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.”

In formal Zen practice, the cultivation of intimacy begins with mindfulness of breathing. Toward that end, basic instructions for Zen meditation direct the practitioner to count breaths, “follow the breath,” or employ meditative verses in conjunction with the respiratory cycle. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in,” reads one such verse, “Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” These methods are useful, especially for beginners. They focus attention and calm the body-mind.

Whether they foster intimacy is another matter. To begin with, “the breath” is an abstract concept, and like other abstract concepts, it promotes the illusory notion that what it signifies is a solid thing–or, more exactly, a string of solid things: a series of discrete, countable breaths, rather than the continuous, fluctuating process it actually is. No less important, formulations for observing the breath can easily become the primary focus of concentration. Preoccupied with numbers or words, we may find ourselves intently counting those numbers or listening to the words, as if they and not our breathing were the objects of attention. Hard at work, we may inadvertently distance ourselves from our immediate experience.

Should that occur, the practitioner has other options. In my own practice I have found it helpful to concentrate on the sensations of breathing, wherever they might be felt. Breathing is an autonomic, complex, and mysterious activity. By adopting an attitude of humility, and by resolving merely to feel our breathing rather than measure or label it, we can allow the process to continue just as it is. By relinquishing any effort to lengthen or otherwise manipulate our respiration, we permit ourselves to enter its mystery, as intimately as possible.

And as with breathing, so with the body. Teachers of meditation sometimes advise their students to do a “body scan” before settling into a period of sitting. Beginning with the lower body and proceeding upward, or, conversely, scanning from the top down, the practitioner directs awareness to general regions or specific parts of the body: “Aware of my shoulders, I breathe in. / Bringing kind attention to my shoulders, I breathe out.” The effect is to relax tense muscles, quiet the nerves, and ease the body as a whole.

Body scans can reveal hidden tensions and imbalances. They can prepare us for extended sittings. But like conscious breathing, systematic scans can sometimes interfere with our direct experience. At a retreat some twenty years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh urged us to listen to our bodies and recognize whatever might be “calling” us, bringing mindfulness to that place. Over the years, I have found that simple stratagem effective. More intuitive than methodical, it promotes a closeness with one’s physical being. By listening receptively rather than asserting control, we permit reclusive knots to disclose and release themselves. And we also become aware, in real time, of the moment-by-moment changes occurring within us.

Those changes are mental and emotional as well as physical. And, just as we can become intimate with our physical being, we can also become intimate with the flux of our thoughts, feelings, and states of mind, even as they are occurring. Pausing periodically throughout the day to monitor that flux, we can readily perceive the changeability of our mental states. We may notice that we are feeling anxious and angry in the early morning–and equable an hour later. Through the disciplined practices of sitting and walking meditation, we heighten and refine that broad recognition, becoming ever more aware of the subtlest tonal changes.

In so doing, we may also become aware of the energy behind those changes: what the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura has called “the universal life force.” When we open our awareness to the impermanence of all conditioned things, as manifest in our breathing, our bodies, and our inner lives, we open ourselves to that “universal life force,” allowing it, in Okumura’s phrase, “to practice through us for the benefit of all beings.” Although it defies description, that force can be felt in the wind and sun and rain as well as in ourselves. It can heard in the din of traffic. Opening ourselves to its presence, we cultivate intimacy with life itself.

Jakusho Kwong, No Beginning, No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen (Shambhala, 2003), 111.

Shohaku Okumura, Living by Vow (Shambhala, 2010), 70.

Photo: “The Pond, Blue Cliff Monastery,”by Joaquin Carral.

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 »

Wooden monkReading a brochure from the Laz-y-Boy company the other day, I came upon the claim that Laz-y-Boy, Inc. is “being mindful” with respect to the environment. I was heartened to find that reassurance, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the company was voicing an authentic concern or merely striking a fashionable attitude.

Over the past two decades, the practice of mindfulness has assumed a prominent place in American life. In the vernacular of our times, mindfulness has gone mainstream. American corporations, particularly those situated in Silicon Valley, have embraced the practice, chiefly as a means of reducing stress and increasing productivity. So have the military academies, the health-care system, the prison system, and, more gradually, public schools and higher education. Yet, as the practice has gained in acceptance, it has sometimes lost sight of its origins in Buddhist meditation, and a central component has often been left behind. Continue Reading »

Allan Lokos

Allan Lokos

In the Parable of the Burning House, a revered text in the Zen tradition, a grand but dilapidated mansion catches fire. At the time, the wealthy owner is standing outside the gate, but inside the mansion, his three sons are playing with their toys, oblivious of the encroaching conflagration. Rushing into the house, their father implores them to get out, but they ignore his admonitions. To entice them, he promises to give them jeweled, ox-drawn carts if they will leave. By these “expedient means” he achieves his purpose, and his sons escape “the burning house of the threefold world.” Soon afterward, their father presents them with magnificent carriages adorned with gold, silver, and pearls and drawn by stalwart, pure-white oxen. Released from the burning house and their former attachments, his sons enjoy safety and freedom.

I was reminded of this parable while reading Allan Lokos’s new book Through the Flames, which recounts Lokos’s experience of a horrific plane crash and his near-miraculous survival and recovery. In December, 2012, Lokos and his wife, Susanna Weiss, were enjoying a ten-day holiday in Mynanmar. On Christmas Day, they boarded a short flight from Mandalay to Inle Lake. As their low-flying plane approached its destination, it struck electrical wires, burst into flames, and crashed in a rice field. Susanna jumped to safety from a side exit, but Allan, who was just behind her, caught his foot on something and suffered burns to a third of his body before he could escape. In the anguished days that followed, doctors in Myanmar, Bangkok, and Singapore informed Susanna that her husband, whose burns were massive and bone-deep, could not possibly survive, let alone recover. Continue Reading »

Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. Continue Reading »

156. The Book of Janet

730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. Continue Reading »


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