Open seaAs a boy growing up in eastern Iowa, I savored the word dwell, which I heard on many a Sunday morning. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, I intoned with the rest of the congregation, not quite understanding the context but reassured by the general idea. The word was pleasant to pronounce. It made a pleasing sound.

Only later did I learn that dwell bears a negative connotation. “Don’t dwell on it,” I was advised, in the aftermath of some abrasive encounter. “She didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.” Used in that fashion, dwell meant to brood, to worry, to concentrate unhealthily on some slight or insult or perceived injustice. Nowadays, for good or ill, many people use the verb obsess to describe the same habit of mind. “Don’t obsess about it,” we might advise a person who can’t stop talking about a personal dilemma, or can’t let go of a painful experience, as though that person had a choice, or our well-intentioned counsel might be helpful.

According to Zen teachings, we do have a choice, but if we wish to exercise that choice, we have first to distinguish between obsessive dwelling and sustained contemplation. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh encourages meditative practitioners to stop and “look deeply” into the present moment. By dwelling, in this constructive way, on immediate realities, we can lessen the suffering that our hurried, egocentric, and often erroneous perceptions inflict on ourselves and others. Intuiting that the rude young woman who has just offended you may herself be a victim of abuse or neglect, or that the man whose arrogance you find so annoying might be chronically insecure–such insights, the fruits of “looking deeply,” can awaken our innate wisdom and compassion. By the same token, dwelling on a sacred text or a meditative slogan can illuminate one’s present condition.

Obsessive rumination is quite another thing. The practice of contemplation is associated with such wholesome states of mind as openness, empathy, mindfulness, and concentration. By contrast, rumination is most often driven by unwholesome states, among them fear, anger, envy, and greed. In the Theravadan Buddhist tradition, practitioners learn to recognize the mental states of craving, aversion, and ignorance–the “three poisons” of classic Buddhist teachings–by observing the effects of those states on their minds and bodies. Craving creates a sense of grasping and contraction, aversion a sensation of pushing away. Ignorance engenders a feeling of running in circles, endlessly and uselessly. If you are susceptible, as I am, to obsessive thinking, you may have experienced all of these sensations, as you grasped for a solution to a difficult problem, pushed away suggested remedies, and felt your mind revolving in familiar grooves of thought.

So far as I know, there is no simple cure for compulsive thinking. It is less an ailment than a temperamental condition. Help may be found, however, in a practice from the Vipassana (“Insight”) meditative tradition. Known as “noting” or “labeling,” this practice consists of naming whatever process is occurring in our minds at any given moment. Becoming aware that we are thinking in abstractions, rather than being present for our immediate surroundings, we note: thinking, thinking. Realizing that we are thinking, relentlessly and needlessly, about the future, we might label our activity what-if, what-if. Observing ourselves in the act of remembering–or reliving–an experience, we back away far enough to label that process: remembering, remembering. As we become more practiced in this method, we can learn to sense the feeling beneath or around the obsessive thought: the emotional subtext that is causing us to worry or plan or lose ourselves in the past. Beneath incessant planning, for example, we might detect unrecognized fear or ungratified desire or a deep-seated need for control.

The practice of noting can generate liberating insights. It can reacquaint us with our own minds. Its most immediate benefit, however, is a furlough from the prison of obsessive thought. This can happen within a matter of minutes. And over time, Zen teachings promise, the practice can transform the most anxious cast of mind into what the Diamond Sutra calls “a mind that alights nowhere”: that no longer clings to its objects of attention. Released from habitual patterns of thought and feeling, we can elect to dwell (in the wholesome sense) on an object of interest, giving that object our wholehearted regard. Conversely, we can merely note what is occurring, within and around us, whether it be a pang of grief or a memory from childhood or the bark of a neighbor’s dog. Moving at will between these modes of knowing, we can enlist the one that best serves our highest intentions, our immediate circumstances, and our present state of mind. And that way freedom lies.


“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).

“All Bodhisattvas should develop a pure, lucid mind that doesn’t depend on sight, sound, touch, flavor, smell or any thought that arises in it. A Bodhisattva should develop a mind that alights nowhere. The mind should be kept independent of any thoughts that arise within it. If the mind depends upon anything, it has no sure haven.” (The Diamond Sutra, 14).

Photo: “Mittelmeer. Südfrankreich,” by Spacebirdy

AustraliaSkyZen has been called the study of silence. “We need silence,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “just as much as we need air, just as much as plants need light.” But how, exactly, are we to study silence? By what means can we cultivate its nourishing presence?

Just be quiet, one is tempted to suggest. Just be still. But in a world rife with noise and distraction, that choice may no longer seem plausible–or even very desirable. In her book Reclaiming Conversation, the sociologist Sherry Turkle reports that many of the people she has interviewed, particularly young people, have an aversion to silence, finding it merely boring. They would rather go online. And as Thich Nhat Hanh observes in his book Silence, many of us are afraid to sit quietly, doing nothing. By keeping ourselves ever-busy and ever-connected, we avoid such negative feelings as loneliness, restlessness, and sadness, which can become all too present when we are silent and alone. If we wish to study and cultivate silence, it would seem, we have first to overcome our resistance, whether it be grounded in aversion or fear. Continue Reading »

164. Soft eyes

BACKYARDOne afternoon a few summers ago, I decided to practice the guitar on our backyard deck. It was a sunny day, the temperature in the mid-seventies. At the time, I was revisiting the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro (BWV 998), a piece I had played for years and knew by heart. Normally, I practice indoors, my eyes fixed on the score. If I’ve memorized the piece, I tend to stare at the fingerboard, as classical guitarists are prone to do. That afternoon, however, I looked out at our spacious and secluded backyard, where the natural world was vividly in motion. Blue jays were foraging in the grass. Leaves quivered in a light wind. High in a tall pine, a dark bird flew in, perched for a moment, and flew out. As I played the first few bars of the Prelude–a lyrical but technically challenging piece–my eyes came to rest on our Curly Willow tree in the middle distance. At the same time, I remained keenly aware of all the peripheral movement. And as I proceeded into the Prelude, I gradually realized that my playing had become more fluent and relaxed. To my surprise, it had also become more accurate, expressive, and rhythmically precise.

That experience was new to me, but it was hardly my invention. Without knowledge or systematic training, I had stumbled upon a technique known to equestrians, martial artists, and other highly skilled performers as “soft eyes.” “Do you know what you need at a crime scene?” asks Detective Bunk Moreland in The Wire. “Rubber gloves?” ventures Detective Kima Greggs. “Soft eyes,” Moreland replies. “You got soft eyes, you see the whole thing.” In essence an integration of peripheral and foeval (central, line-of-sight) vision, the technique of soft eyes is used in fields as diverse as tracking, performance driving, interior decorating, teaching, yoga, and Akido. The personal and social benefits of this technique can be significant, if not transformative. It can permit us at any moment to see “the whole thing.” Yet in obvious ways, the practice of soft eyes runs counter to the prevalence of “hard eyes”–the type of vision we habitually employ when chopping a carrot or threading a needle or working at a computer. To learn to look with soft eyes may require conscious effort. Continue Reading »

800px-Taughannock_Falls_overlook“As everyone knows,” declares Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851), “meditation and water are wedded forever.”

Melville’s schoolmaster-turned-sailor makes this remark in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, as he reflects on the lure of water, especially to those of a contemplative disposition, who are naturally drawn to ponds, lakes, rivers, and the sea. Ishmael is not a meditative practitioner in any formal sense, and as Daniel Herman, a Melville scholar and Zen practitioner, notes, “Melville almost certainly never in his life heard the word ‘Zen’.” Yet Ishmael’s remark is relevant to the discipline of Zen meditation, insofar as that remark calls attention to two salient elements of the practice. By its nature, water visibly embodies the quality of impermanence, one of the primary objects of Zen contemplation. At the same time, water also embodies the quality of constancy, which Zen teachings urge us to contemplate. “How can I enter Zen?” a student asked a master. “Can you hear the murmuring of the mountain stream?” the master replied. “Enter there.” Continue Reading »

162. True intimacy

800px-Blue_Cliff_Monastery_-_3In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.” Continue Reading »

Caroline Littell Photo edited

“If you are truly present for an orange,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh once remarked, “the orange will be present for you.”

I was reminded of that remark when viewing the recent exhibition of sixty black-and-white photographs by the photojournalist Caroline Littell (1939-2015) at Alfred University’s Herrick Memorial Library. Entitled “Camera without Borders: The World of Caroline Littell,” this wide-ranging exhibition was curated by her husband, the travel writer Alan Littell, and their son Harry Littell, Associate Professor of Photography at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

As variegated as it is accomplished, Caroline Littell’s work spans several decades and the multiple continents she visited during her lifetime. Her beautifully rendered photographs, nearly all of them predating the digital era, were taken in countries as diverse in character and terrain as Burma, Botswana, Thailand, Colombia, Scotland, Turkey, Canada, and the United States. Many portray indigenous inhabitants, singly or in groups. Others depict landscapes, public squares, churches, monuments, and wild animals in their natural habitats. Diverse as they are in subject, however, the photos evince two consistent qualities, which together convey a strong sense of presence, whether the subject is a rhino in Tanzania or two young men astride their motorbikes on a street corner in Bangkok. Continue Reading »

Fragrance_Garden_-_Brooklyn_Botanic_Garden_-_Brooklyn,_NY_-_DSC07926In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years? Continue Reading »


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