Category Archives: Quiet

still chugging along

There’s nothing romantic about the belching, wheezing bus I take every night from Times Square to my New Jersey hometown. The trip is bookended by grouches: a uniformed dispatcher at Gate 412, who yells at us weary commuters to stand in a straight line, and my own beloved kids, whose initial excitement to see me fades to a lament over the weird bread I packed in their lunches. But in between verbal assaults, as my chariot lurches through the Meadowlands at dusk, I sink into a plush seat with a good book and settle peacefully, gratefully into my life’s best approximation of alone time.

This contentment surprises me every time. Maybe I’m relieved that somebody else is in charge for a change; or maybe, between the battling bands of home and work, my bus strikes just the right note of white noise. It’s the only part of my day that’s completely predictable, when I’m one in a million and lost in a crowd, which is a delicious feeling for a mother of three. When the sun finally drops, and the dim overhead lights fail to illuminate my page, I glance out the window into the reflection of my own eyes. There you are, I think. Still chugging along.

—Elisabeth Egan

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with a quiet heart

We have little control over the cards life deals us, other than accepting what happens with a quiet heart, or rejecting everything we don’t like and suffering more painful consequences. I’ve done both and recommend acceptance highly. When sorrowful mysteries are at work in our life, all we can do that’s helpful is wait and not try to shape the future before the time is ripe. That kind of soulful dumbness only hinders divine intervention. All we need to do is wait and remember: This too shall pass…. When we accept suffering as a mysterious part of what it means to be human, that’s when we’ll begin to see more clearly the exquisite pattern of our life.

—Sister Karol Jackowski, Ph.D., from this blog post on Whole Living


a happiness that doesn’t blow away with every wind

“For the Time Being”
by Norman Fischer

I recently returned from a week-long Zen meditation retreat on the Puget Sound. I am a Zen Buddhist priest, so a meditation retreat isn’t exotic to me: it’s what I do. But this one was particularly delightful. Sixty-five of us in silence together for a week, as great blue herons winged slowly overhead, swallows darted low to the ground before us as we walked quietly on the open grassy space between the meditation hall and the dining room. Rabbits nibbled on tall grasses in the thicket by the lake. The sky that far north is glorious this time of year, full of big bright clouds that can be spectacular at sunset — which doesn’t happen until around 10 p.m., the sky ablaze over the tops of the many islands thereabouts.

So yes, it was peaceful, it was quiet, it was beautiful, and nice to be away from all telephones and computers, all tasks and ordinary demands, all talking, all purposeful activity. The retreat participants are busy people like everyone else, and they appreciated the silence, the natural surroundings, and the chance to do nothing but experience their lives in the simplest possible way.

As most people know, a Zen meditation retreat is not a vacation. Despite the silence and the beauty, despite the respite from the busyness, the experience can be grueling. The meditation practice is intense and relentless, the feeling in the hall rigorous and disciplined. We start pretty early in the morning and meditate all day long, into the late evening. It can be uncomfortable physically and emotionally. And some people find it hard not to talk at all for a week. So, what’s in it for them?

If you live long enough you will discover the great secret we all hate to admit: life is inherently tough. Difficult things happen. You lose your job or your money or your spouse. You get old, you get sick, you die. You slog through your days beleaguered and reactive even when there are no noticeable disasters—a normal day has its many large and small annoyances, and the world, if you care to notice, and it is difficult not to, is burning.

Life is a challenge and in the welter of it all it is easy to forget who you are. Decades go by. Finally something happens. Or maybe nothing does. But one day you notice that you are suddenly lost, miles away from home, with no sense of direction. And you don’t know what to do.

The people at the retreat were not in crisis—at least no more than anyone else. I know most of them pretty well. They are people who have made the practice of Zen meditation a regular part of their daily routine, and come here not to forget about their troubles and pressures, but for the opposite reason: to meet them head on, to digest and clarify them. Why would they want to do this? Because it turns out that facing pain—not denial, not running in the opposite direction—is a practical necessity.

During the week of the retreat I generally give a daily talk. This week I talked about time, using as my text the 13th century Zen Master Dogen’s famous essay “The Time Being,” a treatise on the religious dimension of time.

Dogen’s view is uncannily close to Heidegger’s: being is always and only being in time; time is nothing other than being. This turns out to be less a philosophical than an experiential fact: to really live is to accept that you live “for the time being,” and to fully enter that moment of time. Living is that, not building up an identity or a set of accomplishments or relationships, though of course we do that too. But primarily, fundamentally, to live is to embrace each moment as if it were the first, last, and all moments of time. Whether you like this moment or not is not the point: in fact liking it or not liking it, being willing or unwilling to accept it, depending on whether or not you like it, is to sit on the fence of your life, waiting to decide whether or not to live, and so never actually living. I find it impressive how thoroughly normal it is be so tentative about the time of our lives, or so asleep within it, that we miss it entirely. Most of us don’t know what it actually feels like to be alive. We know about our problems, our desires, our goals and accomplishments, but we don’t know much about our lives. It generally takes a huge event, the equivalent or a birth or a death, to wake up our sense of living this moment we are given—this moment that is just for the time being, because it passes even as it arrives. Meditation is feeling the feeling of being alive for the time being. Life is more poignant than we know.

Dogen writes, “For the time being the highest peak, for the time being the deepest ocean; for the time being a crazy mind, for the time being a Buddha body; for the time being a Zen Master, for the time being an ordinary person; for the time being earth and sky… Since there is nothing but this moment, ‘for the time being’ is all the time there is.”

For seven days that week I spoke about this in as many ways as I could think of, silly and sometimes not silly, and for seven days 65 silent people listened and took Dogen’s words to heart.

We want enjoyment, we want to avoid pain and discomfort. But it is impossible that things will always work out, impossible to avoid pain and discomfort. So to be happy, with a happiness that doesn’t blow away with every wind, we need to be able to make use of what happens to us—all of it—whether we find ourselves at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea.

*reposted from NYTimes.com’s Happy Days Blog


my deepest and my best life

Once every three or four months, for much of my adult life now, I’ve gotten in my car in my mother’s house in the dry hills of California, above the sea, and driven up the road, past the local yoga foundation, past the community of local ‘60s refugees, past the mock-Danish tourist town and the vineyards, past where Ronald Reagan used to keep his Western White House and where Michael Jackson sat imprisoned in his Neverland, past a lighthouse, past meadows of dormant cows, to another little room a thousand feet above the ocean, in the dry hills, where deer come out to graze at dusk and mountain lions come out, too, to stalk our urban fantasies.

There is a sign on the main highway down below—hanging from a large cross—and there is a saint’s name on the door of the little room I enter, underneath the number. But the names are all forgotten here, especially my own, and when I step into the little “cell” that awaits me—narrow bed huddled up against one wall, closet and bathroom, wide blond-wood desk overlooking a garden that overlooks the sea—I really don’t know or care what “Catholic” means, or hermitage, or monastery, or Big Sur.

There are crosses in this place, and hooded men singing the psalms at dawn (at noon, at dusk, at sunset), and there’s a cross on the wall above the bed. But I go not because of all the trappings of the chapel I had to attend twice a day every school day of my adolescence, but in spite of it. I go to disappear into the silence.

My friends assume, I’m sure, that I go to the monastery to catch my breath, to be away from the phone, to drink in one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the world. What I can’t tell them—what they don’t want to hear—is that I go to the monastery to become another self, the self that we all are if only we choose to unpack our overstuffed lives and leave our selves at home.

In my cell I read novels in the ringing silence, and they are novels, often, of infidelity. In the best of them, the ones by Sue Miller, say, there is a palpable, quickening sense of the excitement of betraying others and your daily self in the world you know. I read these with recognition. This shadow story is as close to us as our dreams. All the great myths are about it, the stories of Shakespeare and Aeschylus and Homer are about it, as are our romance novels and our letters to Aunt Agony, but here in the monastery I’m committing to a deeper infidelity, against the life I know and the values by which we are supposed to live. I am being disloyal in the deepest way to the assumptions of the daily round, and daring to lay claim to a mystery at the heart of me.

I step into my cell, and I step into the realest life I know. My secret life, as Leonard Cohen calls it, also happens to be my deepest and my best life. There is no will involved, no choice; this other world, and self, are waiting for me like the clothes I never thought to ask for.

I’m not a Benedictine monk, and I attend none of the services held day in, day out, four times a day, while I’m in my little room. If I make the mistake of attending one because of my longing to be good, my wish to pay, in some way, the kind monks for making the silence available to me, I soon run out again. The presence of the 15 kindly souls in hoods, singing, takes me back, somehow, to the world, the self I’ve come here to escape; the words in the psalms are all of war, and I notice which face looks kind and which one bitter.

No, the flight is to something much larger than a single text or doctrine. It’s to—this the word I otherwise shy from—eternity. I step into a place that never changes, and with it that part of me, that ground in me, that belongs to what is changeless. There is a self at the core of us—what some call “Christ,” others call the “Buddha nature,” and poets refer to as the immortal soul—that is simply part of the nonshifting nature of the universe. Not in any exalted way: just like the soil or sky or air. It does not fit into our everyday notions any more than sky fits into a bed. But I steal into this better world as into a secret love, and there, as in the best of loves, I feel I am known in a way I know is true.

Thomas Merton put this best, not because he was a Christian, or even because he was a monk, but because he fell in love with silence. And he made the pursuit of that real life his lifelong mission. He knew, he saw, that it was akin to the earthly love we feel, and that the heightening, the risking up to a higher place, the making sense of things—above all, the dissolution of the tiny self we know—when we fall in love is our closest approximation to this state, as certain drugs can give us an indication of what lies beyond. But it is only an approximation, a momentary glimpse, like snapshots of a sunset where we long to live forever.

I wouldn’t call this a pilgrimage, because, as Merton says, again, I’m not off to find myself, only to lose myself. I’m not off in search of anything; in fact, only—the words sound fanciful—the sense of being found. You could say it’s not a pilgrimage because there’s no movement involved after I step out of my car, 3 hours and 15 minutes north of my mother’s house, and I don’t pay any of the religious dues when I arrive. But all the movements and journeys I have taken around the world are underwritten, at heart, by this: this is who I am when nobody is looking. This is who I’m not, because the petty, struggling, ambitious “I” is gone. I am as still, as timeless as the plate of sea below me.

I keep quiet about this journey, usually because it sounds as strange to other people, or to myself, as a piece of silence brought to a shopping mall. If they have an equivalent—and they surely do, in meditation, in skydiving, in running, in sex—they will know what I’m talking of, and substitute their own terms; everyone knows at moments she has a deeper, purer self within, something that belongs to what stands out of time and space, and when she falls in love, she rises to that eternal candle in another, and to the self that is newly seen in her. But it belongs to a different order from the words we throw around at home. When we fall in love, when we enter a room with our beloved, we know that we can’t really speak of it to anyone else. The point, the very beauty of it, is that it admits us into the realm of what cannot be said.

So when I come down to the monastery, I tell my friends that monks watch the film A Fish Called Wanda in the cloister. That most of the visitors are female, and very down to earth. The monks sell fruitcake and greeting cards and cassettes in the hermitage bookstore; they have Alcoholics Anonymous meetings once a week, and a sweet woman now lives on the property, helping care for the rooms. The monastery has a website and a fax number. There’s a workout room in the “enclosure” for the monks; visiting it once, I came upon books by the Hollywood producer Robert Evans and by Woody Allen.

Everyone feels better when I assure them it’s a mortal place, with regular human beings, balding, divorced, confused, with a mailing address I can send packages to. The infidelity sounds less glaring if I phrase it thus. But I can say all this only because I know I’m not talking about what I love and find; because this is the place where all seeking ends.

—Pico Iyer, “Room with a view,” published in Yoga + Joyful Living, November-December 2008

Copyright 2006 Pico Iyer.

Essayist Pico Iyer writes for The New York Review of Books, Time, The New Yorker, and Harper’s, and is the author of numerous books. His most recent, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2008.


choo choo brain

I have an image that I use to convey the sense of emptying my mind of thoughts. From a vantage-point high above, I picture myself sitting in meditation on the floor of the main hall of a huge deserted main-line railway station. I am completely alone, my eyes shut, the empty floor spreading out in all directions, and there is a muffled, almost underwater silence in this entire vast space.

Trains, like trains of thought, are at every moment silently gliding out from dozens of platforms to all possible destinations, and these trains represent all the thoughts, memories, feelings, desires, fears, ruminations, reflections, speculations, words, tunes and images that bombard me when I first sit down to meditate. But I, settling down into a deep and peaceful meditative state, stay seated in the terminus, do not feel tempted to board any of these trains, and will not pursue the connections that they inevitably go on to make, thought endlessly leading on to thought. I avoid these trains of thought by staying in the pure awareness of this hall, happy to remain in solitary and silent comtemplation of my own awareness, itself an immense cavernous void like the station, where I am rapt in the infinite stillness of eternity.

—Mark Forstater, from Yoga Masters


perfect rest

The great Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh says that it helps to meditate on the image of a pebble thrown into a river. How is one helped by the image of a pebble? Sit down in whatever position suits you best, the Half Lotus or Lotus, or even in a straight-backed chair, and keep a half-smile on your face.

Breathe slowly and deeply, following each breath. Then let go of everything. Imagine yourself as a pebble that has been thrown into a river. The pebble sinks through the water effortlessly; detached from everything, it falls by the shortest distance possible, finally sinking to the bottom, the point of perfect rest. You are like a pebble that has let itself fall into the river, letting go of everything. At the centre of your being is your breath. You don’t need to know the length of time it takes to reach the point of complete rest on the bed of fine sand beneath the water. But when you feel yourself resting like a pebble that has settled on the riverbed, that is the point when you begin to find your own rest, your own peace. In that peace you are no longer pushed or pulled by anything.

—Mark Forstater, from Yoga Masters