Here’s the thing about Zen…

A few hours ago I arrived home after a 3 day sesshin with my Still Mind Zendo mates at a retreat house run by Franciscan Sisters up in Garrison, NY. Actually, I got back from helping drop off a large pile of zabutons, zafus, seiza benches, a bell & striker,an incense holder and maybe some other stuff at our in-town space on West 17th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Still Mind Zendo, that’s us. It was raining lightly. There was a great deal of traffic, part of it caused by the Chocolate Show around the corner.

It was just right. Manhattan is like that–just right, that is–when I’ve been away for a while. Even a brief while. And not even that far away. Even this time when while away my thoughts never turned to Manhattan or my work in The Bronx or to loved ones or to anything other than the work at hand: mediation…sort of…

All that sounds good. And there is some truth in it. What really goes on in situations like that–or more specifically: this– is not like that, however. What goes on is that for 24 25 minute periods of zazen (sitting meditation) and 16 10-or-so periods of kinhin (walking meditation) my mind flees from the approved foci of breath or feet to whatever comes down the pike. And when the pike is empty it creates:

The foggy image of a clear glass of lemonade with fading blue/green spots maybe on the glass, maybe suspended in the lemonade.

Accompanying a girlfriend of 20 years ago to a loft in a fancifully relocated garment district where, the pasha-like owner, in flowing pastel robes and spread out graciously (not gracefully) on a chez lounge, looks at me disdainfully and comments in tones so low that I must ask him to repeat himself three times, “Too much butter.”

Great pools of golden brown honey spread out on the floor between the rows of meditators.

Why do I know what “aspect ratios” are and why can’t I think of what they are right now?

Is it more masculine to order your steak really rare or really burned? Remember that Billy Crystal thing on old SNL, “Que es mas macho: Ricardo Montalban or that other guy? Who was that other guy anyway?

Renewed determination to watch the breath proves to be no more solid than the lemonade or the honey or my attempt at bravado when I reply to the “butter” remark, “My baby says she wants all the me she can get.” Breath is the last thing in this or any other world my mind finds interesting.

At daisan (a private talk with one’s teacher) a while later I tell my teacher that my practice on the cushion is at just about the same place it occupied five years ago: a game preserve for monkey mind. Monkey mind, that’s what we in the meditation game call a mind that jumps all over the place without getting permission from the owner. Greg, my teacher, pauses for a moment and then comments in this wonderful combination of drama and casualness, “Sometimes it’s monkey mind. Sometimes it’s something else.”


Yeah! He’s right! From a very deep place in me there is a seismic rumbling of the kind of satisfaction that can come only from real understanding. Not quite enlightenment, but certainly a step on that road. Sometimes it is something else. And before monkey mind can run back to the delicatessen or into a new version of the color blue I connect with my slimy little ego telling me to give up the Zen thing because I’ve got bigger fish to fry (or, in a healthier vein, poach) so let’s get lost. How about that Chet Baker. Remember when you saw him at Stryker’s on 86th Street and Pedro who used to be the bartender at the Annex on Avenue B was–-Monkey mind and ego in an unholy alliance, a partnership of subversives, a brace of not-to-be-denied terrorists hellbent on destroying my path to karmic harmony…

I was writing about something, right?

Anyhow, the bell rings. We gassho (it’s a zen thing) when it rings again, stretch our legs and eventually stand and go into walking meditation…after that some sitting meditation, walking…

Sooner than I’d want it’s over, we’ve packed up, driven back to The City, unpacked, dumped me into the #3 train (“Local trains are not running at this time”), where I marvel at the whole idea of traveling in a train underground and at the 40 or so faces visible to me as we all ride together.

Published in: on November 15, 2006 at 8:20 pm  Leave a Comment