Going Nowhere

brick street

Can going nowhere be a journey?

The pandemic certainly had many of us going nowhere. I canceled vacations that had been planned in 2020 and this year. The term “staycation” predates the pandemic but it is that idea of staying where you are or only traveling nearby. Travel can be wonderful. It can also be stressful.

It would seem counterintuitive to say that in this time of having more ways to connect than ever before that we often feel the need to disconnect or “unplug.”

Pico Iyer is a British-born writer known for his travel writing. At one point in his life, he decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery in order to learn about Zen Buddhism, the city and Japanese culture. The culture he wanted to explore was an older Japan of changing seasons and silent temples. And there, he formed a relationship with a Japanese woman. This experience led to him writing  The Lady and the Monk.

He has written other books about his travels into other cultures. Video Night in Kathmandu and The Global Soul are two of them. From the subtitle of The Global Soul – “Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home” – you get a sense of the feeling that some people have these days of not really having one “home” in any traditional sense.

So, it might not be surprising that someone who so often travels might decide at some point to go nowhere.

All this background is to introduce the book I listened to recently by Iyer about stillness. In it, he writes about others who have found stillness and remaining someplace as being a journey. From Marcel Proust to Blaise Pascal to Phillipe Starck and more recently Leonard Cohen, he writes about people who make the choice to spend years sitting still and going nowhere. “Nowhere” becomes a kind of destination.

There are elements of the contemplative life found in the book, though that is not what it is really about. Iyer has known the 14th Dalai Lama since he was in his late teens when he accompanied his father to Dharamshala, India. But Iyer does not have a formal meditation practice. He does practice regular solitude. He will visit a remote place to practice solitude too.

In The Art of Stillness, Iyer looks at old and new “wanderer-monks” and his own travel experiences. One of his conclusions is that advances in technology are making us more likely to retreat.

He does not promote or reject attaching a  religious commitment to this practice of stillness. Many people have meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other practices without a religious or even formalized spiritual element. All of these things call back to ancient practices.

I have written here about a good number of things that seem to fall into this non-category, such as forest bathing, Internet sabbaths, and lots of meditation and spending time in nature.

I will go in the woods near my home this week. Maybe I’ll read there a bit. Maybe I’ll draw. Maybe I’ll just bathe and observe. All good.


More about Pico Iyer’s journeys at picoiyerjourneys.com

View From a Tower

Desolation Peak
Desolation Peak Lookout with Mt. Hozomeen in the background. (Wikimedia)

When I was writing about the romance of being a lighthouse keeper, I also thought about a time when I considered being a lookout in a forest fire tower.

I was in college and had been reading a lot of poetry by Gary Snyder. Gary Snyder was the first poet to get a job as a fire lookout. He was assigned to a station atop Crater Mountain in Washington.    (The tower no longer exists.)  It was 1952 and he was studying Zen Buddhism and writing and it seemed an ideal job for both practices. Isolation, quiet, few distractions and a long view of the horizon.

I went to a job talk my junior year at Rutgers College given by an old guy from the National Park Service.  I have a feeling that a lot of the people there had similar ambitions of being in some beautiful western wilderness. The old guy sensed this and tried his best to dissuade us from joining up. He said, “If you think you’re going become a ranger at the Grand Canyon or Mount Rainier, think again.  You could end up in Philadelphia giving tours of the Betsy Ross house. You could get assigned to New Jersey and be at Sandy Hook or Morristown talking about General Washington.” His wet-blanket speech chilled my ambition and I did not fill out an application.

Gary Snyder became a well-known poet and environmental activist. He was part of the Beat poets and the San Francisco Renaissance and became knowns as the “poet laureate of Deep Ecology.”

Snyder’s tower experience inspired some of his friends to do the same. Poet Philip Whalen took a nearby post the next year. At a San Francisco poetry reading in 1955, Snyder met the young Jack Kerouac. This was the reading where Allen Ginsberg, having had enough wine to bolster his courage, performed a new poem “Howl.” Snyder convinced Kerouac to try a stint as a fire lookout.

Kerouac was at Desolation Peak for the summer of 1956. He decided not to bring any cigarettes in an attempt to go cold turkey and quit smoking. He brought one book – A Buddhist Bible – and planned to meditate on emptiness.

Accord to John Suiter’s  book Poets on the Peaks, by day 10 in the tower Kerouac wrote in his journal that “Time drags.” He took to smoking coffee grounds out of desperation.  He had written that he expected to “come face to face with God” but instead he came “face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it.”

He wasn’t as successful in his practice as Snyder, but he did learn something about himself. Kerouac spent 63 days that summer there and wrote about his experiences in The Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels, and in a collection of haiku, Desolation Pops.

Gary gone from the shack
     like smoke
– My lonely shoes

Gary Snyder
     is a haiku
far away

Gary would find himself banned from getting a job again in a government fire tower because he was seen as a possible anarchist (though better described as a pacifist) due to McCarthy-era blacklisting.

Snyder was one of the more serious students of Zen amongst the Beat poets and wanted to study in Japan. He had an offer from the First Zen Institute of America of a scholarship for a year of Zen training in Japan in 1955. The U.S. State Department refused to issue him a passport, informing him that “it has been alleged you are a Communist.”

A District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and a patron paid his expenses to Japan. At first, he served as a personal attendant and English tutor to Zen abbot Miura Isshu, at Rinko-in, a temple in Shokoku-ji in Kyoto. His days there were quite full: morning zazen, sutra chanting, work for Miura, and spoken Japanese classes so he could do kōan study. In the summer of 1955, he requested to become Miura’s disciple, thus formally becoming a Buddhist.

I was thinking about all of this the past week when I got an email about the National Parks Arts Foundation offerings for writers and visual artists to serve a residency next year.  No fire towers I could find but there is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park which sounds pretty exotic. How about a stay at Death Valley?

Could I convince my wife to spend a month virtually alone in the historical lighthouse keeper’s house on an islet in the Dry Tortugas National Park in Loggerhead Key in Florida? I doubt it. Could I go alone to this “uninhabited” islet? It’s tempting. To get to this islet in the Florida Keys requires a seaplane or boat and you would need to pack in all supplies, equipment, and food. No Internet unless you have a satellite phone.

lighthouse
The Lighthouse on Loggerhead Key

Would I be a Gary Snyder in all that isolation, or would I be a Jack Kerouac? Either way, I would certainly write, take photos and do some painting.

Raking the Garden

I enjoy raking my garden as it changes through the seasons. In early spring, I turn the soil and then rake the dark brown dirt until it is flat, even, and smooth. Nothing is planted. Nothing is growing. No weeds. It looks like a kind of perfection.

It reminds me a bit of a Zen garden. You will find them with stones, gravel, maybe sand. They are not gardens planted with flowers or vegetables – which is what my garden will be. Zen gardens have been used for about 800 years. The care of the garden old, and at the center of its care and upkeep is a quiet, mind, especially raking, is meant to be a practice that is mindful, like meditation.

You might think that a Zen garden would be very precisely designed, but that kind of straight lines and symmetry is really a Western concept. Japanese Zen gardens are less symmetrical. There is often a centerpiece. It could be a rock garden and the raking is done so that the pattern mimics water. They are usually small. You can even find desktop gardens and meant for individual contemplation. I know that sounds like it couldn’t give many benefits but I have a small one indoors and it is a good mindfulness practice to care for it.

My outside dirt and plants garden that was Zen-like in early spring gets greener and greener and my raking meditation becomes weeding meditation. Summer turns me to admiring the colors of blooms, harvesting vegetables, picking bouquets, caring for plants suffering from the heat, insects, disease, too much rain, or not enough water.

In peak summer, the plants have their own kind of symmetry. The zucchini, squashes, melons, and pumpkins look chaotic but I look for patterns.

In the last days of summer and into autumn, the plants start fading and dying. The time comes to clear out the plants and then to rake the garden back into its clean, brown simplicity.

Gardening doesn’t have to be a Zen experience or mindful to be calming and beneficial, but I would recommend taking some aspects of the Zen garden into your gardening.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. That is a great title. And good advice. It is the title of a non-fiction book about conducting your own mindfulness retreat.

It is difficult to define a mindfulness retreat because different people and groups define it differently. You’ll see the term meditation retreat or even yoga retreat used interchangeably.

A search online will turn up retreats at various centers that are very different from what Sylvia Boorstein’s book is suggesting. One web post on the “best retreats” at well-known retreat centers offers mindfulness retreats where you can experience anything from Pranayama breathing lessons along with stress-management classes, facials, massages, and private yoga sessions. The center nearest to me offers two-night single cabin room accommodation packages with three meals a day, an arctic plunge pool, mud lounge, Scotch hoses (huh?), infinity pool, and services such as acupuncture and life coaching. The menu is not Spartan and includes fresh, raw, organic foods, juices, and smoothies as well as Mediterranean cuisine but also hamburgers and tater tots. Most of these “best” retreats are around $1000 for a weekend. That alone would cause me stress.

Sylvia Boorstein’s approach is a much more down-to-earth guide. The book guides you through a three-day retreat plan and also includes lessons on how to achieve through meditation practices some serenity and focus.

An important caveat is that you need a 3-5 day stretch where it will be possible to step away from your life. You need the time and a place, but the time is more important and possibly harder to obtain.

This rainy Memorial Day 3-day time would have been a good choice for some people, but it takes planning. For me, I had a variety of things on the calendar. None of those things were recreational or meditative. There were scheduled good things (meeting friends; an art gallery talk), obligations (dealing with my older sister in a nursing home), and the unexpected (a burned-out condensate pump on our air conditioner that flooded the basement). Life intrudes on Life.

Boorstein says that any place will do, but I think most of us would like something out in nature – the mountain cabin or the ocean beach – but a backyard works too. Solitude is important. Being distracted by people, including a partner who is not retreating or kids, will not work.

Other than that, you don’t need much besides the book. Maybe a mat or blanket and a chair or bench. Even those are optional if you’re good with sitting on the ground. You need to eat and drink but maybe this is the time to go with water and wise, minimal, healthy food too.

I was attracted to Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by that unexpected title. It also reminded me of the first time I did some serious meditation days. My wife asked me what I was supposed to do. I said, “Just sit and empty my mind.” She replied, sarcastically, “You should be great at that.”

Of course, it is not easy. What seems to most people to be “not doing anything” is actually doing something quite difficult. Try to stop thinking. It is probably impossible, but you can get closer with practice.

This kind of practice and retreat doesn’t have to be attached to philosophy or programs, though it often is associated with one. I began my mediation practices in college because I met a girl who said she was a “Zen Buddhist” and I wanted to get closer to her. I became more attached to the practice than her. I drifted away from regular practice and being in a group after college. I reentered it in a more serious way when I met a man who is an American Jesuit priest, professor of theology, psychoanalyst, and Zen rōshi in the White Plum lineage.

Retreats, even if labeled Buddhist, are usually open to persons of all religious and non-religious affiliations. Weejend or weeklong retreats I have attended usually mix zazen (seated meditation in half-hour plus periods), kinhin (walking meditation, my favorite), chanting, dharma talks, and daisan (one on one interviews with a teacher), and beginners instruction. Sometimes they are silent. Sometimes they involve work at the center.

Though religion and philosophy do not have to be part of the retreat or your intention, my second serious reentry into meditation and mindfulness came when I went to talk by Robert Kennedy. His talk was, and his book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit is, about the intersection of Zen Buddhism and Christianity.  Kennedy says that “What I looked for in Zen was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience and would not be blown away by authority or by changing theological fashion.” He would say that God is in the Zendo.

For a time I attended his zendo sessions as they were not far from my home. But I have never been a good group member and organizations, membership, facilities, and fees all feel wrong to me.

And so, Sylvia Boorstein‘s book seemed right for me. In some ways, she is like Roshi Kennedy. Boorstein is a respected teacher of Buddhist Insight Meditation and has also remained an observant Jew.  One of her other books is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist where she writes about how she resolved these two aspects of her life in a complementary way.

The lesson from both of these teachers is that mindfulness and even Buddhism do not replace your religious beliefs or is it a way to convert you. I haven’t come across any atheist retreat centers but they probably exist. Certainly, completely non-denominational retreats are available.

In Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, she writes:

"I've noticed license plate frames that say "I'd rather be sailing" or "I'd rather be bowling." Sometimes I think it's fun to see the rather-be-doing frames because they are a hint about the driver. Other times I start reflecting about the fact that preferring to be doing something else always diminishes the present moment. I imagine starting a business that produces license plate frames that read "I'm totally content right now."

I attempted Boorstein’s retreat once before when my wife was away for a few days. I did it at home and I was too distracted. If I do it again, I really do need to “get away.” The basic schedule is to arrive, sit, walk, sit, tea, sleep, etc.

The book is intended to be read in sections with some time taken to reflect. My first reading of it was a sit-down-in-a-chair with my tea reading, not a retreat. Of course, armchair mindfulness is not the intention., but you could also do that.

Mindfulness cultivates the habit of being able to deal with life when things aren’t happening in the way we’d like. Mindfulness instruction is deceptively simple: pay attention. That is attentive sitting and alert walking. You can be in the moment when you’re weeding the garden or shoveling the snow. The practice becomes a part of your everyday life – not unconsciously, but consciously.

I doubt that he was a Buddhist or meditator, but Paul Revere had the words “Live Contented” inscribed on the wedding ring he gave to his spouse.

I took some ideas from the book that seem like little lessons, aphorisms, or koans.

Feel all of your body.
Slow is not better than fast, it’s just different.
Nothing is worth thinking about does not mean that Nothing is worth thinking about
There are no in-between times. 
Eat slowly. Taste it fully
Consider the interconnectedness of all things.
Discomfort comes from clinging to an experience that can’t continue. Discomfort also comes from wanting an experience to end before it is over. When clinging and aversion are absent, you experience freedom.


MORE
sylviaboorstein.com
Morning Star Zendo (Robert Kennedy)

The Lost Practice of Writing Letters

envelope
Image by LwcyD from Pixabay

I wrote last weekend about writing a letter to your future self. I didn’t mention then that the inspiration for that was my seventh-grade English teacher who had us write letters to ourselves. She told us that she would send them to us when we were seniors in high school. So, the idea was to write to the person you thought you would be in five years.

She never sent the letters when we were seniors. She left our junior high and probably tossed our letters. I seemed to be the only one who even remembered that we had written the letters. I can’t recall now anything I put in my letter. I wish I could. I wish I had gotten my letter back. My 17-year-old self would have liked to have seen what my 13-year-old self was thinking about the future that had become the present.

Writing letters seems so old-fashioned today. I had students that were amazed that there were entire books of letters that authors, artists, statesmen, or historical figures had written.

vincent's signatureI showed my students a book of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. He wrote often to his brothers, especially Theo, and his sisters, other artists and friends from home. It is estimated he wrote more than 2000 letters and about half survive. Theo kept Vincent’s letters carefully stored. Vincent often discarded letters.

It is estimated that Thomas Jefferson had written 18,624 letters in his lifetime.

I also had my students write letters to famous people and I amassed a pile of celebrity addresses and copies of the responses they received which I displayed in my classroom. This was in the days before email was common and mostly in the pre-Internet days, so finding addresses and information required more difficult research than it would now.

When my students received glossy 8×10 photos with actual autographs and real letters from the people they wrote to, it was exciting. Some of my students got unusual responses because they wrote clever letters or wrote to people who probably didn’t get tons of mail. There was an autographed tennis ball, an Olympic swimmer’s cap, a few DVDs, signed copies of books, several hand-drawn cartoons and comic book panels, and an animation cel. One student asked Donald Trump to autograph a crisp dollar bill so that it would be worth “more than a dollar.” He did in that odd bold scrawl that became familiar to us during his Presidency and included a copy of his Art of the Deal book.  One student asked an author to record answers to her questions on the cassette tape she sent with the questions. She did. One boy asked a TV weatherman some questions about getting into the business and got a call from him at home.

I encouraged students to write to the contemporary authors that we read in class. We even wrote letters to Juliet after we read Shakespeare’s play about her star-crossed love – and we got answers from her. (Read my post about that to learn how)

They learned a lot about how to write letters. And by that, I don’t mean just the format of a business and friendly letter. For example, they learned that writing to the biggest star of the top-rated TV show probably would only get you a small photo with a printed “autograph.” But a clever letter to a minor character or the writer or director of that same show might get you a personal response or more. The student who got tickets and an invitation to visit the Saturday Night Live show backstage didn’t ask for that – which is probably why he got it.

We learn how to communicate in many ways – both about the mediums to communicate and the forms those communications can take. The email, the Facebook message, the tweet, tagging someone in a photograph, the text message, the phone call, the note slipped into your locker or left on your desk in school or at the office, the card from the store and the handmade card, the poem, the mix CD or playlist of songs, the note with the flowers, the Post-It note left by the little gift on the kitchen table, the message put in your lunch bag and a letter sent from many miles – or many years – away.

After my mother died, I found a box of letters written to her. Some were from my father who had died many years earlier. Some were from me, written when I was away from home as a child on vacation with relatives, and from me at college. They are priceless pieces of the past. I have a postcard reply from author John Updike. I have a letter from astronaut John Glenn I wrote in fifth grade when I thought I might become an astronaut too. I have all the letters to authors and actors and celebrities that I wrote each year when my students were doing that assignment. One from Mr. Fred Rogers is something I treasure.

I find it sad that letter writing seems to be a lost form of communication. When was the last time you received or wrote an actual letter to someone by hand, on paper, that was mailed? Probably, too long ago.

A Letter to Yourself

In April  2020, I wrote a letter to myself.

This was an assignment that years ago I would sometimes give to my middle school students. They were 12-14 years old and letter writing was an assignment we did in several forms. For this assignment, I gave them a fill-in-the-blank form that asked them a number of questions including: who are their best friends, favorites (movies, TV shows, books, places to visit, foods etc.) and I asked them about what they hoped or expected for their near future. It asked them what they wanted to happen in high school academically and socially. Did they have college plans, or career plans? They also wrote a letter to themself. Though I gave suggestions, that part was open-ended.

What made this assignment ultimately significant was what I did with their form and letter. I told them I would only glance at it at their desk to see that it was done but I would not read it.  They also had to bring in a self-addressed stamped envelope that the two sheets would be put in ready to mail.

I would mail them their letter on the first day of June of their senior year. So, in 4 or 5 years this most-likely-forgotten assignment would arrive at their home.

I knew from teaching high school seniors that a strong wave of nostalgia hits when June begins. Seniors tended to be nicer to each other. They talked about final things. This is my last: math test, cafeteria lunch, homeroom, pep rally, detention and so on.

The first year I mailed a set of those letters (about 125 of them), it only took a day or two for seniors to come back to their middle school to show them to me and tell how it felt to read them. “I changed so much! I totally forgot about this assignment. My predictions were so wrong. I laughed to read this. I cried when I read this. It made me so happy. It made me sad. I can’t believe you remembered to mail them!”

Luckily, no one had moved so the letters arrived. (I had them put on two stamps since this was a time before the “Forever stamp”). And none of those students had died in the interim. That was something that did happen the second time I did this assignment. I knew that and had pulled the letter which I delivered to the student’s parents in person. They were grateful for it, but I never heard from them about what they found in the envelope or if it was a good or bad thing for them to read.

Every time I mailed a batch of letters, I would get a few students who came back to complain that they never got their letter. Thankfully, I had kept a roster and next to their names I had them sign that they did not turn in the assignment. Instead of being mad at me, they were usually mad at themselves, but no letter was also a kind of unwritten letter from their younger self.

I was reminded of this years ago when one of my students who did a letter years ago became an English teacher herself. Via Facebook, I found out that Ines paid the letter assignment forward. She wrote “In 7th grade, my language arts teacher had us write letters to our future selves. The week I graduated from high school, I was so surprised to receive a letter from… me! It was the letter I had written myself so many years earlier. I don’t remember now what I wrote but I remember loving the idea so I did it for some of my own students.”

When I wrote my letter last year, I considered doing an email and using the Boomerang app in my Gmail to schedule it to send one year later. I decided not to for several reasons. First off, that meant that the email would be sitting there tempting me for a year. I could even revise it. But I didn’t have a nice teacher who would snail mail it to me in April 2021. I finally decided to write it, put it in an envelope, seal it and just put it away out of my sight and set a reminder on my electronic calendar about where it was “hiding” and to open it this month.

Writing a letter by hand on paper and putting it in an envelope might seem quaint to teens today having grown up in an almost fully-digital world. But I suspect people of all ages still get a little charge of excitement at getting a real letter or a greeting card in their home mailbox that exceeds the “Happy Birthday” post on their Facebook wall or the text message update.

One year is not four or five years, and I’m not a young teen heading into some years full of change. Still, April 2020 to April 2021 was a big year of change for myself, the country, and the world.

I wrote the letter on April 14, 2020. In the two weeks prior, we had seen a $2 trillion stimulus bill passed. The world hit one million COVID cases. There were 51,000 deaths by April 2 and by the 9th the number was 100,000.  The WHO and CDC were telling us to wear masks, but President Trump would not and many of his supporters followed his example. The day I wrote my letter, President Trump blamed the WHO and pulled funding from the U.S. to the organization. It was a depressing day to write a letter but I knew this was a history I didn’t want to forget.

I also knew that my first grandchild would be born in a few days. My son was concerned that they said he probably couldn’t be in the hospital for the birth.

Spring flowers were blooming in my neighborhood but spring was not as hopeful as in previous years. My sister was living in an assisted-living facility that had already had COVID cases and deaths and I was not allowed to visit her. There was talk of vaccines but that would be about nine months away despite claims from the false claim from the White House and some news sources that the virus would “go away when it got warmer” and that the number and reports of cases were exaggerated. At one point, the Presidents had said it would subside by Easter. But Passover and Easter were largely virtual events and things had only gotten worse.

Like my students’ letters, I wrote about what was happening then and what I hoped for in the next year. I won’t share my letter but you can guess correctly at some of it. I hoped the pandemic would subside and that no one I knew would get the virus and that none of that did would die. I hoped the vaccine would appear. I hoped that Trump would be a one-term President and that Biden would right the ship of state. My biggest piece of optimism was for my granddaughter.

Some of my predictions and wishes came true. Some did not.

Certainly, the birth of our Remi was the best thing to happen in the past year. My son was able to be in the room for her birth and isolated, masked, and sanitized, they left the hospital 24 hours after they went entered.

No one I am close to died from the virus but a good number of friends, relatives and acquaintances have tested positive and a few were hospitalized.

The pandemic continues to dominate the news. Things are better but the virus is certainly not gone. Travel plans we made for summer 2020 that we moved to 2021 are moved to 2022. My high school reunion that I am on the planning committee for moved our October 2021 event to October 2022.

Maybe things will be close to normal by the fall, but no one really knows.

I still haven’t seen my sister except through a window. My wife and I have been vaccinated but we still wear masks and we still stay pretty close to home. Tomorrow is Remi’s first birthday.

Maybe I should write another letter to myself. Maybe I should make it an annual assignment. Maybe you should write one too.