On the most recent cover of Time Magazine you will see a pretty blonde woman with her eyes closed, windswept hair falling away from her symmetrical anglo face titled: “The Mindful revolution.” The glossy look of the magazine makes mindfulness look achingly glamorous like the latest accessory Paris Hilton will be toting around in an expensive purse.
For many it would appear that Zen is in, or at least some kind of mindful practice seems a minimum requirement for the right table in Hollywood. The Dalai Lama fills stadiums like a rock star and the hip and trendy discuss how their “practice” shapes their lives.
I am in with the in crowd, currently a resident at a Zen Buddhist monastery. It sits picturesquely down a gravel road atop seventy five hundred feet of desert mountain on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The night sky seems almost forbidden in its blackness with stars bright enough to draw my feet out from under me as I look up, head back in absolute awe. The sunset which happens around 5:15 or so sets the barren trees and branches on fire with an orange glow and takes my breath away along with the night temperatures of about fifteen or twenty degrees. The dorms here look sweet with their stucco and beamed ceilings surrounded by little trail lights and gardens graced with various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas sitting in ornamental repose, their clay faces communicating bliss (although that’s a Hindu concept).
But like most things the image is often more inviting than the reality of how it feels. That’s very true in serious mindful practice such as the type Buddhists do.
Except for the statues, everyone here sitting in calm repose is at some point thinking about the cramp in their toes or the ache in the small of their back which has not gone away for hours or days because in the real mindful revolution suffering is the first Noble Truth. I will sit, sometimes for hours, stick straight monitoring my breath, watching my aches, pains, troublesome thoughts, hearing my own show tunes and every manner of mental pest I can imagine, hoping- just hoping to get to thinking nothing. Sometimes I arrive at a meditative state called “open awareness” despite the sad pretzel that is my mind and body but most of the time I do not.
After sitting and wrestling with my monkey mind for the prescribed hour until it has caused my good intentions to tap out, I head for the kitchen where I will be on my feet washing ten industrial sized sinks full of super sized pans and baking racks in huge metal bowls of water which I will dutifully schlep out in teen temperatures to the garden to “feed the hungry trees” only to refill those bowls and do it all over again. That will be followed by cutting a vat full of carrots into tiny pieces and dumping a bucket of rotting food delicately called “kitchen waste” into the compost pile. Even that cannot be simple because egg shells must first be ground and large rotten vegetables must be cut to properly “feed those helpful organisms.” How glamorous is this sounding? But wait, there’s more.
If I am lucky, there will be a small break where I may literally “bow out” of work for eating and more meditating with my fellow monastics. Bowing is a huge thing in Zen. When seeing each other we bow, when seeing someone else, we bow. When entering the Zendo, which is basically a Buddhist temple, we bow and also when we stand and when we leave the Zendo. We bow to our sitting cushions, to our plates and to our food. Bowing may look cool but when you do it a hundred times a day it can get old and confusing. I actually cannot remember when to stop bowing. I have no idea how the toilet feels about my constantly deferential behavior but if it could talk I think it’d tell me to chill on all that bowing and just get on with it. Frankly that can also be difficult after so much annal retentive tidiness and effort.
I sleep in a little twin bed with white sheets and blanket and one white pillow. I do not speak in the morning or the first ten minutes of every meal to honor silence as part of the practice. Good Morning is as foreign as Japanese, actually more foreign because we have a rousing chant in Japanese that is said so quickly it renders me breathless with an ache in my side just under my rib cage.
I am barefoot most of the time, no socks or shoes in the Zendo and no shoes in any building except the kitchen, and my feet cannot remember being warm. I take a six minute shower and I have not worn anything but black stretch pants and black, long sleeve t-shirts in so long that the sight of pink can make me spontaneously weep. Make up is entirely pointless and anything but a pony tail is frivolity at its worst.
I eat a vegan diet (which I did prior to Zen) and wine is a lot like pink, the thought of it cheerfully lounging in a long stemmed glass brings me to tears.
So why do I practice such glamor? I’m not going for enlightenment or as some Zen practitioners speak of dreamily, saving themselves and others from suffering. First off, I do not think I’m any more in charge of becoming enlightened than I am of choosing my eye color. That, it seems to me, is up to some higher power. Besides, even if I achieved enlightenment how would I know? There’s no certificate or robe and as Buddha famously said even after such an awakening you still have to fetch the water and chop the wood. If it’s not getting me out of the dishes I’m not motivated and around here nothing is getting me out of the kitchen, so pish posh on that.
As to saving me or anyone else from suffering that seems too lofty and a bit pointless too. Suffering is how I’ve learned my best lessons. If some Buddha loving monk spared me my suffering I’d have missed out on all that chaos of hurting, learning and growing. If the dinosaurs didn’t suffer and die our species would not have become what we are. Suffering is how things get done. Now, don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in helping and showing compassion because I am. However, I cannot realistically prevent poverty and war and disease. I can do what I can and that’s what mindfulness is about. As the Buddhist monk said to his friend; “If you can do something about it, why worry? If you can’t do something about it, why worry?” I want to do something if I can and if I can’t I don’t want to waste my time. It’s important in mindfulness to be present where you are and not be where you aren’t. Spending time in pain about a child caught in war is only helpful if you can do something about it, if not then help the kid in front of you at the grocery line. Making up solutions to global problems in the name of compassion is just story telling unless I can do effective things about it like being mindful in consuming and informing others of ways to help when I see them. That’s as close as I get to prevent suffering.
My mindfulness, if I really become mindful, will be as mundane as noticing the first green shoot of grass in spring and the ant making his way home. It will be assuming if the dishes need doing I’m as good as anyone else for the nasty job and if I have a chance to be compassionate, even if I don’t like the person suffering, I will go out of my way to show it. My mindfulness will be to embody the practice, no more or less.
So even though I’m not really a Buddhist or any kind of ‘ist’ I figure that’s doing my best. What’s more Zen than that?
May all beings be happy.