with frustration, yet lately it is shifting to a sadness, and thankfully with a positive spark to give extra effort to be present, aware, open and receptive, engaged. Sometimes, if the spin off in to thought leans towards negativity, it literally feels like poison, like I drank something toxic that is coursing through my body and effective every cell. And in reality there is no separate self, no “other,” The Buddha said, “With our thoughts we create our world (or reality),” and the medical and psychological sciences are increasingly able to reveal the effects of our mind on our bodies and in our lives. I increasingly see the value in the practice of being acutely present. There is only now, and “what is” becomes “what was” in an instant…unceasingly. Meditation, why bother? To sit for periods of time in our day to recognize the timelessness of being…
…and reengage in our lives, our relationships, with that fleeting sense coupled with the infinite nature of existence…
My deep love for Nature is an ever-present reminder to slow down, and deeply appreciate the subtleties of life… be it a baby salamander…
…or a fungus fading from life, in a shape that reminds me what really matters…
and the playful miracle I experience of seeing smiles everywhere I go…also reminding me…
…to sit, be still, listen, be aware…
…and keep improving my ability to bring the stillness and awareness in to everything I do, within me and in my interactions with people and planet. I only have this one moment, this one breath, and if there will be next ones is never guaranteed.
I once heard monastic life mockingly described as “naval gazing,” a waste of time while the world desperately needs actions of healing and justice. However, monastic life is not an escape from life, but the deepest engagement with it, nor an escape from responsibility, but owning the greatest responsibility of all: to live each moment with as much awareness and gratitude as I can, and share that presence with others. At the monastery we keep a sacred campfire burning, so that those in society have a refuge to come to, to recharge and then bring to the world the stillness and clarity and compassion that is so greatly needed. Whatever your tradition or practice, I hope you will give the time to dwell in the timeless, and bring its wisdom and light forth in to your life and to those around you.