These cats

These cats
one black and white,
one orange and white
come in the night to sleep in our bed.
warm and furry beyond reason
they slither under the covers in cold weather
Or install themselves above our heads
as if to coronate us
there to purr in all their regal magnificence
and sleep untroubled like gods.
Until they get hungry!
then they start knocking
shit off the dressers, upending lamps
they trash the place like vandals
and claw our flesh without mercy.
goddamnit, cats! all right. you win.
we will go downstairs to the kitchen
and eat some cat food.

Feet and ground: the Zen of long distance running

I spent a few minutes googling around for online literature — is that an oxymoron? — on the subject of Zen and running. Though it surely exists, I found but little. Mostly I found the word Zen misused, as so frequently happens, as a synonym for bliss. According to what I have learned about Zen (admittedly, not much), the heart of the practice is meditation, and meditation in turn is fundamentally not so much about vegging out, escape, self-improvement, or even stress reduction, but rather the practice of sitting with what is. Yes, there are occasional moments of what I call shocking clarity and calm. Perhaps for the experienced, skilled meditator these moments occur more often and for longer periods — ask me in 20 years and I will tell you. But for the most part, it’s about disciplined repetition. Inhaling and exhaling. The attention wandering off, and coming back, wandering off and coming back again. Again and again, minute after minute, day after day, sitting with what is: that dog yapping, a pain in your back, some car passing by in the distance, thoughts swimming around in your head, the movement of the breath. Stilling the mind and ever so gradually getting acquainted with reality.
So it is for the runner. While training for a marathon I have been struck by the strange and fascinating comparison of running and zazen. At first glance they seem utterly different from each other, located at the opposite extremes of activity and inactivity: running your ass off for miles, versus sitting absolutely still staring at the paint for 30 minutes. But both are disciplined repetition; both involve paying attention and then wandering off. Paying attention: feet and ground. Breathing in and out. The stride. The breath. The surroundings. Monitoring body and mind. Feet and ground. Breathing in and out. Then wandering off: following thoughts. Reviewing and editing the past, scripting the future, having a grand old time. Then coming back to what is: feet and ground. Left right left right…. One foot after another, mile after mile: this is reality not delusion.
Many runners are fond of running with digital audio players and the like. I don’t believe in that. Yes I have enjoyed using a radio or iPod on occasion. But for serious running I suggest we should eschew such distractions. It’s not about entertainment, or trying to make the running something other than what it is, or making it somehow more palatable, or less boring. No. Embrace the boredom, if that’s what it is. It’s about paying attention to feet and ground.
The Sandokai by Master Shitou says:

When you do not see the Way, you do not see it even as you walk on it.

You could study this text for years and still keep learning more about it. I wouldn’t presume to explain what it means. But! (You saw that but coming.) But for me, running is more than just running. It is, in fact, just running. I am convinced that all those who ever put on a running shoe experience this truth whether they realize it or not.
Distance running and zazen: two activities some might call weird, each a wonderful complement and support to the other.


Fast forward to nearly two years later. I am now 52 instead of 50, still sitting every day, and running considerably faster than when I posted the above. I have no means of proving that the practice of sitting has made me a better runner than I would otherwise be. Life is not a controlled experiment: if you do this, you can only speculate as to what would have happened if you’d done that instead. Still, there is little doubt that the sitting practice enriches one’s life. It teaches you to pay attention to what is happening rather than just being dragged around by it. This in turn serves you well when you need discipline, self-control, and the ability to tolerate a certain amount of pain and/or exhaustion in an equanimous, non-reactive way. Skills such as these are essential to runners who push themselves to achieve their goals.

Zen: Is it bullshit?

I have been a serious lay practioner of Zen for not quite two years — not very long, I grant you. I originally got into it around the time of other profound changes — moving out of an unsatisfactory marriage after 13 years, quitting the habit of abusing alcohol, feeling absolutely marvelous for the first time in years. I had long had the vague idea that some sort of meditation practice would be beneficial, so I visited a zendo of the Soto/Rinzai lineage, and adhered to it immediately. I attend the zendo regularly, and meet with my teacher privately every week — daisan, as it’s called. I study koans. I sit every day, and participate in extended sittings several times a year — i.e., doing little other than meditating all day, all weekend, or all week. This is what serious practitioners do.
Why do this? I don’t know. There is much that I find appealing in Buddhist thought generally, and in Zen Buddhism in particular. The basic ideas — such as impermanence, the ubiquity of human suffering and its causes — make sense to my rational mind. And I am convinced — as it is well established — that meditation itself provides meaningful benefits to mental and physical health.
On a more intuitive, visceral level, I am powerfully drawn to the idea that all the wisdom you will ever need is already within you. You have only to still what Master Lin-chi calls the ceaselessly seeking mind — methodically, patiently, relentlessly — to come to an understanding of nothing less than the essential nature of reality. If you think about it — no, if you contemplate it — you have to say, of course! How can it be otherwise?
Wait — says who? Mister Buddha, the dude credited with launching the whole program? A multi-thousand year succession of masters and disciples and adherents? So? What if they are nuts? What if they are full of shit? Can anyone prove this stuff to be true in any credible, objective way? No, I think not. This is where the F-word comes into play: faith. Some call it trust. Whatever you call it, I sometimes have a big problem with it
This is an example of what they call Great Doubt and it is very much part of the program, according to what I have been taught. Doubt is encouraged. Doubt is your friend. The Buddha said, don’t take my word for it. See for yourself. But it’s still doubt and can be disconcerting, disquieting, distressing — all kinds of dis-words.
Do you say, you are crashing and burning because you trying to approach rationally something that works below the level of rational mind? Maybe so. But rational mind is something we need to carry around with us to function and survive, and for the most part it’s a good and helpful thing. Common sense — prudence, if you will — urges caution before investing decades of your life and incalculable amounts of energy and sacrifice in something this weird. Sometimes when I listen to one of the teachers speaking about such things as Zen and Reality and the One Absolute Truth, my inner voice tells me I might as well be listening to the demented ramblings of a lunatic. One of these teachers has said that Zen is and always will be a minority practice because it is such hard work. Gee, could it be that it’s a minority practice because it’s crazy, and most ordinary unenlightened dumbass people are too sensible for it?
In my great arrogance and psychospiritual immaturity, I have other problems with this Zen stuff. I am about as unspiritual as a person can be. You might even say anti-spiritual. For this devout atheist, the very word spiritual often sounds uncomfortably like agnostic code for religious. I’m all for bowing to people, but I think bowing to statues is silly, and do it only to go along with the crowd.
At a weekend sesshin just the other day my samu task was to clean the bathroom. As I was dilligently wiping the mirror my unmindful mind suddenly noticed something absurd. Here we are, a group of some 40 more or less privileged, educated white people from New York City, and we are paying to sweep floors, wash dishes and take out the garbage. What do you suppose people who actually clean bathrooms for a living would think? It is a ridiculously pretentious and comical affectation.
Sometimes I wonder what the hell I am doing here, and entertain fantasies of rising from the mat in the middle of a sitting period and walking out of the zendo, never to return.
But I don’t. Instead I sit when it’s time to sit, walk when it’s time to walk, chant when it’s time to chant, eat when it’s time to eat. And when Sensei gave a talk this past weekend about how we were at sesshin to realize Nothing, the tears started coming out of my eyes and would not stop. Go figure.

Why run a marathon?

For over 20 years I have been running for recreation and fitness, anywhere from about .8 to three or four times a week for distances of 4 to 6 miles. I have rarely been concerned about performance or proving anything. I was in it for fun and fitness. Suddenly, at age 50, I am signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon on November 23, 2008, and training seriously. How did this happen?
The influence of a running-fanatic friend was a factor. He encouraged me to try a half-marathon organized by the New York Road Runners back in January. This was the longest distance I had ever run and I was not properly trained for it. I was sore as hell for days afterwards, but I loved it. Five thousand pairs of feet trotting through the cold air of Central Park, a kin-hin line writ extremely large. I decided I would meet the NYYR requirement for entry into the New York Marathon in 2009 by running in at least nine races in 2008, and thus open the option of doing a marathon.
Then my running friend got into my head again: Why don’t you do Philadelphia in the fall? It’s open to anyone who pays the registration fee. I thought this over for a couple weeks, fretting over the difficulty of fitting training into an already busy life. Then just said fuck it, hit the website and did the deed.
Now I am embarked on a formal training program (from the Running Planet) that prepares you to complete a marathon in four hours. I felt irrationally attached to the four hour number even before arriving at it rationally. It’s a nice round figure, and four hours of continuous running is quite enough, thank you, so let’s get it over with. It’s a fortunate coincidence that my running history is such that the four hour goal does appear to be reasonable and attainable. So I am going at it five or six days a week, getting up before dawn to trod the pavement and run around Liberty State Park as the sun comes up, hitting the treadmill at work, exerting myself like never before in my life.
Why do this? I have long been vaguely curious about the experience of completing a marathon and thought it might be interesting to try it some day and find out if I could do it. Then I noticed I was 50 years old. Now seems like a pretty good time to get started, rather than waiting until 60 or 70.
Yes, but that’s doesn’t answer the question: why do this? I read some place that there are as many reasons as there are runners, but that’s another evasion.
Am I trying to outrun the grim reaper? Well, no, I fully expect to die. But first I would like to run a marathon.
But why? Am I trying to prove that I am disciplined and tough? Maybe a little. I don’t think I need to prove that I am fit, it’s a pretty simple and uncontroversial fact. But I will rather enjoy showing my medal to people. I guess that would be about ego gratification.
Why? Why go to so much trouble for ego gratification, or whatever it is? I don’t know. Yesterday I was in Urban Athletics buying gear, and had a chat with one of the co-owners. When I raised this question with him, he simply said, cross the finish line and you’ll know why.
I am reminded of something my Zen teacher once said to me: Ultimate truth cannot be known. But it can be experienced. Perhaps Jerry from Urban Athletics was saying the same thing.
Update: A few days later, Sensei was not impressed when I told him this story about the above remark from the guy at Urban Athletics. Ever the consummate Zen dude, he said: why ask why?

On turning fifty

I had the honor of turning 50 the other day. My girlfriend (not quite 42 years old) generously hosted a back yard party at her house. There were about 25 delightful people, flawless spring weather, splendid food and drink. Had I been invited to say a few words to mark the occasion, I would have said something like the following.
I have no scruples about making a big deal out of my 50th birthday. If multiples of ten are noteworthy, multiples of 50 are huge. Living 50 years is an accomplishment one usually does not repeat. It’s a good time to take a look at one’s life and notice how it is unfolding, developing, changing, and to savor the pleasures of getting older.
When you get old enough, your past becomes so long that it can be considered history. When I turned ten the year was 1968. Martin Luther King had been assassinated a couple weeks before, and cities were burning. Robert F. Kennedy was to be assassinated in June, as Hillary Clinton so tastefully reminded us the other day. The United States was mired in a catastrophic imperial misadventure in Viet Nam, where what is known as the Tet Offensive was in full swing. The Pentagon and the CIA were in a power struggle over lying to the American public about enemy troop strength. Grim and bloody news of the war came to us daily through radio, television and print media. Many young people were rebelling and doing a lot of drugs. I was in fourth grade and my friends and I would ride around freely on our bicycles with neither supervision nor helmets.
At 20 I was a music student, working diligently and with determination to become a classical guitarist. Remember the Jimmy Carter administration?
At 30 I was a fairly accomplished classical guitarist and quit the business in favor of “real” full time employment. Late Reagan era, Bush senior about to ascend to the throne.
At 40 I was well established in a reasonably honorable and well-paying career, a homeowner, married, no kids. The Clinton years.
At 50 I am in the same job, the divorce very nearly a done deal, my daughter recently turned five, the house about to be sold (profitably, housing collapse notwithstanding). I live peacefully and contentedly in good health with two superb cats, and things have never been better. I am immensely grateful for my good fortune. Meanwhile, as Barack Obama prepares to defeat John McCain in the fall, the human race has probably never been in greater peril. Will my daughter’s planet be inhabitable when she is approaching fifty?
* * *
In our society a lot of us have a troubled and complicated relationship with aging. We lie about our age, or we snicker and chuckle and joke about it. “You look much yonger than fifty” is considered a high compliment. I can’t help but think that underlying that attitude is fear of nothing other than death. We grasp and cling to life and run like hell from death, we generally avoid thinking about the inevitable extinction of our selves and our loved ones — until it’s too late. Life is replete with unspeakable suffering, and then, in the best case scenario, you get old age, sickness and death for your trouble. That being the case, what — if any — is the purpose, value, meaning of anything? Is “I don’t know” a satisfactory answer? Does it matter?
I am convinced that the time to face the large questions is now, when you can still reasonably expect to have a couple decades to work on it, not when you’re in the hospice with three days to live. And the most important way to work on this little side project is to stare at the wall every day without fail. If I have to confess to having a goal or objective in practicing Zen, it is this: keep stilling the scattered, chattering mind and use the tools Zen provides to help us face facts. When it’s time to go, be prepared. In the meantime, enjoy living life instead of worrying about losing it.

Having money — more or less

The wisdom that he who knows he has enough is rich dates back at least as far as Laozi, a/k/a Lao Tsu. Countless studies have since established that material prosperity does not equal happiness. And while it is one thing to nod your head and say yes I agree with this proposition, it is quite another to acquire direct knowledge of it through experience.
I have had the good fortune to suffer enough of an economic reversal to be able to learn about having less money, while at the same time not having my essential economic security — food, shelter — seriously threatened. And I am pleased to report that you can be happier with less money in your pocket. Having bills come due with my checking account balance running as low as $124 is inconvenient, but it is little more than an inconvenience. Again, especially when one is still gainfully employed and can expect some relief at the next paycheck, within a couple weeks at most. One comes to appreciate that other aspects of life truly are more valuable and important than your checking account balance. Indeed, having that balance plunge and not caring is immensely liberating.
One also learns something about fear and anxiety. I stand in the very situation that terrified me couple of years ago when it was an abstract possibility: having to make do with less, paying a hefty child support obligation while also maintaining my own household in an area where the cost of living is high. And yet here I am, and not only is it OK, it’s a good deal better than OK.
I am reminded of something my teacher once said, à propos of anxieties that come up during zazen: we should be grateful for them, because we often discover that the thorny problem we were so worried about is not thorny, or if it is, the thorns are not as dangerous as we thought. The logic is rather subtle — why does that mean we should be grateful? I suppose the reasoning is that you should be grateful for the teaching that eventually comes out of those anxieties that arise while you are studying the paint on the wall.
So it is with having less money than you previously did. I like to joke that if I had a more abundant money supply, I would permit myself two self-indulgences. One is that I would buy a great wheel of high quality parmesan cheese, far more than I need. This would be for pure greed and amusement. I think it would be a kick to have that much cheese in the house. I would give away big hunks of it. The other eccentricity I would indulge in is reading glasses. I would buy perhaps a thousand inexpensive pairs and scatter them everywhere: every surface of every room, every pocket of every garment. That’s because I frequently misplace them. The reading glasses market is highly volatile in my household, not suitable for the risk-averse. My reading glasses portfolio can gain and lose large percentages of its value in a single afternoon. I start with two, then I have seven, then one. I would insulate myself against those shocks by owning a large reserve — very large.
So there you have it. Not having a lot of cash to spare is not bad. If I had more, the only things I would change are my parmesan cheese and reading glasses inventories. But I don’t, and am quite happy to buy these items in modest quantities.

“Either you real or you ain’t”

The other day one of the teachers in our zendo gave a talk in which she likened the practice of zen to classical ballet: one of the most painfully demanding of disciplines. Dancers must show up for a 90 minute class every single day without fail, no matter how experienced and accomplished they are or think they are. Always showing up, always striving, tuning, preparing for the stage — that’s what it’s about. So it is with the Zen practitioner. You show up at the zendo for formal zazen as often as you possibly can, regardless of whether you feel like it or whether it’s convenient. Formal zazen is essential, a necessity. LIkewise, extended sittings such a as zazenkai and sesshin are not optional add-ons. They are what you do when you’re a Zen practitioner.
This idea was reinforced by a scene that I recently saw in an episode from the fifth season of the venerable HBO series The Wire. During a prison visit, the incarcerated father admonishes his son to apply himself with greater diligence to his work in the drug trade. Either you real or you ain’t, he says. Irony notwithstanding, this paternal advice underscores a valid point. The teacher’s talk was evidently aimed at students who she thought needed to hear it. She might as well have said, either you real or you ain’t.
I was reminded of something my family has said about me over the years: you are a fanatic, an addictive personality. When you set your mind to something, you go at it relentlessly, obsessively. I have always tended to think, well, ok. When they suggested that going away for a week-long sesshin last summer was an example of my fanaticism, I figured, whatever. Now I am not so sure. Sesshin is what zen practitioners do. Why do this at all unless you’re serious? Either you real or you ain’t.
Looking at the above three months later, I see the fallacy in the argument “I am not a fanatic; sesshin is what Zen practitioners do.” Sitting in meditation several hours a day for a week is extreme — fanatical, even. Dedicated Zen practitioners are fanatics.

MLK’s Mountaintop Speech

There was a good piece on NPR this morning about Martin Luther King’s last speech, in which he said he was not concerned about longevity because he had been to the mountaintop and looked over. Just the night before I had been pondering the koan from which the phrase “All is vast and boundless” is taken. While listening to King’s speaking voice coming out of the radio in my kitchen 40 years after the fact, it occurred to me that King himself must have realized that all is vast and boundless. It doesn’t matter what you call it.