It’s not only for motorcycle maintenance

I’m a Zen girl, and lots of people really have no concept of what that means. Popular media would have you believe that Zen and other forms of Buddhism are really about “blissing out”–being peaceful and happy. Some commercials would have you believe it’s about the clothing you wear or speaking in a soft voice. This is not really true.

Zen is about reality and awareness, about paying attention every moment of every day and experiencing each moment as fully as possible. Zen is in the details.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was shaving my head. I’ve currently got a Mohawk hairstyle because it’s fun and because I like my hair really short. This also allows me to cut my own hair which appeals to my thrifty side. This is where the Zen comes in.

I use electric clippers, and I’m able to see around the Mohawk to cut around the edges of it. I can see parts of the front in the mirror, and I can check my work by holding several mirrors. Mostly, though, I need to pay very close attention to what I’m doing and do it by feel, especially in the back. This takes a lot of concentration, and I’m getting really familiar with the shape of my own skull. The more attention I pay, the less I have to fix when I pick up the extra sets of mirrors. When I slow down and focus everything becomes easier.

I thought I’d share this because one of the first places I learned about Zen practice was from a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was really helpful to me, and I have never once tried to maintain a motorcycle. You may never shave your head, and you may follow a different faith, but you may also find a little bit of mindfulness adds a lot to your day. What can it hurt?

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
272. This week, give one of your routine tasks your full attention. How did it feel? Did you end up doing anything differently?


Gathering resources for a fresh start

It’s been a busy few weeks here, so that’s why I’ve had a short lapse in publishing–I have a new temp job after a long lapse in steady work. I enter the year grateful for this opportunity and for the fact that it’s a job helping others. I love to spread joy.

As New Year’s approaches, many people come up with resolutions. This can be good and bad. It’s not good to put too much pressure on yourself, but it can be very motivating to start positive change on a meaningful date. It’s always good to reorient your compass towards a more joyful life, so why not now? Here are some resources that you may find useful if you want to go down that path. These are specific suggestions that have helped me or people I know:

  • If you want to lose weight or eat a healthier diet. I love the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. I have followed their advice to quit sugar, lose a hundred pounds (so far), and lower my cholesterol to admirable levels. They also have a program called the 21 Day Vegan Kickstart which allows a person to try a vegan diet with guidance to see how it makes them feel. The kickstart program features lots of ethnic variations to suit all sorts of people. I’ve met Dr. Barnard in person and was able to thank him for how their advice has helped me. If this isn’t your cup of tea, many friends of mine endorse Weight Watchers as a good solution.
  • If you want to get more tidy and organized. I have been fighting a battle with this one for years–the creative spirit isn’t necessarily neat as a pin. I finally made peace with my housework in three major ways: 1) I have less things to put in their places. Zen Habits is a wonderful resources for this. If you want to get really minimal, you can emulate my friend Nick Winter who has only 99 things. 2) I found out I’m allergic to dust, and it creates asthma issues for me that make it very hard to breathe. I am now personally very motivated to keep my house dust-free. 3) I found Flylady. Stylistically this website is targeted at a person very different from myself, but the lady who runs it has great ideas to help you get clutter under control. Highly recommended, and maybe you’ll like how cute it all is. If you don’t, learn to see beyond the presentation to find the gold within.
  • If you want to stop smoking. I have never smoked, but smoking has affected my friends and family in a big way. When the tobacco settlement happened the states were required to put money into helping people to quit. No matter what state in the United States you live in, you can call 1-800-Quit-Now to get free help to quit or to contemplate quitting if you are not yet ready.

As you prepare to start the new year, don’t forget to see the old year out with a celebration. Enjoy the holidays, whatever you choose to celebrate. Merry merry merry to you all!

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
270. What might you want to change in the new year? Start contemplating it now, and have a happy holiday in the meantime.

Love the one you’re with

Music speaks to me and I listen. You probably have songs that are deeply meaningful to you. Most of us do. This week one of the ones that has been stuck in my brain is Neil Diamond’s song I am… I said.  I grew up in New York state and I’ve been feeling terribly homesick lately. Neil says: “L.A.’s fine but it ain’t home; New York’s home but it ain’t mine no more.” I feel the same about Seattle. There are certain things I love about it, but it’s just not my native culture. I will always feel like a bit of an outsider here.

I go through this occasionally. I moved to Minnesota for graduate school and then to Seattle. I wanted to experience the country. Seattle is beautiful but it’s very different from the East Coast. Sometimes I find that incredibly frustrating, and I miss a lot of the places I grew up around. I don’t have a lot of money to travel, but I go to visit New York and Minnesota when I can.

I’ll probably never leave Seattle. Although I miss people from back home, and I don’t get to see my family as often as I would like, I have found family here. There are too many people and communities I would hate to leave. It’s a weird confusing feeling, and I’m sure many people go through similar feelings around the places they live.

I am sitting today in my living room typing this and listening to the sounds of the rain. It’s been raining all day. The leaves glisten and the air is fresh. I’m going out later to spend time with one of my best friends. As comedian Steven Wright says: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Seattle has its frustrations but it has its compensations, too. The weather is lovely today. The weather is lovely a lot of the time. I am reminded of the Zen phrase: “be where you are”. I am in Seattle, and it is good. Here I will turn back to the wisdom of music–if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Some days are easier than others. I am going to enjoy this rainy day and sip my coffee. Life is good.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
261. How do you feel about the place where you live? Are there compromises? Take a moment to think about your environment and how it affects you. For today, try to “be where you are” and “love the one you’re with”.

Details details

I love the change in the seasons. I’ve never been much of a fan of summer, so while others are mourning the summer’s demise I am looking forward to the fall. I love autumn and always have although it’s not nearly as marvelous here in Seattle as it was when I lived in New York–we got crisper air and therefore nicer leaves. It was more of a transition, although here it will cool down a bit and the rains will start coming back. This is still a win.

As a writer and a Zen girl, I try to be observant. One of the ways I hone my abilities to notice and stay in the present is through various forms of art. I love to draw. If you get very quiet and just observe a thing and draw what you see you’ll notice things you might never have noticed before. In order to draw something well you need to really look at it. The skill in your fingers will come with practice, but it all starts with the eye. Once you start drawing on a regular basis you’ll start studying things with a casual glance. Beware, as you may start to get distracted by the lovely curvature of your next teacup or the patterns on the light sconce in the hallway. You are starting to see, and it is good.

I also write haiku. In order to write about a brief moment you must first see that moment in all its detail. The more detail you have, the more choices you have as a writer when crafting your haiku. Writing is also a way to take a tour of your own brain. Writing exercises require you to use details you have stored up in your memory. I particularly like writing exercises that use random words because they allow me to create something that I might not have imagined otherwise. I wander around noticing things, and it is this reality that infuses the poem or story even if that poem or story is about outer space. All writing is grounded in some sort of truth, no matter how fantastical it might be. If it isn’t, it generally fails because people do not believe it. You may not believe in hobbits, but everyone knows someone who would rather sit and eat cakes than go on an adventure. We know someone like Bilbo Baggins, and therefore we accept a lot that doesn’t make sense within our own experience.

As the season changes I’m going to be noticing how those changes manifest in Seattle. I want to fully experience whatever the fall has in store for me, and I can’t wait for the rain to start.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
257. How does the change in seasons manifest where you are? Are you noticing as much as you could? Try drawing something or writing about it and see if you notice more than you normally would.

Leaps of faith

It hasn’t been the easiest week here. I started enthusiastically cleaning all the dust out of my apartment last week in an attempt to improve my allergies but apparently if you’re allergic to dust you shouldn’t do that without a mask. I didn’t know that, but my lungs did, and I kicked my asthma up quite a few notches. Thank heavens there’s treatment for that, and my lungs and I are resting on the couch and recovering. It’s been a bit of a scary week.

No one likes weeks like this, but you have to figure out ways to get through them–some version of stress happens to all of us on a regular basis. We scrape the car, the roof needs repairs, someone loses a job. Life happens and there doesn’t seem to be anyplace steady to walk. It can be difficult to function when stuff like this happens.

I have a variety of things I do. I always tell myself that things will get better because they have to. I have to believe this, and it seems that things always do improve. One of my close friends gave me a card which says “give thanks for the blessings which are already on their way”. I’ve got it up on my door so I see it every day. I remember this and live by it. I also listen to my friends in times like these. I may be standing in the middle of stormy seas with no lifeboat in sight, worrying about my health or other things going on, but they are standing on solid ground. They tell me that it will be okay. I believe them. It helps.

I’m a Zen girl, so I also have my meditation and other practices. The more things change, the more that is a constant in my life. I can meditate sitting still on the couch recovering from lung trauma. Lucky thing I am not a whirling dervish–they meditate in a spinning dance, and I haven’t got the air power for that right now, but I will. This too shall pass, and I’ll be back to dancing and regular stuff soon. And I’ll finish my cleaning with a mask on. Now I know.

I wasn’t sure whether to write my blog post on this or not. This is a blog about the pursuit of joy. I decided that I should because people sometimes think that joyful, positive people are in denial or that no stress enters our life. In general this is not at all true. It cannot be true. Stress happens. Life happens. It’s what you do with it that matters, and the people who have had the most stressful lives often end up with the most coping skills. It’s important to share them.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
253. What are you doing to deal with a stressful situation in your life? How can you make yourself feel a little better even in the middle of the turmoil? Remember this: It will get better. It has to.

Cottage cheese and grunge music

I’m originally from New York, but I live in Seattle now where grunge rock originated. It has always seemed like it’s almost a law that you like it when you live here, and Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are played all over town on heavy rotation. It’s been frustrating, because I’ve never gotten it. I disliked the music when it came out. I wanted them to enunciate. I was tired of hearing how brilliant it was all supposed to be—until this week. I was out and about and once again I heard “Come as You Are”, and I realized I liked it. I went back and listened to their other huge hit “Smells like Teen Spirit” and decided that now I liked that one, too. It was confusing.

My friends teased me that the flannel I wear had made me appreciate the music. Others claimed that it’s all the rain, or that I had simply evolved better musical taste. It could even be that sheer repetition has worked its magic and my brain has given up resisting. Maybe, but I think that it’s something different. I think it’s all part of being fully awake and present.

When I was going to Zen retreats the food would be served in silence and you would accept and eat whatever you were given. Most of the time you didn’t even know what you were getting until it was in your bowl, and this is how I was served cottage cheese. At the time I wasn’t lactose intolerant, so I was able to eat it, but I didn’t want to. I had always hated cottage cheese, and had decided years ago that it was nasty. Consequently I hadn’t tasted cottage cheese for at least ten years. In the silence of the zendo, knowing that I was to eat what I was given, I took a hesitant bite and tasted the cottage cheese. It was delicious, and I ate it regularly after that until my stomach started to rebel.

I think it’s much the same with Nirvana. I hated it instantly when it came out and decided right then that it was nasty. At that point I dismissed it with a label and moved on every time it played. I didn’t listen anymore.  It plays so often here that I’ve started to actually hear it, and my tastes may have changed a bit. I have been listening to those two songs all week, and now I find them musically delicious. It makes me wonder what else I need to taste again for the first time.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

231. Pick something you know you dislike—a food, a song, anything you’ve truly made your mind up about. Try it again without preconception—try to experience it fully as for the first time. Has your perception changed? Sometimes it won’t—I tried again with bananas and I still hate them—but sometimes you’ll find you love cottage cheese and Nirvana.

There is life beyond wi-fi

Recently one of my haiku friends remarked to me that it’s hard to find silence in an age where we’re all carrying around so many electronic devices. I started to think about that. It’s true in a way. If we’re not listening to music or watching videos we’re receiving alerts or playing games. We’re constantly in touch with the news, with Facebook, with email, and with other sources, so even if we’ve got physical silence, the mental silence we all need to breathe can sometimes be compromised. We are not doomed. There are several ways to combat this even if you don’t want to toss your devices off the nearest pier. Here are some suggestions:

  • Remember that they have an “off” button. You may need to be connected, but do you need to be connected at this very moment? You’ll probably be more productive if you check your email or social media less frequently and respond to everything at a dedicated time. Put down the phone and pick up your coffee. Relax a little.
  • Use the device to introduce peace and order into your day. Even though our electronics can feel like our masters, they really are tools—very powerful ones. Use a to-do app to list your concerns and get on with your day. I’ve also found some great apps that ring a mindfulness bell at random moments—when the bell chimes, I take a moment to take a deep breath and look around me. 
  • Consider observing the Sabbath. Many religious traditions set aside Saturday or Sunday as a day to disconnect from daily routines and reconnect with ourselves and our loved ones. This is a tradition you can adopt for yourself, regardless of your faith. If you simply must stay in touch, perhaps you can take some quiet time for yourself in smaller chunks. Go outside and take a walk amongst the trees. Go to a gym and sit in the sauna. Share a meal with friends.

You are in charge of your electronics. If you make your choices using joy as your compass you may find that you’re using them in whole new ways. Have fun out there!

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
229. How do you use electronics? In what ways do they enhance your life? In what way do they detract? What can you do to optimize your experience?