Last Saturday, I left my house without putting my watch on, something I rarely forget to wear. My right hand kept touching my left wrist looking for it, and each time my fingers only touched skin, I was surprised yet again. I mentioned this to a friend after the renewal minyan at our synagogue. She said, “Well, it’s Shabbat anyway, so you don’t need to worry about time.”
I understood what she was saying. Shabbat is about sacred time, about stopping in time to sit and being present. It’s “the pause between the notes” so to speak, which is integral in creating the beautiful music itself.
Still, I felt a little lost not knowing the time. It reminded me of this great watch I saw years ago that I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t buy. It had a wide leather strap and a big face with an image of sand and sea with no numbers or hands. Instead, the word NOW was written across the face. I tried it on and it looked great but it was eighty dollars and I realized that as much as I could relate to the sentiment and as great as the watch looked on my wrist, I still wouldn’t know what time it was.
But I wish I had bought it anyway.
Time itself can be flexible. Last week I was rushing in the shower to make it to the 6:00 am sitting at the Marblehead Zen Center. I felt like I was a contestant on that old game show, “Beat the Clock.” As I was drying my hair watching the clock tick tock its way to 5:42, I realized how late I was getting. My mind played its mind games totally stressing me out about the fact that now I was going to be late for Zazen (Zen meditation) and why didn’t I get up earlier and how come I had such good intentions about getting there this morning but now I’ve ruined my plans?
Let me just say rushing and stressing out about being late to sit and meditate sort of defeats the point.
As I finished drying my hair with the clock inching toward 5:50, I had a thunderbolt thought. I’m very late to make it to the 6:00 am sitting, but after the first sitting and walking meditation, they sit again at 6:40 am. I could make it for that sitting with no problem.
In a split second, I went from stressing about being late, to having more time in that morning than I knew what to do with. With the slightest change in our minds, we can experience the flexibility of time.
We race, in this culture. We all have so many places we are going, so many responsibilities to uphold, so many people with whom to meet. But I think the bigger question about our time has to do with understanding sacred time. We might find it in religion or in a spiritual practice, or in ways that speak to us on a level that goes beyond the everyday time commitments of our lives.
Do we know how to stop, really stop, and just be present to what is?
Do we understand time not by a watch or a clock, but by the shifting angle of the sun, the changing colors of the leaves, the first peak of the crocus from beneath the soil? A hand that reaches out for ours?
Do we know how to stop in the midst of a million and one things to do, and practice the art of doing nothing? If we are constantly living by the clock, trying to get through a TO DO LIST that by its very nature will never be fully completed, we will have missed so much of our lives.
There’s an old Chasidic tale that goes like this:
Looking out the window on a weekday morning, the Chasidic teacher, Nachman of Bratzlav, noticed his disciple, Chaim, rushing along the street.
Reb Nachman opened the door and invited Chaim to come inside. Chaim entered the home and Nachman said to him, “Chaim have you seen the sky this morning?”
“No Rebbe,” answered Chaim.
“Have you seen the street this morning?”
“Tell me, please, Chaim. What did you see in the street?”
“I saw people, carts and merchandise. I saw merchants and peasants all coming and going, selling and buying.”
“Chaim,” said Nachman, “In 50 years, in 100 years, on that very street there will be a market. Other vehicles will then bring merchants and merchandise to the street. But I won’t be there and neither will you. So I ask you, Chaim, what’s the good of rushing if you don’t even have time to look at the sky?”
How many of us are looking at our watches spinning a tale of what we are rushing to or from without looking at the sky?
The following chant often concludes a day of Zen practice:
“Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life.”
Yes, we have alarm clocks to “wake us up,” and watches to keep us “running on time” during the day. But sacred time, time set aside to allow for that deep connection with ourselves and something beyond ourselves is what truly “wakes us up.” Sometimes we are so busy being busy, we become what Wayne Dyer calls human doings rather than what we are meant to be—human beings.
If I ever see that NOW watch again, I am going to buy it. I realize now that the time read on that watch is the most important time of all. Not 1:00, 2:00 or 3:00 but NOW, this very moment, is the second to fully enter. Time passes, and we give it meaning when we step into the moments of our lives with gratitude and mindfulness and being fully present. What’s the point of showing up “on time” if your thoughts are far away from the meeting you are attending? And what if you are late to an event because you stopped to help someone in need? Time is flexible. It’s how we truly wake up to our most authentic selves and show up to the moments of our lives that really count, and you don’t always need a watch for that.
Recently, my hometown had the good fortune, or good karma, of witnessing the establishment of the Marblehead Zen Center, located just steps from the Marblehead Harbor in historic old town. For years I had wished that such a center would open close to where I lived. I wished this periodically on the long plane flights to Nepal, Bhutan and India where I sought connection to the Buddha and the Dharma. I wished this weekly as I was stuck in rush hour traffic on my way to a meditation center in Cambridge Massachusetts, typically a 45-minute drive but with the heavy commuting traffic, it could take double that time.
The honest truth though, is that while I have committed myself to traveling far and wide in the service of my meditation and spiritual journey, I’m not the most reliable meditator.
My meditation goes in spurts. Sometimes I meditate consistently while other times I miss a day and somehow that day turns into a week, a month or even longer. I often thought that if I had a sangha—a Buddhist community—close by, my meditation practice would deepen and become more consistent. I believed that sitting with others would help me in my practice.
I think it does. That is, when I make it over to the Marblehead Zen Center, which is only a five minute drive from my house.
Did I mention that they sit at 6:00 am? Be careful concerning the stories that you tell yourself. Even with a center only five minutes away, in the pre-dawn hours I often engage in a silent debate with my alarm clock.
The first morning I set out, I arrived at 5:57. Getting out of my car, I breathed the ocean air in deeply and listened to the soothing creaking sounds courtesy of the rickety dock. Gazing across the harbor, I watched the boats resting on the ink blue water as the sky warmed in brush stroke colors of pastel pink and peach like a baby blanket letting the dawn wrap slowly around the morning. I had the thought, “This is already enough.”
And it’s a good thing I thought that because apparently it would have to be enough. When I approached the large yellow house built in the 1700s that now housed the Zen center, it was locked and no one was there. I strained to look into the window and saw that all was dark. It was then that I noticed a flier on the right side of the door that noted the hours for the Zen center. The 6:00 am sittings, it turns out, are on Tuesday through Friday.
And it was Monday.
I thought that maybe my mistaken notion that there was a sitting on Monday mornings was to be wrestled with like a Zen koan. Just because I was finally able to get to the center so early, it didn’t mean the center would be ready to receive me. It is said, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Maybe the lesson was that even with a center so close by, obstacles are going to occur. The question then, is how will you respond?
I responded by getting up with my alarm clock on Tuesday.
That morning I entered the Zen center, removed my shoes and placed them with the few others on the shelf along the wall. I walked into the zendo and surveyed my surroundings. In the front of the room sat an alter with a statue of Kwan Yin, the Chinese deity of compassion. Along the edges of the room were black zafus— cushions for meditating— and in the back of the room, in front of windows that highlighted a big, wild yard full of earth in its various stages— birth and life, decay and death— was another alter with a statue of Buddha, incense and a spray of fresh alstroemeria.
Joan Amaral, the Zen priest who came to Marblehead from the San Francisco Zen Center, was draped in her robe sitting upon a cushion amidst a handful of others sitting Zazen, or Zen meditation. I chose a cushion and joined the group in sitting, spine straight, eyes open with chin facing a bit downward, watching my inhalation and exhalation and all the places my mind would jump to as thoughts arose and passed away; watching without judging, sitting without reacting. After the half hour of sitting, we did ten minutes of kinhin, which is walking meditation. VERY SLOW walking meditation. This does not count as a morning walk to get the blood flowing but a way of stretching the legs and breathing mindfully in motion before sitting down in meditation for another half hour.
I have loved being at the center for morning sittings, workshops and classes. I am focused on cultivating compassion and practicing acceptance, of being in the here and now.
I have also decided that along with clearing my mind of clutter, that it’s time to clean out my closets as well. So you’d think that all of this focus on acceptance and practice of being in the here and now would make this task a breeze—but instead, I experienced the beginning of my closet cleaning more like a wind swept rain storm.
Yes, yes I know. Any of you out there reading this who knows me also knows that I practice attuned eating and body acceptance both in my professional life as a therapist specializing in eating issues, and personally as I let go of dieting years ago. But we all have our Achilles heel that when we least expect it, can trip us up a bit.
Well, it’s been many years since I really went through all of the pants and suits and jeans and that were hanging in my closet. There are things I wore in my thirties and forties, but now I’m a little over a half-century old, and some of those said pants, suits and jeans, were refusing to go over my hips and button the way they once did. Other jeans, pants and suits fit just fine, but it was clear to me that my body had shifted and a few pounds had been gained. There was that moment where I knew things could go south, the way some of my body parts had begun to travel. I knew the very old mindset of my youth could surface in front of my full-length mirror. I understood that very old tendencies of insisting my body fit an unrealistic cultural ideal could burst onto the scene even thirty years after letting go of a bathroom scale. Decades ago I let go of the idea that happiness and self-worth could be measured by a magic number on the scale. I knew that practicing acceptance was a much better route than fighting with a button that didn’t want to button or a snap that didn’t want to snap or resisting a changing body whose nature was simply to change. On my spiritual journey, cultivating compassion for others and oneself is of primary importance, so I turned to that practice as I looked in the mirror and thanked my body for all that it had done for me over the years rather than berating it for not looking like a twenty, or thirty year old version of me.
And even more than getting rid of some of the old clothes that no longer fit, I was finding acceptance in the fact that I’m no longer in my thirties, or my forties. Many of the pants that were now too small held memories of Saturday evenings out with friends when we all could find baby sitters and really hit the town. Well, my kids are now 23 and 20 years old. What I had to let go of wasn’t just the old clothes that no longer fit, but the younger mother that I once was, the younger version of myself.
A few days later, I told my husband it was time for him to do some spring-cleaning with me. We tackled closets and reorganized the kitchen. He cleaned out the garage. Then we went downstairs to the basement and I looked at the bookshelves. I realized that at least two full shelves were lined with picture books that had never been cleared out, given away or boxed up to save. Our daughter, Allie, is 23 and just returned to the States for a job in NYC after working in The Hague for a year on a war tribunal. Our son, Matt, is a sophomore in college in the business school set to work in an accounting firm this summer. Neither of them will be returning home for weekends to read: Is your Mama a Lama, or The Runaway Bunny. Still, the ache in my heart beat clearly as the memories of the past flooded around me. They were just here, playing with the Legos in the basement and asking me to read them one of these books.
Sitting in meditation, we practice both acceptance and letting go. Each moment of being in the “here and now” demands that we see things clearly and without illusion knowing that all things arise and pass away. Just as the Abercrombie jeans in my closet don’t fit, either literally or figuratively my 51 year-old self, my house must not become a shrine to what was. Time moves on and the best way to honor that is to move on too. I can honor the past but I must serve the future. The future comes with its own sizes and gifts and surprises. Eventually, our future will become our past, and is one more piece that we will learn to let go of.
The Buddha taught that suffering is caused be clinging, desire and attachment. The art of skillful living involves practicing acceptance, practicing letting go, and practicing living in the moment. Meditation on the cushion can help us develop these skills so that when we are confronted with the inevitable changes in life, we breathe in and out and continue our journeys of waking up to the truth of our lives as they are in that moment.
For more information about the Marblehead Zen Center please visit: www.marbleheadzencenter.org