Archive for the ‘1’ Category

255. To let or not to let

If you have spent much time in England, you may have noticed signs reading “To Let” in front of houses and office buildings. When, at the age of twenty, I first glimpsed one such sign, it was so unfamiliar to my American eyes that I misread it as “Toilet.” In fact—or “actual fact,” as my British friends were fond of saying—“to let” means “to grant for lease or rent.” In layman’s terms, to let means to allow.

The verb let also figures prominently in meditative practice and in spiritual contexts generally. If you are of a certain age, you may remember the Beatles’ song “Let it Be,” in which “Mother Mary,” speaking “words of wisdom,” advises a troubled Paul McCartney to “let it be.” If you are of the Judeo-Christian persuasion, you may have been enjoined to “Let Go, Let God.” And if you have explored Eastern contemplative practices, it’s more than likely that someone has instructed you to “let go,” without always specifying what is to be released, or how. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once described Zen practice as letting things “go as they go.”

As those who have tried doing so know, “letting go” is far easier said than done. During most of our waking hours, most of us expend enormous energy exerting control, whether we are driving, cooking, piloting a recalcitrant snow blower, or navigating a fraught social interaction. And the mental habit of maintaining control, even when control is unneeded or inappropriate, is not easily abandoned, having been reinforced at every turn.

Fortunately, the Zen tradition offers multiple practices for those who might wish to let things go as they go. In my experience, two specific exercises, one of them practical and the other reflective, have proven especially efficacious. Both foster awareness of the impulse to control, even as they promote the counter-habit of relinquishment. And over time, both can foster insight into our need to manage the future.

In his little book How to Sit, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh offers an unconventional meditation. “When you sit on your own,” he suggests, “you may like to think of the Buddha as sitting with you.” In this instance, the Buddha is not to be thought of as someone “outside of you.” Rather, he represents the “seeds of mindfulness, peace, and enlightenment” that reside within all of us. “When you invite the Buddha in you to sit, he will sit beautifully right away. You don’t have to do anything.” To support this practice, Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to say to ourselves, as we follow our breathing, “Let the Buddha breathe. / Let the Buddha sit.” In this way we set aside our ever-present need to supervise our experience—even when practicing meditation. We literally “let it happen.”

The second exercise is of a more cerebral nature. To explore it, sit in a comfortable, upright posture on a cushion or bench or chair. Take a few minutes to become fully aware of your breathing. With each exhalation, release the tensions in your body. When you have established yourself in the present moment, entertain the question, “What will happen tomorrow?” As possibilities occur to you, focus on one over which you have a modicum of control. You will go grocery shopping; you will do your laundry; you will keep a doctor’s appointment. Note how that scenario feels and how it affects your state of mind. Now explore the opposite. Choose an aspect of the future over which you have little or no control—the course of the pandemic, for example, or a pending diagnosis. Note whatever feelings of fear and uncertainty may arise. And now, as you conclude your meditation, resolve to accept rather than resist, deny, or ignore those feelings, however unwelcome they may be, and to remain open to the flow of life.

In his essay “The Wisdom of Not Knowing,” the Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield offers this illuminating perspective on our need to know and control:

Underneath all the wanting and grasping . . . is what we have called “the body of fear.” At the root of suffering is a small heart, frightened to be here, afraid to trust the river of change, to let go in this changing world. This small unopened heart grasps and needs and struggles to control what is unpredictable and unpossessable. But we can never know what will happen. With wisdom we allow this not knowing to become a form of trust. . . . In wisdom the body of fear drops away and our heart comes to rest.

Here, as so often in meditative practice, the pivotal action is that of letting go. By so doing, we transform the body of fear into wisdom and the anxiety of uncertainty into a “form of trust.” To let or not to let: that is the question.


Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Sit (Parallax, 2007), 64.

Jack Kornfield, “The Wisdom of Not Knowing,” http://www.jackkornfield.com/the-wisdom-of-not-knowing/

Drawing by Allegra Howard.

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Temperature drops Jens Schott Knudsen ps

When cold, be thoroughly cold, an old Zen saying advises. Glancing at the thermometer this morning, I’m reminded of that ancient saying. When the temperature drops into the teens, I like many others want it to be otherwise. Or I want to be elsewhere. And for all the wisdom it may contain, that old Zen saying can seem both useless and faintly annoying.

Fortunately, “When cold, be thoroughly cold” does not mean what it is sometimes thought to mean. Its source is a classic Zen koan (Blue Cliff Record, Case 43), in which a monk complains of the cold, and the Zen master Tozan Ryokai replies, “Why not go to a place where there is no heat or cold?” Of course, there is no such place. And as the dialogue unfolds, Tozan instructs the monk not to resist the cold but to allow it to “kill” him.

To a Western ear, that may sound like pure stoicism: something Seneca or Epictetus might have said. Having grown up with what is sometimes called Midwestern Stoicism, which induces some of its adherents, particularly hyper-masculine young men, to go out in zero-degree weather without caps or scarves, I am well-acquainted with that attitude. What Tozan is urging, however, is something quite different.

To understand the principle behind Tozan’s advice, it’s helpful to remember that Zen is a late flowering of the Buddhist tradition. Fundamental to that tradition is the wholesale rejection of a belief ubiquitous in Western culture, by which I mean the notion of a separate, autonomous self. In its broader context, this belief underlies Western individualism, which further holds that this separate, autonomous self is to be maintained, nurtured, and defended at all costs. If this mindset sounds familiar, it should: Western individualism, one might say, is more American than apple pie. Some people don’t care for apple pie or avoid it for dietary reasons. But, consciously or unconsciously, nearly everyone I know is a proponent of Western individualism. We admire those whom we perceive as strong and independent. And whatever we’ve done in our lives, we fervently believe, we’ve done it our way.

Individualism has deep roots in European and American culture. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s seminal essay “Self-Reliance” (1840), a locus classicus of Western individualism, has inspired subsequent generations to make their own way, do their own things, and “be all [they] can be.” Trust thyself,” wrote Emerson. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. Implicit in Emerson’s exhortation is a concept of the self as a separate, solid entity, which we own, operate, and—as best we can—control. From infancy we are conditioned by this view, and it is firmly embedded in our language. “It’s your funeral,” my mother used to say, having failed to dissuade me from some unwise course of action. At this point, even my own mother perceived herself and her teen-aged son as distinctly separate, independent beings. And just as the self is conceived of as separate from others, it is also seen as separate from the natural world—the primal source of heat and cold.

In one important way, Zen teachings concur with our Western outlook. Atta dipa . . . atta sirana, ananna sirana, Rinzai Zen disciples chant in their morning service:“You are the light. Rely on yourself. Do not rely on others.” Congruent with this chant, Zen teachings admonish practitioners to realize their “suchness”: their uniqueness (or “Dharma position”) as manifest in any given moment. Ichigo ichie (“one time, one meeting”), a cardinal slogan of Zen practice, echoes that affirmation. Just as the present moment is unprecedented and unrepeatable and therefore to be met with wholehearted attention, so is our own unique presence in that moment. “Bowing to the moment,” we also bow to our unprecedented, unrepeatable selves.

Yet despite this common ground, the concept of self implied or stated in classical Zen teachings differs radically from that of Western individualism. Yes, the self exists, Zen teachings tell us, but it is impermanent, interconnected with others, and interdependent with everyone and everything else, including the natural world. In urging the monk to be thoroughly cold when it’s cold, Tozan is enjoining him to acknowledge that reality. And in instructing him to let the cold “kill” him, he is importuning the monk to set aside both his personal preferences and his relative, dualistic concepts of hot and cold. He is urging him, in other words, to experience and become intimate with the world as it actually is.

That is a difficult teaching. For many, the challenge it poses may be insurmountable. But if inner peace as well as peace on earth is what we seek during this holiday season, we could do worse than entertain this problematic teaching.  Remembering it as we step outdoors, we might inquire what place, if any, Tozan’s advice might occupy in our contemporary Western lives. 


Photo: Temperature Drops. Jens Schott Knudsen. Courtesy Creative Commons.

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Bowing in gratitude

However much we may differ in other ways, nearly all of us share one common trait. We all have bad habits. And for those of us who are married, one of the chief functions of a spouse, it often seems, is to point them out.

My personal repertoire of unfortunate habits includes leaving cupboard doors open in our rather small kitchen. After opening one to fetch a plate or bowl, I sometimes neglect to close it. So it was the other day, when I banged my knee on a lower cupboard door, and my wife kindly noted that if I stopped leaving cupboard doors open, I might also stop banging my knees, or my head, as the case may be. Perhaps after a day of nursing a sore knee, I have finally got the message and will make an effort to mend my ways.

Such efforts can sometimes be successful, at least where behavior is concerned. Far more difficult, I have found, is any attempt to change one’s habitual attitudes. By their very nature, habitual attitudes are resistant to change. Driven by what Buddhism calls “habit energy,” they bear a force as powerful as tornadoes and no less capable of causing serious damage. As with habitual behavior, each time we voice or demonstrate a particular attitude, be it kindness or hostility, reverence or derision, we reinforce that habitual attitude and the energy behind it, making it all the more difficult to change.

One such attitude is that of habitual complaint, which seems close to universal. Is there anyone among us who can emulate the example of Sono, the woman in an old Zen story who ended each day by saying, “Thanks for everything. No complaints whatsoever”? For one thing, the habit of complaint has probably been with us from the cradle. And for another, we have plenty of things to legitimately complain about—the environmental degradation caused by fossil fuels, for example, or the polarization of our polity, or, not least, the dramatic rise of toxic noise pollution in American life. But all that said, the habit of complaint, as distinguished from the justified choice to complain, is one we might well prefer to eliminate, for others’ sake as well as our own.

Unfortunately, if there is one thing that recent research on habits, as reported in such books as Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (2020), has determined, it’s that few if any of our deeply ingrained habits can be entirely expunged, as if they were ugly stains in a carpet. Yes, we can become aware of our habits, as Zen teachings describe, through the practice of mindfulness, and thereby gain a modicum of control. But, as Duhigg convincingly explains, the most effective way to change a habit, behavioral or mental, is first to become aware of it, and, second, to consciously replace that habit with another.

With respect to the habit of complaint, the prime candidate for such replacement is the habit of gratitude. As the Zen teacher John Daido Loori once pointed out, it is nearly impossible to bow in gratitude and complain at the same time. Likewise, the attitudes of grievance and thankfulness are largely incompatible. In contemporary American life, it’s fair to say, the presence of the former threatens to overwhelm the latter. Many of us expend far more energy complaining than we do expressing gratitude. But the restoration of a proper balance between complaint and gratitude, at both the personal and societal levels, will probably not happen all by itself. It will take concerted effort. And giving thanks once a year—or even once a week—or noting our good fortune from time to time will probably not suffice.

What is needed is an active, regular practice. Bowing every day in gratitude, as Loori recommends, is one such practice. Making a daily list, as others have suggested, of those things for which one is—or might be—grateful is another. Having recently adopted that practice myself, I can attest to its efficacy. Indeed, having made it one of my daily rituals, I have been surprised by the number of things I have to be grateful for. The list, it would seem, is endless.

Whatever practice one chooses, however, the important thing is not so much the means as the ultimate aim: the habitual attitude being created, cultivated, and integrated into one’s everyday life. It is all very well to celebrate Thanksgiving once a year or to count our blessings at periodic intervals. But with disciplined daily practice, the habit of gratitude can become more than a matter of lip service or pious self-congratulation. It can become an authentic way of being: the governing principle behind our every action and the lens through which we view our troubled world.


Photo: A two-year-old recovered coronavirus patient bowing to a nurse outside a hospital in East China.



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Sarasota Zen Center

In the summer of 1965, shortly after my twenty-first birthday, I booked passage from London to New York on the Castel Felice, a storied old Sitmar liner with rock-bottom fares. For the previous nine months I had been an American student at the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England. Now I was coming home.

Midway through the ten-day voyage, something quietly momentous occurred. Winston Churchill once remarked that America and England are two nations separated by a common language. And during my time in England, although I shared a common tongue with my British hosts, I seldom forgot that I was a foreigner: a guest, as it were, of the British nation. But somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, I began to feel myself on native ground again. I began to feel like a host. And the British subjects on board, with whom I had many conversations about American culture, began to feel like my guests. Although it was never openly acknowledged, this reversal of roles could be felt in our language, our attitudes, even our demeanor. And the closer we came to the Statue of Liberty, the stronger the feeling grew.

Something analogous has been happening in American Zen. Recently Shohaku Okumura Roshi, an esteemed Zen master and abbot of the Sanshin Zen Community in Bloomington, Indiana, abandoned the lotus position, the traditional, cross-legged posture of Japanese Zen. He now sits in a chair. Likewise Susan Moon, an American writer and longtime Zen practitioner, has traded her traditional zafu (meditation cushion) for a straight-backed chair. In both instances, these decisions were driven by physical considerations. But in their broader cultural import, they might well be seen as symbolic.

For the past fifty years, American Zen has played guest to its foreign host, whose postures, forms, language, and liturgy it has struggled mightily to emulate and adopt. We Western practitioners have worn our hipparis and rakusus, our robes and tabi. We have chanted the Heart Sutra in Sino-Japanese. But slowly and sometimes painfully, American Zen has been coming into its own. Such unconventional practices as sitting zazen in a chair or chanting the sutras in English translation have been introduced in many Zen centers and widely, if sometimes reluctantly, accepted. Such adaptions are now no longer seen, as least by the more liberal-minded proponents of the practice, as concessions to comfort or as inauthentic, Western replicas of the real thing.

Looking back on my own essays on Zen practice, I see that they, too, reflect this tectonic shift. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, to whom I have so often referred, went out of his way in his talks and writings to make the Asian practice of Zen palatable and accessible to interested Westerners. The word Zen was never mentioned; he spoke rather of “mindfulness” and the “energy of mindfulness.” Zazen became “seated meditation,” kinhin became “walking meditation,” and prostrations—that most foreign of Buddhist practices—became “touching the earth.” In this way “Thay,” as we called him, not only repackaged the practice. He also contributed, in no small measure, to its naturalization in the Western Hemisphere.

By and large, most of the leading Western teachers and writers on Zen—Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Roshi Joan Halifax, Charlotte Joko Beck, Edward Espe Brown, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, James Ishmael Ford, to name a few—have done the same. Their teachings and writings are deeply rooted in the traditional Asian teachings, particularly the seminal writings of Eihei Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto tradition of Japanese Zen. But all of these teachers grew up in the United States and were conditioned by the mores, values, and language of mainstream Western culture. And in their talks and writings, they too have made an effort not only to translate the teachings into Western terms but to make this ennobling practice relevant and understandable to people living in our present place and time. Such terms as “ordinary Zen” and “everyday Zen” reinforce the image of a practice that originated in the East but has found a home and a nurturing environment in Western society.

To be sure, not every Zen practitioner is comfortable with this development. Those who assert that the full lotus is the only truly authentic Zen posture are unlikely to be at ease in such venues as the Ordinary Zen Sangha in Sarasota, Florida, which features on its website a photo of airport-style chairs lined up next to a wall on one side of its meditation hall and a row of zafus on tatami mats next to the facing wall. This image of an accommodating cultural change might also be read as a symptom of a deepening cultural divide: the innovators on the one side, the traditionalists on the other. Will that image prove to be a symbol of a broadening, inclusive practice—or a harbinger of a splintering spiritual community?  I for one would hope that a strict and formal Eastern practice whose motto is “include everything” will find ample room for the West and its often informal ways.


Photo: The zendo of the Ordinary Zen Sangha, Sarasota, Florida. https://ordinaryzensangha.org/.



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Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser


In Zen practice,” writes the Zen teacher Sobun Katherine Thanas, “we give attention to the details of our lives.” By paying close, sustained attention to the most ordinary details in our daily round, we train ourselves to abide in the present moment. Rather than sacrifice our present experience to a past that is already gone, a future that has not yet come, or abstract thoughts that may or may not reflect reality, we attend to the details of the matter at hand: the level of green tea in our measuring spoon, the temperature and volume of water to be added, the specific brewing time for that particular tea. By so doing, we fully engage in relative, historical time, even as we touch the timeless, absolute dimension of our experience.

No one understands this paradox more fully or articulates it with greater skill than the Midwestern poet Ted Kooser (b. 1939), who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Delights & Shadows in 2005 and served as US Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. Kooser is not a Zen practitioner, so far as I know, but by attending to the details of quotidian life, no matter how mundane, he returns the reader, time and again, to the immediacy of the present moment. And in their acute awareness of impermanence and interdependence, as revealed by such common or discarded objects as curtain rods, enameled pans, and Depression glass, his poems often embody the essence, if not the customary forms and rituals, of Zen practice.

A vivid example may be seen in the title poem of Kooser’s collection Splitting an Order (2014). In this gentle poem, set in a diner, the narrator observes an old man cutting his cold sandwich into two equal parts. It pleases the narrator to watch him

                                  keeping his shaky hands steady

by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table

and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,

and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,

observing his progress through glasses that moments before

he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half

onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,

and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife

while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,

her knife, and her fork in their proper places,

then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees

and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.

A more ordinary situation it would be difficult to imagine: an elderly married couple having lunch in a diner. Yet Kooser endows this everyday situation with the glow of heightened attention, both on the part of the husband and wife and on that of the observant narrator.

The couple are splitting a plain roast-beef sandwich, perhaps to economize or because neither needs to eat a whole one. To accomplish this division, the husband must steady his shaky hands, a challenge he readily overcomes. By dividing the sandwich “surely” and diagonally, he ensures that the resulting portions will be exactly equal. Meanwhile, his wife carefully unrolls the napkin enclosing her knife, fork, and spoon. These, too, become objects of meticulous attention.

Even as the husband and wife are taking their time and paying attention to the details of their humble repast, the narrator is doing the same. His unswerving observation, recorded in a single complex but graceful sentence, not only mirrors that of his subjects toward the actions they are performing. It also establishes a tone of caring, even for common, unexceptional things, and implicitly bestows moral and aesthetic value on a scene that might otherwise have been dismissed as banal. The true significance of the scene becomes apparent in the poem’s closing lines, where the husband’s offering his wife her half of their sandwich completes his act of fairness, solicitude, and kindness. She in turn exhibits an attitude of openness and gratitude.

Shizen ichimi, an old Zen saying reminds us: “Poetry and Zen are one.” Although the former depends on fresh language, the latter on silent contemplation, both rely on wholehearted attention to concrete, particular detail. By stopping and looking deeply, both reveal the hidden dimension of human experience, the currents of interdependence and impermanence that underlie the most commonplace of human interactions. And, though they do so in very different ways, both, in the words of the poet Patrick Kavanagh, “snatch out of time the passionate transitory.”


Sobun Katherine Thanas, The Truth of This Life: Essays on Learning to Love This World (Shambhala, 2018), 69.

Ted Kooser, Splitting an Order (Copper Canyon, 2014), 9.

Patrick Kavanagh, “The Hospital,” Collected Poems (Norton, 1964), 153.

Photo: Ted Kooser

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5. Marion Howard at his desk, Longfellow School

“All composite things,” declares the Diamond Sutra, “are as a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.” I am often reminded of those verses when I summon memories from my childhood. From my present vantage point, the images, names, and places that constitute those memories sometimes resemble fragments from a dream or dispatches from a foreign land.

Such is my memory of Longfellow Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa (pop. 27,000), my scenic hometown on the banks of the Mississippi River. I attended Longfellow School from the ages of seven to eleven. Situated on Iowa Avenue, a quiet residential street, and facing the First Church of God, this two-storey brown-brick building bespoke a reliable solidity and an austere sobriety. Erected in 1927, the building housed some thirty classrooms. Together with its spacious playground and baseball diamond, it occupied a city block. To the vulnerable schoolchildren who approached this imposing edifice, it presented a formidable if not forbidding aspect.

Not so for me, however. To this day I remember the school fondly and intimately, not only because it was there that I learned to read, write, and do arithmetic—and to hold my own with the playground bullies—but also because my father, Marion C. Howard (1905-1971), was the school’s principal. Far from being an alien, oppressive institution, Longfellow School felt like a second home. (more…)

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In her book Ordinary Wonder, the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011) recounts the experience of one of her students, a heart surgeon on the verge of burnout. A nervous wreck at work, he came home exhausted in the evenings. To relieve his stress, he adopted a simple but effective practice. Whenever he was walking down the halls of the hospital, he focused on his feet. Rather than think about the operation just performed or the one in prospect, he shifted his attention to the feeling of his soles pressing against the floor. To his amazement, he found himself less anxious at work and less tired at the end of the day.

 As food for thought, the sensation of one’s feet doing their customary work may seem like meager fare indeed. How much better to be musing about enlightenment—or dreaming of the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. But underlying the surgeon’s humble intervention was an essential principle of Zen practice. Ubiquitous in Zen teachings, that principle has three distinct but interrelated aspects.


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248. The weight of the future

100 steps

If you have a hundred steps to climb, an ancient Chan (Zen) saying advises, “Watch what’s under your feet.” Focus on the step you are taking. If you think too much about the remaining steps, you are likely to be discouraged. You may decide not to climb the steps at all.

Commenting on this saying and the principle behind it, the contemporary Chan teacher Guo Gu observes that when we dwell on the future, “everything slows down and the process [of climbing the hundred steps] takes a long time. Every step becomes a burden because the weight of the future is in the present.” It is as if we are carrying a backpack full of rocks or wearing a belt laden with unnecessary equipment. (more…)

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247. Speech after silence


Speech after long silence; it is right.

–W.B. Yeats

Scott Russell Sanders (b. 1945) is a distinguished American essayist and the author of more than twenty books, most recently The Way of Imagination (Counterpoint, 2020). A writer with no declared religious affiliation but deeply spiritual inclinations, he has brought a searching, moral perspective to subjects as diverse as art, marriage, parenthood, community, the natural world, and, of late, environmental peril. And in two of his most personal and affecting essays, he has engaged the dual, contrapuntal themes of silence and speech, stillness and activity, solitude and social interaction. Though written long before the pandemic, these penetrating essays could hardly be more relevant to our present time.

            In “Silence” Sanders recounts his visit to a Quaker service. The setting is the meeting house of the North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis, a “frowsy, good-natured space,” where he “sank into stillness” and explored the “absence of human noise,” “below the babble of thought.” In prose as unadorned as its subject, he describes an interior silence so deep that he could hear the blood beating in his ears. Contrasting the austerities of Quaker worship with the “scripted performances” of other, larger churches in the area, he confesses his motives for coming to this one: to escape from the “human racket” and “the obsessive human story” and to meet “the nameless mystery at the core of being.” During the hour and a half he spends in quietude, he indeed descends into the depths of silence. He “touches bottom,” or seems to. Yet he also wonders whether what he has reached is the ground of being or “only the floor of [his] private psyche.”

            Whichever it might have been, Sanders’ dive into the depths of self and silence is abruptly curtailed when an elder rises to speak. Soon afterward, this same man extends his hand to the person next to him, a signal that the service has ended. There follows a period of socializing, in which the twelve people present, Sanders included, share personal anecdotes and reflect on their recent experience. Laughter ensues, and the air is “filled with talk.” At this point, the tenor of Sanders’ essay also abruptly shifts, becoming lighter, warmer, and more relational. What began as a solemn meditation on the experience of silence becomes something more complex: a dynamic study of silence and speech, introspection and social interaction.

            Something analogous occurs in “Stillness,” a later essay, although the setting is distinctly different. In this essay Sanders recalls a period of solitude spent in his newly built studio, a twelve-by-fifteen-foot cedar hut situated between a meadow and a woods. In this instance his motive was not so much to escape external human noise but to “cast off worry and grief,” collect himself, and dwell in the present. Watching dust particles floating in the sunlight, he likens their “Brownian motion” to the “mad rush” of his daily life, the unceasing professional activity driven, he concludes, by guilt, fear, and a desire to “stave off death.” Calming himself through conscious breathing, he reflects on the “wild energy” common to nature and himself. “My breath and the clouds,” he acknowledges, “ride the same wind.”

            As in “Silence,” this encounter with contemplative solitude comes to an abrupt end, as Sanders steps outside his hermitage to watch the flight of a pair of red-tailed hawks. Back in the world, as it were, and awaiting the arrival of his wife, he recognizes his urgent need for relationship. “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, and I’m eager for company. . . . I long to hold my children and catch up on their lives. I want to share food with friends. I want to sit with my students and talk over the ancient questions. I want to walk among crowds at the farmers’ market and run my hands over the melons and apples and squash.”

            Sanders’ realization of these natural human desires, occasioned and amplified by his experience of solitude, may strike a chord with those of us who have endured more than a year of curtailments, restrictions, and social isolation in the service of the common good. We, too, have longed to share food with friends, hold our distant loved ones, and walk, unmasked, in the farmers’ market. Concluding his essay, Sanders speaks of carrying “back into [his] ordinary days a sense of the stillness that gathers into the shape of a life, scatters into fragments, and then gathers again.”  Perhaps we, too, who have suffered the absence of normal human relationships and activities, can carry back into our ordinary days whatever insights, wisdom, and renewed appreciation we may have acquired during our many months apart. Speech after long silence; it is right.


Scott Russell Sanders, “Silence,” The Force of Spirit (Beacon, 2000), 151-164.

Scott Russell Sanders, “Stillness,” A Conversationist Manifesto (Indiana, 2009), 195-20.

Photo: Scott Russell Sanders

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In a drawing our seven-year-old granddaughter made during the lockdown, Rapunzel is escaping from the wicked witch’s tower. “We rescue ourselves without long hair,” she explains, as she and a companion descend from a rope suspended from a window. Meanwhile a knight-in-arms, who has arrived on cue to liberate the damsel in distress, looks on, bewildered.

Our granddaughter’s drawing admits of multiple interpretations. To a contemporary feminist, it might exemplify a salutary revision of a patriarchal tale. To a child psychologist, it might represent a healthy, if anxious, response to prolonged confinement. But to a Marine Corps veteran—or anyone who remembers Clint Eastwood’s movie Heartbreak Ridge—the imprisoned maiden’s resourceful escape might bring to mind a familiar mantra.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome may or may not have originated with the US Marines, but it has long been associated with that branch of the armed services. According to one theory, the motto reflects the fact that the Marines, for all their valor on land and sea and in the air, have often found themselves on the tail end of the supply chain. They have learned to make do. Their verbal triumvirate, itself a model of minimalism and concision, offers one effective way of dealing with adversity, uncertainty, and deprivation. And, as a three-pronged tool for coping with life’s vicissitudes, it has much in common with three cardinal principles of Zen teachings.


Of the truths that the Zen tradition holds to be self-evident, none is more central than the impermanence of all conditioned things. Challenged to encapsulate Zen teachings in seven words, the American poet Jane Hirshfield proposed, “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.”

If we are indeed paying attention to our experience, we have little choice but to assent to Hirshfield’s first assertion. Not only does everything, in the long or short run, change, be it external phenomena or our private feelings, notions, and states of mind. More fundamentally, those moment-by-moment changes are governed by what Zen calls the law of impermanence. Paradoxically, that natural law differs from human laws in not being subject to revision or revocation.

Given the universality of impermanence, improvisation becomes more than a last resort, to be employed only when there is no practical alternative. It might better be seen as the only realistic response to ever-changing conditions, external and internal. Whether the situation at hand be the absence of an essential ingredient when following a favorite recipe or the arrival of an unexpected visitor just as one is sitting down to dinner, improvisation is often the most practical, appropriate, and humane course of action.


The second imperative in Hirshfield’s formulation—“everything is connected”—articulates a second fundamental tenet of Zen teachings, namely the doctrine of interdependence or “dependent origination.” Simply put, this doctrine states that everything depends upon everything else. The things of this world may appear solid, singular, and autonomous, but in reality they are transitory, insubstantial, and interconnected in the vast web of life. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains in his book The Heart of Understanding, a piece of paper depends for its very existence on trees, water, soil, the forester, and so on. Without them, the paper could not exist.

For that reason, it is seldom wise to reflexively apply a rigid formula to a specific situation. Causes and conditions must be considered, and our practiced responses must be adapted to the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Analogous to its counterpart in the natural world, the practice of adaptation in human affairs requires us to remain continuously aware of present conditions and to align our best efforts with those conditions, lest our well-intentioned actions prove erroneous or harmful.


In its original context, this term applies most directly to external obstacles: whatever stands in the way of a successful mission. Applied to Zen practice, however, the metaphor of conquest may seem a poor fit, the primary aims of the practice being not military victory but clarity, equanimity, and compassionate wisdom.

Yet, in everyday life, Zen practice often involves “going against the grain,” whether that grain be conventional thought or, more immediately, the force of habit. Zen teachings speak often of “habit energy,” viewing that energy in a largely negative light. Ingrained and often impervious to change, our long-standing habits present formidable obstacles to improvisation and adaptation, and more so as we grow older. “I adore tradition,” the pianist and teacher Nadia Boulanger once remarked, “but I cannot stand habit.” Her aversion was not unfounded.

Over time, however, even the force of habit can be overcome, chiefly through the office of mindful awareness. Through diligent practice, Zen teachings assure us, the “energy of mindfulness” can encompass and transform our most corrosive habits of heart and mind. Conjoined with the practices of improvisation and adaptation, it can enable us to live more flexibly and wisely—and rescue us from our self-constructed towers.   

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