Trivial Pursuits

Back when I used to watch Jeopardy regularly, I’d jokingly tell myself I was validating my intense liberal arts education. After all, being able to answer rapid-fire questions on a broad range of subjects clearly demonstrated my intelligence, right? If I wasn’t earning multi-thousand-dollar payouts, surely I could take comfort in imagining I was just as smart as the contestants.

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched Jeopardy on a regular basis, but I have been playing pub trivia most of the past seven or so years. This particular game is rather well-designed, with neither schoolish geeks nor those steeped in pop music, entertainment, and sports having a marked advantage. (And while I wouldn’t mind big cash prizes, the coupons for food and drink are a reasonable substitute.)

Why do I play trivia? Because it’s fun, of course. Hanging out with friends, eating and drinking and competing against strangers–what’s not to love? Still, enjoyment aside, I’ve come to appreciate over time how much this silly, social game has to teach.

It all begins with the team. Continue reading

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A Sesshin of Sickness

In the Zen tradition that I practice, the term for an intensive meditation retreat is sesshin (a Japanese term meaning something like gathering or touching the heart-mind). Typically lasting anywhere from a single day or weekend to a full week, sesshins feature multiple sessions of sitting, interspersed with walking meditation and work, meant to open a space for extended, concentrated mindfulness. While I’ve only attended a couple sesshins so far, I can attest to their value in supplementing daily meditation and helping one dig deeply into the experience of being really present.

The past couple weeks, in the midst of my worst illness in at least a couple years, it occurred to me that I might be experiencing a rather different sort of sesshin.

With all respect, I submit that it’s not unduly flippant or facetious to call lying on my back for hours, drifting in and out of sleep and eating very little, a sesshin. Granted, I wasn’t exactly in a meditative state much of the time: the first day or two I was too sick even to do my regular half-hour of solitary sitting. But we’re always talking in Zen about extending our practice to all of life, and likening a debilitating illness to the noble effort to attain enlightenment seems very consistent with the irreverent, humbling humor so typical of Zen.

Basically I had a lot of time on my hands, and so I thought, why not use this opportunity that’s been presented? Why not turn this into something of a lying-down practice, letting my thoughts pass without pursuing them, being attentive to the various physical sensations and sounds that arise? Practice does merge with life, if you just keep your eyes, ears, and mind open. It’s all about knowing when to push and stretch, and when to let go; going with the flow, but with mindfulness and discipline. (And meditation is a stretch: How long can you sit still? How many aches or itches can you sit through without squirming or scratching?)

Actually, sickness sesshin seems considerably harder than the real thing. Continue reading

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Needles in Haystacks

why read a poem
when I can read the sunrise
on the western hills?

monet-haystacks

It’s been years since I first saw a series of Monet’s haystack paintings at the Art Institute in Chicago. Even then I was struck by the concept (and, of course, the effect) of a few dozen renderings of the same basic subject from various perspectives at various times of day and year.

The repetition and the variations in these paintings, both subtle and great, are tremendous. And I knew this back in the day, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until very recently.

Whenever my schedule permits I wake up around dawn and meditate for half an hour just as soon as I can get myself out of bed. (A couple years ago I blogged about meditating during sunrise.) Afterwards I sit in a comfy chair facing the Rocky Mountain foothills off to the west, accompanied by a cup of decaf, my journal, and a book or two.

As the sun emerges over the horizon behind me—when I can remember to look up from the pages of my book or journal, that is—I’m able to follow the gradual and rapid transition from night to day, as the light plays on distant hills emerging into visibility out of a deep, deep blue. Repeatedly I’m stunned not simply by this everyday beauty, but in particular by how quickly and seamlessly each of the myriad variations merges into the next. Blink, and the scene is changed utterly.

Finally, a few mornings ago, the thought struck me: Why read poetry when I can read the sunrise? I remembered Monet, and over the past couple mornings I dashed outside multiple times to photograph the play of sunrise on the foothills and the sky above them. Years after first visiting the Art Institute, I think I finally get it. Like those haystacks, these hills are pure Zen: they’re observation and awareness, a reflection of essential flux, transience, and interrelatedness. The totality of what we see and experience in any given moment is impossible to capture in words or paint (or pixels), and it’s ridiculous to try—but as human beings, how can we not make the attempt? How can we not be seized by these intimations of interconnection?

In Buddhism you’ll regularly find admonitions against mistaking a finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself, or mistaking a menu for actual food. And thus it is with profound gratitude that I thank the sun and these foothills—and all the many people who have brought me to this point—for being such incomparable teachers, such faithful reminders of what is there to be learned.

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Niche Guys Finish Last (?)

If I ever wanted proof that our life’s work calls us, rather our choosing it, I wouldn’t have to look too far. In both my career and my personal life, I seem drawn to things that tend to appeal only to niche audiences. (See The Reluctant Reformer and Missionary Positions for related rants on this subject.)

In some cases, this is a minor to moderate inconvenience. For example, the fact that I’m passionate about singing early and contemporary music means there are relatively few opportunities and relatively small audiences—which means, of course, that those choirs often struggle to make their budgets. While this is occasionally frustrating, for me it doesn’t detract too much from the experience.

Where it really hits hard, this niche habit, is in my passions for Sudbury schooling and Zen. There aren’t nearly as many Sudbury schools as there ought to be, in my opinion, and those that exist are often quite small. On the one hand, there is some benefit in the constant incentive to streamline budgets, but far too few families even know about this model or have a school nearby, and far too many schools have closed in the years I’ve been part of this movement.

To some extent this is inevitable, at least for the foreseeable future: not that many people in our culture appear ready to leap to this not-so-new paradigm, to extend full trust and responsibility to school-age people. To find those who are, I long to develop better ways of spreading the Sudbury word, and then supporting those people and their schools. Hence my creating the organization now known as Friends of Sudbury Schooling (though here again, having a niche appeal means it’s that much harder to find the financial support to do the actual work).

With my Zen practice I face a similar challenge Continue reading

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Quest Questions

“If you don’t understand the way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?
Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
don’t waste time.”

~ Shitou Xiqian, “Harmony of Difference and Equality”

I started this blog nearly three years ago with the express purpose of chronicling, and seeking guidance for, a quest of mine: to prove that one can simultaneously pursue one’s passions and sustain a modestly comfortable lifestyle. Well, the time has whizzed by, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to my goal, but this seems as good a moment as any for a progress (or lack thereof) report.

In the past three years I moved from Denver to Austin and back in something of a sub-quest for my magic mantra of Money, Mission, Mate, and Home. I’ve managed to earn enough from various school and freelancing jobs not to burn all the way through the savings I took from the world of regular, full-time work. When I’ve been able to maintain enough focus, I’ve brainstormed various schemes and ideas for how to find/create work I love that also pays the bills.

And yet, as I said above, I don’t seem to have progressed terribly far toward my goal of passion-driven, life-sustaining work, despite having learned a good bit and enjoyed some adventures. Were I to issue myself a performance evaluation using the criteria of that four-part mantra, I’d have to say I’m one for four at best (Mission), with bits and pieces of the other three.

How could I have let the years slip through my fingers just like that? How can it be so easy to get lost in the day-to-day trees as to completely lose sight of the life’s-purpose forest? I’ve been just getting by for years, telling myself, “Well, this isn’t so bad. Let’s give it one more year and see what happens.”

Well, no longer. I am no longer willing to “one more year” myself.

But what does that mean? First off, I think it means I have to stop wasting time; I have to stop indulging myself in any pursuit that doesn’t further this quest. It means I have to be ever more focused and disciplined in identifying and going after what I want.

Okay, fine: so what do I want, then? Again returning to the mantra, I want: Continue reading

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A Blog For Emily

“Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” ~ Ezra Bayda

By this point in my career I’ve worked with literally hundreds of students. While I’ve been fortunate to maintain some connection with many, that number is dwarfed by all those who’ve fallen, largely or entirely, through the cracks of my hazy, fragmentary memory.

There remain a handful of students, however, whose memory persists independently of whether I see them online or even talk with them at all. Emily was one I’d always wanted to find but never managed to track down, despite periodic efforts. I kept trying because years ago we’d started talking and I wanted to get back to that, to resume the conversation and catch up.image

I have to admit, I recall little to nothing about Emily as a sophomore World History student during my first year of regular teaching (actually, that whole year is something of a stressful blur). What I do remember, vividly and fondly, is that during her senior year Emily got into the habit of stopping by my classroom after the end of the school day, just to sit and chat.

There were two teachers’ desks in the room, and maybe two or three times a week Emily would show up a few minutes after the last bell and sit at the other desk, and together we’d wind down after the long day. I don’t recall the specifics—although I do know one recurring theme was whatever she was going through with her boyfriend at the time. These conversations were simply an opportunity to decompress, to talk about whatever came up. Toward the end of that year, Emily gave me one of her senior photos, on the back of which she’d written the following: Continue reading

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A Path of One’s Own

When the Zen master asks, “Can I show you the path?” the proper answer, I imagine, falls somewhere between “yes,” “please,” and “thank you!”

A couple months ago, asked by the head teacher at the Austin Zen Center “Can I show you that path thing?” my response was, “Show me the path?? That’s why I came here!”

10494782_10152226960196375_2005261248082056250_nMy path this past summer involved a two-month trip to Texas, Missouri, and Nebraska, the majority of which I spent in Austin. The centerpiece of this sojourn was a residential period at the Austin Zen Center, the home of my first consistent, shared Zen practice, the place where reading, dabbling, and solitary meditation found fertile ground in ritual and community. Separated from that community the previous year, I wanted a chunk of immersion, a chance to recharge the batteries of my practice and reconnect with friends.

While five weeks of near-daily sitting were marvelous, the ten days I spent living at the center were particularly refreshing and invigorating. In addition to multiplying my daily meditation sessions, I spent a lot more time in work practice. As you may know, Zen centers supplement sitting and walking meditation with periods during which one applies mindfulness to the mundane, daily tasks of cleaning and maintaining the place. The idea is that one should bring the same concentration and close attention to cleaning a toilet, say, as to something lofty, like inner peace or enlightenment.

In keeping with the intensive, retreat-like dynamic of residential practice, these work periods ran an hour and a half each day. And thus it was that I found myself staring at a corner of the extensive grounds, with the head teacher showing me a corner of the walking meditation path.45826_10152226960201375_3311407010384508718_n Essentially, he wanted me to construct a bypass, to round off a corner so that the path didn’t come quite so close to the street. “I’d say take it from around here,” he said, as I followed his finger, “to somewhere over there. And maybe put a curve in the middle.”

That was it for instructions. At no time did he ask if I had any experience constructing a walking trail (I didn’t), or if I had even the slightest idea what I was doing (ditto).

It was at this point that a curious thing happened Continue reading

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