Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Zen a go-go

Now that I'm back from a 1,400 mile road trip to visit my family in Ohio, I'm off tomorrow to visit my aunt in Washington, DC. As a result, blogging will be light until I return next Tuesday.

In the meantime, I'm grateful to practice two highly mobile pursuits: meditation and writing. Whereas a traveling musician, for instance, has to carry their instrument (quite a challenge if you play the cello or, heaven forbid, piano), a meditating writer can easily travel light. For this weekend's trip to DC, I'll carry my usual walking bag with Moleskine notebook and Waterman fountain pen, and I'll wear meditation beads on my wrist so I can do mantra practice in the airport and elsewhere.

When it comes down to it, we carry our breathing, ready-to-awaken selves wherever we go, so even if we have to drum on tabletops, meditate on bus-stop benches, or scribble poems on cocktail napkins, our creative selves cannot be denied. Although every spiritual and creative pursuit requires a certain amount of "stuff"--the tools of the respective trade--sometimes it's good to travel light, paring down our list of Essentials. Given our breath and the Present Moment, what more do we really need?

Happy trails, and I'll see you next week!

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Taking refuge

In today's audio-blog, I use the example of a red-eyed vireo I heard this morning as he sang from an unlikely perch: a cluster of trees behind my neighbor's suburban house. Although we, like that vireo, might feel out-of-place in a world that is hectic and chaotic, spiritual practice can be a refuge to which we return time and again: a spot of sanity we find as we follow our breath in the here and now.

Click here for more information about red-eyed vireos, including pictures and a sound clip.

this is an audio post - click to play

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Now I begin

(I'm having trouble accessing Audioblogger, so today's post is an old-fashioned written one!)

It's been two weeks since I last posted to Creative Mindfulness, and during that time I haven't spent any time on my mat and cushion. There you have it: today's big confession. While Gary was here visiting, we went hiking and sight-seeing and otherwise enjoyed one another's company; you can read accounts of two of our hikes on Gary's new hiking blog. Since Gary left, I've been playing catch-up with work I didn't do while he was visiting: the usual post-vacation catchup. So this morning when I returned to my meditation cushion and writing notebook, I did so after being away for a while.

I say this all by way of observation, not apology. As I noted in my last post, we all go through cycles and seasons in our practice, times when we can practice interspersed with times when we can't. One thing I've learned over the years is that beating yourself up for not practicing doesn't help you practice any more or any better: you only end up beaten. So what good is there in such emotional self-flagellation?

Meditation practice and creative practice aren't about beating yourself up; instead, they both are about beginning. After two weeks off the cushion and away from my writing notebook, this morning I began again: I brushed dog hair from my meditation mat, and I uncapped my pen. Truth be told, what I did this morning was no different from what any practitioner does any morning. It doesn't matter whether I practiced yesterday or the day before or the day before that: it matters that I practiced this morning, today, right now. Meditation practice and creative practice are both about what we do right now, so every moment we practice, we begin anew.

Several years ago I went on a Christian-Buddhist retreat at the Providence Zen Center, where Father Kevin Hunt talked about his daily meditation practice. Father Kevin has been a Trappist monk at Saint Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, MA since 1953, and he's practiced Zen since 1970: in other words, he's an old pro when it comes to spiritual practice. Even with this wealth of meditation experience (or perhaps because of this wealth of meditation experience), Father Kevin insisted that spiritual practice is a process of continually beginning anew: whether you've been practicing for three days or thirty years, every moment when you begin to practice, you're starting from scratch.

In his talk, Father Kevin quoted a line from the Latin psalter from which Catholic contemplative monks recite everyday: "Nunc caepit, Domine, nunc caepit," or "Now I begin, O Lord, now I begin." How interesting that Christian monasticism contains such a pithy expression of so-called beginners' mind, an insistence that spiritual awareness happens right here, right now, the Kingdom of God being nowhere other than at hand.

If in the past you've tried to establish a spiritual or creative practice, you might have been discouraged by failure: the good habits you began dissolved into procrastination and avoidance. Even if you've for years had a solid meditation or artistic practice, maybe recently you've fallen into a slump, or perhaps circumstance has pushed you off the practice wagon. The wisdom of "Now I begin," however, suggests that there is no shame in stopping, only benefit in beginning. Whether you practiced every day last week or not at all, today--this moment--is a new beginning. Every moment is a new opportunity for practice; each page we turn is a fresh start.

The wisdom of "Now I begin" means we cannot rest on our laurels. Even if we sat a wonderful retreat last week, this morning we'll have to drag ourselves out of bed to meditate with a sleepy, wandering mind. Even if yesterday we wrote a brilliant short story, today the empty page looks at us with an attitude of "What have you done for me lately?" On the flip side, though, all our past failures and shortcomings are erased the moment we say "Now I begin." It doesn't matter how many times you've tried to practice in the past: it only matters that you begin to practice, now. When your mind wanders during meditation, you bring it back: "Now I begin." When your mind locks with writer's block, you turn to a fresh page: "Now I begin."

Yesterday's successes and failures are irrelevant: Now I begin, regardless of the past. In Zen, we have a saying: "Fall down six times, get up seven." This means it doesn't matter how many times you fail or fall; all that matters is that you always get up. Regardless of what you did or didn't do yesterday, today is a fresh start: a new moment, a clean page. Now I begin and begin and begin again: moment by moment, now and again, tomorrow and forever more.